Violetta is one of the pinnacles of the soprano repertoire. What made you decide this was the time to take it on?
I waited a long time to tackle this role because it’s very special for me. I fell in love with opera watching the Franco Zeffirelli movie of La Traviata with Teresa Stratas and Domingo as Alfredo. I was 12 and I sat glued to the TV screen and I cried, and afterwards I thought, “This is the most beautiful thing humankind can create.” But I wanted to wait because to sing Violetta and express her feelings you really have to understand life. In those days, courtesans were highly educated, elegant, powerful women who lived like men. They had all the freedom they could get in their time. Even political decisions were made in their houses. They were women of pleasure and women of the mind.
That’s certainly true for Violetta. How would you describe her as a character?
She’s done it all, and she knows she’s going to die and that when she’s gone people won’t care. But she has a very honest heart. She’s the only person in the opera who loves without limits. And to give up Alfredo for the sake of his family—greater love is not possible. She’s selfless.
The original story by Alexandre Dumas, The Lady of the Camellias, has inspired many adaptations. Did you study any of those when you were preparing your debut?
Everything! I love the ballets by John Neumeier and Frederick Ashton, and the film with Greta Garbo. And of course I read the book a long time ago.
What are the specific musical challenges of this role?
People say you need three different voices for Traviata. You need to have the flexibility and brilliance for the first act. Then the centerpiece of the opera is the duet with Germont—that’s a big lyric soprano. And for the last act you want to have a dramatic soprano. Everything has to come together really, the colors, the emotions… In terms of difficulty, it’s a five-star role.
You just finished a very successful run as another Verdi heroine, Gilda in Rigoletto. Do you see any parallels between the two characters?
If Traviata gets five stars, Gilda is a three-and-a-half. She has to sound younger, so I try to put as much silvery shine as possible into my coloratura. I think of her as Violetta’s little sister. There’s so much pressure put on her by her father. She’s lost, and there’s always the thought of her mother, the angel. It almost seems as if she’s happy to die at the end. She’s at peace. Violetta has learned to accept death, but she really wants to stay alive and be healed when Alfredo finally returns to her.
Is there such a thing as a “Verdi voice”? What are the qualities you need to sing his music?
I come from the coloratura side, of course, but Verdi always requires a flexible voice, even for the big soprano roles in Trovatore and Ballo in Maschera, or even the heavier ones. You need the breath support for those long, lyrical lines. There’s always a big arc—the line builds, up a note and another note and another note, to a climax and then you need the same kind of control when it floats down again. Even smaller roles like Oscar in Ballo or the Voice from Heaven in Don Carlo have lines like that.
In addition to Violetta, you’ve recently taken on a few more dramatic roles, like Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and the three women in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Why?
You have to listen to yourself and to your body. With age and with hormones, the voice can change. I’m a mother of two now, and my voice has changed. I think it has more lyrical potential and possibilities for dramatic colors. I never touched this repertoire before, but I think now’s the time. My voice is ready. And to make my debut with Domingo by my side—it’s just incredible.
La Traviata opens March 14, with Damrau as Violetta and Plácido Domingo singing the baritone role of Germont for the first time. Saimir Pirgu is Alfredo and Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts. The production runs through April 6.