An Interview with Marina Rebeka

By · Photography © Fabio Parenzan · Date 02/09/2016

Tonight, the Latvian soprano will debut in a Sofia Coppola production of “La Traviata” alongside Plácido Domingo and Arturo Chacón Cruz at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain. When I reached her last week via Skype for this interview, she was already there for rehearsals, and seemed lively and engaged. Would this be a video interview, she wanted to know? I said it would be text only, and she answered, “I thought if we did video I would need to do my makeup. I don’t look quite diva-ish,” and laughed.

VAN: Listening to your Mozart album, I was wondering: Are you interested in historical performance?

Marina Rebeka: Absolutely. I’m a huge fan of looking at manuscripts. Once in my life I had the experience of doing an opera with the real pitch. It was Micaëla [from “Carmen”] in Baden-Baden, and it was not in A = 440 Hz, it was in A = 436 Hz. And it was really great. You can’t quite hear that it’s a different tonality—somehow, it just sounds different, it’s milder, softer. It’s great when you have a chance to hear how it used to be, approximately. Because we can’t change our vocal technique, we can’t reproduce exactly what it meant to be in that time.

What are some of the manuscripts you’ve studied for roles?

Mostly Rossini, because I’m considered, let’s say, one of the best Rossinian singers in the world. I was in Pesaro, Italy; it was interesting for me to go to the archives and look at the manuscripts of the arias. I also had a collaboration with Venice, with the Archivio Teatro La Fenice, I was searching for manuscripts of “Semiramide.” And I found a whole history of how it was taken away from the opera house because there was a fire, and so it’s in a bank. The director of the opera was very nice, and he sent me the pictures of it—I have it in my phone. I was also in Rome, at the Santa Cecilia, and the director of the library there showed me the manuscript of “Norma.”

Gioachino Rossini, “Semiramide,” Bel raggio lusingier; Marina Rebeka (Soprano), Giulio Zappa (Piano)

Whenever I have the possibility—unfortunately I don’t have much time—I try to consult originals. When we were recording the “Petite Messe Solennelle,” we were working from a new edition. But we had the manuscript, and I discovered by chance that there were not only mistakes in small signs like dynamics and articulations, but there was also a mistake in the text. That’s a really big deal. So I discovered it’s a whole industry where musicologists go to the manuscripts and look at them and interpret them in certain ways, and then they write the preface and everything. It’s a business. They get money for it, and every time there’s a new edition they get money for a rediscovery, a “re-edition.” But I understood that the only real way how to pursue or understand what the composer wanted is to go yourself, and to dig in: What is this sign? Is it a diminuendo, or is it just an accent on the first note?

What was the mistake in the text that you found?

It’s “O salutaris hostia.” But Hostia comes only one time. It’s always Hostilium afterwards. In the score, if you see the notes, you understand that it’s not one word. It can’t be Ho-o-sti-a, it’s Ho-sti-li-um. And then the accent from Ho-sti-a to Ho-sti-li-um, it goes from the first to the last note. It was really funny, because when the CD came out, there were some critics or some people who wrote somewhere that I’m not singing what Rossini wanted.

What I’m trying to do is phrase according to the text. When there’s a pause I take a breath. Very often people only take a breath because there’s a tradition of how it should be done. But the tradition came later, not in the times of Rossini.

When you find a mistake like that and bring it to your colleagues in a production—say, the conductor—is it easy to get them to agree to change it?

Actually, if I can show them the manuscript, usually people appreciate it, because they understand that you are not just a singer, but that you really care for what you are doing. Discussions with the conductor and the director are good, because you can’t fulfill their wishes if you don’t feel it, or if you don’t agree with them. For them just to say, “You have to do it, and that’s it,” is very stupid, because it will not be convincing if you’re not really into it. So usually it’s fine.

What are some things that directors have you do that drive you nuts?

My most disgusting experience was in 2008, at the beginning of my career. I had to do Handel’s opera “Teseo.” The whole stage was full of mud. And because the mud was cold, and sometimes stinky, I asked—so I wouldn’t get sick—to have a diving suit. And there was a dress over that, and over the dress I wore a fur. So you’ll believe that I was sweating like crazy: I was running on stage, with all that mud, in hiking boots, carrying suitcases, and pretending to do dishes during my coloraturas. In the premiere the mud got into my mouth. And then there was a moment when I kind of “raped.” Usually, if it’s not in the opera, like the “Rape of Lucretia” or something, I wouldn’t do it. If it’s just to be shocking it makes no sense.

As you get more experience, does it get easier to say no to those kind of stagings?

I have to confess, I have a big interview while I was in Chicago with a Russian newspaper, and the title of the interview was supposed to be “Opera is a Synthetic Art.” Which means the conductor, the singers, and the stage director should work all together. And it was all about how we should help each other and create one product, because our aim is the same, it’s to really make the opera comprehensible and a strong emotional weapon for the spectator. Instead of that, this interview was taken up by a Russian web magazine, and they changed the title to make it more scandalous, into “Directors are Killing Opera.” Obviously, at once, it had a huge wave of negativity, and I had many comments saying, “Marina, what the hell are you saying? If you don’t like something you should say, ‘I will not do it,’ and that’s all.” But, unfortunately, people don’t really understand this business, and they don’t really know how it happens. Because nobody, except maybe Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann, Plácido [Domingo], big stars—none of us could do this. There will be another singer who will come. None of the newspapers will write that I refused to sing the opera because of the stage director or the conductor, because who cares?

I’ve never gotten so far as to cancel something because of this. I always try to find a compromise. You have to understand that the singer is the last institution that you, as a spectator, face. The conductor has to follow the wishes of the composer, his own wishes, and the staging. The director should follow the wishes of the conductor and the composer, but he often doesn’t. And the singer has to follow the conductor, the other singers, the director, the style, the acoustics, and the audience. She has to be a psychologist to know how to deal with all of them without creating conflict. We’re the last institution; if we act badly, then people will say, “She’s a bad actress.” Nobody would say it’s the director who did something wrong.

I remember, I had a very hard time with one of the worst “Traviata” productions I’ve ever done, in Zurich. In the last act, I had to be a drug addict, in the insane asylum, and they were giving me cocaine, and I was going crazy, and I was a monk at the same time. These three things just can’t be combined! I was kind of figuring out for two days how I should deal with this situation, which was completely against what Verdi wanted. And I came to the conclusion that I had to combine “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “Traviata” in the same act. That was the only possible way of doing it. It has to be credible, believable. Just singing is not interesting to me.

Guiseppe Verdi, “La Traviata,” Addio, del passato; Marina Rebeka (Soprano), Keri Lynn Wilson (Conductor), NDR Radiophilharmonie

Is it hard to act naturally when you’re singing?

It’s an interesting question. When you study singing, there are many tricks that help you. Like [putting your hand on your heart or other gestures]. Because you’re dealing with the body as an instrument. Especially when you’re on stage, you get nervous. And there are consequences to that, which means you don’t breath deeply enough. So to just calm yourself down, you sometimes have these tricks. But the biggest challenge is to be natural. I’ve been reading a lot about Stanislavsky technique, and I’m really big fan of classical theater. One of my dreams would be to go to Hollywood sometime and to see how the coaches work with real actors. I’d love to see that.

The difference with them is that they don’t have the same sense of timing, they don’t have music. It’s a big advantage for us. You can find all the acting and all the answers in music, if you’re a good listener. The difficulty, at the same time, is that sometimes the directors want to do something against it. So, how do you do it a way that’s credible, true, and at the same time perform physically and mentally? That’s a big challenge. Because some say Maria Callas was a better singer [than me]—but she had a much easier life in many ways. Back then, they traveled less, and they didn’t have people who could record your every performance and put it on YouTube. And they were not supposed to do as much running and acting on stage as we are. If you listen to one of the last Callas interviews, they asked her why she left the stage, and one of the reasons she gave was “Did you see the last ‘Faust’ in Paris?” Her scene with the jewels was put in the ghetto. And she said, “I could never do it.” Because she was following the truth of what the composer wanted.  

Who was comparing you to Callas?

I was compared to Callas when I was doing my first “Norma” in Trieste. And that was the first place where she did it, in 1953. There were many very old people who were at both debuts, hers and mine. I had quite a big success, I have to say; still, I was sure that I was in a place in Italy where no one would know about my debut, but after a day or two all of Italy knew already. So the TV and radio journalists from Rome came to do interviews, because the reviews came out that I’m not worse than Callas.

It was not a plus, actually, as people might think. It was a minus. Because all the admirers of Callas came to Trieste, the opera house was sold out, and they came there to boo me because how could it be possible that someone who is Latvian, who is not Italian, is considered to be not worse than her? And I would never want to be like Callas because she is the only one and no one will ever be like her. It’s not right: every artist is an artist because she’s unique. If you’re like somebody, you’re not an artist.

Is it challenging for you to get into character?

When I was doing Vitellia in “La clemenza di Tito,” it was awful, because she’s a real bitch. And it’s completely opposite to what I am. But playing her as simply a bitch isn’t interesting. Every bitch has her reasons [laughs]. To really understand her reasons, why she’s so power hungry, wanting to possess the throne, what’s her love for Tito, and how she finds the weak spots of Sesto to manipulate him, and everybody else? It’s so challenging and interesting to play someone who’s completely unlike you.

If a character is really different to you, have you every found yourself acting like her?

It was only once, it was after “Norma” in Trieste. It’s a crazy story, because I’m usually a very peaceful person. I’m never getting into conflicts. But I think it was after my last performance. And it was carnival in Trieste. Everybody was dressed up. I was singing with my close friend, the mezzo-soprano Anna Goryachova. And my father came to the performance. So we were both walking with my father, and we had really heavy makeup on. And there was a group of men who thought we were two prostitutes. They started insulting us. I would never have expected myself to do this, but I went up to one of them and I hit him [laughs]. And I was like, “My God, how could I do that?” I thought, “This character probably influenced me to be very strong.”

But probably it was also because I had too much adrenaline after the show. It had never happened to me in my life before; that was the only time. But also I had to defend my dignity and the dignity of my father, and of my friend. Our replies didn’t work, so I just hit him.

How did he react?

They were so shocked. I think he said, “You are barbara, you are wild, where do you come from?” And I said, “I came from the opera house.” ¶

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.