Total commitment

Kristine Opolais before her Festival Hall debut as TOSCA

We meet on a midsummer day at the end of July. Kristine Opolais is currently singing the part of Margherita in the Easter Festival production of Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele. In the room where we’re holding the interview, it isn’t exactly cool. She’d prefer a comfortable 22 degrees – this kind of sweltering heat isn’t really her cup of tea. Temperatures notwithstanding, Kristine Opolais immediately fills the room with her imposing aura. The Latvian soprano naturally exudes authority, yet despite her impressive charisma, she’s completely approachable, without any hint of aloofness. “Puccini is my great love,” she informs me immediately when our conversation turns to Tosca. “For anyone who’s been following my career,” she laughs, “they’ve certainly noticed this already. There’s so much passion and freedom in his music. Which is exactly what I like, what is important to me: passion and freedom.” She often sang the part of Floria Tosca in earlier years before putting it aside for nearly a decade. The break was beneficial, she says, and she now finds herself discovering more facets in the role. But she liked it from the very beginning, and felt she understood it: “Tosca is not really complicated or difficult to understand, maybe this is why I enjoy playing her so much. She’s actually a completely normal woman, sometimes a bit naïve in the positive sense, which is why she also makes a few mistakes over the course of the story.” Opolais pictures Floria Tosca as a singer around forty years old, “gorgeous and a true diva. A woman who loves, and a woman who loses, including her path in life. A woman who is afraid. I can personally relate to everything that Tosca does and that makes her who she is.”
When Opolais sings Puccini roles like Tosca, Manon, Lescaut, Cio-Cio-San, or Mimi, it all seems as light and effortless as a children’s song. But what do the parts demand of her from a vocal point of view? “Good technique,” the soprano explains, “because it’s true that they are difficult to sing. You also need a big voice, since there’s a big orchestra sitting there below you. But first and foremost, you need a dramatic soul – you’ve got to have tears in your soul! If you’re more the sober type, like planning things, and then live according to your plans… well, Puccini’s music might seem a bit superficial to you,” the Latvian reflects. “Then Mozart might be more to your liking; it’s more concrete, more precise, and more stylistically exact. It’s the same with Verdi, by the way – with Verdi you’re not completely free, either. Real freedom is not something you encounter often. In my view, you can find it with Puccini, and this is why I love this music.”
When I met Kristine Opolais for the first time in 2010, it was in a somewhat different context. That October the weather was foggy and uncomfortable; it was the Latvian’s first rehearsal in Munich – Dvořák’s Rusalka. The director was Martin Kušej, and the production was no cheerful fairy-tale, telling a cruel story of imprisonment and abuse. When Nina Stemme cancelled, the Bayerische Staatsoper engaged Kristine Opolais on short notice – a high-profile name among those in the know, but still an insiders’ tip in the opera scene. This was certainly not without its risks for the young Latvian: for her Munich debut she was obliged to turn down New York, cancelling her first performance at the Metropolitan Opera. “This was the first time in my life that I listened to my inner voice,” she recalls. “My intuition told me, ‘You’ve got to do this Rusalka!’ Sure, it was egotistical, but everything in me was crying out: a new big role! A role where I can show all my different sides.”
At the Metropolitan Opera she would have sung the musically less interesting part of Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème. “Singing at the Met would have been a great honor. But there’s no way I could have presented myself fully as Musetta, they might have gotten a wrong idea about me and my repertoire.”
With her incredible presence on stage, the floodgates open at Opolais’ 2010 Rusalka premiere. She is celebrated by the audience – some in spite of the production, others because of it. And everyone is transported by her performance. The way she lights and extinguishes a lamp in the water goblin’s dungeon while singing to the moon, how in the world of humans she teeters around awkwardly in high heels, how, alone and lost, she longs to return to her element, plunging herself into a water-filled aquarium and singing a heartrending song – in each and every one of these scenes, we see Opolais giving her whole heart and soul on stage. “I’ve only got one life, that’s why I very carefully consider what I’m going to sing where. I choose the opera houses where I feel good and consider the roles very carefully. I have to be able to identify with the role one hundred percent, it’s got to feel right. If my soul trembles and I can give my whole heart to what I’m doing, then the audience is going to notice this, too.”
The headstrong soprano didn’t anticipate, however, that she would be conquering stages from Berlin to New York (where she has long been a regular at the Met), Baden-Baden, Vienna, Munich, and Zürich – on top of her Puccini repertoire, in such roles as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, and Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito. Her dreams as a young girl were related to art, but not necessarily to opera: “As a child I first wanted to be a ballerina. Later I did want to be a singer – a pop singer though. A little later – and a little smarter – I thought it had to be rock and pop, that was it! Then came a phase when I flirted with acting, when I was practically picturing myself in Hollywood,” she grins, summing up her girlhood dreams in Riga, the Latvian capital. “In one way or another, it was all related to the stage. But the idea about opera,” she confesses, “actually came from my mother.”
Opolais is married to Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons. The two musicians met at the opera in Riga. Sometimes they perform together, something she preferred not to do in the past, hoping to make her own name in the music world rather than be engaged as “the wife of…” Since then, Nelsons has often proposed that they work together more often. “It’s not that I don’t like performing with him,” she explains. “But for me, Andris is also part of my family, he’s the father of my daughter. When I’m there on stage with him, I can’t look at him only as an artist. Also, I like to separate my work from my private life.”
For the artist couple, their daughter Adriana is the emotional focus of their lives. “What clearly changes when you have a child,” the soprano says, “is your priorities. I’m first and foremost a mother, then a singer. My daughter will soon be turning five. Only now I’m slowly returning, step by step, to my musical life and remembering what it means to be an opera singer in all its facets. When Adriana was a baby, you could say music was functioning partly on autopilot, so to speak.”
The Opolais-Nelsons family is at home wherever their work at the moment has taken them, whether it’s their home city of Riga, Munich, or in the U.S. One of the results is that little Adriana is naturally leading a cosmopolitan lifestyle: “My daughter speaks a lot of Russian, this comes from my mother and her nanny. With Andris and me she speaks Latvian. At first we had an English nanny, and she spoke English with her – back then it was practically her first language. This has been put on hold for the moment, but I believe all the languages remain and she’ll later be able to draw from a large storehouse. This is something I’m happy about.”
She enjoys her varied life: “I don’t feel good when things get stuck too much. Most of all, I don’t like being overly restricted by other people. When that happens, I quickly withdraw.” Being permanently engaged by a single opera house would make her feel restricted. “I can still remember the feeling of being part of an ensemble: always there, always available. This can also lead to things being seen as much too normal, being taken for granted. And to a situation where not everyone respects you in the way they maybe should.”
Here we’ve once again touched on the freedom that Opolais needs so much in her life and that she finds so unconditionally in Puccini’s music. It’s why she always looks forward to productions in new places with new colleagues, like Marcelo Álvarez, whom she’ll be meeting on stage for the first time at the Easter Festival Tosca in Baden-Baden. Naturally she’s also looking forward to collaborating with Sir Simon Rattle: “It’s an honor that he chose me to be Tosca for this production. There’s no doubt this is going to be a great experience for me. And Baden-Baden: for a long time I’ve been telling myself that I’ve really got to sing at the Festival Hall.” She adds almost philosophically, “There are many facets to life, and it’s also good to be open to it artistically. When things become too normal in a place, in something you’re doing, or in a relationship, then there’s a change. And not necessarily for the better.”
That’s why she doesn’t like staying in one place for too long. But when she’s there, Kristine Opolais gives more than one hundred percent: “I think it’s not right to simply use your voice. You need to enjoy what you’re doing, even if it is hard work. It’s important to respect oneself, since I want to give my best.”

Text: Annika Täuschel

Photos: Tatyanav Lasova

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden Berliner Philharmoniker Osterfestspiele bpheaster Tosca fshbb c_Monika Rittershaus

Friday 07 Apr 2017 18:00 H

Puccini: TOSCA

Premiere of the new production

It’s no wonder Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic were inspired – had to be inspired – by Tosca, ...