One thing's for sure: when meeting Elīna Garanča in the flesh, she's just as ravishingly beautiful as in her glamorous publicity shots for Deutsche Grammophon, the label to which she's exclusively signed.
Returning to the Royal Opera House for the first time since singing Dorabella in Così fan tutte there in July 2007, the Latvian mezzo is gearing up to star opposite Anna Netrebko in a revival of I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Bellini's version of the Romeo and Juliet story.
Conducted by bel canto specialist Sir Mark Elder, it promises to be a high-voltage occasion, especially if the newly-released recording of the opera with the same lead singers is anything to go by.
I caught up with Garanča a few days before the opening night to ask her about the production, her new CD of rare bel canto arias, her plans to return to Covent Garden in Carmen and her early life.
She enthuses about playing this character. 'First of all, the music is absolutely gorgeous. When I listen to my colleagues' recordings of it, I can never finish the opera without crying at the end. I like the character because he's very passionate, yet as a young boy he's very naïve. He's full of extremes; with him, there's never a middle ground. It's either black or white with him, never a greyish colour. He's very brave and energetic, and he's very proud, yet at the same time he can be incredibly vulnerable and deeply affected by the situation.'
I ask her about playing the trouser role of Romeo and whether she minds having to play a man. 'It's just a character – though I have trousers on now!' she jokes. 'It's a repertoire that's already been composed, so it's not like we have a lot of choice. For me it's also a challenge, because you don't get such a stance as a soprano, where you're either playing dying little girls like Gilda or a mad woman like Lucia – it's all in a box. As a mezzo, you have the chance to play everything from an innocent young boy to the 'mama' roles! So it's a big challenge at the beginning, particularly to get it into your system – the way you walk and carry your body and use gestures.'
She reveals her preparation for performing trouser roles: 'I observed people. Jonathan Miller told me that people who are good at observing other people make very good actors and directors, and I completely agree with that, so I spend a lot of time observing the behaviour of others. When I was doing Orlovsky for the first time in Meiningen, the production required him to be a tired, ex-alcoholic, so I went to the train station and looked at the people, and got the body language from them.'
Though Romeo's music is extremely taxing, Garanča says that 'it fits very well. Of course, there are some challenges that I have to deal with, but I believe the bel canto repertoire is just perfect for my voice.' She also explains what's special about Bellini's music. 'In comparison to Rossini and Donizetti, Bellini's music is probably the most melodic. And the melodies are often very vulnerable somehow. The music is very pure, and the instrumentation is a lot simpler than Rossini or Donizetti's. Perhaps I feel more at home in the Donizetti repertoire, but this Romeo is perfect.'
Why is the Donizetti better for her voice? 'Overall, I have the feeling that the passaggio is composed a little bit lower, so he was really writing for a mezzo-soprano; in Bellini, the music often goes into a register that's more for the soprano, so it's higher and more challenging.'
Of Pier Luigi Pizzi's production, Garanča says: 'It's very classical. I love the costumes, and I think it's very sleek and aristocratic. We really try to create the drama as believable as possible with things like the swordfights, so it's very exciting. I actually don't remember the last time I was in such a classical production!'
The combination of Anna Netrebko and Garanča is an irresistible one, as their recent duets on Netrebko's latest CD, Souvenirs, and the Capuleti recording, amply demonstrate. 'I think our voices go fantastically well together,' says Garanča of the partnership, 'and she's great fun. We laugh permanently – I think we can't be serious! She's a great actress, and has a wonderful voice and personality. It's really great working with her.' Clearly it was great fun recording Capuleti: 'It was based on three concert performances, so it was like any other concert: when we're onstage, we're colleagues. I've known Anna since 1996, and when we are together we speak Russian. We met in Latvia, when she came as part of the Mariinsky's guest appearance. We've met here and there ever since, and we laugh about many things. From the Soviet times we have a certain sense of humour that not everyone understands; the jokes are from that particular country or period, just like there's a so-called 'English humour', so we have lots in common in that respect.'
Garanča also speaks with reverence of working with Sir Mark Elder. 'He's extremely knowledgeable. He uses a slightly different edition of the opera than the one we used in the recording, so we have to adjust the intonation in places. He's very particular with the rhythm and intonation, and what I love about him is that the stage always gives the music its impulses. For those of us that are creating the situations onstage, that's an unbelievable help. You give the music the impulse to stop or start or move to a new tempo. So it's a fantastic connection.'
She's evidently enjoying being back at Covent Garden after her success as Dorabella: 'I love the house, it's wonderful! That was a very different role. It's quite limited as a character, which is why I'm not singing it any more. So Romeo gives me the chance to show a different repertoire with different challenges, so we shall see how it goes.' Last season, Garanča was scheduled to sing the Composer in Ariadne, but then cancelled it. Is she not going to do Strauss any more? 'Strauss, yes, but not the Composer, because it's a very high, parlando kind of singing which I found tiring somehow. I sing Octavian and I love the role, but somehow the Komponist was in a register that I felt did not suit my voice.'
Last month, Deutsche Grammophon released Garanča's second solo album for the label. Entitled Bel Canto, it brings together arias and ensembles by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, many of which won't be known to the average operagoer (though it also includes a selection from Capuleti). 'It was the intention to present something that people don't know,' explains Garanča, 'and to show that there is a lot of undiscovered bel canto music for the mezzo-soprano. It's not just about Lucia or Puritani or something like that.
'Also, the previous recordings that I'd made already contained the golden repertoire like La favorita and Giovanna Seymour, so we thought that we'd choose something new rather than repeat it all again. Deutsche Grammophon were very helpful and got a bel canto specialist from Italy, Luca Gorla, to make suggestions. One day I got a box of thirty scores! So I went through them page by page and checked the arias, then I tried them out in various concerts to choose the best ones for the CD.
'My schedule is very busy but we have some ideas for the next project, and I have a five-record contract with Deutsche Grammophon so there's definitely another three to come. We're also doing another complete opera recording: Werther with Rolando Villazon in Baden-Baden, at the beginning of June.'
What plans for the future in terms of repertoire? 'I'm planning to pick up some of the roles I haven't sung for some time, like Nicklausse in a new production of The Tales of Hoffmann at the Met. I'm coming back to Covent Garden in October to sing Carmen, which I'm going to sing more often – I'm also doing it in Caracalla with Alagna in the summer. I'm doing Cenerentola at the Met again, which I haven't done since 2004, and I'm singing in Anna Bolena in Barcelona, New York and Vienna. Apart from that, it's Rosenkavalier, Werther, and a new Clemenza di Tito in Barcelona. It's nice to get to a point in your career where you have a fair amount of roles to choose from.'
I ask Garanča whether it is difficult to swap between such stylistically diverse roles on a regular basis. 'I would find it difficult to do them immediately after one another without a break. When I plan my diary, I make sure the roles are carefully spaced out. For instance, when I've done Cenerentola, there's a fortnight's break until I do Werther, which is middle-ish but not as dramatic as Carmen. And Nicklausse is somewhere in between, so it's not like going straight from Cenerentola to Carmen to Cherubino.'
We chat briefly about Carmen, which Garanča will sing at Covent Garden in October. 'First of all, I believe that Carmen has so many prototypes that everyone thinks they know how she should be played. I feel that she is over-womanised. She is too often played as a big mama type who is really grown up and just kills men. It's usually about the boobies and the shaky hips! I feel that Carmen has much more spirit in her. She's much younger and livelier.
'With her, like Romeo, there are lots of extremes. She can be very introverted, for example in the Card Scene aria; it's very simply composed, as I read it, not with a heavy Amneris sound. Then suddenly you have the Habanera, which is completely different, like a chansonette. So really if you follow that through, Carmen is not just one big scream, so to speak. It's not a big Verdi scream where you need a massive voice on a permanent basis. It's much more refined.'
Is she planning to move towards Verdi at any point? 'I hope so, very much, and my dream part is Amneris. In ten or fifteen years I hope to be able to yell my head off with that role!' she jokes. 'Even if I already have all the notes that Amneris requires, I feel I would need to push, and I would need to make my voice darker and wider artificially, and I don't want to do that. And once you make your middle heavier and wider, you lose the top, which is my strongest calling card at this moment.'
I ask her why she'd want to play someone as evil as Amneris, but Garanča rejects the classification. 'I don't think that she's evil! She's not the one who woke up in the morning and thought "How can I go after this person and that person?". Love is one step away from hate, and sometimes when we love somebody we can go completely bananas, you know? I don't think the deaths of Aida and Radames make her happy. She's just so desperate that I don't think she totally realises what she's done. If Aida had a fourth act showing Amneris the next day, I think she'd probably cut her hair off in desperation. She doesn't order herself a nice pizza and clap her hands and say, "Oh, what a lovely day!".'
Music has been part of Garanča's life 'ever since I was in my mum's tummy. It was Lied. My dad's a choir conductor and my mum's a singer, and when I was growing up she was learning the Lied repertoire – Brahms, Schubert, Schumann and so on. The first time I went to the opera was when I was seven. It was Tannhäuser and I left with my friend in the first interval because I didn't understand anything.
'I grew up in the theatre, so to speak, because it was just across the road from the drama school, and when I was growing up I wanted to be in musicals. I was fascinated by singing, dancing, speaking, costumes, lights and melodies. Barbra Streisand was my hero – and still is, I really do love her. Then somehow this theatre world was much more fascinating for me.'
How did she come to turn to opera? 'Classical music had always been part of my life; I learned the piano from the age of five. When I was in the final years of my secondary school, I needed to make a decision about what to do with my life, and it was logical to follow classical music; it was what I knew. I applied to acting school, but they didn't accept me. My father thought I could be a music teacher, so I had some conducting lessons, but it didn't click with me, then my parents tried to make me into a cultural attachée, organising events. But I realised I have no talents for organising things! So for half a year I was up and down, not knowing what to do, then in the December holidays I had a very long talk with my parents and the next morning I woke up and announced that I wanted to be an opera singer.
'From there it was a battle to stretch every semitone in both directions, because at the beginning I only had five or six notes and that was it. So my Mum worked with me for two or three months every day, then she prepared me for the entrance exams at the conservatoire. Having entered, I had exams every six months, and I learned about breathing and resonance, and during that time there were many guest professors from the opera. I was invited by one of my teachers to go to Vienna with her and to enter the Belvedere competition, where I reached the semifinal, then I was invited to audition in Meiningen after two years of formal study at the academy.'
I ask her how difficult it was to establish herself. 'It was the way it was. It wasn't easy, because I left the country with no language, no experience, straight onto a professional stage. I thought The Magic Flute would be about wearing beautiful costumes, but it was a modern production where the snake was electrical cable and the Three Ladies were in secretarial uniforms with glasses and briefcases. I was completely shocked! Then I went to another competition in Finland, which I won, and that gave me a boost of confidence, then I auditioned in Frankfurt, went to the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, then I auditioned for Vienna, and now I'm freelance.
'So to answer the question: it wasn't easy, but I never saw it as a sacrifice. It was about getting experience, learning new roles, working with new people.'
When I ask Garanča about her ambitions, she gives a typically level-headed reply: 'Everybody says that it's hard to get to the top but even harder to sustain it, and I want to make sure that every time I return to a house where I've worked before, I can show that I've developed from the last time they heard me. And I want to present a new character each time, so I'm not going to do Dorabella every time I come to Covent Garden. That's very challenging and very interesting for me, and I want to make audiences have the same level of interest.'
Is there a future for opera? 'People have been asking this for a hundred years now, and we're still here. In some ways, the credit crunch has done some good because perhaps now the directors of opera houses won't just go for shock tactics in productions that just live for one or two seasons, and will instead think about art that will interest people even in later years. The last ten years or so have already changed, of course, and there are plenty of classical values that we'll never lose, like Michelangelo, Gaugin or Rembrandt. So classical music and opera will keep that niche for the same reason.
'Lots of young people come backstage after shows and tell me how inspiring they find the opera. It's so sweet, and it melts my heart every time! It's great that people have such an interest, and if I can, I try and take part in forums with the young.'
What would she like to be remembered for? 'I would split it between my work and my real life. I'm woman enough to remember who I am. I don't just forget myself when I'm onstage. On a professional level, I would like to be remembered as an artist who created characters on the stage. It's great when people like my voice, but I want to be remembered as a complex of different things.
'In my private life, well, I'm quite young yet, so I don't know! I want to be remembered as a normal person; when I die, I want to look back on my life and know I did my best.'
I Capuleti e i Montecchi opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 2 March 2009. The recording featuring Garanča and Netrebko is available on Deutsche Grammphon now, as is Garanča's bel canto disc.
Photo credits: Deutsche Grammophon
Elina Garanca and Anna Netrebko in the new DG recording of I Capuleti
Elina Garanca's new bel canto disc on DG
Elina Garanca as Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte at Covent Garden
Elina Garanca guests on Anna Netrebko's latest CD
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