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Culture

'Carmen' is about sensuality, says star soprano Elina Garanca

Elina Garanca is a surefire superstar, having become one of the world's most famous singers within just a few years. And now, she seems to have found her perfect role - as Georges Bizet's 'Carmen.'

Singer Elina Garanca

Elina Garanca's movie-star looks don't hurt her popularity, either

Born in Riga in 1976, Elina Garanca studied at the Latvian Academy of Music. She made her first solo recording in 2001. Appearances followed at the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival, London's Royal Opera House and the New York Metropolitan Opera. One of her latest tour de forces is singing the title role in Georges Bizet's opera "Carmen," which she has performed at several top opera houses. A DVD recording of her performance as Carmen with the Metropolitan Opera in New York was recently released on the label Deutsche Grammophon.

Deutsche Welle: You now have the years of working at small theaters behind you and have meanwhile become a star around the world. Can you even fathom it all, especially since it sounds like a fairy tale?

Elina Garanca: It's true. A lot has happened in the past three or four years. On the other hand, I have been performing professionally on stage for 11 years now, beginning in small roles and progressing in the normal way a singer does. That "star" label and all of the hype are something the media has drummed up, not me. And why they think all of that, I have no idea. Those sorts of titles don't always make my life easier. [Laughs]

Elina Garanca on stage

Garanca has been performing for over a decade

How has the popularity changed your life? Can you now walk down the streets of Munich or your hometown of Riga without people trying to talk to you?

I can do that in Latvia, because people there are rather bashful and more reserved; no one would just start chatting with me on the street. Things are a lot different in Germany or Austria. People approach me when I'm shopping or drinking a cup of coffee. But that's nice because as artists, we are singing for the public and want that recognition. Of course, that means you can't remain incognito in your private life; I'd really like to be able to go out to dinner with my husband or with friends without people whispering at the next table.

You've gained particular fame recently in the role of Carmen. Is that your dream role?

I'd be lying if I said that Carmen has always been my dream role. No, Amneris in [Giuseppe Verdi's opera]"Aida" is my dream role, but it's going to be a few years before I can sing it. But it's true that Carmen is an appealing role and character.

Why is that?

Carmen is a prototype, and every singer tries to portray this prototype differently, without slipping into traditional cliches - even if you have to imply some of the cliches at times, because they're written into the music. Also, one has to measure up to the great singers of the past in that role - both vocally and in terms of performance. But that's also the challenge: to present a character in a unique manner. To say, I'm going to swing my hips this way now!

So femininity and swinging your hips are part of the role?

Of course! But it's sensuality, not sexuality, that's important for me with Carmen. Sexuality means different things to different people, naturally - one might like sado-masochism, while someone else likes white sheets and candles. And neither is wrong or right - to each his own. But with Carmen, sensuality and femininity often get lost, especially when big-bosomed singers holding their hands on their hips try to be sex bombs.

How do you prepare for a role? You get an offer for a role, like for Carmen - and then what happens?

Normally, my agency contacts me with an offer. Then I usually buy the piano score first and take three or four weeks to decide if I want to take the role or not. During this time, I work on the role - I sing through it, look at the difficult sections very closely. After two weeks, I buy a recording if I don't already have it at home, and read the sheet music along with it. If I ultimately decide to take on a role, I try to work on it every day for a year before the premiere. And then, about six weeks before the first performance, work starts during an initial concept talk with the director and the entire team.

Garanca standing outside, dressed in tribal look

The many sides of Elina Garanca

That's a long time…

Yes, it is. Of course, you can learn a part by heart within two weeks. But it takes quite a while to internalize it - in your body and voice. It's like with wine that you stir again and again and then let sit to age until it's achieved the best flavor.

When people see you performing Carmen on stage, or hear you singing on your new recording, they could easily get the impression that you very much identify with this temperamental music. Are you a temperamental person, or do you think, that's not what I am, but I can act it out on stage?

I think I do both, am both. I think all of us have crazy days, and days that are less crazy. It's true that I can identify with the Mediterranean temperament. On the other hand, I can also be melancholy - a trait one normally describes as Nordic. I mean, I'm a singer and I have to be disciplined regarding my voice. But when I go dancing with my friends, I stay until the club closes down. People can and should have everything in life - but in limits!

Interview: Bjorn Woll (als)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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