Q & A: Elīna Garanča On Dalila, Her Role Debut As Didon & Her New Roles

By Francisco Salazar

Elīna Garanča is, for many, THE mezzo-soprano of this generation. With her movie star looks and acting chops to match. she has performed at all the major theaters, showcased an extensive array of repertoire and recorded award-winning albums.

She has made a specialty of lyric mezzo roles such as Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier” or the title role in “Carmen,” but now she seems to be transitioning to heavier repertoire. Her interpretation of Princess Eboli in “Don Carlos (the French version)” last season was noted as “glamorous and show-stopping,” while her recent Santuzza was hailed as “heartbreaking.”

This season she returned to the Metropolitan Opera in her second production as Dalila in “Samson et Dalila” for the company’s opening night and she is set to make her highly anticipated debut as Didon in “Les Troyens” at the Opéra National de Paris.

OperaWire sat down with the mezzo to talk about opening night, her new roles and what the transition has been like.

OperaWire: You had the great honor of opening the Metropolitan Opera season for the very first time with this new production. What was the feeling of doing opening the season for the Met?

Elīna Garanča: In my fach, it’s as high as you can get. I don’t don’t know if there are any more opening nights possible than a title role. It’s “Samson et Dalila” and she is the only girl in the show. So it’s really exciting. It’s a rewarding feeling of being in a certain state of your career where you’ve been recognized and given a great possibility and chance to do something like that.

OW: You debuted the role Dalila earlier this season at the Wiener Staatsoper. Since learning the role and coming into this second production how has the role developed?

EG: For me, it’s about vocal development and the approaches that you have to figure out and see what works for you and what doesn’t work. From production to production a singer always brings something nice from production into the next production and the best shows are the ones after you have done six productions because you just gather the highlights of everything and you put it together because you have realized certain things.

In terms of Dalila, I don’t think she is the most amazing character that I have played because I think she is one dimensional and it’s very difficult to make her human and I like human characters. However, to play her as the cold and calculative woman is just boring. Mostly I believe the music does not have that permanent mode and knowing that Saint-Saens started writing the opera from the famous “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix,” I want to believe that there is much more going through Dalila’s head than just purely a vindictive woman.

OW: What other details about Dalila are important you in developing this character?

EG: In my opinion, Dalila is an outsider and she doesn’t really belong to anybody. Nobody can really command her and she is the woman on her own. I try to look at real-life situations that make them human or bring everyday life to the stage to make people understand the character.

And I think Dalila can be human and I think for her the question is what can she do with the decision of destroying somebody. She can easily leave and push it away but she can be tormented by it.

In my life experience, I have never met a person who harms someone and doesn’t feel guilty at some point. I think for her she questions her motives and I believe that at some point she loved him. Or maybe she went into it as a joke and fell in love with him. And for her, she cannot be happy about his misery.

OW: What are the biggest challenges of singing Dalila?

EG: To very honest I expected it to be much harder and I have done harder roles than this one. It’s different because its low but who said a lyric-dramatic voice cannot sing it. It’s about taste and preference and I find French music has clarity and lyricism and romanticism which makes a part like Dalila more feminine.

Dalila is a young girl and she doesn’t have to sound like a grandmother. For this role, you have to have a certain sonority. It doesn’t have to be a big voice but the voice has to be present and I think it’s exciting for me to expand the limit of my capacity.

OW: What is your favorite moment in the score?

EG: My favorite moment is Samson’s third act aria. I think musically it’s incredibly profound and pure and very emotional. I love quiet pieces because they are intimate.

But the most personal and emotional moment is probably a couple of pages before the “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix”  where Dalila sings and remembers the times where they were lovers and happy. At that moment, she wishes they could  be together without pressure, obligation and without promises and Gods and religions.

OW: You have worked with Roberto Alagna on several occasions from you’re iconic “Carmen” in 2009 to “La Navaraise” in Carnegie Hall. What is it like to work with him this time preparing “Samson et Dalila?”

EG: You don’t really need to work with him. It just happens. We have done a lot of things together and he is one of those stage partners that makes you live what you do. I think I help him and he helps me create the situations where you do not act anymore, you just live.

Our stagings happen really fast because he listens to the music and he lets the emotion go. And I do the same. And somehow we just find each other in the right place. The work with him for this production happened within days. We didn’t really need the six weeks of rehearsal.

OW: Is that the case with most of your stage partners?

EG: It only happens if you have a certain trust and allow the person to approach you. If you want to demand just your truth, it’s very difficult to communicate and I have always been demanding of knowing with whom I will be working because I believe that chemistry is the first beginning of a believable relationship on stage.

If I have never met someone, I try to look up how they are but more or less you know because you have seen them somewhere. With YouTube, you can find everything and I have been lucky that people listen to my opinions.

OW: Mark Elder is very well known for approaching each work differently and following proper style. What did you learn from working with him on this score?

EG: I was really grateful for his approach because he did not make the opera veristic. He approached it in a romantic way which was very interesting and rewarding.

He also made clear the differences between the Israeli and Palestinian music and he tried to give each a different language using accents and phrasings. It was also very interesting when he explained to the orchestra why he chose a certain sound over another. It helped translate that one is on one side and the other is on another as with Samson and Dalila. For him, he needs to serve all of us. But once you start to listen to the whole group it becomes clear what you have to do differently.

OW: After this production, you will make another role debut at the Paris Opera. This time it will be Didon in “Les Troyens.” Having done so many French composers like Bizet, Saint-Saëns, and now Berlioz, what are some of the differences in the style and music?

EG: Bizet is like a light dessert. It’s not as complex though there are more similarities between Bizet and Saint Saëns.

Berlioz, in my opinion, is an outsider and it is a nightmare to learn the music. It changes rhythm and time signatures all the time. It takes a lot of time. But I think Berlioz’s orchestration is the richest and the most explored and when I read about Berlioz in the way he tried to naturalize, there is a certain telephonic style. If you hear an instrument you can imagine the picture he is making. Saint-Saëns is a little bigger and he stretches the line and adds emotional width. Berlioz has more detail and as a whole picture, it’s more impressive.

OW: It’s your second role debut at the Opéra National de Paris in two seasons as you debuted Eboli last season in a new production of “Don Carlos.” What is about this theater that makes you want to do these role debuts there?

EG: It has to do with the theater’s team who trust you to do new roles or develop your career in new repertoire. It’s the programming in the theaters who concentrate on certain artists and give them the chance. It’s a new role again for me and it’s exciting that Opéra de Paris has acknowledged my wishes and my potential and gave me that trust to explore this new repertoire.

It’s very exciting in big houses. I love the Met because its huge and I love to sing at the Bastille and I think my voice sounds great in big spaces. And then there is an extra pressure of singing French in France but other than that its fine.

OW: What excites you about debuting the role of Didon?

EG: Didon is a huge part and much more complex than Dalila and I’m looking forward to exploring it. Musically it has everything you want. It has Bel Canto and real verismo moments and really beautiful melodies. So it is a great mixture and for me, I get to show everything that I have done up to now.

OW: With so many role debuts in the past few years, what has your process been like in learning these roles?

EG: While studying the scores I have been surprised that they’re not as dramatic and they’re not as low or loud as I expected. The more you read and listen to voices, the more you realize that you don’t always have to have the huge voice to be heard over the orchestra. It’s really the collaboration between the two.

For me, I usually start the part a good one and a half two years before and if there are important arias, I try to learn them before and put them in concerts just to have the stability of not performing them for the first time for the public. And then I go to my coach and voice teacher and work with the conductor and with various pianists in different places. I gather information and advice and then at some point I memorize and then I go into rehearsals and then do it.

OW: What score has surprised you the most and have you had to adjust your technique while doing some of these parts?

EG: I have to say Eboli. In the Verdi score, it was surprising to see that there are more mezzo pianos than we hear nowadays on stage. And if you want to truthful, Verdi is not that far away from real Bel canto. You need to apply a lot of technical things from bel canto to not make it verismo-like. One has to realize that we all have different qualities in our voice from size to technique and I go my way and I am confident that I will be one of the few mezzos who started with baroque music and went on to sing Wagner.

As for how I have adjusted, for me, it’s about getting a voluptuous sound and I don’t think that my voice was small at the beginning and I don’t think that it has enormously grown. I think that there are certain qualities that I have gained which are age, experience, technical changes and to be honest, there were a lot of times when I sang Mozart, I had to restrain myself because the style didn’t allow me to do what my voice wanted to do.

I think my voice has gained certain depth and warmth in the middle but my top has not been lost. It’s just a question of time when it gives a bigger impact. But I have adjusted the voice by connecting it in a different way and I can now belt out Santuzza and not feel tired because I know which muscles to use so I don’t harm myself. I can get the emotions out by knowing what to do without ever going to extremes. So I am proud of that and it is interesting to see how my voice has evolved and stretched to this repertoire.

OW: Do you think having performed Bel Canto earlier in your career has helped you with these new roles?

EG: Absolutely it helped, especially with Verdi. I believe Verdi is more Bel Canto than verismo and if you look at Eboli’s arias, his approach is Bel Canto. The way he writes high notes in the second aria is very much in the Bel Canto style and then the first aria is pure bel canto.

OW: What are you looking forward to doing in the future?

EG: I will be touring South America in the summer of 2019 and we will be going to Chile, Argentina, and Peru. It will be the first time I visit South America after Mexico, which I absolutely adored and it was an unbelievable experience. I know there is a great following in South America and it’s so touching to get their messages. So it will be amazing to see these fans live and I am looking forward to that. I will also sing Kundry in 2022, which will be my first Wagner.

And one of the things I would really be happy to do is a Zarzuela in the future. I think now I manage Spanish better and even if I forget the text I could still improvise.

It would be a great experience and I really love Zarzuela. I have to thank it for a lot of successes in my career and I believe it’s like an operetta, which has been neglected for years because it’s considered easier music. But Zarzuela has very profound and very emotional music. I also love Spanish culture and you can see that in singing this repertoire there is a different emotion in audiences faces. And why not, us foreigners should also get a chance to perform this literature.


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