Half of a musical power couple takes her own big bow
NEW YORK — It wasn’t the first time he’d heard her sing. But looking back, it was Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais’s 2004 performance of Tatyana’s “Letter Scene” from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” that truly electrified the young conductor Andris Nelsons.
“I thought — oh my God . . . It’s not only the music,” said Nelsons, who will take the baton when Opolais reprises Tchaikovsky’s opus with the Boston Symphony Orchestra from April 21 through 23. “When I saw her doing Tatyana is when I got really nights not sleeping — in love.”
The revelation was no less staggering for Opolais. “I was thrilled by him as an extremely talented conductor,” she recalled, then she found herself drawn to him in other ways.
At the time, Nelsons was music director of the Latvian National Opera, where Opolais began in the chorus before rising to soloist. And he was married. “It was something really uncomfortable what I felt,” she recalled, “because I understood with the other side of my brain that it was impossible.”
Wed in 2011, Nelsons and Opolais are today classical music’s hottest couple: He holding prestigious appointments in Boston and (soon) Leipzig; she fresh off a lengthy engagement at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, winning acclaim in the title roles of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and “Manon Lescaut.”
The performances were beamed to hundreds of thousands via the Met’s Live in HD program, with The New York Times saying Opolais “sounded as glamorous as she looked.”
But while Nelsons, the BSO’s music director, is widely regarded as one of the most captivating maestros of his generation, Opolais is only now breaking through to broader celebrity. Over the past few seasons, her powerful acting and bright voice have made her one of the most sought-after sopranos around, with engagements from London to Vienna and Prague.
Vanity Fair recently published a fawning item on the couple (“When Baton met Bohème’’), and in February Opolais appeared, sultry in a strapless crimson gown, on the cover of Opera News.
She will headline Puccini’s “Tosca” with Sir Simon Rattle next year in Germany’s largest opera house. And Met general manager Peter Gelb says he has big plans for her, including a new production of Dvorák’s “Rusalka” in 2017.
“She’s a prodigious talent,” said Gelb, who praised her onstage charisma and expressive voice. “She represents a new wave of singing actors who understand that for opera to be convincing today, it’s no longer the realm of parking and barking. . . . She’s able to inhabit these roles both vocally and physically.”
It’s a powerful moment for Opolais, 36, who embodies a paradoxical combination of startling honesty, ambition, vulnerability, glamour, and humility. A self-described maximalist, her life has been defined by moments of galvanizing clarity and abrupt, daring leaps.
“I see everything; I see all my future,” said Opolais, speaking in heavily accented English on a recent rainy afternoon at Lincoln Center. “This is only the beginning. Maybe I will be not opera singer. Maybe I will be actress — suddenly, Hollywood actress. Maybe director.”
One night earlier, she’d received a standing ovation at the Met as Butterfly. By turns insouciant and world-weary, Opolais nearly whispered some of Butterfly’s lines before unleashing her full sonic force to deliver the doomed girl’s heartbreaking final aria.
Now tucked into a plush restaurant booth, the singer was relaxed, tousling her blond hair occasionally, sporting a pair of bejeweled slip-on sneakers, and at one point breaking into song.
“When I go onstage, every situation I have to play, I feel pain,” said Opolais, leaving untouched her grilled shrimp. “When I sing ‘Madama Butterfly’ I feel completely everything she felt: It’s horrible.”
Opolais says her onstage suffering stems from an inborn sensitivity to the anguish of others.
“That’s why I’m never happy,” she said. “Every tragedy, I really feel very painful — especially about a child or old people. This is reality. We try to close eyes and ears, but it’s happening, every second, and somehow, unfortunately, I feel a connection.”
Colleagues say Opolais’s ability to inhabit and convey her characters’ emotional lives is equally rooted in preparation and technique.
“Musically she’s perfect, and when you are very, very well prepared it’s easy to create something,” tenor Roberto Alagna, who played opposite Opolais in both her recent Met performances, said by phone from France. “She’s a good actress, and she loves to play and to create a character. . . . This is her force, her power.”
Raised in rural Latvia, Opolais came late to classical music.
A club-going teenager, she had early dreams of becoming a pop star like Madonna, but her mother pushed her to take classical voice lessons instead.
“I never wanted to be an opera singer,” she said, adding that she soon quit the lessons. “I wanted to be an actress, maybe a rock singer.”
By the age of 20, Opolais had reconsidered. She applied to the Latvian Academy of Music in Riga, which never “officially” admitted her, she said, because she scored poorly in music theory and history. Her family borrowed money to send her to the school, using their home as collateral.
She didn’t last five months.
“I was wasting my time,” said Opolais, who quit the conservatory to audition for a chorus role with the opera.
She was hired immediately, and for two years Opolais absorbed as much as she could, staying after chorus rehearsals to observe soloists, working with a voice coach, and learning a half-dozen soloist roles, just to be prepared.
Married briefly at age 21, she realized her first husband had little interest in her musical aspirations: “To stay with my husband was a perspective to be a housewife. This perspective for me was impossible.”
In 2003 she auditioned for the roles of Musetta in Puccini’s “La Bohème,” and Tatyana.
“I knew they would give me those two roles,” said Opolais, citing destiny. “It’s not my voice. My voice is not angel voice. When you come, if you bring some special energy — I was open. I was completely open.”
One year her senior, Nelsons was drawn to Opolais’s artistry as Musetta before he was drawn to her. “She had such a great personality, deep expression,” said Nelsons. “It wasn’t an immediate love.”
Opolais described a delicate navigation of her burgeoning feelings.
“Andris was the first man with whom I saw my future,” she said. “I knew he has to be the father of my baby.”
But some questioned whether she would stay with him. “People were scaring Andris, saying that I would leave him,” she recalled, then reflected on life’s unpredictability. “How can you say to someone I am with you forever? The maximum you can say is this is my wish for now. This is how I feel now, and I wish I will feel it forever.”
Opolais clearly trusts her instincts. Under contract to debut at the Met in 2010 — a crucial step for any rising opera singer — she withdrew when offered a title role: “Rusalka,” Dvorák’s best-known opera, in Munich.
Opolais made it up to the Met in 2014, stepping in at the last moment as Mimi in “Bohème.” She’d performed “Butterfly” the night before, getting to bed at 5 a.m. When Gelb called at 7:30 a.m. after the matinee’s soprano had fallen ill, Opolais initially refused him. She hadn’t sung the role in a year.
Five minutes later, she changed her mind.
“I trusted destiny,” said Opolais of the performance, beamed live to theaters around the world. “I opened my mouth for the first aria and cameras suddenly started to move. . . . I didn’t know where to go, only by my intuition. It’s a miracle.”
Today, Nelsons and Opolais inhabit a rarefied world of cosmopolitan vagabondage. They share a home in Riga, but their international performing schedules rarely allow them time there together. Their 4-year-old daughter, Adriana, travels mainly with Opolais, assisted by her mother and a nanny.
“I just go wherever they are: If they were in Australia next week, I would go to Australia,” said Nelsons, adding that he hoped to look at apartments when Opolais is in Boston. “It’s not a problem. It’s our life, but it’s constant traveling.”
The couple are careful to keep their careers separate, and Nelsons said they strive for normalcy in their personal life, rarely discussing the finer points of performance.
“When two people are together you just want to hear honest, simple, and sincere words,” said Nelsons, adding that distance brings them closer as a family. “You realize how important it is.”
Their arrangement will remain complex when Nelsons starts splitting his time between the BSO and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 2017, while Opolais cements her reputation as one of the most talented sopranos of our age. Yet they fully embrace both their artistic and family lives.
“We are both melancholic and depressive, and only art and Adriana are helping us see a big reason to live,” said Opolais. “I say brava Kristine, because I choose a really right man for my life.’
“I need to be full with my world. Only then I can be happy with someone else.”