Q & A: Kristine Opolais on Life as an Artist and Her Role as an Opera Singer

By Mike Hardy
(Credit: Polina Viljun)

Kristine Opolais is one of the most sought-after sopranos on the international scene, with an established reputation amongst the world’s preeminent singing actresses. Opolais has appeared at The Metropolitan Opera, Wiener Staatsoper, Staatsoper Berlin, Bayerische Staatsoper, Teatro alla Scala, Opernhaus Zürich, and the Royal Opera House. She collaborates with renowned conductors including Daniel Barenboim, Sir Antonio Pappano, Sir Simon Rattle, Sir Mark Elder, Andris Nelsons, Fabio Luisi, and Kirill Petrenko.

In 2014, Opolais went down in the history of the Metropolitan Opera New York by singing two premieres of Puccini operas two nights in a row. She began with the title role of “Madama Butterfly,” and the following day she stood in for another artist as Mimì in “La Bohème.” To this day, Opolais is considered one of the most sought-after Puccini interpreters in the opera world.

Operawire caught up with Kristine at her home in Riga.

OperaWire:  You have been very busy recently doing and planning a lot of recitals after a fairly quiet period. Is this the direction you want your career to follow in right now?

Kristine Opolais: Not a lot of recitals in the recent past, but upcoming, yes. I had two wonderful recitals with my great pianist Agnese Egliņa in my home country. Ive just given a recital in Budapest in their newly renovated hall, and there are more planned in Brazil in November. Now, I am preparing for “Aida” in Lithuania, and also “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” later this season with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Andris Nelsons.

OW: So youre spending more time as a Mom, rather than performing at the moment?

KO: Not right now, but especially in the last years. It happened somehow, and I needed to find my priorities. I was thinking a lot about how much time I’m spending with my child and also with this break for everyone with COVID, and it made me understand that it is much better for my daughter when I am home. But Im missing the stage of course, and now Im finding peace in what I do, with my recitals and gala concerts with some of my favorite colleagues. The opera business is difficult for me at the moment because I have to stay for a long time away from home for rehearsals. Also, I get nervous sometimes when Im doing nothing, and often you do nothing for rehearsals but sit and wait for your call to the stage. Im not learning as much right now from being on stage. Im not learning as much as Id love to learn, to develop as an artist. I was very lucky working with certain stage directors during my career.

And then it all came together for me, somehow, the understanding that I need and want to spend more time with my daughter. But I also miss the stage, which is why I was thinking, what could I do? What is interesting for me and what shows me that I can learn something new, and to continue to develop as an artist and a person?

I never liked to give recitals in the past. But now I thought, this is something that I probably should do. So, I tried it, and I enjoy it. I know that I have my audience and if there are people who are not my audience, they will become my audience. So Im getting closer with the people and I have a special connection with them. And I get to sing what I like. I create my program, my own show. A show where no one can tell me what to do. There I am following only my instincts, and there I always have the best results.

So this is what I feel, artistically. Not that we always have to have fun, I take this seriously. By the way, I never understood this phrase; when I travel a lot to America and elsewhere, they say Have fun!”, before the show. I think we are not the ones who must enjoy, we have to work, and we have to dedicate ourselves completely on stage, you know? Sure, having fun in terms of enjoying the music, enjoying the directing and your colleagues so it has to be something beautiful, and you need for that many aspects of the work.

You need a good team. You need colleagues who you trust. You need a Maestro who understands you and is not putting you in a box, and who gives you freedom. So, there are many aspects of how to enjoy the performance. Because if we focus only through the ego, and just enjoy ourselves, that’s not the kind of work that I want to do.

I like teamwork and I like to have singers rehearsing with me. I dont like situations where for example a tenor arrives at the last minute or a colleague is late because they are still changing. I take the work seriously.

All of the roles I wanted to sing, I sang, and all of the places I wanted to be at, I went to and I enjoyed it. I just had to find the interest to still be in this profession, and it can sometimes be difficult with my kind of character in this sense. I need to challenge myself. I need purpose, not routine.

OW: When we were first scheduled to speak, you were preparing for Carmen.” You subsequently withdrew from the role, stating that it wasnt a role you wanted to add to your repertoire at that time.” What happened?

KO: The story, with Carmen” is long. I really did my best to fall in love with this role. The story started from the point when I sang “Tosca” with Jonas Kaufmann in Graz. It was Jonas and Ludovic, (Tézier).

Following this “Tosca,” the Opernfestspiele St. Margarethen invited me to sing “Carmen.” I was very surprised by this but we discussed the idea.

However theres the one thing I dont like about Carmen,” that I have never liked. It’s when I am pushed to see her only as a sexual, hot, and often very vulgar character. I dont believe Carmen was vulgar. It’s the cliché of the role, even from smart singers, singers who are not that type, they often seem vulgar. I dont know why but this makes me not a fan of the character. So, I thought maybe I can find something… They said that I can play the role naturally. And, so, I had hope that it was possible.

But unfortunately, I didnt find a sympathy for the character when I learned the role. The music is of course amazing, but this role is not for me.

Im certainly a person who sees a deepness everywhere, I want to see a deep meaning about everything when it comes to roles, music, and characters. Because opera is about characters. It has to be something super special, and Im always trying to go there deep and find what the composer wanted to say about this role, about this character. So, it was a shame, but I didnt find the sense of this character.

At the same time, one of my problems, but also my goals, is that I cannot lie when I am on the stage. I want to understand and to justify the character Im singing and playing. I never thought about my profession as just a singer. Im an artist. I will probably continue to sing arias from Carmen,” because I like it, musically. But I dont understand the character. And for now, Im NOT a Carmen.

I have more of an understanding of Katerina Izmailova, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” as a character. I could never do the things that she did in this story, but I understand her. I believe that this could actually happen, when you have a crazy love that takes away all of your understanding mind, your humanity, everything. Love can be dangerous. Emotions can be very dangerous, but I just didnt get this in the same way as the role of Carmen.”

Im dying a little bit, every time when Im on stage, playing my roles, but this is not a woman I want to see suffer, you know?

I also always say never listen to other peoples opinions first when it comes to making a decision. You have to listen to yourself. Which is scary. But when I was young, I was listening to myself. This is what I need to do. And it’s how I am approaching my decisions now, like this one.

OW: You were once asked in an interview: Where do you get all your energy from?” You replied, I had a lot of sh*t in the past” Of course, without being too specific, can you elaborate on that?

KO: I had everything to understand what is good in this life and what is bad. I went through many things that I dont need to imagine, which is why I can act well, in certain situations on stage. Sometimes, a director has asked me: Did you take any acting masterclass lessons?” and I say Yeah, life!”

But, too many situations, too many things. I saw a lot and I went through a lot. I think, a simple example would be when you dont have anything to eat, and you need to survive. Theres nobody to help you and youre in a situation where youre alone. Youre a teenager and the people who are saving you and giving you food are also people who are selling drugs.

So, my life before I decided to become an opera singer was a simple and routine teenage life. I didnt decide this, my mother wanted this. I think I had, for sure, two lives. One before, and one after I started to think seriously about singing. So, lets say when I got to the choir, the nicer life started. I also had a nice childhood, a loving mother and loving father, nothing wrong with that. We were very simple people, like many others, a typical middle class family. But there was a period when my mother was in the hospital for more than two months and my father was away working for a long time, and I was alone. And unfortunately my father trusted some people with money – meant for my mother and myself – who he should not have, and this put us in a difficult situation.

And the people who ended up helping me were drug dealers in the gypsy community. They were the clichéd bad people.” But at the same time, these people helped someone to whom they could not sell anything. These people were sharing one floor and the whole area was very dangerous.

And for me, open to the world and naïve, there were a lot of dangerous situations, some people were beating me on the streets. I was just happy I survived.

I am a survivor. I went through some horrible things. But it also gave me power. It didnt change my heart. So, Im the same, open person, you know? I still trust people and especially when you think everything is finished, for sure there is some way to get out. For this you must be nice and open to the world, but its also dangerous, because life is dangerous. It could have been something much worse that happened to me. I was staying alone, you know? I was eighteen years old surrounded by drug dealers, but these people helped me. They even took me to see my mother at the hospital. So, when things were much better for my family and my mother was back from the hospital, and I saw the police taking all these people away and beating them, I was crying. It was so hard because they had helped me in a time of need. This is of course how life is, there’s always more than one side, and it can be so difficult to experience.

OW: So you were genuinely left on your own for that period?

KO: Yes, and it was crazy because I had never been alone, for the first time since I was born. I really learned how to survive.

Another crazy situation occurred when I was already in the chorus. It was the first money I received, my monthly pay, which was very little when I started in the chorus. I remember this first time I received the money, I went to the shop, and I bought a lot of stuff for my mom, food, socks, all kinds of things. I also bought food for our two cats who I rescued from the streets. I bought everything I wanted because I never had enough money to get what I want.

I was leaving with two heavy bags from the supermarket, feeling happy, and then these two guys attacked me from behind. I didnt see them. It was evening already, and they took everything, my bag and the rest of the money. They hit me on the head, and then I was on the ground, so I was lucky they didnt do anything worse. I got home and said to myself, this is the last bad thing that will ever happen to me like this. From now on, everything will be better!

I remember I said to myself, OK, I just have to focus on my work, and after one month I will receive the same money again. So, somehow, I was optimistic, you know? Its incredible that after all of this. I think this is impossible to learn.

A lot of people say: You must be strong!”

It’s either in you or it’s not. Youre born with this, I think.

I do try to focus on the good things, and I think Ive been more than lucky. Of course, there was hard work. I cannot say that things just came to me, but if good things can happen to a person, maybe it’s because they deserve it. If not, maybe not. We cannot say: Oh, hes been lucky” or This person doesnt deserve this.”

It is not we who decides who is deserving anything. God has his plans. Somehow the universe decides, it’s karma. We have a destiny, and we just have to go through what we are facing and be thankful for what we had, what we have, and what we still might have in the future.

I had a lot of sh*t happen in my past, but Im still the same Kristine. Now I probably recognize some things faster. I might know sooner if someone is a bad person, for example. But still, Im making mistakes and still Im meeting bad people but also good people. Whoever is not good to me, it may not mean they are bad in general. What I know for sure is that good people like me. So, if someone likes me a lot and treats me well, I know that they are a good person!

OW: You famously sang TWO debut roles within 18 hours of each other at the MET, Madama Butterfly” followed by La Boheme,” that was broadcast worldwide. How did you physically manage that?

KO: Well, I had gone to sleep at five o’clock in the morning because I was so happy with the wonderful success I had with Madama Butterfly” which was also my return after my debut inLa Rondine.” I think it was five performances in total that I sang, but this was just the first. It was a great success, and of course I had my managers, Bruce Zemsky was still alive then, he was one of my managers, and of course Alan Green. We had a lovely evening at the restaurant after this success and we were so happy. I was actually more than happy!

We came out of the theatre around midnight. There were a lot of people outside and I needed to sign a lot of programs. I didn’t get back home until 3 a.m. But I could not sleep. When I came home, the adrenaline was so high, and I was watching and listening to videos on YouTube and I finally went to sleep at around 5 a.m.

Then I was woken up by a call on the landline phone in my rented apartment. I thought this call, which was from Peter Gelb, was a joke, at seven in the morning, I thought it was an accident. Of course knowing this, my first reaction was no, I cannot do that. I thought Peter was talking about the evening show.

I talked for a while with him, explaining that I was afraid I would not remember the role, because my last Mimì was one year prior. I said I dont think I can do this, performing tonight would not give me enough time. Thats when he said: Oh no, its not the evening, its the matinee!” (Laughing). We start at 12.30pm”.

I said something like: No, thank you. Bye, bye”.

And Peter said something like this: Well, its sad, but I understand. It’s a live in HD broadcast, which we are already planning for you only next season forManon Lescaut,’ and this broadcast would of course be a great opportunity.”

We got off the phone and then I went back to bed. And I was literally, sitting like this, (rocks to and fro). But when he said it was a matinee performance I said “no, no, goodbye. Im sorry I cannot do that.”

Then within five minutes, my brain was spinning. I realized my voice was there. I realized when I was talking to Peter, that the voice was fresh because it was after the show, not because it was 7 a.m., after having only slept since 5. So, I called him back. I still dont understand how he got my number from the apartment I was renting. He got it somehow! And he was very convincing. But I’m not sure how I was able to even call him back, I pressed a green button and it somehow connected me to him.

Then he answered me with the words: I knew it! I knew you should call me back”.

So I asked him whether there was a pianist who could work with me to help me remember the role while we prepare the costumes. He said: Yes, there will be a pianist for you.”

So I asked him what time I had to be in the theatre and he said: Ten.”

It was probably already 8 a.m. and so I had only two hours of sleep and I was listening to La Bohème” on YouTube because I was not sure I remembered the text. Mimì was not a role Id sung a lot in the past. I sang it only a few times one year ago.

So, if you ask me: How could you do that?”

I dont know.

I just remember that when I came to the dressing room, I saw Bruce, sitting together with Alan, both with sleepy eyes. I could tell by their faces that they were both scared. Because I made the decision right when Peter was calling me. He could not reach either of them on Saturday morning because everyone was sleeping after our late night!

And Alan told me: Everything will be fine!”
And I said: I know. I just need to remember the role!” (Laughing) But I saw they all thought I was crazy.

And then afterward, an even more huge success than I had with Butterfly,” La Bohème” was an incredible success. And the funny part is I still dont completely understand how it happened! Pure magic. Puccini was guiding me, plus Peter’s intuition, and my absolute craziness!

OW: Well, you did once say in an interview: If you dont take risks, youll never drink champagne!”

KO: (Laughing) I was drinking a lot of champagne after La Bohème.” That time I was in the theatre until 4 or 5 p.m., or maybe later, even. Then I spent a lot of time outside signing the programs for people. This was the first time I had this big feeling, I felt like a star. It was a beautiful experience, and I think it could not be repeated in this way. I think, this is a kind of thing you can do only once. Because if I look back, I understand now what else could have happened. It could have been the beginning of the end. The end of my career in general.

OW: You once said, You have to be born to be a good Mozart singer. Ive never been good enough for Mozart.” Aleksandra Kurzak said, Mozart is better to sing than to listen to.” Do you agree with that?

KO: Yes, absolutely. I agree. I sang Mozart roles. So I wouldnt comment anything on it if I didnt know about it, you know? I had my experience, and the first experience I was like: No. Never again!”

It was here in the Riga National Opera. I sang everything here. Everything from Senta to “Traviata.” Then they asked me to do Contessa. I didnt want to, but I had to as I was in the ensemble so I could not say no. However, I had a bad feeling for the very first time. I remember this experience, I just didnt enjoy it. But also I sang Elvira later in Aix-en-Provence, and the only aspect I really enjoyed was working with our director Dmitri Tcherniakov, not the music itself.

Elvira did open up some doors for me though, first when I got a contract for Musetta at The Metropolitan Opera.

Eva Wagner suggested me to The Met as Musetta because she was at the audition when I sang Elvira for Maestro Louis Langrée. She was recommending, not only me, but other singers to the Met as an advisor. So thats how I got this contract for Musetta. It was also a lovely story of how I LOST Musetta at the Met.

I already had this contract to make my debut at the Met singing a lot of Musettas. Two runs of performances, both in Autumn and in Spring. This was my first major contract. It was the 2010-2011 season. Then, late one night I got the call, and it was a funny story as I was sitting with Andris, Kristine’s ex-husband, after dinner. We were watching a movie and drinking wine, and then I got a call from Alan Green. It was midnight in Riga, so evening in New York, around 6 or 7 p.m., and Alan said to me: So, you have to decide now! The Bayerische Staatsoper is asking you to do Rusalka.”

They had a new production with Martin Kušej and there were about two weeks before they would be starting rehearsals for this new production.

But the first problem is you’ve never sung this role before. The other problem is you have to answer now.”

It was of course exactly the same time period I was scheduled to start rehearsals for my debut as Musetta at the Met. So, Alan told me, of course, if you cancel your debut, the Met will not like it, and it may be some years before you can perform there again.

But, there is Rusalka, and we have to decide now.”  

So, then I turned to Andris, and said: Andris, you have to help because we have to decide now. Musetta at the Met or Rusalka, in a new production in Munich?”

And Andris just says: Rusalka!”

And after a bottle of red wine, I said to Alan, very easily: Well, I will do Rusalka!” (laughing).

So, it was another point of my intuition, you understand? I was fearless. To decide these things? You have to be crazy! I’m not sure I would have even made the same choice had he called me in the morning. But I was relaxed and home in the evening, and he got me at the right time.

In the beginning of your career, you have to be crazy and trust your instincts. And that is what I did. So, thats how we lost Musetta but we got Rusalka.

And after that, Rusalka was a huge success, in this Martin Kušej production, which is my favorite production out of everything I have done in my life. Then I got La Rondine” and Butterfly” at the Met because some of the team came to the premiere of “Rusalka” in Munich. Sometimes people will ask you to be smart, and to be careful. But if youre careful all the time you’ll never manage to really make anything.

Nikolaus Bachler, the intendant of Bayerische Staatsoper, was one of the people who had a lot of trust in me. He gave me a chance and he believed in me. He gave the role of Rusalka to a person who had never sung it on stage. And I was also not a star. I had no name like this in the business. It was a risk.

When we met, he told me, “I knew everything would be great.”

You know, I got very sick during the rehearsals. I could not sing for two weeks. Can you imagine? A girl who never sang on their stage got sick after one week of rehearsals. I was not able to sing or even to speak for two weeks. And they still were trusting me. I had to act without singing for two weeks of rehearsals, and it became a deeper part of the story for me.

When I suggested to Mr. Bachler that he should find somebody else, because I was not sure I would be fine, he told me: You will be fine”.

And so, this kind of thing gives you confidence. And also, our director Martin Kušej said: Even if youre not able to sing, you will be acting, and somebody will sing from the side of the stage.”

So, I received a hundred percent trust and support from the theater. And thats why I was able to give my best and thats why my Rusalka was what it was. And its still one of the best things I ever did in my career and one of the greatest productions in our industry in these last years. Because I had the right people around me. I had a team of people who believed in me and this is really important. This is exactly what I said that I really miss now.

I cannot work with people who are not there or with whom I have to fight, or an intendant who is not believing in me at some point. I feel it. The problem is that I feel everything, and I feel all of the energy around me. Its MY problem! (Laughing).

I was always feeling great when I had the right people around me. Im very open-minded, I’m sensitive, I’m an artist. I have a good intuition, so if I feel like Im not welcome, one hundred percent, I cannot give my best.

In this way, Im not a survivor. In this case, Im not someone who wants to fight or to prove anything. Theres nothing to prove. I did so many things already on stage. But its important to have people who believe in you, trust you, and respect you. I’m specifically speaking about opera intendants. There are very few who have a specific intuition when it comes to artists. Ninety percent of them only listen to managers or to other people’s opinions, and what can you do when you don’t have an intuition? It means you don’t have the creativity or the knowledge to make the right choice.

Alan told me once, when I asked him for more time and freedom because I never see my daughter: You cannot jump from the fast train, because you will never come back.”

And now I think this may not be true for everyone. But I told him it doesnt matter. I did this. Because for me it was more important that I saved my mental health and my vocal health. I didnt want to die on stage. I was already tired. I did a lot, I did too much. So, at some point, you have to choose. So, I chose to be healthy and to be a mother, which is important.

But I am still an artist, and no one can take this from me. Ninety percent of this is my decision, whether I want to be back, really back. It’s my choice, for now.

It’s like we have several crystal balls that we hold, that we juggle, which are each different parts of our lives. If we drop one it breaks, and we can’t get it back. It’s no longer a choice. So we have to protect them and try to balance when we can.

OW: What would you like to do next? Artistically and personally?

KO: Im happy to be traveling soon to places Ive never been, so Im going to São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for a tour. I have my recitals with Agnese, whom I adore and we have already performed concerts together in Shanghai, Latvia, and Budapest.

Now I am also preparing for a new Aida,” which will be conducted by Sesto Quatrini. It was almost impossible to say no to this offer for many reasons.

I really like “Aida,” it’s a such a beautiful opera by Verdi. Lithuania is a neighbor country to Latvia, so it’s very close to home. The theater has also been so considerate about the rehearsal schedule, especially given that it’s a new production. So, as you can see, there are many reasons that helped me decide to accept this offer.

I would say the most important reason is because of Sesto. He is someone I met during my rehearsals ofManon Lescaut” at The Met, he was Fabio Luisi’s assistant. In the few rehearsals that he conducted, I really liked working with him, which is why I asked him to conduct my Baltic tour concerts, and we had a great collaboration.

So he asked me to be in this new production of Aida” with him because hes ending his partnership with the Lithuanian National Opera, so this is his last production for now at the theater. So, I could not say no because Sesto started with me and this is his last production as Music Director there.

I think its interesting that also with Verdi, which never was my passion, as theres Puccini and Dvořák, but Verdi’s music is still something I feel I have interest in and I need to go in this direction now. I will learn something new, and I am learning how to control my emotions. I dont know whether this is good or not because I feel its not always a good idea to control my emotions on stage because I am who I am, but very often my emotions are not helping (laughing).

This is something I have to learn to control, and Verdis a good composer for this. Im not sure I can truly be in control of my emotions, but I still want to sing Verdi.

After Aida,” Im going to Brazil for my tour. Then what Im MOST excited about is singing Katerina Izmailova in January.

We will perform concert versions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” in Boston and at Carnegie Hall, which will also be my debut. It will be a very special feeling to be back in New York City, a place I love so much, singing for the audience there which has been so supportive of me and has shown me a lot of love over the years. I’ve also missed my teacher Trish McCaffrey very much, and because of COVID and all of the travel difficulties, we have not had time together for quite a while. It will be great to see her and to work with her again in person on this opera and more.

I’m also interested in this difficult character of Katerina Izmailova, because this is a role into which I can put all of my passion (laughing). But still its challenging vocally speaking, and of course, its something I will need to learn again, even though I did this role in Riga many years ago. Nobody knows about that! I sang two performances in the Riga Opera Festival when I was only twenty-six.

I think this tragic story is something good for me, artistically. And of course, its great to do this with Andris Nelsons, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It’s something great, that Im really looking forward to doing. So, it’s quite a busy autumn and winter and then after Katerina I will take a long break!

OW: So when are you next due in the big houses?

KO: I think if I want it, I will get there.

With all of these places I have been and have had great success, in London, at the Metropolitan Opera, in Munich, Ive been there, its still there. Its already in my history.

It would be great to go back, but if I do, it would have to be something special. When I feel at home and I know that people trust me, and I have the right team. All of these things have to be set for me to go back. But if thats not possible, its better not to do it. Because it was great, what I did, and theres no reason to spoil the memory. Its strange, I know, but thats how I feel.

I love these places so much. Im thankful and I dont want to spoil anything. Im so grateful to the Met, the Royal Opera House, and to Munich. These three places really made me, artistically speaking. And I am so thankful to everyone who was part of this beautiful journey.

To Alan Green, the manager who was with me from the very beginning, to my teachers, including my voice teacher Margreet Honig from Amsterdam. I think it’s so important to stay with these feelings, you know? These are feelings of happiness, so I want to remember the good things. Like my manager once said, once you jump off the speeding train its difficult to jump back. Well, its still possible but its important that YOU want it. I cannot lie, and I cannot do this profession only for money. It doesnt work for me.

OW: Which leads me perfectly to my last comment and question. You said in an interview, in your mother tongue: Im deeply concerned that an artist can never feel happy.”

KO: Absolutely. (Shakes head vigorously). As soon as youre happy with yourself, you are done. If you think you sing well and youre brilliant, then youre done. Thats why I never understood those pre-performance wishes: have fun…….enjoy yourself…..”

The people must enjoy you. You cannot enjoy yourself. Its hard work. As soon as I start to enjoy myself, its never good for the performances. You know, to create something special…. you need to suffer for this.