I met the soprano Kristine Opolais for this interview at her hotel in Leipzig. It was a hot, overcast day, so we sat outside. A few drops of rain fell periodically. When she laughed, she’d lean forward and create a triangle from her shoulder to her hand with her left arm, bending her wrist. We talked over coffee and some tiny cakes.

VAN: In Leipzig from May 18 to 21, you’re singing a concert program with Andris Nelsons and the Gewandhausorchester. With a piece like Dvorak’s “Song to the Moon,” which is so famous and has been done by so many different people, how to you find space to do your own thing?

Kristine Opolais: It’s so famous already that it sounds like a pop song. Let’s say it’s too famous. I prefer to show new pieces to the audience. So to me, “Song to the Moon” is the hardest part of the program. My feeling about the piece is that it’s just a nice melody. But it says nothing about the role.

So you don’t need to get into character to sing it?

No. It’s just you saying “hello” to the audience.

Let’s assume there’s a piece that does say something about the character or the opera’s story: How do you get into the role in the concertante situation?

It’s difficult. I’ve never been a very calm person technically. There are a lot of singers who really take control of their technique and sound; but for me, sound without feelings and acting is nothing. I’m an artist—I’m also not a Lieder singer, I’m an opera singer. So nothing works for me without acting.

It’s strange, but when I sang my audition for the Bayerische Staatsoper two years before I got Rusalka, because Nina Stimme canceled the production of Martin Kusej, they gave me nothing. They said, “Well, danke sehr. Bis bald.” And then I came as Rusalka there, which was a huge success. The same thing with Covent Garden: exactly two years before I made my debut as Madame Butterfly, I came to sing “Un Bel Dì, Vedremo,” and nobody paid any attention. It’s very difficult for me to show who I am and what I can do in this art form with just an aria.

Kristine Opolais sings “Un bel dì, vedremo” from Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”; Andris Nelsons (Conductor)

I especially hate when I have to go on after other singers. I just had a bad feeling in my last experience, at the Metropolitan Opera, with the big [50th anniversary] gala. I was just so unhappy. Because some arias, like “Vissi d’arte”—you can’t just come out and do it. You need to live through…at least the second act ![Laughs.] To arrive to the aria. Otherwise, you come out empty. You don’t have your space to sit, you have to be in the room and spend your time with the [other] singers, and everybody’s speaking.

"It’s very difficult for me to show who I am and what I can do in this art form with just an aria." @kristineopolais in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

I’m guessing that the competition could even start in that room, while people are making small talk.

And if you don’t say anything, people might think, “She’s arrogant! She doesn’t want to speak to us.” Which is also wrong. So it’s a tricky situation. But I’ve always said that I need time on stage.

I’m never sure of myself. I think an artist, generally, can never be sure of himself. An artist cannot enjoy himself. Some of my colleagues are very strong, they’ve never strayed from the path. I’m sensitive! Everything can change my mood in a second. That’s why I’m in this profession, I think.

Photo Marty Sohl
Kristine Opolais in “Madama Butterfly” at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: Marty Sohl)

Say you’re working with a director you really trust. Are there limits to what you would do for him or her?

There’s no limit for me. And there never was.    

Even if it’s something like getting naked?

Well, if it’s “Salome,” you have to. If there’s no reason to and I’m asked to get naked, I wouldn’t do it. But if it there’s one small line in the libretto that says so, it’s important, and I can do it. The director needs to convince me—and then I trust him or her completely.

You mentioned showing new pieces to the audience. What kind of music did you have in mind?

I discovered, not a long time ago, a great opera called “Iris” by Mascagni. I also like Czech repertoire, but I only sing “Rusalka,” because I don’t feel good with Jenůfa.

Why not?

I’m too sensitive to the story. To me [the role of] Kostelnička makes more sense, artistically. But I can’t sing that part because it’s doesn’t fit with my voice. Jenůfa is kind of a weak point for me—she’s too weak of a person. The drama that she’s going through with the child, I don’t want to have to go through that. I’m a mother, and I’m very sensitive. I have a lot of offers for this role—but I simply won’t do it.

So the unknown things you’re interested in are more less common works from the past, rather than new music like, say, Lachenmann.

Yeah, I don’t have experience with modern composers. I think it’s not very comfortable for the voice.

Take a cake, because I will not eat them all.

Kristine Opolais sings “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s “Tosca”; Greek National Opera

What more mainstream repertoire would you like to tackle?

I’ve been doing more concerts so I can develop my repertoire, I want to move on to some other things. I can’t be stuck with Puccini forever, although I adore Puccini. And I’d love to come back to Verdi. There’s also a little time to think about Wagner. I adore his music, but I’ve been very careful. My first Elsa will be next season. So I’m going step by step.

I talked to Andris once about Wagner…

Oh, his big love!

…and he said, “You enjoy it masochistically.” Do you feel the same way? He was talking about volume, but it seems like that would apply to getting through singing the roles as well.

[Laughs.] That’s the biggest deal, it’s very hard. As soon as you start to get ready sonically, start to push your voice more, prepare it to be ready for Wagner, another thing can happen: you can start to wobble. And as soon as you start wobbling, your voice is only great for the heavy stuff. Then you’re not able to sing lyric roles anymore.  

Many people say I’m a dramatic soprano, but I’m not. I’m a lyrical spinto. And I want to stay a lyrical spinto forever, because I want to have a chance to sing lyric parts as well. What I try to do is, if I hear a very loud orchestra, I try to sing softer. As soon as you start to force your voice, somehow conductors very often start to regenerate. They think, “Oh, she can sing loud!” So I do the opposite. I try to disappear when the orchestra is too loud.  

Each year, the Berlin Philharmonic takes residence in the resort town of Baden-Baden. At a Live Lounge interview with Opolais and several musicians, the soprano asked the musicians in front of the audience: “How do you feel when women are conducting you?” What followed was a laundry list of bad clichés: “My wife’s a conductor for me,” one said, the conducting “is different, it’s prettier,” added another, a third said that when the orchestral is largely male “people look much more at the conductor.” Opolais herself said, “For me, a conductor means a man.” When I asked her about those comments, she distanced herself from them.

Why did you say that?

As soon I made that statement, I started to think: “Why did I say that?” I only had one experience with a woman conductor, for the moment, and it was a good experience, with Oksana Lyniv. She’s conducting at lot in Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper and was the assistant of Kirill Petrenko for a long time. But this experience was good. It’s only a psychological point, and comes from only having worked with male conductors in my career.

But shouldn’t all of us try to get away from that thought?

Of course. My answer didn’t mean that woman should stop conducting, of course not.

Photo Wilfried Hösl
Photo Wilfried Hösl

Was it just because you’re used to the conductor being a man?

Yes, because I only worked with a woman once. But now I see the examples, and have some ideas for the future. We must learn something and change opinions. You can’t stay with one opinion your entire life. That’s why now, I think, “No.” It’s time to change this stereotype.

In 2016 you mentioned that you were considering moving to Boston. Is that still on the cards?

No. Then, I was working a lot at the Metropolitan Opera, which isn’t far away. But then I also thought, about the Met: it’s not good to be in one place so often. As soon as you’re in one place too often, otherwise people start getting used to you. I want every visit to be special.

Do you have groupies?

I have some people who are also traveling for my opera performances, yeah. They’re very nice. All the people who like me are nice people. Maybe it’s that no bad people follow me? I don’t know.

[Laughs.] That’s a hard one to fact check, but I’ll take your word for it. Why do you think that is?

I think I’m a good person, and a real artist. Even if I’m wrong, I’m real. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.