• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Elina Garanca

    Opera Lively interview # 160 is with the outstanding Latvian mezzo Elīna Garanča. She is a fierce, proud, and intelligent artist. Her answers are extremely interesting and it is a great honor that a singer who is seen by many of our members as the best mezzo in her generation has granted us this interview. Two Opera Lively journalists met her in person on February 10, 2015, at the Metropolitan Opera Press Lounge, on the occasion of her Carmen with Roberto Alagna (who was also interviewed by us). We found that Elīna is a fascinating person, in addition to being a great artist.

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    Singer: Elīna Garanča
    Fach: Lyric Mezzo Soprano
    Born in: Riga, the capital of Latvia, European Union, on September 16, 1976
    Married to: Karel Mark Chichon, conductor (two children)
    Recently in: Carmen, title role, The Metropolitan Opera House
    Currently in: Carmen, title role, La Scala, March 28, tickets [here]
    Next in: Der Rosenkavalier, Octavian, Wiener Staatsoper, April 6, 9, 12, tickets [here]
    Website: elinagaranca.com

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    Photo: Karina Schwarz/DG

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    Few singers attain the stature of Elīna Garanča, who over the past decade has emerged as one of operaís brightest stars. The Latvian mezzo-soprano is consistently praised for her iconic portrayals of the leading roles in her repertoire. Forging deep connections with each part she plays, she is a consummate artist whose distinctively dark, sultry voice boasts a power and warmth to which her regal bearing and alluring looks provide the perfect counterpoise.

    She regularly headlines landmark productions at the worldís leading opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House, Bavarian State Opera, and Vienna State Opera, where she recently became the youngest female singer to be honored with a Kammersšngerin Award.

    Since becoming an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist in 2005, she has amassed an extensive discography, highlighted by six solo albums Ė three of them ECHO Klassik Award-winners Ė and DVDs that capture her most definitive live performances. Besides starring in numerous opera and concert broadcasts, she frequently appears in documentaries and talk shows, and is the subject of the award-winning documentary Primadonna on rollerskates (2002). Her memoir, Wirklich wichtig sind die Schuhe (ďThe Shoes Are Really ImportantĒ), was published by Austriaís Ecowin Verlag last year; in it she explains, ďMy feet must feel free so that my soul and voice can soar.Ē

    Garanča launched the 2014-15 season with the release of her most personal album to date, Meditation, which spans four centuries of sacred and spiritual music. She and Alagna reprise their leading roles in the Metís Carmen, and Bizetís gypsy serves as the vehicle for her house debut at La Scala. Straussís Octavian takes her back to Vienna and Berlin, and she returns to Milan in Mascagniís Cavalleria Rusticana and grace a dream team of soloists in Verdiís Requiem with Riccardo Chailly. She sings Berg under James Levine at Carnegie Hall, and undertakes a European concert tour with Karel Mark Chichon. After making recital debuts at Carnegie Hall and La Scala last season, she rejoins pianist Malcolm Martineau for lieder recitals in London, Zurich, Graz, Vienna, and Salzburg. Her summer season includes the return of her popular ďElīna Garanča and FriendsĒ concerts in Austria and performances as Charlotte in Werther at the Salzburg Festival.

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    Photo: Gabo/DG

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    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Elīna Garanča

    Copyright Opera Lively, all rights reserved. Questions by OL journalists Mary Auer, James Wieber, and Luiz Gazzola. Pictures: fair promotional use, credit given when known

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Carmen is one of the roles you sing most often Ė when youíre finished with the Met performances, youíll appear in a production of this opera at La Scala. What do you think makes Carmen so irresistible to men? Certainly there is her sexuality, but is it more than that?

    Elina Garanca - You should ask the men! [laughs] I think what the men are probably attracted to, or what I hear from people who have come to me and commented about my Carmen, is that Carmen is very strong - about expressing what she feels, when she feels it. And for men, maybe Carmen is interesting because you can never really grab her. You think you know her and then she suddenly does something that makes you say, "Oh, where did that come from?" So I think this unexpectedness, and the free way of just expressing herself, is what fascinates them, maybe even scares them. And, you know, there is a long, long tradition of saying that for men the ideal woman is a lady in society, a mother in the house and the kitchen and, excuse me, a whore in the bed. [laughs] So I think maybe that kind of puts it all together for what Carmen is.


    Elīna as Carmen at the Met - Photo Credit Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera, used with authorization

    LG: Super nice.

    EG: You should not write that I said that!

    LG: We can send the interview out to your agent and you can be free to pare out parts, but you know what? Sometimes when singers are more daring in their answers, thatís when itís more interesting for the public. So, if you want to keep it, weíd love to keep it.

    EG: [laughs] Not so direct!

    LG: Itís a very funny answer. Weíd love to keep it. [Editor's note - subsequently Elina authorized us to publish her full answer] So, do you consider her to be a sympathetic character?

    EG: Absolutely, absolutely. I think she also has to be sympathetic, and I think the secret of Carmen is just to have every possible emotion in her. You cannot put her in a box, and say that sheís just a femme fatale and thatís it - no, thereís so much more! And because the music is so different in every aria, sheís also so different. She can laugh and she can make people laugh; I think you have to laugh with her, and hate her; you have to want to hug her and say that everythingís going to be fine, and then you must be so angry that you could just kill this stupid woman. So all of that just has to carry on, and I always try to make Carmen alive. I think thatís the most important thing. Sheís like a ping pong ball [snaps fingers] that is somewhere all the time, and that stands out.

    LG: Nice, thanks. Carmen was written in the opťra-comique style with spoken dialogue, but after Bizetís death, revisions were made to the score that substituted recitatives for the dialogue. Both versions are in use today. Do you prefer one or the other?

    EG: The version with recitatives is better for foreign singers who donít speak French - like myself - so for me the sung dialogue just makes it less stressful. Somehow, with foreign languages, to sing them is easier than to speak. And it would be difficult to fill a house like the Met just with the spoken voice. However, I think there is so much more possibility in spoken dialogue for the timing of the scene - to make it more active, more passive. I love theater, I love dramatic theater because you can take time; you can stretch the phrase and express some phrases very quickly and some phrases very slowly. Music always has its rhythm, and the orchestra accompanies you, so you don't have as much freedom. However, Iím always very, very stressed out when there is spoken dialogue somewhere in opera, so Iím happy when itís gone and we can get to the music and sing.

    LG: When you sing Carmen in Milan, youíll be making your operatic debut at La Scala (although you did sing the Verdi Requiem there). This is a house with a very rich history and tradition, but also with a very outspoken audience. Last year, Alexander Pereira, La Scalaís new general manager, said that some leading international singers no longer want to appear there because of the way a certain segment of the audience behaves. Is this a concern for you? I suppose for your Requiem (under Barenboim with Anja Harteros, Renť Pape, and Jonas Kaufmann), which is a more solemn affair, the audience behaved better, but when itís opera, people say itís scary to sing there. Is that a concern?

    EG: Well, of course itís a concern. I mean itís not only La Scala; every theater is a concern because La Scala is not the only house where singers get booed. It was a tradition: "Oh my God, La Scala, and people boo!" But now people boo everywhere. So you have to be ready to face it at some point. I donít go on stage to please somebody. I think that would be the wrong attitude because you can never please everybody. There will always be somebody who will just dislike you. I go on the stage because I like singing. I go on the stage because I want to transport the emotions that I have through my voice and through my acting to the audience. If there are some who donít like it, well, they donít like it. What can I do about that? However, I also want to point out to some people that they should realize that Callas and Tebaldi are gone; they will never come back. Neither will Toscanini or Karajan. So thatís done.

    Now we are in the new generation and we bring our new interpretation. The vocal technique, the business, the challenges have changed a lot. What is required of a singer has changed a lot. Nowadays it has become so much more visual! There are no more conductors who will really work with singers on the phrasing, so it always falls to the singer. So the singer is mostly alone, and at the end the singer gets booed. We are not really put in ideal situations anymore, as it was many years ago Ė we travel much more, we sing more often, everything gets recorded somehow, and immediately put on YouTube. You can never try a role in a small theater. It feels like ďBig BrotherĒ or ďThe Truman Show.Ē So one should have a little bit of understanding of that.

    But I have to be prepared that if they boo, it's probably going to be an emotional moment for me. Am I going to stop singing after they boo me? No, I donít think so. So Iím looking forward to it [La Scala]. Itís a very important house and a very important tradition, and for me to go on that stage and do opera is a great honor. Iím excited; a little bit worried, but Iím not panicking.

    James Wieber for Opera Lively: Just another question along those lines. Iíve sat through a number of operas in Germany, and the singers are never booed; itís always the production. Do you find that different productions are difficult to perform in?

    EG: Well, singers have also been booed in Germany and Austria, not maybe as passionately as in Italy. I have no problem with modern productions. I have a problem when a production doesnít say anything about a character or about the relationships between the people. Nowadays you can and should make many productions modern; itís going to be much easier for audiences to understand and relate to it. But if itís only about blood and sex and naked women and dogs and dirt, and everybody just being wild, violent, and disgusting - if itís only about that, and there is not really a dialogue between two persons, this is when I have a problem.

    LG: So Carmen has sometimes been referred to as the bridge between the opťra-comique and verismo styles. This coming June, you will also sing Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. Will it be a role debut for you? Is Santuzza the first verismo role in your repertoire?

    EG: Yes. It is the first, and Iím very much looking forward to it.

    LG: And this represents a stylistic change from the Mozart and bel canto roles that have been the staples of your repertoire up until now. What do you see as the greatest challenges in singing verismo parts?

    EG: Well, itís the italianitŠ, in Santuzza, definitely, the musicality of the vocal line that it requires. With Mozart, even if Mozart can be very dramatic, you still have a kind of sterile musical accompaniment. The way Mozart writes, I see it as very vertical. I see that the voices for Mozart have to be instrumental, and very often the way the orchestra accompanies the singer, it becomes very transparent. Verismo, it is blood and meat and emotions altogether, so one has to learn to keep a cool head. Just now learning the Santuzza part and really studying it, I see that you can forget and just really scream your soul out, and you have to be careful with that and not damage your voice.

    However, I always say that my voice was originally really much more for bel canto, and thatís the repertoire where I usually felt the most comfortable. Mozart is something you learn, and I appreciate the time and years Iíve spent singing it, but I developed myself with Mozart to a certain point and then saw that I needed another style, another music, another development for me to grow. Now I see that after all that, it has given me a great equipment, but now I am ready to embrace new challenges, and one of them, of course, is verismo and the part of Santuzza. And as I am a lyric mezzo-soprano, this part actually lies quite well in the range where I feel very comfortable, and I am looking forward to it very, very much.

    LG: So, Don Josťís jealousy causes him to kill Carmen, and Santuzzaís jealousy ultimately leads to Turidduís death because she reveals his affair with Lola to Alfio. One sees this situation in other operas as well - where a character is driven by jealousy to destroy the person he or she loves. Is what these individuals are feeling really love, or something else? How do you see the character of Santuzza?

    EG: With Santuzza you have to go back to the origins of the story. In those times, women having a relationship with a man apart from marriage was a big shame. Women were stoned and pushed out of society. So Santuzza, sheís really become a nobody. For her, I donít think itís really just driven by crazy jealousy. I think itís a despair, a desperation of being in that situation. Tragic situations happen in life; thatís life. Somebody falls in love with somebody else. But you also meet the bastards who use women.

    However, I think Turiddu is not really one who just goes from one woman to another. I think that he was really in love with Santuzza, but life went on. Of course Santuzza displays certain points of jealousy, but I think it's really shame and despair that drive her. Now, I can relate that part of Santuzza to me: sometimes when I am in an angry situation I also say all kinds of things, but five minutes later I donít remember what I actually said. So I think there is something of that in Santuzza as well, after all.

    LG: Well, coming back to Carmen - because that was all we had about the roles, we will move to other things - but I was thinking about the Carmen performance yesterday. When Don Josť tries to stop her from going into the arena and she is just saying "laisse-moi passer" [let me through] and all, at one point you do go and try to get in, but the door is closed. And I think that was the first time I saw that. Because her distress with the locked door shows some ambivalence, that sheís not just trying to confront Don Josť and indicating that she doesnít care if she gets killed, as long as her take on life is not changed by him. But when she tries to escape him and go into the arena, it kind of negates that, so I donít know what the director wanted with that, and I want your opinion on this part.

    EG: It developed itself, it wasnít really that way; I think itís just a no-way-out situation. At that very moment, you donít have to see it really literally, that the door is closed for her. I think itís because for her the reality is that thereís really no way back anymore. Itís now either to face your own fears, or to face the situation - what itís going to be, because the cards at the inn have already shown what itís going to be - thatís it. Thatís it. So for her itís like the closed door is just in a way goodbye to the outside world that could have been, and from then on I think she really understands, thatís it. Because up to now she has been able to influence so many things: Josť, Escamillo, her surroundings. For the first time she understands that when it really comes to the bottom of it, it really means Ė that is it. I think it is very hard to realize and accept death, once you really look into its eyes.



    LG: So, kind of metaphorically, the doors are closed for her, right?

    EG: Yes!

    LG: So now the second part of our interview is more about you the person Elīna. We do have a couple of questions that you may say, "I don't want to answer that," which is fine. [she laughs] But we do like to have a little bit of the person underneath the artist so the readers know you better. OK?

    EG. Hm, hm!

    LG: We heard that you started singing at age three! Is this correct? Have you always wanted to be a singer?

    EG: Apparently [laughs]. My mother was a singer, so her teacher was also my first teacher many years ago. My mom said that when she had both children and I was too small to leave at home by myself, she took me around to singing lessons and some concerts and rehearsals; I always accompanied her. So when she had a singing lesson, I sat in the corner and the teacher apparently came to me and said [makes a funny voice] ďSo, little Elīna, what do you want to do when you grow up?Ē and I said [imitates a child's voice] ďI want to be a singer like mommy.Ē So that was apparently my first wish to become a singer in the future. [laughs]

    LG: Nice. [laughs] The environment at home was very musical, with your mother being a professor of voice and your father a chorus director. Please tell us about your relationship with classical music, growing up, and how opera became your main career choice.

    EG: in Latvia, in my generation, we had a very strong educational system where music was obligatory in school. I think thatís why you also see so many internationally successful Latvian artists - not only singers, but conductors, violinists. So as children we went to concerts, to opera, to musical theater; we had to sing in the choirs. It was really from a very, very young age, for everybody. And in Latvia, in those times, there was also very little to see on the TV - it was mostly the Russian programs that were kind of propaganda and always about the Soviet Union. After school, which finished around 2:00, until 6:00 or 7:00, when the parents were through working, the kids didnít have anything to do, so we were all sent to other activities. And I went to play piano for twelve years, and to music school where I learned about music theory, solfeggio, composition, and all that kind of stuff.

    So music was something very natural for me. My mother worked in a dramatic theater as well, and I fell in love with the theater and actually wanted to be an actress. But I failed the exams and they didnít take me, and then I thought, "OK, I want to be on a stage" - musicals, maybe. But there was no possibility to learn musicals style in Latvia in those times, so I said, "OK, Iíll try singing." And then I started to sing a little bit and somehow, step by step, it developed.

    LG: Lucky us that you made those choices. [laughs, and she laughs too] OK, you began your vocal studies at the Latvian Academy of Music in your hometown of Riga before moving to Vienna to study, and then you came to Indiana University, where you were a student of Virginia Zeani. Vienna is a big cosmopolitan European capital, but Bloomington is a small city in the middle of Indiana farmland. Did you experience much culture shock when you first arrived in Bloomington? How hard - or how easy - was it to adjust to life there?

    EG: [laughs] Well, to make it precise, in Vienna and Bloomington I had private teachers rather than being at the universities. I never really studied in Bloomington and I never really studied in Vienna, so it was only private lessons that I took with Miss Zeani. I went there for ten days and had private lessons, the same as I had private lessons with Gavrilovici. So my main academic studies were actually in Latvia, and as my mother was a singer, I studied very much with her and she is now my main teacher, actually.

    But I always try to get ideas from somebody else, and when I like a singer, I say, "Where did you study and who taught you?" Then I go see that person. I always say, a singer cannot be dependent on only one teacher. I think itís very wrong just to have one teacher, because with time, it doesnít become objective anymore. And you have to develop your sound, you have to develop your technique, and the more you are aware whatís right and whatís wrong, the more you listen to your colleagues, the more you know, because the teacher is very subjective. I might have a preference for sound like the 1940s or 1920s, when the vibrato was different than it is now, and maybe what the teacher says is not for my voice. You get used to the voice, you know? And I think sometimes itís good just to have a break, go and learn something else, and then you might come back to somebody.

    So it worked for me that Bloomington was a shock because it was the first time I went to America, and it really is in the middle of nowhere, [laughs] and I was battling jet lag. For me, I think the biggest impression was the restaurants and size of the dishes we got served! [all are laughing] But I never saw the university outside Latvia. So for me at Indiana University, the system, the classrooms there, the international flair to it, of course itís all very impressive. However, I think that it would have been very difficult for me to go and study somewhere far abroad. I really am a home animal. I need to have my people around. But it was a great experience, of course.

    LG: Studying with your mother must have been peculiar. I would imagine mom saying: ďElina, those B flats are not good and you have to eat your vegetables, too.Ē [laughs]

    EG: [laughs] It is very hard. It is really very hard and I think it is like with doctors; you canít ask a surgeon to cut his own child and to fix a leg, or take out the appendix. Emotionally and physically, it is very difficult. It is really very, very difficult. However, I know that she really wishes me well, and sheís the most honest critic. Now there are so many who just say, ďOh fantastic, fantastic,Ē and they just appreciate the moment. However, my mother Ö and me being a mother now, I realize that you really have unconditional love towards your child. You just really want her to have the best, and sometimes it hurts, you know, for her as well as for me, but I trust her opinion 100%.

    LG: Weíd like to talk personality a bit. Some people seem to believe that you are a rather reserved, maybe even a shy person. Is this accurate? How do you define your personality?

    EG: I am a shy person. And I always explain it that in a way I live a double life. There is one person that you see - Garanča the singer that goes on the stage, gives interviews, has official appearances, and appears in a big gala dinner with a dress. In a way thatís a show thatís around me. Privately, I am very shy and I value my personal life. I'm private about my private life, and I donít want to share it. Itís something that belongs only to me.

    I know plenty of situations where I have been recognized in a shop or somewhere by somebody and they say, ďOh my God, I saw you,Ē and I donít know what to say, I really - I blush, [all laugh] and at that very moment, I feel like saying, "What do I have to do with that person? Itís not me, you know, Iím private now, Iím not Garanča the singer."

    Sometimes I have a short temper, so maybe thatís also a problem for people. In rehearsal periods Iím not ashamed of expressing myself and sometimes Iím explosive, but itís not because I want to be a diva; itís just because Iím so involved in the process of creation, and as I said before, five minutes later [laughs] I canít remember what I said before; I forget very easily.

    LG: Ok, very nice. That was one of our questions, and you've already answered it. We were curious to know if you like to be under the spotlight in the publicís eye, or if you prefer a more private existence - you do prefer the latter, then. Weíve heard people talking about the contrast between the real person, the reserved blonde from the north, and the stage performer, the sultry brunette from the south, when you are Carmen. How do you relate to a character who is likely to be very different from your real-life persona? How do you get into Carmenís head?

    EG: Because I never believed in geographical character or temperament. It is so wrong to think that Northern people have no heat, and that we know nothing about the Southern temperament! Because this art is so visual, if you put a small Southern woman beside me, of course I look like a Viking woman. I look like a big ďHojotoho,Ē you know? Just the spear is missing. If you put me next to a partner who is taller than me, it would make me very vulnerable and small. But if I have a colleague who is the same height as me and a smaller build, of course I become like a big macho woman. So that is one aspect people very often get confused about and taken aback. Northern people are tall, strongly built, we need to have a big body to survive the cold, but we can dance and laugh and be extremely joyful and ďhotĒ in summer time.

    However, talking about temperament, I think you have to feel it. I have seen so many ďcoldĒ Finnish people, presumably cold, cold Finnish people, who just have so much passion in them! And then you have somebody from Italy who is just so lame and so asleep [we all laugh], and you would say, "Whatís going on? Wake up!" [claps hands]. So itís so unfair!

    But living in Spain now, and visiting Spain for more than ten years, Iíve traveled the whole of Spain, and Iíve seen gypsies in caves in Granada and Iíve seen gypsies in Southern Spain in Sevilla, for example, and Iíve gone to corridas to see the atmosphere of it all, for Carmenís fourth act. Iíve seen nearly all the Plazas de Toros. Iíve seen Semana Santa in April, which is their feast. And Iíve seen how people are; the Spanish are very proud. Very proud. They have an enormous fire inside that sometimes erupts. But they are not like Italians [mimics loud, gesticulating conversation] - thatís not their style, and particularly gypsies are actually very mysterious and you canít really grab them in the first moment. Then inside them, there is a volcano; they can just go and stab you, but you will never see them really being vulgar.

    A Spanish gypsy is not a Hungarian or Romanian gypsy. I remember once seeing a gypsy flamenco dancer; she must have been at least seventy-five years old, very thin and fragile at first, but then she danced, with the straightest back, head up, and her eyes Ė if I think of them today, I get shivers all over me. So dark, so black, so penetrating. I think thatís probably the right way to see their personality. And Latvians are very, very like that. Very like that. We are very proud and we have our - you call it in Spanish Ďsalero,í you have a position which you present yourself with and you donít go immediately hug and climb on the person and say, "Yeah, letís go and get a beer or whatever." Itís not like that. So yeah, I think we really kind of do understand the Spaniards.

    LG: Very nice. Wow. Thatís a wonderful answer. Please tell us about your favorite pursuits in life besides classical music, and of course your husband and two daughters. What else do you like to do? What are your hobbies and interests?

    EG: I love my green-garden. In the summertime, we really eat only from our own green-garden. I come from a culture where summertime was always spent in the countryside. So from my childhood, I know how to milk a cow and feed the pigs and cut the wool off the sheep. I still need to be in contact with that kind of farmerís life, so in summertime, we have a house in Latvia, we also have a house in Southern Spain. I have a big, big, big green-garden. Now, between the Carmen at the Met and the Carmen at La Scala, I have four days off, so I have to plant everything, tomatoes and cucumbers and zucchini and carrots and cabbages, also the onions, so that all will be planted in those four days, and then when I come back again, I'll see how the plants are doing. That for me is incredibly relaxing, and I really need that contact with the earth.

    LG: Just last month, you and your husband, Maestro Chichon, were chosen to represent Latvia in a concert at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels that was given to honor the beginning of Latviaís presidency of the European Union Council. That must have been a very special occasion for you. Tell us about it.

    EG: The occasion was very special because I was sick with the flu and I had a 39-degree fever, so I will never forget that concert, where I was so sick that during the second song I was dripping wet, soaking wet from fever. But of course I couldnít cancel and I went and did it. Usually I donít do these things, but that was one of those events you just cannot cancel - because itís the beginning of a presidency.

    And we are very proud of being there, really, because as I said in the beginning, Latvia is very small. Itís just around two million people and so many have left and are outside, so for us to be so many singers: Alexander Antonenko, Kristine Opolais, Maija Kovalevska, Marina Rebeka; the conductors Mariss Jansons and Andris Nelsons; violinist Gidon Kremer; also Baryshnikov the ballet dancer is actually from Latvia; Mischa Maisky [cellist], Baiba Skride [violinist] among the young ones. So really, if you count, ten world-famous people come from this small country, and we are extremely proud and want to show on every occasion that we are fighters; we donít step back from the small challenges that life gives - for example, fever - and we really have something to say. We can beat bigger countries, bigger institutions, by being what we are and giving what we have, which is an understanding of music.

    LG: Oh well, I bet you will go into this: I had made an introduction to this question, saying that Iím not sure if youíd like to go into this; if not, please just tell us to skip this one. But if you feel like addressing it, what is the situation like in Latvia, politically speaking? I know a Latvian person who said, ďI hope weíll still have a country, in a few years,Ē given the concerns about Russian expansionism.

    EG: It is very difficult. I mean, obviously for us, the biggest trauma of being occupied and being under a communist regime for so many years has left such deep scars that anything that happens close by, like in Ukraine, worries us. We do hope, and I think the world tries to communicate, that this Ukraine scenario will not happen to Latvia because of the NATO protections. Now we have around 2,000 American soldiers in Latvia, teaching and communicating with ours.

    However, realistically speaking, I think if Russia wanted to occupy us, until NATO comes together and decides what to do or not to do, the tanks would already be there. So one also has to face that reality. We hope that it will not be the case, but I always say that everybody has passed through Latvia: Swedes, Germans, Poles, Napoleon, everybody. And Latvia has still survived. We still have our culture, and our traditions that have not been taken away from us. Latvia was there for 600 years until the Germans. So if that would happen, I think we would still survive. I hope it will never happen again but, you know, one has to be realistic. I mean, two million people, what can we do against how many million in Russia? Itís difficult, it really is difficult. [she makes a sad face]

    LG: So, what about the operatic environment? How is the Latvian National Opera doing? Are there other important opera companies?

    EG: Well, Latvia has only one opera house, which is in a city that went through a crisis. With the Perestroika that happened in the late 80s and beginning of the 90s, many institutions were closed. Obviously the whole world has cut their budgets for culture. Latvia suffers a lot, really a lot; the musical world has been cut short 40 - 60%, so people really struggle to survive, and it demoralizes them. They say, "Why do I have to go and think about my intonation? Why should I think about facing it, if I donít even get paid for what Iíve invested so much in?" So people are not very keen on really trying hard. However, in this opera house, I think the potential is quite great; we just donít have the right surroundings to make it blossom. We are maintaining it, but itís difficult for us to have a new breakthrough, to bring something new.

    LG: I think you are very positive and proud, but realistically positive. There are struggles, right?

    EG: I canít pretend it is all rosy. The situation is what it is.

    LG: Right. So, balancing oneís career and family life is always especially challenging when both partners have international performing careers. How are you and your husband maintaining this balance now that you have two little daughters? How often do you and your husband have an opportunity to perform together?

    EG: It is very hard, and Iíd say that I feel overwhelmed most of the time. I thought it was hard with one child, but now with two itís... [sighs]. So Iím still learning to manage it all. Of course, we have our team, we have a nanny who travels with us. However, since the children are not so big yet I mostly take them with me when I have opera productions. So they stay with me. And, you know, children are children and they need their mommy. If I finish the show, for example, yesterday at one-thirty, two oíclock a.m., I go to bed late, but at seven-thirty the younger one is waking up. Itís seven-thirty and they need their mommy, so Iím awake as well. And there is no big diva time [laughs] with the late nights and quiet mornings before the performance. So thatís the reality.

    However, I would never want to have it any different, because they give me so much joy and so much reality in daily life! Because the opera world is imaginary; itís magic for a couple of hours, and at the end you return to reality. Itís what we always laugh about with colleagues: the ďluxuryĒ life of an opera star. You can be appreciated after a performance, you can have a standing ovation, and you sign autographs by the stage door and everything, but then when itís all over, you go away alone, and you are mostly alone in a hotel room, and you have your dinner with a TV in front of you, and thatís the only company you really have at the end. So when you have family, it makes the whole world completely different.

    JW: How old are your daughters, may I ask?

    EG: Yes, my youngest one is one year old and the other one is 3.4 [that's how she said it, three point four].

    JW: You have your hands full!

    EG: They keep me busy! [laughs]

    LG: Thereís also the collegial environment. I found it very cute that you hugged Roberto [Alagna] yesterday at the end of the performance during the curtain calls; it was pretty beautiful.

    EG: Iíve known him for more than ten years. So weíve done many productions together, and this production (Carmen) was made for us, or re-created, so we really are very good friends. Very good friends.


    Garanca and Alagna - Photo Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera, used with authorization

    LG: Yeah, I interviewed him and he spoke very highly of you.

    EG: I love him because heís a very generous colleague, and he makes me a better singer and artist. He just gives so much, and you want to give back, so itís a really great, great partnership.

    LG: OK, so back to your career. Youíve had an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon for ten years now, and have recorded six solo albums for that label. Most of the selections on the first five CDs were opera arias, but now your new recording is devoted to sacred music Ė or music that might be described as spiritual. Can you tell us how you developed the idea for this album? What was your inspiration?

    EG: Well, actually, apart from the first CD, which was the presentation of my voice, Iíd say Ė the first recording in the contract with Deutsche Grammophon, where you want to show the full capacity of your voice - all the others were inspired, and continue to be inspired, by my physical and emotional state at that very moment. Habanera was from a time when we bought the house in Spain. I was completely busy with Spain and everything to do with Spain, so Habanera was Spanish themed. With Romantic, I was pregnant with our first child, so I saw the world differently and I was all so feminine and so strong as a woman. And now for this Meditation, I feel that I have arrived at a point as a mother and also as a woman, where a certain page has been finished and now I'm turning it over. So I feel a certain serenity in myself. And I wanted to communicate this serenity, particularly nowadays when there is so much war and so many problems, and so much frightful power. I wanted to give people just a little moment of calm, of thinking: what is really of worth in this world? Why do we always need to fight for something, why do we have to want something all the time? Why do we run after bigger cars, a bigger apartment, a bigger house, a bigger bag, I donít know what. So yes, thereís a moment where you step back and go, ďWho am I in this universe?Ē

    LG: Wow. What an answer.

    JW: Where do you see your voice going, and what roles are you looking toward in the future? Luiz said you were doing SantuzzaÖ

    EG: The ideal world, really is to go into Verdi - Amneris, Eboli. Apart from Amneris, I have my first Eboli already set in a couple of years; Samson et Dalila is also in production, so I think thatís the direction where Iím going to go. Because as I said at the beginning, I feel that with Rossini whom I quit a couple years ago and with Mozart, I wasnít developing myself anymore. So now I need bigger challenges; I need deeper waters.

    JW: DarkerÖ

    EG: Darker and more dramatic. But it takes time; Iím still young. My voice started, really, with coloratura business, so now itís kind of going and widening, and it takes time. So now itís step by step.

    JW: Eboli is a wonderful role.

    EG: Yes, itís great.

    LG: So early on, you sang Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana at the Vienna State Opera, and at the time, Ioan Holender, the Staatsoperís Intendant, predicted that you would someday sing Santuzza and follow the same sort of career path as the great mezzo Giulietta Simionato. So at least part of Herr Holenderís prediction has come true. Birgit Nilsson heard you at a singing competition in Finland that you won and said she believed that you would eventually become a dramatic soprano. So far, the roles you have sung have all been definitely in mezzo territory. Do you think that you will likely remain a mezzo, or is there a possibility that we may someday hear you sing Sieglinde, for instance?

    EG: I donít think so, I think I am a mezzo. I have a flexible tone and, if you look at the repertoire I have done as a mezzo, whether Adalgisa or Romeo or Giovanna Seymour, or even Cenerentola, you have to go up to the high C, B, and C natural. In a duet with Anna Bolena, for example, you have to sing higher than the soprano - you sing the upper line. And the same with Romeo, for example. And if you look at the repertoire which comes later on - Amneris or Eboli - they all go up to high C. So the mezzo voice has to have it.

    The main thing, I think, for the singer is the color of the voice, and I think the color of my voice really is a mezzo; not yet a dramatic dramatic, but a lyric dramatic mezzo. It just needs time to mature a little bit more. And even if I do soprano arias in my concerts like ďPace, Pace [Mio Dio],Ē for example, or whatever else, Fiordiligi, you have to realize that an aria is one thing but the whole part is something else. And to maintain the soprano fach, so to speak, over the long term, tires the voice. We have enough mezzo-sopranos who have sung mezzo, then went to soprano, and then changed back to mezzo. And I donít think I necessarily have to go soprano. I might to do it for fun, in one concert performance; maybe in one production, to prove something to myself. But deep in my heart, I really am a mezzo, and Iím happy about that.

    LG: A significant part of the mezzo repertoire consists of the so-called breeches roles, pants roles, and you have sung several of them. When you sing the part of a young man like Sesto, or Octavian, or Romeo, how difficult is it for you as a woman to get mentally or emotionally ďinsideĒ these characters?

    EG: Itís not very difficult. At the beginning when you do a role for the first time, you want to learn the language, the body language, and I observe a lot. I like to observe people who have little tics, like the way they put on glasses - some do it like that and some do it like this [demonstrates], so those things I always notice. And itís also the same about how men walk, how they sit down, how they put on shoes, how they greet each other, so those are the details that I use when I study a part.

    Once you have men in your repertoire, it comes quite naturally. I always said that all of us have a masculine and feminine side in us. Itís genetically set down there. So I think every woman has to have a certain masculinity in her to survive in this world. We can't just be pink ladies. The reality is not just pink. So at that very moment when I put on the costume, I forget that I'm a woman! I forget, and itís really a true story. The first time I did Rosenkavalier, which is one of the really long, long, long boy roles - I think by the third week, in my dreams I was going to the menís loo. I mean, itís true, it really is true. [she laughs hard].

    LG [laughing, talking to Jim]: She is just so fantastic! Who said that she is shy and reserved??

    JW: Do you still sing in Rosenkavalier?


    EG: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, I do. And, actually, itís going to come here to the Met in a couple of years.

    LG: OK, so do you plan to begin phasing the trouser roles out of your repertoire? A couple of reasons you are doing it, you had indicated you felt you were getting too old to sing these parts anymore, although we donít see you as old.

    EG: Itís about the inside world. I am honest about what I feel I can transport outside. I think that people will never see me being a clown, letís say, or something that I am not. Of course, certain repertoire requires that you play characters that aren't who you are. If I play a murderer, I don't need to kill somebody to understand what a murderer feels. There is a certain way of using your fantasy or life experience, by reading books, by seeing movies, by seeing somebody in very, very bad shape on the street. So you just imagine.

    But I think that one has to be believable in what one wants to perform. Rosenkavalier's Octavian is a seventeen-years-and-two-months-old boy. I could probably still play him; however, that character doesnít appeal to me so much anymore. I think that a woman like Santuzza, or a woman like Eboli, are more interesting; I can relate to them more. It just attracts me more. It's not just the voice, because Strauss is a fantastic composer and I really adore Rosenkavalier, and I think it really is one of my best roles, if I may say that about myself. And itís so long and challenging, and also so physical, like Carmen. However, Santuzza has something which is so feminine, and I can relate to her more than to Octavian, and thatís just the reality.

    LG: Yeah, I interviewed Jessica Pratt, the bel canto Australian lady who lives in Italy. She once told us that she is biding her time for Norma, not just because of the voice, but because she needs to go through more life experience to really understand that character. So she thinks she needs to be older. She needs to have children of her own, before she tackles a character like that. And then another singer was saying, "Oh no, no, itís the acting, we donít need that life experience." But you seem to agree with Jessica.

    EG: Oh, Iím very much a Stanislavsky system actor. Everything I do on stage, I have to feel it. I need to. I canít just go and do it and act it. I have to live it. Itís a very, very different way of performing. For example, in yesterdayís show, Roberto [Alagna] is the same. When heís on the stage, he lives it, and he experiences it all that very moment. Itís never "actedĒ [her emphasis], you know what I mean? Thatís why you see it in Hollywood and in the dramatic theater: people who live a character and others who act a character. Those are two very, very different thingsÖ

    JW: You can see the difference.

    EG: A very, very big difference between them. And just to add to that, I think one also has to listen to one's voice. If you have a certain type of voice, and you know that that repertoire is going to stay forever, you polish it and you work on it and you stay there. I feel that my voice has a potential to go somewhere else and it will be a pity not to use that potential.

    LG: So in addition to your opera appearance, you also sing in concerts at least a few times each year. Here in New York, you sang Alban Bergís Seven Early Songs with Maestro Levine and the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on February 8.

    EG: Which I did not go to, unfortunately, because Iím still battling the flu, so I was very sick for that concert.

    LG: Oh, so you cancelled. OK, I didn't know. We should have updated the information.

    JW: I couldnít tell last night [that you were sick when you sang Carmen].


    EG: No... No... Itís because I had to have the days before, and it was too many rehearsals. It was performance, and rehearsals before and rehearsals afterwards. So, it was either Carmen or the concert. I wouldnít be able to do both ..

    LG: Yeah. I wasn't paying attention to anything else because I was really focused on whether the flights were flying, taking off or not. [There was a big blizzard going on in NYC] We were all set for this interview, so I was afraid I would miss this, then I drove up to New York instead of flying. All the companies cancelled except mine. Mine did fly, so I did all the driving for nothing.

    EG: Oh, shoot... It was in the news, but you weren't able to look at the news, then.

    LG: Right. So, you are scheduled to give a lieder concert at this summerís Salzburg Festival with the pianist Malcolm Martineau. What are the challenges involved in singing in concert as opposed to performing in an opera?

    EG: I think for lieder, firstly, itís the time that you can take for the words. And I love lieder because it makes the music very, very intimate. My mother was a lied singer, so I was three years old when I knew the whole Schumann Frauenliebe und Leben, not text-wise, but the melody - everything. And, even now, so many times, I open the score and I start to say, "I know this! You know what? Oh yeah! I remember this melody from my childhood!" So it's something just very natural for me.

    And itís very, very hard work. For me, one liederabend is really like an opera production, because I take a lot of time selecting songs. I have to have a theme, I have to like the text of the song, and I have to like the melody. Because when I prepare a liederabend, I sing it for approximately two years in different places. So, I have to love every, every song. And I do. And it gives me the opportunity to show the public a different me than in the opera; it also gives me time to learn the repertoire, to develop it and rafinesse [German: refine] on the word, and it gives me variety in life. I could never go from one comedy to a second and a third and have, like some of my older colleagues, ten roles, and they sang them for forty-five years. I could never have that. I need challenges, I need changes in my life. I need differences all the time.

    LG: Oh, that was the next question but you just answered it; we were curious about preparing concert programs. So moving on to the next question. In 1999 you won the Mirjam Helin International Singing Competition in Finland, and two years later, were a finalist in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition Ė and many people believe that the first prize there should have rightfully gone to you, too. How important are such competitions for establishing a successful career?

    Her performance at the Cardiff as a young singer:



    EG: There has always been a saying that winning a competition doesnít make a career, and I think it has been proved right many times. Not on this occasion, but in general it is true, because it is very different to concentrate your attention on one, two, or three arias in a competition, than to maintain and develop the character during the whole opera. You have to have a personality when you are on the stage to bring the audience towards you so they canít take their eyes off you, and if you are in a competition, which is like a concert, you do it for five minutes, six minutes, thatís it. And then you compete for which is the best presentation at that very moment, which is a little bit like a horse show or dog show.

    But in opera there is so much more, which you have to do on a daily basis! And very often people canít take that pressure of traveling, of rehearsing - they canít take it physically. They canít take it vocally. They canít take it mentally. And you have to have something on the stage which nobody else has, and that can only be seen when you are in a performance of a full opera. I believe so. Because three hours is a long time, you know, and every time when you have to appear, when you go on the stage, the audience has to go, "Oh, wow!"

    A competition is very difficult. Talking about the Cardiff, I have to say that now, looking back, it was fantastic that I didnít win. It was really the best, best, best thing that I didnít win. Of course, for my ego, it was a big blow because I thought ďahemĒ [clears throat], "how come, and why?" Particularly because so many came to me and said, "You are the winner, thereís no doubt," and so and so, and I was like... [draws breath].

    But it was a great lesson for me, and now, looking back, I would not have been ready for all the obligations I would have had to deal with if I had won, and the attention. So, for me, it was really great, and it was a fantastic experience, because I met an agent who brought me to auditions, and I started to work in the Vienna State Opera in 2003, and those two and a half years in the Vienna State Opera taught me so much. And I think if I had won, I would have started to travel, and eventually, I think, I would have just burned out.

    LG: So, on this same topic, it makes me think of a friend who is a young singer. She is 29 and she is a mezzo as well. Sheís actually thinking about going to Europe and auditioning. So let's talk about it more deeply because it might help other aspiring young singers as well, trying to make it in Europe. If you had to advise people, what would you tell them in terms of who to audition for, what are the main summer programs and opportunities, who are the important people young singers should pay attention to and try to sing for?

    EG: For young singers, I would still suggest going to competitions. Not necessarily to win them, but usually the competitions - if you survive the first round, and go to the next and then to the semi-final and final - are full of agents and opera directors who are there to listen. And then, even if you havenít won it, they say, "This is interesting, I need that person in my theater."

    This is what happened to me, actually. I went to Belvedere, which was in í98, and I was in a semi-final, and there was Christine Mielitz who was the director of Das Meininger Theater at the time. And she said, "I am looking for a new Rosenkavalier." So she heard me in semi-finals and she took me to Meininger, where I started. And even in Cardiff, there was an agent who heard me in the semi-final, actually, and he approached me before the final. He said, ďI would like you to come and do some auditions with me in some theaters.Ē

    So she should hurry up a little bit because at 29 she is getting closer to the limit of 33 in some competitions, something like that, so in the next two or three years she should really give it a little bit of gas.

    I would not, really, at the beginning, suggest going to audition for the agencies, because nowadays, there are only three, four agencies which are really strong. But they are very big and have an enormous number of artists who deal with very few people, and I know so many young singers who said "Iíve signed this contract with an agency, they donít do anything for me." They have no time for them. So yeah, I think I probably would start with that.

    LG: So you think that smaller agencies are better for young singers than the big agencies?

    EG: Well, for beginners, yes, because they are both eager. They are both greedy and they both want success. I mean, you canít start with somebody who is going to take a singer for the first time. You have to have somebody who has at least one or two singers who already have some contracts. You can't take someone who says, "OK, you and me now, we are going to open a retail business or something, you know?" Nobody will take you seriously. But if, for example, the agent says, "I already have this singer and this singer and they've been there, and I have this conductor; why donít you join me?" thatís a different issue. So for starters, I definitely wouldnít go immediately to a big agency.

    LG: So just a trip to Europe for auditions, itís not a good idea? Itís best to go in competitions and things like that Ö

    EG: Nowadays you have to have somebody who pushes you into it a little bit. Just to be the free one who goes and travels from theater to theater to audition is very unlikely to get it done, unless she has something so unique in her voice or in her technique, or the physical appearance is so mind-blowing that they say, "This is the miracle of the Earth!" And letís say Iím cruel - I really am cruel - but this is really how I see it, because Iíve been in so many theaters, and Iíve seen so many auditions, presented by so many agents, and I've worked with some of the singers and I think sometimes their expectations are not realistic. So in her case, I think I would apply to different competitions.

    LG: Yeah. So thanks for that. Do you have plans to record a CD entirely with lieder or something like that?

    E.G. We are talking about it, a lot, a lot, a lot. But the problem is the promotion and the sales of it. Nowadays, all the recording companies and businesses have become so dependent on the success of sales! And if you think that before, many, many years ago, you would get platinum for 500,000 CD copies sold, nowadays itís 25,000. So, thatís how bad the...

    LG: The market has shrunk.

    E.G.: A lot. And opera CDs, you can go and sell them at the big gala concerts, which I do; thatís why I have so many concerts when I do a recording and then go on a promotional tour. And then you have a gala and you sing the program that is on the CD. If I do a lieder recital now, there is so little public that actually feels the lied, you know? They go for the names, yes, but it is much harder. However, I have it in planning, and I just extended my contract with DG again, I think for the next 5 CDs, so I think one of them is going to be lieder.

    LG: So CDs are still generating income, but maybe not as much as twenty years ago, but DVDs donít, right? You donít get paid anything when you do DVDs. Or do you get paid a flat fee or something like that?

    EG: Usually with a recording, itís a flat fee that we get. Sometimes we might get broadcast money if you go on the radio, but itís so minimal.

    LG: So it happens for the DVDs; does it happen for the CDs, too?

    EG: If you sign a contract with a theater, you basically give them everything. They say, "You agree that your voice and presence can be used for that and that and that and that, and if you want to sing in the performances, sign it - thatís it." And the theater then decides what they are going to do with you. And usually the theater gets the profits.

    LG: You have won numerous awards, and two years ago you were the youngest woman to receive the title of Austrian Kammersšngerin. This is a very important honor. Can you tell us what it meant to you to become that?

    EG: That Iím getting old! [we all laugh hard].

    JW: No, you are not old!

    EG: You know, the more of that coming, the more you realize that time is passing by. For me, to have that recognition in Austria is enormous. I love Vienna and I love Austria due to their cultural impact on my career and my understanding of music. To be the youngest one to receive it, itís a huge recognition. If I look back, I have already sung over 150 performances at the Vienna State Opera. This title is given for the value you have given to the house. So I feel very, very appreciated and very loved there. And itís nice to be with all the big ones on the same line there! [laughs] Feels good!

    LG: Very nice. Well, that was all that I had. Do you have other questions, Jim?

    JW: I have a lot of questions, but it would mostly be a conversation and she doesn't have enough time.

    LG: OK. Thank you so much, Elīna!

    EG: Thank you.

    ----------

    Let's listen to this outstanding singer:





    And here, a beautiful recording session with Anna Netrebko:



    --------------

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    Comments 3 Comments
    1. Clayton's Avatar
      Clayton -
      Absolutely love this interview! So interesting and really introduces this superstar to the reader. I have just put all her DVD and CDs into the shopping basket and am absolutely determined to see her in a live performance.
      Thank you Luiz and team!
    1. Albert7's Avatar
      Albert7 -
      thanks so much!
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      I'm glad that you liked the interview. Certainly Jim and I liked very much the opportunity of meeting her for an extended period of time. She is truly a goddess! We were very impressed with her intelligence, self-confidence, beauty, and charm.


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