(Credit: Yan Bleney)
Soprano Nicole Car and Étienne Dupuis do not like to be apart.
The two stars, who are currently at the Metropolitan Opera individually taking on two thirds of the Da Ponte and Mozart trilogy, not only share a home, a two-year-old boy, and as many productions as they can, but this very interview.
When it was proposed to OperaWire that we do an interview with the artists, it was put forth that the conversation be with both singers to allow for a unique perspective into not only their relationship but their joint artistry.
The experience was quite refreshing and spontaneous. Like most couples, the two finish not only one another’s sentences, but ideas. They are so attuned to one another, that they even find themselves in a unique rhythm of speaking for one another.
The two artists met five years ago during a production of “Eugene Onegin.” In previous interviews, the two have commented on discovering a unique connection during the rehearsal process and then during a particular “walk and talk” date around Berlin. Since then, they have found a way to stay as close together as they could.
This unity in their relationship, their favorite composers, and their admiration for their colleagues were among the major themes of our conversation back in early February prior to their productions of “Le Nozze di Figaro” and “Così fan tutte” had yet to commence. As of this publication, the run of “Le Nozze di Figaro” is three performances deep and “Così fan tutte” is set to open on Saturday evening.
OperaWire: So here you are in New York doing two different Mozart operas. What has the experience been like in these two different works?
Étienne Dupuis: Well, we are in a different situation. She started rehearsal three days before I did but her show opens 10 days later.
OW: Have you performed the Count in “Le Nozze di Figaro” before?
Nicole Car: He did it once before we met.
ED: I did it once in Calgary with a bunch of friends with lots of cuts. So my stress level was pretty low.
NC: And now?
ED: Now I’m at the Met.
OW: You weren’t originally part of the cast. How did you end up involved?
NC: We are so lucky with the Met. They know that if one of us is singing that the other one will be there. So Jonathan [Friend] was like, if something happened where you would have to sing the count Etienne, would you be…
ED: How long in advance would you need? Would you be ready for that? I basically gave him until Dec. 15. It would take me a month to get the recits back in.
OW: Are the recitatives the most challenging aspects of doing a Mozart opera?
ED: Yes, it’s the recits I struggle with. In Calgary we did a shorter version with lots of cuts. Now we have no cuts. So now there are entire lines of recit I have never seen.
OW: How does it sit vocally for you?
ED: It’s a bit low vocally. It’s often cast as a high baritone to make a big distinction. But it’s easier for some than others. Take Adam Plachetka. He has very easy high notes. His voice is very even. He goes very low and very high. He can sing pages of music without breathing. It’s something very easy for him, which is rare. I rarely find singers that find Mozart easy. It’s a bit square how it is written. The tessitura is old.
NC: They never did it at 440.Whatever was going on vocally in the late 1700s, imagine these people singing lower timbres. Even the tenors. It’s just a voice color.
ED: Recit is really hard. But in general it is because you sing too much. Everyone is singing too much. And especially at a house like the Met.
OW: And how do you find Mozart’s music, Nicole?
NC: It depends on the characters. Fiordiligi is a walk in the park. And Donna Elvira is quite simple.
ED: You should be a very easy Countess.
NC: But I started too young with her I think. Donna Anna, I sang a lot when I was younger. But the tessitura is too high for me. People think I should sing it and technically I should, but the exposed nature… Which is why I find the Countess a bit hard. Because it is just line, line, line. Where Fiordiligi is about playing with color and jumps. I love the ups and the downs. On “Per pieta,”: you have a lot of A below middle C all the way up to a high C; it’s fun.
ED: That’s probably why you love Puccini so much. Because Puccini jumps more. Puccini will have same continuous lines, but if you look at a whole row, it goes up and down quite rapidly.
NC: I like to move. I don’t want to do “Lucia [di Lammermoor”], but my voice likes to move. It is fun.
OW: And how has the rehearsal process gone for you with this production of “Così fan tutte?”
NC: We have such a fun group. Luca Pisaroni cracks me up. And Serena [Malfi] and Ben [Bliss] have worked on it before. And [Gerald Finley] is such a consummate professional and it’s so fun working with him. And Heidi [Stober], I don’t know her so well, but she’s part of the Deutsche Oper Berlin family as well so we have had a lot of fun.
OW: This is a very particular production with lots of effects going on around you. How much freedom do you have to implement your own perspective on the character?
NC: It is going to be a different “Così” from the premiere. When you come to do a revival, you can add so much more. In the first performances, they had to work out everything technically to see how it is going to work out. So there are things we can question when it comes to revivals.
I start questioning the choices as to why the character would do that. And then we start to converse about why the character makes that choice and what circumstances would get her there. It creates a lot of interesting discussions. Thankfully, my colleagues are very understanding of that and questioning. That’s our job. We are the ones that go on stage and do the staging as our characters. Otherwise they can get anyone to take our jobs and go from A to B.
OW: You recently performed “Don Carlo” at the Paris Opera and in your case, Nicole, it was your first Elisabetta. How was that experience?
NC: I loved it. When they first offered it to me, I took the offer to my agent. It’s in three-year’s time, I think it should be alright. But they were unsure.
ED: And it was at Bastille.
OW: The role offers up very unique challenges, which I think can be best seen in how different her two arias are. Which of the two do you find more challenging?
NC: The first aria. I love “Tu che la vanita.” The romanza is line, line, line. You need to be connected in the right space from the beginning, otherwise I’ve lost it for the whole aria.
ED: I think the easier answer is in “Tu che le vanita” you can really just go for the text and character. In the romanza, you have to think of singing and from a character perspective it limits you a bit, which can be a bit challenging in a scene where you have been offended by the king.
NC: But what I think was nice about this production was that there were so many different and unique voices. It was wonderful listening to Aleksandra [Kurzak]’s interpretation. We are so different. What she does so incredibly well is that first aria. That kind of floaty, even legato…
ED: She can float for days. The day she walked in, she got on the floor in a weird position and then she just floats the high B out of nowhere. And it sounded glorious. Some people have skills like that.
NC: And what also made the experience so amazing was Fabio Luisi.
ED: Fabio Luisi is the best conductor ever. He is very respectful and knowledgeable. He’s not there for his own ego.
OW: What are his greatest strengths as a conductor?
NC: He would watch what everyone did and if he noticed something that you did one night and he thought that you would do it the next night, he would bring the orchestra with you to the next show without saying anything to anyone. It was fascinating.
ED: He’s there with you for the entire four-hour long opera. There is one night where he took so much time at the end of a line because the show before, he could tell that I had air. So he caught me off guard because I had to breathe in the middle of my sentence. I had tried to do something the show before that didn’t work and he was giving me the time on the second night to do it. It was like three days later and it was still there. He remembered.
NC: And in between he was flying to Copenhagen.
ED: He’s so in the moment that he remembers what happened. And with her, if you go on Facebook, you can see the arias from her first night that we posted. I have a recording of her last night and it is day and night. Because by then, he had picked up on every little thing that she did and was giving her the space and time to do it. It was so beautiful.
NC: It is like being allowed to have the time to express your musical creativity and working within the constraints of what Verdi has done. He was so inspiring.
OW: And how does Verdi’s music suite you, Étienne?
ED: Pretty much anything Verdi wrote is great. My favorite is to sing long powerful lines. Powerful in energy, not sound. “Onegin” was fun for that too, but I’ve nested in Verdi’s music. It makes me feel like I can really live in it. You make it and build it over the years.
NC: You are taking it carefully too. He’s 40 now and it is the perfect age.
ED: I’ll be doing “Ballo in Maschera.” “Forza [del Destino]” is coming and in the future, “Rigoletto” and “[Simon] Boccanegra.” “Boccanegra” comes long before “Rigoletto.”
I had a conversation with Nicola Luisotti when I sang Marcello [in “La Bohème”]. He told me to sing more Verdi. And he asked which ones I would like to sing and I told him that I wanted to do “Boccanegra” and Iago. He wasn’t impressed. He wanted me to say “Macbeth.” I was surprised. And he told me that he found it more interesting to have a younger Macbeth because you really get the power she has over him.
OW: What about earlier Verdi, like “Nabucco?”
ED: I was offered “Nabucco,” but I said no. Then they came back with “Rigoletto” and the timing was better so…
OW: Will you be singing any of the Verdi operas with him?
NC: We will do “Boccanegra” together. Gilda is not my rep so I will be in the stands cheering him on.
ED: She’s a great cheerleader.
NC: But mid-period Verdi is nice for me. Anything too early sits too high. I was offered “Ernani,” but it’s too high. “Trovatore” sits perfectly and you get into the later bigger things and that’s really good. So is “Luisa Miller.” The Falstaffs and Otello are great. Realistically, I’m 34 now, so in the next 10 years I’d really like to be building up on the Verdi stuff. As much as I love the lyric repertory and I will always come home to it, it is the Verdian repertoire that really interests me. My voice has been changing quite a bit. The “Don Carlo” felt really comfortable while other stuff felt a bit light.
OW: Shifting gears a bit, you two often work together on a lot of productions. How do you manage to find this balance in your schedules?
NC: We have been incredibly lucky. We had a wonderful season last year because we weren’t apart too much. There were just two times. Changes are coming in next few season, but our agents are so great about looking at any opportunity that comes in and trying to match our calendars as best as they can. We choose based on which contract is going to be most interesting for us as a family.
At the end of the day, my primary focus is my child and that we have our family unit. My career is wonderful. I love singing but if there were ever a moment where everyone had to be in one place, I would be with my child. I feel very fortunate that we have been able to make it work.
OW: One of the recent projects you did together was “Don Giovanni” in Paris. What was the experience of working with director Ivo Van Hove?
NC: I love how he went for something simple. He wanted to do a very truthful version. He wanted the raw versions.
ED: Yes, he was all about the violence, but he wouldn’t emphasize it. He would just say, ‘You beat him up.” And then I’d beat him up. I also love how the ending came together with you guys and how he let you guys find it.
NC: He didn’t know what to do with us. He had us in a semicircle and told us that he didn’t know how to finish it. And we’re there on stage and then the stage turns and the flowers come out and we turned around and the first time we saw that image it was so breathtaking.
ED: It worked every time. I was backstage watching and every single time, they all got so happy all of a sudden and just took time to enjoy it. And that was the best message you could send.
NC: Another thing about Ivo is he doesn’t waste time. He likes to have hard workers committed to the piece. He doesn’t even waste time to laugh. And Étienne loves to make people laugh.
ED: He told us that “It was so much work to do with you guys because you always worked with discipline even when you were joking around. At the end of the day, we did the work.”
OW: Let’s talk about “Eugene Onegin,” which is a special opera for both of you because you met while doing it in Berlin.
ED: Yes, it is. And Berlin invited us back to sing the last show. An hour after the show they were already destroying the sets.
NC: It was the saddest thing. I think that’s why they invited us. They told us that we had met singing it, so they wanted us to do it one more time. It was very moving.
OW: Who are these characters to you and how have your interpretations developed?
NC: For me, Tatiana is one of my favorite roles. She is so cool to play and she goes on such an emotional journey. I want to do the production here [at the Met Opera]. I would die to sing a Tatiana here.
ED: Onegin is a nihilist. He believes in nothing.
OW: Is it challenging to play a character like that?
ED: To play bad guys, you have to see how far you can go to play a villain, a murderer, or a demon, or a rapist and still be believable. Then it is about the conductor and the director and then there is an end result which is going to be a compromise between all of these.
My answer has to be, am I satisfied with how my Onegin has come across? Sometimes it was easier than others and sometimes it went in different directions than I expected. The more you do a role, you start developing strong feelings about your way of doing a character.
OW: How do you view the love they have for one another?
NC: He doesn’t love her. I think it was “I didn’t want it until I couldn’t have it.”
ED: I think he gets infatuated. But it’s not love.
NC: He gets infatuated because he can’t have her.
ED: That wouldn’t have been a problem a few years back. He liked having the attention.
NC: But then he wasn’t interested in her.
ED: He wasn’t interested in any woman. I think that killing his only true friend sends him on a really bad spiral that makes him realize what a jerk he’s been. Doesn’t mean he’s not a jerk anymore but he can recognize patterns that he has done that have offended people so if there’s one person he cares for, it’s her. He’s always cared and respected her. There are people he doesn’t care for and will be a jerk to eternally.
[Tatiana] symbolizes the humanity in him. And because he can’t have her, that justifies the last line – “I am now nothing.” The only part of me that had created love and affection in someone. She felt that for me. It’s the mirror. You look at someone with the eyes they look at you with and you think that you can be someone that’s lovable. While most people look at you with disdain, she looked at him lovingly. Losing that sight in the mirror is painful.
OW: What about Tatiana? Does she love Onegin at the end of the opera?
NC: I think that the first time I played it, because we change with age, I didn’t understand why she didn’t leave with him. I get that she wants to be faithful to Gremin, but she truly loves Onegin. But then, you play her more and more and you get older and I totally get the decision. I think she loves Gremin. She genuinely loves him. She made her decision. She’s made her life choices and he has made his. And they both have to go on with their lives.
ED: I have been in a situation when you and the person have feelings for each other and it works in that moment. Then it breaks up for some reason. And later on you want to give it a second shot. And within a second you know that it won’t happen.
NC: They lost their chance. As much as he’s pushing for it, he knows it’s over.
ED: We’ve had those conversation. And we continue to have them. They’re fascinating to everyone. These are operas that are fun to do because you create those conversations.
OW: Are there any operas that you would like to perform together that you haven’t yet?
NC: One that is my dream, though I know Étienne is not as keen to do it, but I know he’d be wonderful in, is “Otello” and the other is “Tosca.” I’d love to do Desdemona now. I think I’m ready to sing it now. And I think his Iago would be so interesting.
ED: It would be a young Iago. More on text. It’d be fun.
OW: The “Tosca” sounds interesting. Are you okay with the idea of her killing you on stage?
ED: She loves it.
NC: When we were doing the “Giovanni” with Ivo, Elvira is so ballsy and strong. Every day we would come in, I would go to [Ivo] and say, “Is this the moment when I hit Étienne?”
He would say, “No not yet.’’
“What about now? Is it now?”
And it got to a point where he said, “Do you just want to hit your husband?”
ED: But I gave her a bit of juice. If you remember at the end of the duet with Zerlina, I lay on top of her as if I am ready to make love with her in the middle of the street. And Nicole comes on stage like a freight train and knocks me over. So when she did that, I rolled down the stage.
NC: Because Ivo doesn’t give specific directions. He just says go. So I pushed him.
ED: So then Ivo laughed and told me it was too much. He told her that she didn’t need to push me so hard. And then he asked if everything was okay at home.
NC: It was very cathartic.