Puccini’s First Lady

Kristine Opolais makes her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker as Tosca

Kristīne Opolais
(Photo: Elena Nezenceva)

The press has nicknamed her “Puccini’s First Lady”. Not by chance, because Kristine Opolais is currently regarded as one of the most sought-after singers for the soprano roles of the Italian opera composer: the title role in Manon Lescaut, Mimì in La Bohème, Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly and Tosca in the opera of the same name – in these roles, the native Latvian has sung her way to the top. She thanks her mother that she became an opera singer: she realised her daughter’s talent at a time when Kristine Opolais found classical operas totally uninteresting.

Longing for the stage

She had always wanted to go on the stage, but at that time, she would have preferred to be a pop singer or actress. However, her acting ambitions have also helped her as an opera singer. She is celebrated by critics not only for her magnificent voice, but also for her thrilling acting abilities. Kristīne Opolais laid the foundation for her career in Riga, where she received her vocal training – first at the conservatory, then later privately. In 2001, she joined the chorus of Latvian National Opera. She sang her first solo role two years later and, as a member of the ensemble, had the opportunity to sing major roles. In 2006, the soprano was offered her first international engagement: Under the direction of Daniel Barenboim, she made her debut at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin as Tosca. Not such a clever idea, as the singer admitted in an interview. Barenboim said after the performance that although she had a great voice, the role was just too heavy for her. Advice which she took to heart, and dropped the role for a while.

Open, honest, independent

As evidenced by her performances at the Royal Opera House in London, she now has the vocal and dramatic skills required for the part: “Tosca is a complicated character. [...] Puccini did not idealise her. She is very human – open, honest, independent – and she has a great vulnerability which the audience can identify with. She is passionate, jealous, self-centred – a typical artist, essentially a diva.” Kristine Opolais is now to sing Tosca in a new production of the opera at the Easter Festival in Baden-Baden. It will also be her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker. “I am looking forward to working with Simon Rattle. I’m sure he will help me bring all of the wonderful details of Puccini’s score to life. Tosca is not only a bravura role with many dramatic moments, but also full of wonderful, delicate melodies. During the opera, the character undergoes an incredible development, and it is important to represent that.” The singer made her international breakthrough at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich in 2010, when she stood in at short notice for Nina Stemme in the title role of Martin Kušej’s new production of Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka, and the audience rewarded her performance with storms of applause. To sing in Rusalka, she cancelled on the spur of the moment her planned debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she was to be introduced as Musetta in La Bohème.

Star at the Met

However, her cancellation did not harm her career, and she is now one of the most popular stars of the house. She won the respect and admiration of the general manager of the Met and achieved overnight fame in the USA when, just hours after her successful debut as Butterfly, she stepped in as Mimì for a performance of Bohème which was broadcast nationwide in many cinemas. The New York Met, London’s Covent Garden and the Bayerische Staatsoper are currently the artistic fixed points of her career. And even if she enjoys success at the moment primarily as “Puccini’s First Lady”, she of course has other roles in her repertoire: Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito, Jenůfa in Janáček’s opera, Margherita in Boito’s Mefistofele and Amelia in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.