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by Amanda Keil
Kristine OpolaisIt sounds like a fairy tale. A beautiful young girl sings a song, a handsome listener falls in love with her, and in a blink of an eye she becomes a star. Now they travel the world, making music together.
In broad strokes, that is exactly what happened to Kristine Opolais, the Latvian soprano who made a sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera this past season. The New York Times hailed her “plush voice with a throbbing richness that lends a touch of poignancy to every phrase she sings” in her portrayal of Magda in Puccini’s La rondine. Opolais made a splash on the European scene with her 2010 debut as the title role in Rusalka with the Bayerische Staatsoper, and her subsequent debut as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly at Covent Garden solidified her reputation as a formidable Puccini artist.
Today, Opolais is a regular at such opera houses as the Wiener Staatsoper, Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, Bayerische Staatsoper, Opernhaus Zürich, Teatro alla Scala, and Royal Opera House Covent Garden, working with such conductors as Daniel Barenboim, Riccardo Chailly, Daniel Harding, Louis Langrée, Andris Nelsons, Gianandrea Noseda, Fabio Luisi, and Kazushi Ono. How did this blonde bombshell from a small town in a former Soviet country come to be opera’s latest “it” girl? As in any good fairy tale, it’s a path she never foresaw.
“I didn’t want to be a classical singer,” she says. Opolais had studied piano and sang in choir as a child, but “all this stuff I didn’t like.”
If she had gotten her wish as a teenager, Opolais would have pursued a career as a movie star or a pop singer. She loved to belt out tunes by Tina Turner, Madonna, and Michael Jackson and, although both her parents were amateur musicians, she had no exposure to opera when she was growing up. One day when Opolais was 16, her mother heard her sing a pop song without a microphone. Her mother, a trained singer who once longed to have an operatic career herself, decided that her daughter would pursue classical music. She announced to Opolais that she would begin traveling from their small town in the Latvian countryside to Riga, Latvia’s capital city, for voice lessons.
“I told her that I wanted to sing rock music, but she insisted,” Opolais told WGBH’s Brian McCreath before her performance with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood last summer. “I was crying,” she told McCreath. “I said no, no, this wobble voice, I don’t want to sing, this is terrible, these fat ladies . . . .”
Nonetheless, our fairy tale’s heroine found herself on the bus every Tuesday, making the four-hour trip from her hometown to the conservatory in Riga. She studied with soprano Regina Frinberga, who had made a name for herself at Opera Riga, as the Latvian National Opera was then known. Her teacher struggled to acclimate Opolais to classical technique, leaving behind the belt style she had used to sing along with her favorite pop stars. Opolais did not enjoy herself and she stopped after six months.
But within a year the family had moved to Riga, and her mother again urged her to take lessons. Things went better on the second try. “Step by step my teacher opened up my voice and found this voice in my body. It took a long time to understand that this was what I wanted to do,” Opolais says. She traces her ease with Puccini to those early years, when she fell in love with her voice while studying “O mio babbino caro,” her very first aria. She continued to work with Frinberga, who helped prepare her for enrollment at the Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Academy of Music in Riga, the country’s most esteemed conservatory. Opolais auditioned and was readily accepted, leaving behind her past dreams of pop star fame.
Opolais immersed herself in her private studies, taking every opportunity available to her at the Academy. She studied with Lilija Greidāne, another soprano who had led a notable career at the Latvian National Opera (LNO) and in the former Soviet Union. Greidāne was renowned for her performances of Puccini and Verdi leading ladies; among her more than 30 roles at the LNO, she counted Liù, Mimì, and Liza in the Pique Dame—roles that would later be important to her star student’s career.
She expanded Opolais’ repertoire and dramatic abilities, providing the foundation for her later mastery of the great Italian roles. After some time, however, it became apparent that Greidāne was more invested in Opolais leading a career as an academic instead of a performer. Opolais had other ambitions.
So she left behind her studies at the Academy and found a new teacher in Margarita Gruzdeva, a highly regarded vocal coach and voice teacher at the LNO. Gruzdeva profoundly influenced the young soprano’s career, helping her to successfully join the LNO chorus in 2001 and later coaching her in all the roles she performed with the company. Later, Opolais found her way to the great teacher Margreet Honig at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam, who has guided the careers of numerous leading singers from around the world. Opolais continues to study with Honig as her schedule allows.
Opolais spent two years in the LNO chorus, honing her stagecraft and absorbing the musicianship of her colleagues. She carefully observed how soloists practiced their craft, spending extra time to watch their rehearsals when other choristers had gone home.
Then, at the age of 22, she auditioned again for the company’s incoming director to be considered as a soloist. That new director was the young Andris Nelsons, only one year her senior, who had started musical life as a trumpeter but was on the brink of an international conducting career. At her audition, Opolais sang “Musetta’s Waltz.” Our heroine won her role as a soloist and conquered Nelsons’ heart. The two quickly found they had more than music in common and were married in 2011.
During her years as a soloist with the company, Opolais became known throughout Latvia as a leading soprano. Her first role with the LNO was Musetta, followed by Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus during the same season. She soon found herself venturing into heavier repertoire, such as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin and Liza in Pique Dame, but discovered that her voice in her early years was better suited for Italian repertoire.
Opolais also finds deep personal connection with her Puccini heroines. In true operatic fashion, she and Nelsons fell in love while they were rehearsing for a 2005 production of Tosca with the LNO, with Opolais singing the title role and Nelsons conducting. “I feel the pain of Tosca,” Opolais says. “Perhaps I am a bit like her; that’s why I love it so much. I understand her and I feel the character.”
While her former colleagues at the conservatory continued their studies, Opolais was finding her feet as a leading lady, immersed in what could be described as the best Young Artist Program any singer could imagine. During her years as a soloist with the Latvian National Opera from 2003 until 2007, Opolais took turns in the Puccini roles that would have great significance to her career, such as Mimì and Musetta in La bohème, Liù in Turandot, and the title roles in Madama Butterfly and Tosca. In addition to Tatiana and Liza, other major roles include Violetta in La traviata and Tamara in The Demon, by the 19th century Russian composer Anton Rubinstein. But it was her Tosca that first brought Opolais to international attention, earning her a debut—at age 26—and a return engagement at Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin in 2006 and 2007.
“When I look back at all my colleagues who were students for four years, they lost these four years,” she told WGBH’s McCreath. “When they finished conservatory, I was a leading soprano at the Latvian National Opera!” Opolais sang with LNO for four years, and during that time won the Paul Sakss Singers’ Award in 2004, the Latvian Annual Theatre Award for Best Opera Artist, and the Latvian Cultural Foundation Award in 2005. She also received the Latvian Great Music Award in 2006 and 2007 for her portrayal of Liza in Pique Dame.
Opolais credits her time with the company for the development of her stagecraft, especially her work with the LNO general manager and artistic director. “My greatest teacher from whom I learned what to do on stage was Latvian opera director and actor Andrejs Žagars,” she says. Žagars had led a distinguished career in theater and film before joining the LNO in 1996, turning it into one of the most innovative opera companies in Eastern Europe. “For each new production with him, he worked with me a lot as an actress,” Opolais says. “I feel as if I am an actress who can sing on stage, rather than a singer who can act.”
And the proof is in the performance. Search on YouTube for her brainy yet passionate embodiment of Tatyana in the famous letter scene in a stark modern production of Eugene Onegin with the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain, in 2011 (released on DVD in 2012). Or visualize Pinkerton’s return in her affecting “Un bel dì” at her 2011 Covent Garden debut with the Royal Opera House (with her husband conducting). Or marvel at her raw physicality in Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata” from an edgy 2010 production of Don Giovanni with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.
Opolais is often singled out for her acting skills, as in the New York Times review that hailed her as “a lovely woman and an affectingly natural actress.” In addition to her training at the LNO, Opolais speculates that some of her acting skills come from even more formidable powers. “I think God gave this to me,” she muses. “My mother is very artistic and very emotional.”
After gaining attention on the European mainland, Opolais left the LNO to conquer Great Britain. In 2007 she made her UK debut with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra at the Manchester Bridgewater Hall. And 2008 saw her opera debut in the UK with concert performances of La bohème with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which had just appointed Nelsons as its music director.
She worked with Daniel Barenboim in a new production of Prokofiev’s The Gambler in 2008, bringing her back to the Berlin Staatsoper and Milan for her La Scala debut. Other important debuts quickly followed at the Vienna State Opera in La bohème, the Opéra de Lyon in The Gambler, and at Teatro Regio in Turin in Pique Dame under Gianandrea Noseda.
Her burgeoning reputation on the operatic stage brought her invitations to perform concert masterpieces as well, such as Verdi’s Requiem, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder, and Mahler’s 4th Symphony—with orchestras such as Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich, the Royal Danish Orchestra in Copenhagen, and WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln. She is a regular guest with City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, which she appears on tour with. She performed again with Nelsons as a soloist in Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14 at the Salzburg Festival, to great acclaim.
In the 2010–2011 season, she was an overnight sensation at Bayerische Staatsoper as the title role in Rusalka, which Opolais describes as “the other side of my personality, the softness. You have two sides to your personality—the dark and light—and I’d say that Tosca and Rusalka are that.” That same season, she made her debut at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden with Nelsons conducting, where she was a last-minute replacement for Patricia Racette in Madama Butterfly. London audiences were charmed by this newcomer, especially upon learning that the performance was the couple’s first as husband and wife.
While Latvia has a rich musical history of choral singing, Opolais is quick to point out that she is not a product of this tradition. But although Opolais may never have sung in a choir, in Riga and at the Latvian National Opera she benefitted from the wealth of musical knowledge and historic sensibility of her teachers and mentors. And her HD-ready good looks and ebullient stage demeanor perhaps reflect the fearless freedom of a new generation of artists from former Soviet states. While her teachers were forbidden from performing outside the Soviet Union, Opolais and other Latvian rising stars can revel in the spotlight on stages worldwide. After centuries of domination by other countries, the growing cohort of Latvian performers is poised to show the world some dominance of their own.
Following her acclaimed Metropolitan Opera debut as Magda in La rondine, Opolais returned to Covent Garden for Tosca, followed by Mimì in La bohème at the Staatsoper Berlin and Wiener Staatsoper. She sang with Thomas Hampson and Joseph Calleja in a concert of Simon Boccanegra at the Vienna Konzerthaus, which will also be released by Decca.
In the summer of 2013, Nelsons was appointed the new music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a major prize for the young musician. He was scheduled to conduct Opolais in her debut with the BSO at Tanglewood, but he was forced to withdraw when he suffered a concussion in what was first reported as a “household accident.” The maestro walked into a closed door in the dark, resulting in hospitalization for several days. Nonetheless, Opolais represented the family at Tanglewood in the fiendishly difficult Verdi Requiem, to warm reviews. And the couple had the chance to perform together in a program of Verdi and Tchaikovsky songs at the London Proms.
The current season sees Opolais in a wide range of repertoire, including her return to Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich as Vitellia in a new production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and as the title role in Rusalka. She also makes her Hamburg Staatsoper debut as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. Opernhaus Zürich welcomes Opolais back in the title role of Janáček’s Jenůfa, and in April 2014 she will return to the Metropolitan Opera for Madama Butterfly. Opolais will perform the title role in the Royal Opera House’s new production of Manon Lescaut under the baton of Antonio Pappano in the summer of 2014.
As her repertoire grows, Opolais is growing deft at switching between different styles. “Puccini is freestyle for me and Verdi is about good technique,” she says. In general, Opolais finds Verdi to be the more technically demanding composer, while Puccini offers “more freedom for musical interpretation.” She feels most at home in Puccini and Verdi, but in this last year, “I have learned to understand Mozart much more. If you didn’t study Mozart early on, you have to really work with a special coach.”
Just before New Year’s in 2011, Opolais added another role to her repertoire when she and Nelsons welcomed their daughter Adriana Anna into their lives. “It’s very interesting that God gave me both [a career and a family] at the same time,” she says. “I try to be a good mother. If I’m not seeing her that much, she still knows that I love her. I think of her when I am on stage and she gives me strength. I am looking forward to her seeing me on stage. She could be my biggest critic.”
Opolais brings Adriana with her on longer projects, but not when she tours or frequently changes hotels. Opolais and Nelsons will continue to make their home in Riga. Both are looking forward to being closer geographically, when he is in Boston and she is in New York.
To balance the demands of travel, a rising career, and family, Opolais tries to keep healthy, get enough sleep (though sometimes Adriana doesn’t cooperate), and “be careful and be positive and not fearful. A good technique and a clear mind are important,” she says.
Opolais remains surprised and delighted by her rapidly ascending career. It all seems like a dream, she says. Her advice to young singers? “Careful what you dream about; sometimes your dreams come true.”
Amanda Keil writes for Classical Singer, OPERA America, and BachTrack.com, and she also runs her Baroque company, Musica Nuova. Find more entrepreneurial ideas on her blog: thousandfoldecho.com.