The 2010 Honorees

By Heidi Waleson

Americans are just discovering what European opera lovers have known for some time: that this dramatic—and hot—young singer with the lush, dark-hued mezzo is heading for a huge career.

Americans know Elīna Garanča from her recent, knockout Metropolitan Opera appearances: as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia and in the title role of La Cenerentola. Yet these comic mezzo-soprano standards demonstrate only a fraction of the appeal that has launched Garanča into opera’s top echelons in the last several years. A more complete picture includes her Charlotte, played as a smoldering 1950s trophy wife in the Vienna State Opera’s Werther, or the YouTube clip of her pole-dancing while singing the “Seguidilla” in the Latvian National Opera’s Carmen. On December 31, when she takes on Carmen in a new Richard Eyre production at the Met, replacing Angela Gheorghiu, who cancelled in August, she’ll have a chance to show some different stuff.

Such dramatic—and hot—leading ladies make an ideal showcase for Garanča’s big, lush, dark-hued mezzo, easy high notes, seamless legato, and physical ease onstage. The fact that she is tall and beautiful doesn’t hurt either. The tall part is a bit of a mixed blessing, since she often towers over Rossini tenors. Dramatic ones, fortunately, tend to be bigger. And Garanca’s career is heading in dramatic directions. Last season’s engagements featured a lot of Charlottes; now it’s a run of Carmens, starting in the summer of 2009 in Rome, and then at Covent Garden, New York, Vienna, Munich, Valencia, and back at the Met in the fall of 2010. Garanča is moving away from Rossini; the Cenerentola she will sing in Paris in January may well be her last. “In Rossini, I feel like [I’m trying to be] a Jeep when I’m a Formula One,” says the mezzo, who has a flair for colorful metaphor. “I have to make my voice smaller. I like bigger lines, opening up the voice.”

Born in Latvia, Garanča comes from a musical family. Her mother was a singer, her father, a choral conductor. Even her grandfather, a farmer, “had a fantastic baritone.” She was musically educated from the age of 5 in piano, theory, and solfège; when she sang in her father’s choir, “he’d say, don’t sing so loud, you’re not a soloist.” Her future seemed foreordained. “Music and the stage got to me. I couldn’t imagine anything else.” Garanča entered the Latvian Academy of Music at 19 and within a few years had started working as an ensemble artist in German opera houses, first in Meiningen, where she sang her first Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at the age of 23, and then in Frankfurt, where she took on Hansel, Rosina, and Dorabella in Così fan tutte. In 2003, she moved to the Vienna State Opera, where she quickly added more principal roles and branched out into summer festivals and concerts. Two years later, she went freelance and soon boasted a full schedule in major opera houses and festivals, regular appearances in big concert venues and on European television, and a berth at Deutsche Grammophon: In 2009 alone, she sings Romeo to Anna Netrebko’s Giulietta on a recording of Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi, and shines on a solo disc of bel canto arias.

From beginner to star in ten years: Garanča sees that trajectory as controlled and correct. The early years weren’t easy. “I spoke no German. I was unhappy and frustrated. I would call Latvia and say, ‘I’m coming home.’ In Vienna, you have two days of rehearsal, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never done the role before. I did role debuts like that—you wake up the next morning feeling as if you have run 75 miles with no water! But it taught me discipline, how to recognize and understand my voice and my body, and it prepared me for this business. I don’t believe in overnight stardom for the long run—there’s overnight stardom and overnight defeat. We say in Latvia, when it comes slowly, it lasts longer.”

Garanča takes what works for her from every experience she has. “It’s like a snowball rolling down a hill, and on the way, you pick up what you like,” she says. Certain aspects of that edgy Vienna Charlotte translate to other productions. Watching men in bars or at the sports field helped her figure out how to play trouser roles. Pantomime has helped her understand how to use her body. And the 2007 Riga Carmen, her first, was created with her in mind. “Andrejs Zagars, the director and the intendant of the Latvian National Opera, is a friend who was also an actor,” Garan˘ca says. “He followed me for a year and saw me in all my roles—how I react in different productions, how I gesture, how I move. The production was built on me, and it was very intense.” As for that erotic “Seguidilla,” she says, “Carmen is more than sex and sensuality. She has a vibrant personality—she can be childish, angry, extremely demanding, and powerful, so just to concentrate on sexuality is quite boring. And you can’t play sexy. Either you are, or you are not. And you have to enjoy what you are doing onstage. You can’t feel ashamed, or it looks wrong.”

Garanča likes complexity in her characters. She plans to keep the trouser roles in her repertoire. She’s continuing with some non-Rossini bel canto, such as Jane Seymour in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, coming up in Barcelona in 2011. As for the darker, heavier parts, she’s considering an offer for Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo for 2013. A longer-range dream is Amneris—“if my voice develops as I hope it will. My colleagues who have had children say that their voices get darker and bigger.” Since she has the high notes, she would also love to take on Tosca, probably in concert, and again, only after “two or three children.” Those hypothetical children are under discussion—Garanča is married to the British conductor Karel Mark Chichon—but at 33, she is not yet in a hurry to begin the career and family balancing act. There’s plenty to do right now, and, Garanča says, “I don’t like to do things half way.”

Heidi Waleson is opera critic of the Wall Street Journal and a contributor to innumerable other publications.





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