As an operaphile, much of my life involves waiting in some way for opera singers. If I am not waiting for them to come on-stage, then I am waiting for them to sing, for art to happen, to do something right or wrong, or (more rarely) turn up for interviews. Often, this time spent waiting for opera singers is devoured by questions fueled by anticipation: how will the singer react to the conductor or his/her costars? How will they sing x aria (which, of course, is my favorite) in this opera? And, most important in the case of interviews--especially if their reputation does not precede them--what are they like as a person when they are not performing?
Great personalities do not always make great performers, but I do believe they can tip the scale between a good performance and a great one. As I sat in the interview room at Covent Garden awaiting the arrival of Lianna Haroutounian, an up-and-coming Armenian soprano who has already made a name for herself singing Verdi, I wondered if she was anything like the composer’s fictional heroine. She is a singer I had never heard of before it was announced that she would be Anja Harteros’s replacement for four performances of the 2013 run of Nicholas Hytner’s Don Carlo at the Royal Opera.
Haroutounian came in and was all smiles: bubbly and cheerful on one of the hottest days London has seen in recent memory. At first glance, she is nothing like Elisabetta de Valois, the troubled and unfortunate heroine of Don Carlo; forced into a marriage with a man she does not love and to live with the man she does in an eerily oedipal way. But as Haroutounian speaks I begin to see similarities: she speaks quickly, in passionate French and, as the interview continues, reveals striking perspectives on her alter ego’s situation.
Haroutounian grew up in a small town called Mezamor in Armenia amidst a family of opera lovers: her father, grandfather, brother, and aunts listened to opera “constantly.” She says that her father had a superb tenor voice, although he was not a professional singer. Whatever the case, she clearly had a sufficient background to appreciate--at the age of 14--Zefferelli’s filmed version of La traviata, with Domingo and Stratas. This had an enormous influence on her and was “life changing” to the point that she remembers being “shocked” for an entire week after seeing it.
Mezamor was a small town, though, and she needed to get out and be in a big city, a familiar trope for artists worldwide. She began studying piano and eventually voice; she spent much of her early years training in France and Italy, most notably at the Bastille Young Artists Lyrical Training Centre in Paris. There were also masterclasses with Scotto and Ludwig, whom she cites an inspirations in addition to her father. Her early training allowed her to focus more on the purely musical side of things: harmony, rhythm, and her technique were most important to her.
As she progressed, she realized the importance of the words, the synergy between music and emotion, and especially how that synergy works in Italian opera and specifically Verdi’s music. She says that she “learned to listen to Verdi’s music, to feel it and to understand his world: one that is full of passion, hope, and the grain of life.” This brings a wide smile to my face and I ask her to elaborate. She says “you must be committed, open to this world, because it always demands more of you. Giving in to Verdi’s world makes you a Verdi singer; it is one of peace, unity, generosity, love, process, and performance.”
Perhaps ironically for a singer that has made her name singing Verdi, Haroutounian is drawn to comedy and feels that she would be great in comic opera, but her type of voice pulls her towards the heavier repertoire: in addition to Verdi, she has all the Puccini heroines and some Strauss in her back pocket, so to speak. Yet she also stays away from singing too much German because--although she speaks Russian, Armenian, French, and Italian—she does not yet speak the language fully, revealing her sensitivity to the text’s interplay with music.
As we narrow the conversation to Elisabetta, she says that “vocally [the role] presents many difficulties; from extreme vocal lines to coloratura--usually a mix whilst in an extreme dramatic situation—in a sense it is like Elena in I Vespri Siciliani but more homogenous, constrained, and yet also more expressive.” Haroutounian explains that “Elisabetta is more powerful than the other Verdi heroines…not as rich and colorful but more like a beam, one that must be sustained.”
Dramatically, Elisabetta is a “strong, classy female personality” and Haroutounian feels a strong affinity to her. She has a “strong sense of love for her people and understands her duty to the state,” whilst it is less clear how her love will play out. Haroutounian prefers the five-act version of Don Carlo in Italian, but for an insightful dramatic reason: “The audience gets the complete experience of her story if there are five acts. In Fontainebleau, we see Elisabetta as a young, happy, brave girl; her main question in life is ‘will the prince love me?’ In an instant, she goes from this youthful euphoria, a representation of young love, to resignation as she embraces the gravity of her [public] role, her fate. The five-act version reveals the contrast between the young girl in France and the mature woman in Spain; without it, [the audience] is robbed of some of the pathos.”
I want to focus on that instant. Interestingly, in the first act of Don Carlo (Fontainebleau, usually cut), Elisabetta is given only two measures to decide whether or not she will marry Phillip instead of Carlo, whether she will save her people or not. Conventionally, this would have been an ideal place for an aria. When I ask her why she thinks she gets only a short time, she is quick with an insightful riposte. Although she doesn’t know exactly why there was no aria, dramatically it is because “[Elisabetta] understands immediately [that] she has no choice. Her sense of honor, dedication, and lack of selfishness are what make her aware of her duty. There is a sense of inevitability looming over her the entire opera…she becomes the idea of sacrifice; she was stunned.”
As our time together begins to wane, I ask her to discuss (perhaps selfishly) Elisabetta’s Act V aria, “Tu che la vanità,” the French ternary form with an unusually long introduction that replaces an aria for Carlos and undoubtedly completes the portrayal of the ill-fated queen. This is, of course, a cold description of what is some of the best music Verdi ever wrote, as Haroutounian explains: “The introduction is almost like walking on Death Row…although [Elisabetta] doesn’t die in the story, she is already dead: her life is no longer hers and the freedom she granted to others in her sacrifice disappears for her. She cries over the life she never had and basically alludes to her own death; as she cries over her unrequited love for Carlo she is also accepting that there is nothing left for her, nothing to keep her alive.”
Haroutounian believes that, although there is little hope for Elisabetta, in Verdi, the idea of life after death, of eternity, exists (even though she doesn’t believe in it herself), and that the audience wants to see something for Elisabetta beyond death in the hope that her sacrifice wasn’t made in vain. “And all this needs to come out in the voice.”
It’s difficult to end the interview there but our time is up. As I walk out into the humid air and sunlight I find myself once again waiting for an opera singer in anticipation; waiting for Lianna Haroutounian to sing, to make her debut at the Royal Opera, to make art happen, and to give operatic life to a young girl who becomes a woman, an idea through duty. After all, great personalities do not always make for great performers, but they do make for scintillating possibilities.
Edgar Kamga graciously provided his time translating during the interview; the author is most grateful. Lianna Haroutounian is currently appearing at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in Verdi's Don Carlo.
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