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Beata i Michał Olszewscy
opera.info.pl - 11/05/2015

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"I will sing this!" - interview with Marina Rebeka

Polish version Flaga polska


The Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka is one of the leading international sopranos in contemporary opera world. Her extraordinary vocal timbre and great acting skills have enabled her to perform on the world’s most important opera stages. In this interview Marina Rebeka talks to Beata and Michal Olszewscy (beginning of December 2014 / opera.info.pl).

Marina Rebeka photo (c) Paul Gregory published by courtesy of Marina Rebeka
Marina Rebeka
photo (c) Paul Gregory
click to magnify

You are the soprano of young generation that is highly acclaimed by critics and applauded by opera audience. You sing different roles on the greatest opera stages in the world. This exceptional career started one day in Latvia, the country of your origins. Could you tell us how began your artistic adventure?

Actually, my career did not begin in Latvia. It began in the small German town - Erfurt. In Latvia I was told not to be a singer. That is why I decided that instead of joining conservatory in Latvia, after finishing music college I would go to Italy to continue my studies there. After many auditions and many competitions, during which I was never noticed, I finally had the luck! Mr Montavon engaged me for the new production of “Traviata”, that started just one month after my audition in Erfurt. So, on 2nd of June in 2007 I debuted on stage in one of the soprano's most difficult parts.

Latvia opera noticed me and started to follow only after I had won Francisco Viñas competition and offered me to sing an aria during concert. However I had to refuse because of my debut in "Traviata" in Erfurt. Then, sometime later, they offered me again to sing another aria in concert and again I had to refuse because of “Traviata” in Vienna Volksoper. My debut in Latvia happened finally in 2009 in Donizetti’s opera “L'elisir d'amore”, in which I sang Adina.  My connection with my country was strong at the beginning of my career when I studied in music school and later in music college. For sure, the musical basis, including learning harmony, history of music, musical forma, solfeggio and polifony was fantastically given to me in Jazeps Medins Riga music college. Music is a language and you have to know how to write and speak in it. It is great to know the shapes it has and how it develops, and this musical basis I had got in Riga before leaving to Italy.

Italy gave me an understanding of what type of voice I should sing and at what repertoire. I definitely followed all the famous loggionisiti stories as I was among them in Parma Opera House’s balconies when I was a student and I didn’t have money to buy tickets for opera performances. It made me understand the values this public requires from a singer. It is also extremely important for me as a singer to speak fluently in Italian and understand each word and even to read in between the lines in Italian music.

Marina Rebeka photo (c) Silvia Lelli published by courtesy of Marina Rebeka
Marina Rebeka
photo (c) Silvia Lelli
click to magnify

Do you remember your first impression and experience of listening to opera performance?

I was 13 and my grandfather said to me: “Now you are big enough to hear opera”. "Opera? What is it?" I asked. “You'll see” he said. That evening it was Bellini's “Norma” and it was my love from the first sound. During first break I stated: “I will sing this! I will do this in my life”. Well, it looks like I have succeed and  hopefully I will be capable of facing my dream role of Norma one day.

There are many vocal competitions worldwide, during which very often prizes go to young singers from Eastern Europe and Russia. How can you explain this phenomenon? Is it because of singing traditions of these countries or maybe it relates to the unique educational system there? You have also mentioned  that you spent some time studying in Italy. Can you tell us what are similarities and differences of teaching opera singing between Western and Eastern Europe?

It is true that the educational system in Latvia and ex USSR countries is very strong. But this is only one of the reasons. Another very strong motivator is that we did not have possibility to listen live performances at La Scala, Covent Garden or MET. All we could do was to listen to recordings and, as you know, recordings is the best of what artist can bring out from him or herself. Live performance can have ups and downs and it actually shows how the real voice develops in acoustics, live emotions, personality etc. but we could listen only to recordings and that made our impression of how singer should sing - perfect! So, if one wants to sing at MET or La Scala he or she has to sing perfect and has to be able to express emotions. In reality it is not always like this in live performances but as you know the higher standards you put for yourself the higher you will aim. So I think good recordings were a strong motivator as well.

As for vocal school I really don't think there are any significant differences when comparing different countries. The aim is always the same - effortless, free singing and acting, nice timbre and big range. The ways to achieve all these things are different. Everybody has different physical feeling during singing as well as different ways of imagining things, so during studies we worked a lot with imagination as we really couldn’t  see so much how vocal folds work. The only perception of how right or wrong the vocal cords work is by analysing the sound and your own physical feeling. This is relative as the singer himself hears very differently his voice than all people in the room.  So you need a good ear plus you need to have a good control to feel comfortable and to like the singing process emotionally and physically.

Marina Rebeka photo (c) Paul Gregory published by courtesy of Marina Rebeka
Marina Rebeka
photo (c) Paul Gregory
click to magnify 

In ex USSR there was a kind of division of voices based on place where one studied - for example Ukrainian voices were always good projected and had a lot of "squillo" or brightness, sound fullness. The voices from Moscow, St. Petersburg had more velvet in their sound etc. Very often it was depending on the theatre you worked in, as singers worked the whole life in the same theatre, (not changing opera house almost every month like nowadays), and how good or bad acoustics of the theatre was. Some theatres had lots of velvet in it, big orchestra pit and deep stage - all this needs extra strong projection and much high resonance to get through orchestra. Other theatres had good acoustics so if you would sing with the same resonance the voice would sound too strong and a bit rough or sharp.

Nowadays we have to adjust but stay with what our nature is - comfortably working and expressing ourselves on stage.

Nowadays, the nature of your professional life is “to be on travel” visiting opera houses located in different parts of the world. Do you notice same sort of “divisions” in voices coming from different countries? May we still speak about for instance  Italian, French or German way of opera singing or in the era of globalization everything is getting more and more standardized. What is your opinion?

I guess art will never be standardized as art itself is unique as we are. Every singer is like a flower – rose, lilly, iris etc. It is a question of taste which flower with which smell you love more. The same which singer with which timbre and appearance you like better. But this is ok  as in my point of view it is good to have variety in everything.

As to vocal arts - I see that there are preferences for certain voice type in every country - like generally speaking baroque singers are preferred to have instrumental but not big voice, Wagner singers are preferred to be with big voice to cover orchestra and as those are rarely to find so the physical appearance is not so much important

Also dramatic voices are very rare to find, so if you have a drama voice for Tosca, Butterfly, Abigaile etc. you are valuable in any country but you must speak English and have a sense of style and preferably good appearance. Tenors are a tricky stuff - they are not many of them, so they are always needed. The question is how you cast them.

Speaking of divisions of voices coming from different countries - it is strange that mostly basses come from north and tenors mostly come from south. Sopranos are everywhere but I guess many dramatic sopranos come from ex USSR zone as it is huge territory and Mozart and baroque was very rarely or almost not at all performed in USSR times. So opera voice meant big lyric or dramatic voice there.

Marina Rebeka photo (c) Paul Gregory published by courtesy of Marina Rebeka
Marina Rebeka
photo (c) Paul Gregory
click to magnify

May we talk now about differences between various opera houses worldwide? During your career you worked in many countries and sing on many opera stages. What opera theatres do you like most and why?

For artist there are several aspects that makes him or her feel good or bad in opera house.

First thing is house organization, rehearsal department work, the way how house communicates with you helping with apartment, scores, providing schedule, assistance in travel accommodation, welcoming you etc. This is extremely important as the time you spend in house before the premiere is the most crucial but also the most stressful time and the way how things work and are organized is crucial to the artist. As you know some theatres work like one team and all people, starting from make-up artists ending on stage director work hand in hand.

Second aspect is artistic level. As you know some conductors and stage directors are working only in theatres of certain level, which in Germany let's say are indicated as A Category house. This means that for example if you want to work with such an artist as Zubin Mehta you have to go to places where he would conduct. This wouldn't be in Latvia or Lithuania as these theatres are not in the centre of attention of European audience and music critics.

Next aspect is the audience. It differs very much between countries. I cannot say which one I prefer but I know that certain types of voice are preferred in certain countries. For instance in Germany or in France the public often prefers clean instrumental type of sound instead of big and powerful voice. In other places like in United States it would be extremely important to look good and act well. It is obviously important everywhere, but there it is a special issue. In Europe the audience knows traditions and knows which voice should sing which roles plus what an artist has done before, with whom the artist sung etc., so you may say this is a sophisticated and demanding public. In Asia the audience is more unconditioned, so even if you have not yet achieved a big career but you sing well, you receive warmest applause.

It is of course challenging to sing for public with different taste. My favourite opera houses are Chicago, Met, Amsterdam, Vienna and Munich. They work perfectly well. They help artist with everything and make you stay there and work there pleasant, which is important.

We guess that you have your favourite composers and most loved operas. Could you tell us what repertoire is closest to your heart and why?

I believe that choosing the right part is a very significant thing. It is important not just to choose what you feel is close to your personality, but also to be objective and choose the right roles for your voice.

The first opera I have to mention is “Traviata”. It has always been an important piece of my heart, especially because I think it's impossible to sing it without giving your heart in it. This is why each performance of this opera is special and different even if it's the same production. I find the combination of text and music greatly combined in this piece. Only by listening I could imagine the action that happens there. The same feelings I have in case of Gounod's “Romeo et Juliette”, which I just love! I will always remember my debut in Verona under the sky full of stars – this was unforgettable experience.

Marina Rebeka as Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata" photo (c) Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera
Click to magnify

I have to say that probably personages which are more woman than a girl as well as strong personalities are closer to me. Though, it is quite challenging to sing also something you really don't feel as a part of you. In such case I study the part vocally and mentally and try to make it mine – comfortable and true in feelings. Then I doubt – did I understand it right? And this is a great work which gets its results later on.

My favourite roles, that are also suitable for my voice now or will be probably in the future include: Traviata, Juliette, Manon (“Manon” of Massenet), Mimi, Alcina, Cleopatra, Ann Truelove (“Rake's progress” of Stravinsky), Norma, Marguerite (“Faust” of Gounod) and maybe Eleonora in “Il Trovatore”.

Roles that I love, but which I will probably never sing are Madame Butterfly, Tosca, Carmen, Amelia (“Ballo in Maschera”) and Aida.

You have told us that "Traviata" is your beloved opera and this role is very important for you. Very soon you will sing this part at the Metropolitan Opera. What are your artistic expectations towards this production? Could you tell us what are, in your opinion, the strengths of this staging as well as what challenges it places upon you?

In my opinion this production is very physical as there is a lot of movement there. Additionally, many things are shown in a bit abstract way. I assume it may look very pretty from the audience point of view, but for me the most important thing is: how to act truly and how to ensure that the acting does not affect my singing too much, that action join singing and help it.

I joke that this is my best gym as for example during tenor's aria I have to run, hide behind 5 sofas, crawl in the back of all sofas, sit and jump on them... it is a quite physical exercise.

During the rehearsals, there are still some things I need to get used to and I am trying to make my acting really credible, but it is not always an easy task. So, from this point of view it is for me a big challenge to sing in such difficult and famous production in one of the world's most important theatres and to do this in a credible way. Let’s hope I succeed.

We have no doubts that you succeed and we wish you all the best in this production. At the end, could you tell us a bit about your future plans and new roles you will sing in the current and future seasons?

I try every year to widen my repertoire. I am convinced that it makes you grow as musician and as artist.

For now I have 17 roles in my repertoire. So next 2015 season I make 4 role debuts - Musetta in “La Boheme” of Puccini - which will be my first Puccini Role, Liu in Puccini's “Turandot”, Contessa d'Almaviva in Mozart's “Le nozze di Figaro” in my native Latvian National Opera and Rosina in Rossini's “Barbiere di Siviglia” at Arena di Verona in August. More I have several concerts and lots of Traviatas – “Traviata” at the MET, at the Vienna State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, In Hessisches Theater in Wiesbaden and at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. I come back to sing again Donna Anna in Arena di Verona in July and back again with Donna Anna in Vienna State Opera in October. I have my debut in Concertgebauwe of Amsterdam in Rachmaninov's Bells and a recital with Prague Philharmonic Orchestra in December.

So I would say there are many interesting things to do next year and I hope my health and nerves will permit me to fulfill all of them.

Thank you very much for the time devoted to us and good luck in fulfilling your all artistic plans!

Authors: Beata and Michal Olszewscy

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