Q&A: Karine Babajanyan Talks About Puccini Heroines, Vocal Techinque & Her Verdi Wish-List

By Francisco Salazar

Karine Babajanyan is well known for her wide-ranging repertoire in the lirico-spinto fach, performing the works of Verdi and Puccini and many of the Verismo composers.

She has particularly become well-known for her interpretations of “Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca,” “Aida,” Amelia in “Un Ballo in Maschera” and has travelled to many of the leading theaters including the Berlin Staatsoper, the Hamburg Staatsoper, the Frankfurt Oper, the Dresden Semperoper, the Zurich Opera, and the Bregenz Festival among others.

Babajanyan has also had the distinction of working with many leading conductors and stage directors including Daniel Oren, Carlo Rizzi, Nicola Luisotti, Robin Ticciati, Peter Konwitschny, Philipp Himmelmann and Graham Vick.

The soprano recently spoke to OperaWire about the differences in singing Verdi and Puccini and the challenges of singing the repertoire. 

OperaWire: What draws you to the music of Puccini?

Karine Babajanyan: For me, the music of Puccini is the emotional and psychological state of mind. The characters are so real and human, where the emphasis is on the melody. No one else can feel the emotional situation of a woman as he can, and I feel this every time I sing one of his heroines.

OW: Of the three roles you’ll be singing, Tosca, Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly, which is the most difficult and which do you like to perform most?

KB: It’s very difficult to answer which of those wonderful roles I prefer. I love all of them in different ways. But the most difficult to sing is definitely Cio-Cio San, with all her psychological suffering and sorrow, and let us not forget the length of the role. She vocally dominates the stage.

OW: Which of the three characters do you most identify with?

KB: My principle is not to identify but incarnate the role on stage from the first bite of the music. But I would say Tosca because she is a singer too.

OW: What are the biggest challenges of singing Puccini? Do you find that there are a lot of similarities in these roles vocally or are they all completely different?

KB: The more I sing Puccini, the more I understand that vocal control is the most important thing because the emotional situation and the Verismo manner in which Puccini wrote his music are overwhelming not only for the audience but also for us singers. Vocally, I could find similar lines or phrases in Tosca and Manon Lescaut. Butterfly needs more vocal polish and physical stamina.

OW: You’ll be adding La Fanciulla del West in a year. What are you most excited about the role? Is the role similar vocally to these other roles you have performed? Do you find Minnie to be a stronger woman than these three other heroines?

KB: I am in love now with this masterpiece of Maestro Puccini. I understood it as soon as I began to work on it. And I love the whole opera, not only the role of Minnie, who is really strong in asserting herself in a male-dominated society. But for me, the strongest of all the Puccini heroines is still Cio-Cio San.

OW: Your switching gears next year and singing Verdi. What is the difference in performing Verdi vs. Puccini?

KB: Yes, indeed, my schedule is well organized, that I can switch from Puccini to Verdi and I still have enough time to practice the Verdi bel canto lines. Technically singing Verdi and Puccini is the same, and warming up before singing a Verdi or Puccini role is the same. One big difference is the orchestration. Verdi accompanies the singer much more and therefore one has to concentrate more on the bel canto technique. When singing Puccini I’m working more on phrasing, dynamics, and the rubati.

OW: You are doing Elisabetta and Aida. What role do you find more challenging? What are some of the vocal similarities between these two roles? What are the differences? 

KB: They both demand high vocal preparation and knowledge of Italian phrasing. They are both are princesses from royal families, both of them are far away from their own families and countries, and that’s why they have a lot of pain in their music. They also both love the wrong person, so they do have many similarities. Only the origin is different. Aida has oriental melisma and vocally Elisabetta requires more maturity in the middle voice, a fact that is often underrated. For Aida one needs a more “celestial,” sweet sound.

OW: These two works are grand operas. Is Verdi’s style the same in the writing? How do you think the French style informed the vocal writing for “Don Carlo?”

KB: The clearer example of grand opera out of these two Verdi operas is more “Don Carlos”  than “Aida.” I had the privilege to debut my first Elisabeth at the Anvers Opera House in the original French version of “Don Carlos” and I have also sung the Italian version, and to be honest it’s one of the few operas where the translation is also convincing, maybe because Verdi was involved in the revision.

OW: Is there any Verdi role you haven’t sung that you would like to?

KB: In general, I like to sing as much Verdi as possible as it is great for my technique. I would love to sing both Leonoras in “Il Trovatore” and “La Forza del Destino” once again as well as Amelia in “Un Ballo in Maschera,” Desdemona in “Otello,” and Alice Ford in “Falstaff.” The only role for my voice I haven’t sung yet is Amelia Grimaldi in “Simon Boccanegra” which would fill my Verdi Wish-List.


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