When Elīna Garanča sings Rosina in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia this month, it won't just be her debut on the Met stage; it will be her very first time in New York. The Latvian mezzo-soprano says "I've only been in the U.S. once in my life: Indianapolis! So I am all excited. It's the Met, which means so many things: the house itself, the many great names who have sung here, the acoustics, the orchestra..."
Garanča may be a relative newcomer to the States, but she's hardly green when it comes to delivering memorable performances on important stages, having made her reputation in Europe at the Vienna State Opera and other international houses. No matter how talented or enthusiastic a young singer is, making a Met debut involves an elusive combination of artistry, timing, experience, training, and luck.
"When you start an international career," explains Craig Rutenberg, the Met's Director of Music Administration, "you have to be very well prepared, with a knowledge of the stylistic history of the opera you're doing and a certain amount of information that you wouldn't have if you'd just come out of school. When you come to the Met, you better have that sort of preparation under your belt already because otherwise the audience will not take kindly to you. New York audiences expect you to be not just prepared but musically mature."
Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser, who made his Met debut as Rom_o in Gounod's Rom_o et Juliette in October, is just such a prepared and experienced singer. He starred as Tamino in Kenneth Branagh's film version of The Magic Flute (a role he also sang here in November, that was originally planned for his company debut), and he had already sung Rom_o at Lyric Opera of Chicago prior to his Met debut in the role. Still, bringing his interpretation to New York was a daunting prospect.
"I guess I was calm," Kaiser says of the first Met Rom_os. "I was telling people I would be fine, fine, fine: but then I'd have a nervous moment where I wanted to run away to Japan. Of course, the world is too small now. They would find me in Japan." Kaiser uses a sports analogy to describe the thrill of a Met debut: "You look at all the different players in the different sports that have had success in another city, in a smaller market, and then they come to New York, and it's all about whether or not they can play here. I think the same goes for singing." Most of Kaiser's fellow debutantes agree that performing at the Met for the first time is an experience unlike any other. Salzburg-born Genia K‹hmeier, who first stepped onto the Met stage as Pamina in November, says, "Appearing here is the crowning achievement in any singer's career."
"The Met makes you move up several steps in the professional prestige ladder," declares tenor Jos_ Manuel Zapata, Count Almaviva to Garanča's Rosina. Marina Poplavskaya, who was born in Moscow and made her debut as Natasha in War and Peace in December, says of the company, "To me, it was like an icon in a frame, like Mozart. It's a magic moment you're creating here."
Native New Yorker Isabel Leonard, who sang St_phano in Rom_o et Juliette for her debut, thinks of the Met as her "hometown theater," but that didn't make her debut any less nerve-wracking. "From La Guardia High School to Juilliard, I always had the Met in my view: literally. To be a part of its productions now means to be part of a standard of excellence. That's what for me makes it a scary yet very exciting place."
The unique position the Met holds for artists (and audiences) is in no small part due to its unparalleled tradition, an artistic heritage felt keenly not just by singers but by debuting conductors, as well, who are proud to add their names to the long and illustrious list of maestros who have performed here. "I feel honored that I was given Aida for my debut this fall," Japanese conductor Kazushi Ono says. "It has been conducted here by Arturo Toscanini, Georg Solti, and of course James Levine."
French conductor Louis Langr_e has worked next door for several years as Music Director of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival. But when he joined the company to prepare the new production of Iphig_nie en Tauride for his debut in October, the experience took him by surprise. "Your agent calls you and tells you, 'Oh, by the way, the Met called and they offered you Iphig_nie. Would you be interested?'" he jokes. "And you think, Wow, fantastic, phenomenal, exciting. But then, the reality of it of course is something completely different. Sometimes dreams are much more exciting than reality, but here, with the amazing quality of the orchestra, my expectations have not only been fulfilled, it's even better than that. Working here is an event in your musical life."
In the end, though, a Met debut is not just about one magic onstage moment, as Craig Rutenberg points out: "I remember Birgit Nilsson saying it wasn't so hard to get to the Met, but it was hard to stay there," he recalls. "You get invited here when the world knows about you, and you make your debut, but when you come back the next season, you have to surpass yourself. You can't just rest on last year's glories."