A New Direction – Mezzo-Soprano Marina Poplavskaya on the Evolution & Relaunching of Her Career

By David Salazar
(Credit: Jenkins Mitch)

A few months back, it was erroneously reported by several publications (including this one) that soprano Marina Poplavskaya had officially retired from her career.

That was far from the case.

While the Russian mezzo-soprano has not been quite as active as she was at the beginning of the 2010s, she is far from finished as a singer.

“I had to find the path for my voice because it had changed,” Poplavskaya told OperaWire in a recent interview, clarifying the direction her career had taken since her last Met Opera appearance back in 2014.

Endless Drive

The soprano became a household name in the mid-2000s and early 2010s, performing at virtually every major opera house on a weekly basis.

As Poplavskaya describes it, those days were full of non-stop movement from one place to another fueled by a desire to take on every opportunity that came her way.

“One really true thing is that I had to always jump in for someone,” she stated, emphasizing how some of her greatest moments came in relief of other singers (such as her Royal Opera House debut in 2007 in “Don Giovanni” in relief of an ailing Anna Netrebko). “I was literally jumping into all of these productions because I loved performing. That’s the answer. I loved performing. I didn’t dream of what my path would be like children often do. I just performed. I always perform.”

Poplavskaya was always performing, as early as five-years-old when she begged her mother to get a violin. By age 10, she was a part of the children’s chorus of the Bolshoi Theatre and she never looked back.

As she matured, the burgeoning soprano worked with several teachers, finally finding some stability with Peter Tarassov. But he noted that Poplavskaya’s voice was a unique one.

“My teacher said that I had a very difficult and strange voice. It had the colors and stretches. But he told me I had to work really hard,” Poplavskaya revealed. “He didn’t know if I was a high mezzo like Stignani or soprano.”

Then Poplavskaya fell in love with Maria Callas and realized that she would do what it took to develop her voice to fit the soprano repertory.

“I fell in love with Maria Callas. I was willing to sacrifice everything to be a soprano at that point. That was my dream at 19.”

As Poplavskaya put it, she just went for it from that point forward.

Between 2001-04, she was performing at the major theaters in Russia, including the Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, and the Bolshoi Theatre where she debuted in 2003.

 

Opera D'amore world premiere ft. José Carreras

 

The Big Break

Then came her big international break in 2005, when she was invited to audition for the Royal Opera House’s Young Artists Programme.

“At first I thought, ‘Young Artist? I am singing in Bolshoi. Why would I go?” Poplavskaya revealed she wondered this upon receiving the invitation.

She ultimately went despite not speaking a word of English. When she got the letter officially inviting her to become a member of the program, she had to ask a friend to translate it for her.

The ensuing years would feature her greatest successes with the soprano performing everywhere—New York, Vienna, London, Munich, Berlin, Los Angeles, Australia, Hamburg, and Salzburg, among many other cities and countries.

“I just went for it. It’s like you take off the breaks and you just launch yourself. The agent calls you, makes an offer, or lets you know of an opportunity. Before he finished the phrase, I would be ready with ‘When do I go?’”

On one such occasion, she got an invitation from Daniel Barenboim to sing the Verdi Requiem.

“I was super new. Very fresh. I learned Verdi’s Requiem in two weeks. This was crazy for sure. I am not Angela Meade who was born with that kind of Verdi soprano. I am not Renata Scotto—I adored everything she sang. Or Katia Ricciarelli. All the big singers in this piece. I had to teach myself at that point,” she noted. “If you are invited by Daniel Barenboim to sing Verdi’s Requiem, you jump in.”

She added that before boarding the plane for that engagement, she was asked if she might also “jump in” for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

“Who cares if you never sang it? I learned it on the plane which lasted 13 hours,” Poplavskaya remarked. “In between my travels, I studied like a mad person.

“If I tell you my schedule during those years and how much I did and how much I sang, now I look back and ask how I did it all.”

Other major career developments for the soprano during that time included her collaboration with famed Italian conductor Riccardo Muti.

She first worked with the demanding maestro on a production of “Otello” in Salzburg, sandwiched between two productions of “Don Carlo.

“He is clear and specific. He is forward. He reads you and explains to you what is going on in orchestra and how it combines with the vocal line,” Poplavskaya noted, adding that she doesn’t buy into the reputation that Muti has as a “tyrant.” “He is not a tyrant. He is a very demanding person. He sees the musical structure so clearly. He has worked so hard for that all of his life. He asks that you reciprocate this intensity in everything you do.”

In fact, she noted that the conductor is very “generous and giving to the singer. He doesn’t care what you have to do to produce the best version, but makes sure that the orchestra gives you its best. He is always working with you to get that best version.”

She also noted that he was a major guide in terms of vocal technique, adding that she questioned why he never became a singer himself.

“When I returned to do the second ‘Don Carlo’ run, my colleagues immediately told me I was a different singer. They said I was fearless. I said, ‘I just came back from working with Muti.’ I’m not afraid of dying.”

Poplavskaya noted that her rapport with Muti was but an extension of her constant desire to learn from all of her colleagues, even those with whom she shared the stage.

Throughout the conversation, she emphasized that when she watched another singer perform, she not only listens to what comes out of their mouth but how it is produced.

“When I did ‘Faust’ with Jonas [Kaufmann] at the Met and René [Pape], I was always studying their sounds. I had never heard Pape before in real life until I worked with him in another production. For me, there was this immense vocal culture.

“When someone sings, I feel it inside my throat. How that person is singing and speaking. I am driven by the sound. By the physiology of the sound,” Poplavskaya added. “That’s how I work. So every new role, I learn in this way by listening to others. Someone might say that I sang a role like Gabriella Tucci. But the truth is it might be a hybrid of Tucci, Scotto, and Caballé. That’s how I built up my repertory.”

She noted that when she learned “Traviata” ahead of her role debut in 2009 in Los Angeles, she studied the 1982 recording by Muti and Renata Scotto.

“I did a surgical analysis of what she did. It was such a challenging role, especially the first act with the very high tessitura,” Poplavskaya noted before adding that when she went to Amsterdam to do the opera, she was attuned to a different recording altogether to inform her interpretation.

“When we did it in Amsterdam, my ears were tuned on the Licia Albanese and Toscanini version with the original score. And also the Callas recording at La Scala. That’s how I schooled myself.”

 

Opera D'amore world premiere ft. José Carreras

 

A New Voice

All the way up until 2014, Poplavskaya was one of the major stars of the opera world. In addition to being a mainstay on the major stages in Europe, she was one of the Met Opera’s lead sopranos, having debuted three new productions with the company between 2010 and 2013; she was set to take over an opening night production of “Le Nozze di Figaro” in 2014.

And then it all changed.

“In 2014, I got married and decided to settle. I got pregnant and had a daughter,” Poplavskaya noted.

But that wasn’t all. Her “strange” voice was changing as well.

“My voice had enough with the soprano repertoire,” she revealed, noting that in subsequent years of study, she simply could not find the same level of comfort in the extended higher range as she had at her peak a few years earlier. “It was super painful, especially when I had to start canceling engagements. For some singers, it is just three months of recovery after pregnancy and some never stop singing. But for me, it was a complete change.”

She was afraid of having experienced some damage to her vocal cords, but tests from doctors showed no evidence of that.

She eventually took a break from singing and took on a diverse array of differing interests. She became a licensed and certified interior design specialist and Real Estate specialist, working at Citi Habitats.

But then, in an effort to spend more time at home with her daughter and family, she moved on to pursue teaching. She received a certification in Voice Teaching and Performing Arts and also became a Special Needs Education specialist “with a badge in psychological studies.”

But she never had the intention of ending her career as a singer. Throughout this time, she kept seeking out help from different vocal teachers, eventually finding the support of Catherine Green, who has also worked with such artists as Ermonela Jaho, Massimo Giordano, and Atalla Ayan.

“When I started singing with her, she told me that there was a lot to work on,” Poplavskaya narrated. “The soprano wasn’t coming. I kept telling her. My passaggio feels strange. She also felt the same.”

So Green took a chance and asked Poplavskaya to start working on some mezzo-soprano repertory.

They started with Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago” and subsequently Donizetti’s “La Favorite.”

“Suddenly my voice was singing. And we had no trouble,” she enthused.

Since 2018, she’s been rebuilding her repertory with a focus on bel canto operas as well as Marina Mnishek in “Boris Godunov” and Olga in “Eugene Onegin” (she was an acclaimed Tatiana in 2014).

She did a couple of concerts in late 2019 and recently teamed up with colleagues around the world to record some Brahms songs.

As the world slowly reopens after the COVID-19 crisis, Poplavskaya stated a desire to relaunch her career.

“I am ready to do auditions. I don’t mind doing auditions at all,” she noted. “I will travel and sing and go where they call me. If they want me, I am ready. If not, I understand.”

But she also noted that, unlike the start of her career where she was ready to jump at any opportunity, she is going to take things slower this time, noting that she wants to make sure she can still be there for her daughter.

“She is my life,” Poplavskaya emphasized, adding that her daughter, who is now five, has initiated her own musical journey.

“At three-years-old, I asked her what she wanted from Santa Claus and she said she wanted to play violin,” Poplavskaya enthused. “And that she does. She practices for one hour a day. She saved me in a sense. I was running around singing. But that’s not life. It’s a part of me. But it’s not life.

“Now I have a husband who I absolutely adore and a little daughter who is everything to me. I am very happy.”

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