On the eve of her arrival in New York, the young Russian soprano told Philipp Brieler about diving into the bel canto repertoire.
You began your musical life in the children’s chorus at the Mariinsky Theater and then studied to be a chorus conductor. What made you realize singing was what you wanted to focus on?
I can’t explain it, because I’ve been singing since I was about three. I joined the children’s choir at the Mariinsky when I was 15, during my time in musical college where I studied chorus conducting, and you know why? Because I wanted to participate in Carmen—never mind in which role—because it’s my favorite opera. And they did a new production and I said, “Okay, I should be there, to play a chair maybe or a table.” I was a mezzo-soprano then. I stayed in the choir till I was 17 and at the same time I was singing in almost every choir in St. Petersburg. My first voice teacher was Larissa Gogolevskaya, and she told me if I wanted to do this professionally I should go to Germany. So when I was 22 I went to Berlin and took the exam to get into the conservatory.
This is your Met debut, but New York audiences already got to hear you a few years ago in Stravinsky’s Nightingale at BAM, a production that toured internationally.
That production played a very important role in my career. It started in Toronto with [director] Robert Lepage. Peter Gelb heard me there and invited me to the Met to sing the Fiakermilli in Arabella. But then my career went very quickly, and when I did a concert in Boston in 2012 that got very good reviews, the Met offered to let me change the role. And that’s how it became Elvira, and of course I’m excited and happy.
How would you describe Elvira as a character?
Every character that I play as a coloratura soprano is the same. The young maid, naive and innocent. Right now I’m singing Marfa [in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride] at La Scala, and I’m the same young maid and I will, of course, die at the end, and of course I will go mad and have my mad scene. [Laughs] But to sing Elvira I think you should be mentally and vocally grown up, because this role asks everything from you. I tried to read a lot about the time of the Puritans and the novel by Walter Scott. The role of women was such a shame, it was a man’s world. For us now, for me as a modern woman, it’s quite difficult to understand. Elvira or Lucia or Gilda—they’re sensible characters.
Because if you don’t have any rights but you have emotions and passions inside, everything gets into conflict. Gilda gives her life for her love. And you need to have character to make that decision, to die for somebody. So I try to make these girls stronger. Call me a fight soprano! I’ve been doing karate since I was 13, and it gives me the discipline. Puritani, of course, is unusual because it has a happy ending. Normally in bel canto drama you die. But Elvira will live and everything will be made right in the last three minutes.
How does it feel to be making your Met debut with your husband on the podium?
To sing with him, for me, is like breathing. It’s so normal. And I’m happy to be in the same city with him for two months. We met in Pesaro in 2010, where he was conducting Sigismondo and I was singing the role of Aldimira, an absolutely unknown opera by Rossini. But our love story only started in Florence a few months later. He’s a great conductor, so I was already in love with Michele as a musician. There’s a very good expression in Italian: “Io ti stimo”—I respect you as a professional and as a person. That’s exactly what I still think.
Did you know he would be conducting when you were offered this role?
No! It was in October 2012, and a while later he told me, “You know, actually, I’m doing it.” I said, “No, that’s not true.” It’s such a great fortune. Siamo fortunati!
I Puritani opens April 17.