“It’s like having a crime and then trying to justify it and find why it was committed.”
That is how soprano Marina Rebeka, currently making her role debut as Donna Elvira at the Metropolitan Opera, approaches every single opera role or artistic endeavor she takes on.
The soprano recently spoke with OperaWire regarding her upcoming projects, putting a spotlight on her desire to leave no stone unturned in her passionate immersion into every single character she portrays.
No Stone Left Unturned
To this point in her career, the 36-year-old Latvian, who has made waves around the world for her passionate and detailed interpretations has employed a rigorous preparation process to each of the 26 roles she has interpreted so far. And it is this way of working that has allowed her to make a whopping nine role debuts over the last two seasons.
“First I take a story and look at the score. I read my lines and read everyone else’s words,” she explained. “Often you have a vision of what you are from the other words.”
Then she sits down with several recordings to get the opera in her ears. But then, she takes a step in a decidedly different direction.
“Then I read everything I can find. Who was the historical world of the story? I watch movies, read stories, go to Wikipedia,” she revealed, noting that this intensive process consumes up almost all of her free time.
For the preparation of “Maria Stuarda,” she immersed herself in a website, Mary-Stuart.co.uk, that has “all the information about her.” After reading everything she could about the character and every important person in her life, she turned to a BBC series narrated by several experts on the historical figure.
Only when she has completely absorbed all of this data on the character does she return to the score and really take a deep dive into the music.
“When I get to the music I look through to see what has been written and ask a lot of questions. What is the tempo? What words have what notes? What should each coloratura express? Where does it start? Where does it lead? What are the hardest moments? I need to have a shape of the whole structure in my head.”
“And then it is easy.”
The ‘Easy’ Bellini Role & Its Difficult Donizetti Counterpart
Easy is not usually a word you would associate with many opera roles, but especially not “Norma,” the role that Rebeka recently performed at the Latvian National Opera and will take on for two shows at the Metropolitan Opera next fall.
When asked about what many consider the “Mount Everest” of soprano roles, Rebeka was quick to point out that “Maria Stuarda” was a far more complex undertaking.
“If you do Maria Stuarda how it was originally written, all the notes, it is harder than Norma,” the soprano asserted. “First of all, Norma is vocally consistent. It is central-top range. The difficulty is changing the mood and color of the voice and mental and emotional intention without orchestra in the recitative. It is a great challenge as an actor.
“But for Stuarda, the first act cavatina and aria, the duet and the final scene is written high. It’s very high and has a lot of chorus. After all that high stuff, you have to go low for the famous line “Figlia impura di Bolena.’ It has to be very ‘regina.’”
She went on to explain that things only get more complicated in the second act as the soprano is asked to jump up and down the range for 30 minutes at the climax of the opera.
“After doing ‘Stuarda,’ ‘Norma’ was easy.”
She also finds the character more complex emotionally, forcing her to externalize what is actually written as an internal conflict in the opera.
“In the duet with Talbot, she confesses that God has had no pity on her. She is angry with God. But then in the prayer, she is praying as a queen. At the end, she puts herself psychology above Elisabetta. She feels higher and she will pray for her from heaven. And when she has to go off and die, she has no pity for herself. She knows what must be done. Everyone cries, but she doesn’t. She says, ‘In my death is my beginning.’ In her death, she can make people remember her and talk about her. She was offered to live if she decided not to be a queen, but she wanted to die as a queen.”
Rebeka’s passion for these queens is so great that she certainly sees “Anna Bolena” in her future and even “Roberto Devereux,” assuming her increasingly busy schedule permits.
New Mysteries to Tackle
Speaking of busy schedule, the soprano is going to be busier this upcoming year after being named the Artist-in-Residence with the Munich Radio Orchestra.
The duo actually started its partnership last year when she stepped into the role of “Thaïs” at Salzburg on last minute notice. Sonya Yoncheva, who was expected to sing the role with Plácido Domingo, pulled out and Rebeka was asked to sing it right away. Because she was “emotionally ready” to take on the role, understanding the character motivations and background, she jumped into learning it on the plane flying her to Salzburg. The performance was such a triumph that the final duet received an encore.
That kickstarted her relationship with the Orchestra who immediately took to her and proposed a few major projects.
Among these is Verdi’s “Luisa Miller,” which she will perform in concert alongside George Petean and conductor Ivan Repusic.
Rebeka, who is currently also learning “Faust” ahead of her debut in Latvia next month, noted that the Verdi heroine is quite complex and that there are “still many questions about her character that need to be answered.” She will undoubtedly turn to Schiller’s work “Kabale und Liebe” for some research, but she is also turning to another surprising but potent resource – Renata Scotto.
“I think she is one of the best Luisa Millers and I want to have the discussion with how she sees the personality. It isn’t as easy for me to understand the character as it is Violetta or Norma,” Rebeka noted before noting that she reached out to Scotto via email and received a powerful response. “She wrote to me and said she was a fan of mine. It was so sweet of her to write to me. I am very honored by that.”
“Luisa Miller” will be performed in concert, recorded and subsequently released by the orchestra, but Rebeka is also slated to do a New Year’s Concert, which will be Live Broadcast and a concert of romantic French arias next April.
Tying up Loose Ends on Another Mystery
But the soprano has yet another project in store with the Munich Radio Orchestra, an unfinished one.
For years Rebeka has been associated with Rossini, a composer that has marked her major debuts. The first time she was onstage was in a children’s version of “The Barber of Seville.” She went to the Rossini Academy to open up doors for her career as well and would make high-profile debuts around the world singing his operas. And yet she wasn’t completely satisfied. She didn’t like comic Rossini.
But then she discovered dramatic Rossini, and she was hooked.
“All people know are the funny and superficial operas,” she explained. “But in his time he was considered a serious composer because of his dramas. If you look at ‘Guillaume Tell’ you wouldn’t think it was Rossini because it’s amazing.”
She fell in love with this side of the composer noting that the role in “Maometto II” was harder than “La Traviata.”
So she proposed to create an album dedicated to this style of Rossini, which is often overlooked. But she had one major problem – no one wanted it.
“I spoke with Deutsche Grammophon, Sony, Warner Classics, Orfeo. None of the record labels wanted to do the recording,” she stated. “They weren’t interested in the project.”
But Rebeka, who bootstrapped her first album by investing her own money into it, was not deterred. She still continued preparations for the project with her usual meticulous care, going straight to archives in Pesaro to check out the original manuscript. Then she had someone to scan the “Semiramide” score in a bank because she wanted the composer’s original markings. She even met with Rossini expert Philip Gossett to garner as much insight as possible. Then she took all that information from Rossini’s original scores, put it into Finale composition program and created her own variations and ornaments.
“I became a co-composer when I wrote in my variations and you simply cannot do it without the intense research and knowing the style.”
It was a two-year process, the soprano still looking for a collaborator to bring her vision to fruition.
And it did the moment she mentioned it to the Munich Radio Orchestra, the organization jumping at the chance.
“The orchestra was so supportive and united that they asked me if they could do the CD. I talked to Marco Armiliato and he was in,” she noted.
And it was here that her preparations really bore their fruit as the orchestra’s involvement came with one stipulation – the recording had to be made in just four days in December of 2016, just four months after the soprano and orchestra started their professional relationship.
“Recording seven arias in four days is very difficult,” she explained. “But I had already done so much preparation and felt ready for it. And the collaboration was fantastic. You know better with who to work and what you want to do. It was a great opportunity to do this with greater freedom and opportunities to try new things. We can create something that will remain in history as a work of art.”
The soprano is also striking up a recording partnership with another orchestra, this time the Bamburger Symphoniker, which will feature Berlioz’s “Les Nuits d’été” and Ravel’s “Shéhérezade.”
“It’s a good way to say that I am not only an opera singer.”
Establishing A Firm Artistic Identity
For an artist with such a fierce creative appetite, Rebeka is placing a premium on growing in her own direction. Now that she is internationally renowned, she feels comfortable taking artistic risks that excite her instead of just sticking to what is safe and expected.
That was what pushed her to cancel 14 performances of Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni” this past season, including some high-profile debuts. She simply didn’t enjoy the role and wanted to shift over to Elvira, who she treasures far more.
She actually always wanted to do Elvira and she studied it, but companies wanted her to portray Anna. And while she relished the opportunities, it became clear quickly that this wasn’t going to be fun.
“Anna was never fun for me. I never enjoyed it,” Rebeka revealed. “What can you enjoy being filled with horror, death, and guilt. All these negative feelings are eating her. She suffers over the death of her father and feels guilty for it. She is guilty for feeling attraction for Don Giovanni and she rejects Don Ottavio all night long.”
“She is never happy with herself. She cannot say what she feels. She can never express herself openly. All the time she says, ‘I should say this, but I cannot.’ She wants to say something but never says it. It doesn’t excite me emotionally and I don’t want that.”
Conversely Elvira, despite clinging to the hope of an unfaithful love has a true character arc from start to finish. That alone offers the soprano more artistic excitement.
“She’s miserable because she has to show her weaknesses to everyone, such as the fact that she was cheated and betrayed,” Rebeka explained. “Nevertheless she believes in Don Giovanni. She loves him. She is capable of forgetting and forgiving. She is the only one to stand up for him. She is a passionate woman and she is constantly doing the step from love to hate forward and back. She is honest with herself, with others. She’s direct. She doesn’t hide things like Anna does.”
The Next Mysteries To Uncover
As she continues her artistic growth, the 36-year-old is looking ahead toward expanding her repertoire toward singing more Verdi.
After “Luisa Miller” and “Simon Boccanegra” next season, she is getting set for “Giovanna d’Arco” and considering “Il Trovatore,” “I Due Foscari,” “Ernani,” “Otello” and, further down the line, “Aida.”
“He is very close to me and I feel connected to his music. It is right for me.”
She also expressed a desire to do more baroque, particularly Handel’s “Alcina,” which she feels is more difficult than any of the romantic composers.
“The repetitions are tricky. You have to remember what you do the first time and when you repeat, you have to invent what you do and justify it,” she noted.
With such operas as “Pagliacci,” “Eugene Onegin” already on the docket, Rebeka noted that Weber’s “Der Freischutz” and Dvorak’s “Rusalka” are also high on her wish list and didn’t rule out Wagner altogether, even though she has already turned down numerous offers to take on the work of the German maestro at leading houses.
But Rebeka is also quite aware that she is still young and has a long way to go in her career. With that in mind, she is still looking for ways to deepen her exploration of her current repertoire, citing a desire to sing more “Roméo et Juliette” and “Thaïs.”
“I love Juliette,” she enthused. “She’s a small woman with great power. I love what she says, the text, how it is written. It’s so strong. It is all in the score. It is so easy to understand. I can even imagine how the movie would look.”
And of “Thaïs” and even “La Traviata,” which she has sung in over 15 productions, she knows that there are yet more clues and mysteries to uncover.