Monday, May 11, 2009

From Latvia to N.Y.

Mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča

Bel Canto
(Deutsche Grammophon)
Bellini: I Capuleti e i Montecchi (Deutsche Grammophon)

Elina Garanča (photo © Gabo/Deutsche Grammophon)
Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča, already an accomplished singer and actress, is fast becoming a true superstar in the worlds of classical music and opera. Born in Riga in 1976 into a musical family, she began her professional career by joining the Meiningen Staatstheater in Germany, where she appeared in operas by Mozart and Strauss, among others.

Garanča made her American debut last season at the Metropolitan Opera in Bartlett Sher’s production of The Barber of Seville, and recently wrapped up the Met’s current season by starring in another Rossini comic gem, La Cenerentola—including performing in the last The Met: Live in HD broadcast of the season. Garanča also has two new recordings, one a recital and the other an opera: Bel Canto is a selection of arias from the classic works of Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, while she sings the trouser role of Romeo opposite Anna Netrebko’s Juliet in a new recording of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, which the two singers also performed live at London’s Covent Garden.

Garanča recently spoke about her career on and offstage, the perils of air conditioning for opera singers, and her secret wish to perform in a Broadway musical while in town to sing at the Met.

Kevin Filipski: This interview had to be rescheduled a couple of times. Do you feel okay?

Elina Garanča: I feel fine now, but I had no voice for a week before my performances started, when I arrived for rehearsals. Most Europeans suffer because of the air conditioning: it’s very common for European singers coming to the United States—partly because of the plane travel, but mostly the air conditioning. Europeans are not used to it, all that cold air. We ventilate rooms differently back home, and with all that cold air inside, it really affects us and our voices.

KF: Do you come from a musical family?
EG: My mom is a singer and my father is a choir conductor. I grew up in Riga hearing songs by Brahms, Schubert, Schumann and Mahler all the time thanks to my mother, and my dad introduced me to ensemble singing. I also played piano from the age of five. After her singing career, my mom began working in the theater to help actors with their voices, so I basically grew up in the theater.

KF: You sing bel canto repertoire (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti) on both of your new CDs. Is this type of music ideal for your voice?
EG: It’s become a big part of my singing right now. For me, Rossini is a bit separate from bel canto because it’s a distinct way of singing. I went through a period when I sang many Mozart parts, and began to do other roles in Germany and Vienna. I would like to sing other roles, and I still do a little bit of French repertoire, like Carmen or Werther. My first teacher when I started said that I was a bel canto singer, but the German theaters had different ideas so I got off that road a little bit. But my voice does feel most at home with bel canto operas right now: it fits and I feel very comfortable while singing them.

KF: On the Bel Canto CD, you mix familiar and unfamiliar arias.
EG: I had several people looking for scores, and I ended up looking through 27 of them. Some of this music is rarely performed today, and I wanted to bring it back. Real operagoers know some of these operas, but others might not be as familiar with them, because the sopranos are usually the stars, like in Lucia or Norma or I puritani—the mezzo-soprano is usually the number two or three performer in these operas. There is a lot of beautiful repertoire that’s not performed on a daily basis.

KF: On the Bellini opera CD, you sing Romeo opposite Anna Netrebko’s Juliet. How was it working with her?
EG: We also just performed it together in London at Covent Garden. It came together beautifully. Anna’s a really great sport, she’s really wonderful. I’ve known her since ’99 or so, when we met in Riga while she was singing at a Latvian festival. Of course, as old Soviet children, we were speaking Russian and laughing at old jokes, which obviously brought us closer. We’ve done a couple of concerts together and will do some operas in the future, which I’m looking forward to.

KF: Although you’ve been singing for awhile, you’ve only just recently started to perform in the U.S. Was this planned?
EG: No, not really. I don’t feel I missed out anything—it doesn’t matter to me that much. I’m extremely happy to be here now, and I love singing at the Met—the bigger the opera house, the more free I feel when I’m onstage. I really think my voice is well-suited to this house. I’ll be returning here quite regularly, starting in November in The Tales of Hoffmann, co-starring with Anna Netrebko, then in later seasons I’ll be doing Carmen, Anna Bolena also with Anna, Der Rosenkavalier, Werther and La Clemenza di Tito.

KF: When you return to the Met in the fall, your director for Hoffmann will be Bartlett Sher, with whom you also worked on The Barber of Seville. Do you like working with him?
EG: Oh yes—he’s a great director who can really see talent and trust the artists. He can come into rehearsal and say, “You know what, I’ve had a good idea, but if it doesn’t work, you can try it the way you want.” Other directors will say, “No, no, it’s my idea, it’s all mine, you have to try it—if you like it or don’t like it, tough shit.” I just love Bartlett, especially his work in South Pacific.

KF: Your last performance of La Cenerentola was part of The Met’s Live in HD series of transmissions to movie theaters worldwide. Was this your first taste of performing in front of the cameras?
EG: Yes it was. But it’s still a live performance, so my nerves don’t increase tremendously just because of a couple cameras. The awareness that it’s shown in so many places and many people see and hear me sing for the first time gives me an extra kick, so to speak. But I think it’s great for audiences who might not be able to come to the opera can see it in a cinema and be so close to the singer. Often, from the third balcony in the opera house, what can you see? So it’s exciting, although I do think that there is a certain magic lost when you don’t sit in the opera house. But this is obviously aimed at a bigger, broader audience, and I think the real opera lovers will still keep going to the opera house and experience it live.

KF: You mentioned South Pacific earlier. Would you like to do a musical someday?
EG: Of course! It has always fascinated me to wear the costumes and sing those easy melodies, and even dance on the stage! I loved seeing South Pacific and Billy Elliott while here in New York. I know that if I tried to do a musical, down the road, however, your colleagues would probably eat me up and say I was unserious and disrespectful toward classical music to do a crossover and ruin my career. I think that kind of attitude limits our interests as artists—we’re not like pigs in a slaughterhouse that just get their heads stamped the same way. I think that the curiosity of exploring different music helps artists to grow, develop and expand their careers.

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