The Lithuanian soprano Violeta Urmana is a formidable woman. She has a magnetic personality that radiates self-assurance, and a ferocious intelligence, not to mention considerable physical glamour.
Nevertheless, as we meet to discuss her forthcoming appearance in the Royal Opera's revival of Puccini's Tosca, she is respectful, charming, enthusiastic, full of wit and good humour - and rather self-critical, apologising frequently for her English despite a remarkable command of and fluency in the language.
Evidently, Tosca is a woman by whom she is fascinated. 'Because she is a diva, she is somehow also very theatrical and dramatic. Sometimes she just puts on a performance for Cavaradossi, like putting flowers for the Madonna in the church, and punishing him in her jealousy because she thinks he might have another woman. When she jumps from the Castel Sant'Angelo, it's the highpoint of her career. Of course she is in a brutal situation, but it's also the performance of her life: 'Scarpia, avanti a Dio!' [she mimics Tosca's final line in the opera].
'She can also be a very loving and sweet woman who needs love in her life. In this case, she loves Cavaradossi. Of course he loves her too, in his own way. But in his first aria he's singing about another woman's beautiful eyes, so he is probably flirting with other women sometimes. So I don't know if it's really so good that Tosca loses her life for that man! But in that moment she just loves him. There's no way back for her. She's very romantic with lots of fantasies. If you think about it, in her first aria she's singing about how she can seduce him. And she's a woman of talent. The Tosca of the play comes from a simple family background. She's not an aristocrat, she just has talent. She does her career on her own. And as an artist, it's no wonder that she appeals to Cavaradossi.'
One of the singer's biggest inspirations was Maria Callas, who played the part of Tosca in the famous 1964 Franco Zeffirelli production at Covent Garden (which was replaced by a new one by Jonathan Kent last year). But Urmana tells me that her interpretation of the role is not particularly inspired by that of Callas. 'Of course I know the video but I have a bad memory so I don't really remember it! She was a very strong personality and when she was just standing on the stage thinking, it was so impressive. But I cannot be her! Some moments are somewhere in my memory but I don't remember her interpretation exactly. I just try to find the truth in each moment I'm on the stage. This is a verismo opera and it's very real. The dramatic evolution of this opera is so natural, so logical, so true, that it brings out lots of real emotions.'
Surprisingly, though, Puccini was not always on the cards for Urmana. 'I like to hear and see these operas but I'm not a big fan of singing verismo and Puccini. I was always a little afraid of doing Tosca. I thought it might somehow provoke screaming - you must be careful to control your emotions, otherwise you arrive at 'Vissi d'arte' and have no voice left because of that 'ah-ah' [she demonstrates vividly!] screaming all the time. So it must be both realistic and controlled. It's great fun to sing - but not always simple, because of the investment of emotion.'
Urmana's co-star in this production is the celebrated Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra, beloved particularly at La Scala in Milan, and she is enthusiastic about him. 'He has sung Cavaradossi many times and knows the role very well. Having a partner that understands not only the words but also the deep meaning behind each phrase is very useful, because you get the right reactions from them and you can react to them in turn.'
She also commends the Finnish conductor Mikko Franck, saying that he is 'very competent' and she is 'looking forward to working with him'. Urmana's views about certain conductors she has worked with in the past are well known but, she protests, 'I named no names! It's true, sometimes you can get a really big problem if someone just wants to make an effect without understanding the voice. The human body can only produce a certain amount of air and if a conductor doesn't sing with you and breathe with you, you are in trouble. But I see that in this case [with Mikko Franck], we will have great fun. When a conductor is in control, when he has the music in his hands, you feel comfortable'.
Jonathan Kent's traditional production of Tosca was new last year, and Urmana likes it very much. 'It is very helpful because the scenery gives you many possibilities - it's not just a flat stage. You can express each movement, thought and emotion with it. I like it - it's very detailed, and it brings out the relationship between the characters on the stage in an interesting way.'
Urmana is delighted to be back at the Royal Opera House, though she says she doesn't have any plans to return at the moment. 'I've always had the most beautiful opportunities here. There was Parsifal, and La Gioconda in concert, La forza del Destino and Macbeth. It was always good fun.'
What lies ahead for her? 'Well I probably can't sing Traviata so I must just choose roles that fit my voice. No voice is getting younger. The normal evolution is that the voice gets heavier but up to now I've felt that my voice has got lighter! Of course I like Isolde and I'm singing it next year on stage for the first time. I'm wondering when the turning point will be, when I have to change my repertoire. I can't say for sure what my voice will suit, but I have to decide now what it will be like in five years' time. In 2012 I will not be able to sing Aida and Norma any more, and I will probably return to Wagner.' How about Strauss? 'At the end of my career I will sing Elektra! I like Ariadne very much - I'm doing it a few times, though not as often as I would like to. It is a part I enjoy because it's not too long but it's so beautiful. I don't like the very conversational operas like Capriccio - I like Strauss' phrasing but not his parlando style, the big conversations. And Rosenkavalier is so long! I like Verdi and Puccini's concentration. Or maybe I'm just too lazy! But Elektra I would love to do one day, if my voice will allow me. And at the very end I'd like to play Klytämnestra! All dramatic sopranos do this part in the end, so I think it would be great fun. And as an ex-mezzo who turned to soprano roles, perhaps I will have to turn back one more time to the mezzo parts. I think it was the right decision to start to perform the soprano roles I'm singing now. But I don't know how it will end!'
Verdi, too, figures in her future plans. Lady Macbeth beckons again next year in La Scala, then in Paris in 2009 - Urmana feels that the dark timbre of the role will suit her for many years to come. And later this year she sings her first Amelia in Un ballo in maschera. But the big challenge lies in a new part, that of Odabella in Verdi's early opera Attila in 2010. 'I'm doing it at the Met. It's very scary! I'm already studying it, because you must find out whether you can actually do it before you try to sing it on stage. It's fun, but it's not too easy: some of the coloratura in the first aria is very tricky. Nobody's perfect, but I will do the best I can! The range is so wide [and again she demonstrates] - it goes up to a high C then suddenly down very low. You have to manage somehow. But a singer's life is a short one, and I had to turn down some operas, such as I due Foscari. That looked very scary - night and day singing high Cs is not for my voice!'
One of Urmana's big regrets is that she doesn't have more time to sing more song recitals, an activity that she enjoys enormously. 'You are singing from the beginning to the end, alone on the stage. And you are your own director and conductor. If only I had more time to learn as many Lieder as I would like to! If I could do it with the scores, no problem, I could do a lot of programmes. I could sing Lieder every day! But it's the tradition that you sing without the score, which is better because there is no barrier between you and the public. Yet it drives me crazy - I think, oh, I hope I won't forget a text! I've heard lots of stories of singers forgetting the words and turning to the pianist for help, and I'm always nervous about it. So I try to sing the best of my repertoire - Strauss, Rachmaninov, the Wesendonck Lieder - and I have some new things coming up, such as Berlioz's Les nuits d'étè. I would like to sing many more Lieder though!'
Although she is now one of the world's greatest singers, Urmana initially trained as a pianist. 'I asked my parents to buy a piano for me when I was seven years old, and I continued to study it. But I hated it!' she says, drawing out the vowel sound in her rich Slavic accent. 'I love music but I hate the piano, I told them. You have to sit there for hours and hours practising. But I still studied it for seventeen years. It was a long, long time.' she laughs.
'In the end I just dreamed about singing and I didn't care about the piano. I did my diploma and that was it, I wanted to close the lid. My husband [the tenor Alfredo Nigro] asked me to play for him and I said 'No, no! Please call a pianist!' I'm not good at sight-reading. I can do some easy Bellini and Verdi but I was never good at it. I was a very good accompanist because of my passion for singing, but a real accompanist must be able to just play a piece when you get the score. I couldn't do that.
'Music is my life. Of course, it is my profession, and just because I am a little tired now at the end of the season, I feel I need a rest! But it is so satisfying when I am singing a performance and it is going well - it gives me a sense of well-being. Opera is a beautiful thing.'