When the Royal Opera opened their season of French operas in September 2006 with a concert performance of Halevy's La Juive at the Barbican, an excellent evening was almost stolen from veteran Dennis O'Neill and glamorous Cardiff Singer of the World winner Nicole Cabell by a young Russian soprano of whom most people had never heard before.
And by the end of the performance, the name of Marina Poplavskaya was ingrained on everyone's memory as an important new talent to watch. Since then the singer has gone from strength to strength, appearing in Covent Garden's Götterdämmerung and standing in for an ailing Anna Netrebko on the opening night of the last revival of Don Giovanni to great acclaim. This season, she has been cast for two important productions: the first revival of Steven Pimlott's production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin with Gerald Finley, and, even more excitingly, Nicholas Hytner's new production of Verdi's Don Carlo opposite Rolando Villazon and Simon Keenlyside. We meet to discuss her preparation for these roles and her time on the Royal Opera's Young Artists Programme.
When I ask her if she is enjoying rehearsing for Onegin, she replies: 'Oh yes. I've been studying it for over twelve years. I was honoured to meet some amazing scholars of Pushkin's life and writings. I've read everything he ever wrote, so I have to say, yes, I'm ready!'. Does she feel it is important to get behind the literary source of a piece like this? 'How else can you get experience of life?' she replies. 'Before coming here, you have to get your education somewhere, you've got to become somebody, and then move forward. It's the same story with the opera, except that there's beautiful music playing in the background!'
But some people wouldn't bother reading it, I put in. 'Well I'm sorry for those people!' she laughs. 'It's incredibly challenging and it gives you so much emotionally. We singers and actors are very lucky: we can let all human emotions out through our work. It's a great chance to tell people not only the story of the character, but the story of your own life, too.
'I associate with the character of Tatyana a lot. For me, being raised on the Stanislavski 'system' meant that I realised that you have to find the belief in the character yourself, before you can play it for everyone else. Stanislavski was a man who sat on the back row of the theatre and yelled 'I don't trust what you play!'. You need certain life experiences, and I'm still learning from my colleagues, from the stage directors who can give me so much in each new rehearsal and each new production. I consider myself a very lucky person that I have all the language of this theatre to bring out the emotions of the characters I play.'
She made her professional debut as Tatyana. Has her view of the role developed? 'I think I have grown into that role. If I might liken myself to a tree, I have put down my roots more and more deeply into her. She's just become more and more interesting to me. Now I really understand what a genius Pushkin was. He's like Shakespeare is in England: one man dominating thousands of years. Pushkin was the Shakespeare of Russia – he had an enormous knowledge of life and tradition, of poetry and music, and he knew all these things so well that he could operate freely and make them his own and create his own sayings. He loved England and wanted to come here – he said it was a land of dreams. I find that Onegin is more English than Russian in some ways, and I must say that the elegance of Tchaikovsky's writing brings us more to Victorian times, and because Steven Pimlott's production for Covent Garden embraces this, it is the perfect setting for it. The right production and the right country.'
Does the music lie well for her? 'The music is the biggest joy and the biggest pain at the same time, for me! If something doesn't quite go according to my will but to the will of the conductor or some other circumstance, it makes me terribly unhappy. But I must say that Maestro Belohlavek has been so extraordinarily sensitive and caring about musical line and other details that it's sometimes hard to remember that he's not Russian. He's very careful about the words, the phrasing and particularly the colouring. He's not one of those conductors who will rush and get faster and faster so that you can end the rehearsal and go and get lunch before they close the kitchen! He's very kind, and it's a pleasure working with him.'
And what's it like working with Gerald Finley, the Canadian baritone playing the title character? 'Oh my God, he's such a passionate man! He has a very big temperament and amazing warmth; it's like there's heat radiating from him. He's a very moving Onegin; vocally, he produces the most elegant lines, and he's beautifully moving onstage. At the same time, he's a very strong male figure and you can really sense the character's revolutionary spirit: parts of Onegin could almost be attached to the first Russian Revolution, when the free spirits and poets and artists rose up together to make life better. So I think his Onegin will be very individually interesting.' Does she find it easy to break her heart for him? 'Oh yes, immediately!'
When Pimlott's production of Onegin was unveiled a couple of years ago, some people wondered why a choral setpiece that is meant to take place in the interior of a house was staged on a frozen lake with ice skaters instead. But Poplavskaya explains that there's a good reason for it. 'When they first introduced cameras into Russia in about 1910 – which isn't so long from Tchaikovsky – they took several pictures of the old tradition we had of ice skating on the Moscow River. Now there's global warming we can't do it any more, but they've opened up an ice rink in the heart of Red Square. If you saw those pictures, you'd understand that it's a very Russian thing to do and it makes perfect sense in this production. Steven Pimlott was incredibly well educated and cultured, and when he saw the pictures he knew that it would work. That's why he was a good match for Pushkin: he understood tradition.'
In June, Poplavskaya takes on the role of Elisabetta in Don Carlo, one of the most demanding in the repertoire (indeed the production was originally intended for Angela Gheorghiu, who decided not to add it to her repertoire at this stage). 'It's a huge challenge for me,' says Poplavskaya. 'I must say that the years since I moved here have all been challenging. The coming year is full of new roles for me: Desdemona, Elisabetta, Violetta. It's a case of finding enough time to study them! I take them with the utmost sense of dignity and responsibility, and I will do everything I can to do a good job. I'm honoured to sing the role of Elisabetta here. But it will certainly not be a relaxing experience!
'I've been working on it for months already. Almost as soon as we finished Don Giovanni last summer, I started to study it, though I had the Young Artists' Summer Concert to prepare for. That was challenging in itself. For the scene from Pelléas et Mélisande, I was inspired by one of Picasso's pictures. It has a woman in a strange position with lots of angles and triangles on it, and when you look straight at it, it starts dancing and moving. I tried to create the same with Mélisande by standing on an angle and staying completely still; it was just a touch but I hope it worked. It was strange, though, singing Mélisande's low mezzo music after such a high coloratura role as Lucrezia (in I due Foscari). But that's the life of an actor: you have to use your skills to adapt. And if you're not ready for your job, you'll lose it.'
Having mentioned the importance of reading Pushkin in her preparations for Eugene Onegin, I ask Poplavskaya whether she feels the same about Schiller's Don Carlo, the source for Verdi's opera. 'I have read the Schiller play, and it's great now that I can read it in the original language,' she explains. 'Even if they are made by geniuses, translations aren't the same as the original: translators come at it from their point of view and experiences. They put themselves in the story. But to read Schiller in German was incredible, and I've also read a lot about the history behind the story. I've also found the internet very helpful for researching things like the costumes, and I have listened to thirty or forty recordings of Don Carlo. I listen to some of them many times, because I have to find something different for me to do. I will agree with some parts and disagree with others.'
Which singers is she particularly influenced by? 'Well, the greatest is Maria Callas, of course. The way she did 'Tu che le vanità' was remarkable. She was like a painter: I can compare her only to Salvador Dali in her range and use of colours. She has such a multi-dimensional approach to opera. No matter how many times I listen to her recordings, I always find something new. I can't really say that she sang; she was telling the story. The other person who inspired me in this role was Mirella Freni. She had a charming femininity.' But does she feel intimidated by all these great performers of the past, given audiences' expectations of how a role 'should' sound based on recordings? 'They shouldn't compare me; I think it's wrong for people to compare artists to one another or come with certain expectations, unless a singer declares herself to be a second Maria Callas, which I am not. I am just being Marina Poplavskaya – I don't want to place myself where I am not. I am doing my work, and I try to do it well.'
We move on to discuss her time as a Young Artist, and I ask Poplavskaya what she feels she really got out of it. 'I still work with the staff and they're very helpful. They have helped me to find myself and to find new repertoire. The language coaching is remarkable: when I first came here, I didn't speak English at all. It was very challenging even to cope with the tube map when I couldn't pronounce the names – I would say 'Slo-an Squire' instead of 'Sloane Square'! That's why, when you asked me how I was doing, I said 'I survived'. It's really scary.
'It's not just a case of singing roles, either. To be able to sing roles, you have to be ready. They have extraordinary people here who are like wizards: they can see the future and know what you'll be able to sing. It reminds me of Harry Potter! When I first came here, they planned three major roles for me to cover. That meant I had to learn them, and we had the language coaching and enormous numbers of sessions with pianists, all with different kinds of experiences to pass on to you. They bring the leading singers and actors of the world to talk to you. They have a special lady for movement and body language, so that you don't look like a windmill on the stage. It's a lot of work. Sometimes people say that some of the Young Artists have just done little small roles, but it's not true: they'll have had forty or more hours of piano coaching, plus many hours of language coaching. They help you find the resources in yourself so that you can push yourself to study and research. I think that will employ me for my whole life.'
Poplavskaya's future challenges include her first Violettas in La traviata at the Netherlands Opera and in Los Angeles. 'I'm greatly looking forward to singing that role!' she says. 'Violetta is a very interesting woman, and she was based on a very interesting woman in real life [Marie Duplessis]. She arrived in Paris at eleven, and by the age of fourteen she had all the best lovers in Paris. There's a story that Dumas' father was in love with her and was jealous about his son, which is where the novel came from. Her only rival was the favourite of the king! I find her interesting because she was highly educated and intelligent, yet she was very warm and sympathetic. And like Violetta, she loved life and died young, but I don't think Verdi gets it right when he has her say 'O gioia!' – it wasn't gioia at all! She was an incredible person: she died when she was in her early twenties but had the life experience of someone twice her age.'
When I mention the fact that she's doing Donna Anna again at Covent Garden later this year, Poplavskaya protests: 'It's not 'again', it's a new Donna Anna. I've had a session with Sir Charles Mackerras, the conductor, who's an incredible man. He wants to bring out a new palette of colours for the role – "Dammi i colori!"' she giggles, bursting into Cavaradossi's entrance aria from Tosca. So I ask, does she have a promising future career as a tenor ahead of her? 'I do like tenors, actually, and I can sing tenor roles better than the soprano parts!' she jokes. 'But seriously, when I study an opera, I study all the parts, not just my own. I have to know how it all fits together in the composer's mind. Most of them are dead, so I can't ask them in person! But I need to know what moved them to write certain things in certain ways.'
Does Poplavskaya find Donna Anna a two-dimensional character compared to others like Tatyana and Violetta? 'First of all, Donna Anna is not boring. She is Don Giovanni wearing a skirt. She adds so much to the opera's sense of musical drama. In Don Giovanni, Mozart makes the singers go to the theatre and act. It's not just a case of standing on one spot on the stage like [the castrato] Farinelli and singing endless coloratura. You have to impress with the acting skills, too. The tonalities and lines of Donna Anna and Don Giovanni match perfectly. I think they are united souls. The huge disaster takes place around them like a bomb explosion. The opera starts when they meet, and all that happens after that is death and more death. They are made for each other, and she is always torn between her love for him and her need to avenge her father. So I can't say that Donna Anna is boring.' But surely Don Ottavio, her dull tenor fiancé, is boring? 'He's not boring, he's a normal man. He says OK, where is that bastard Don Giovanni, let me kill him. And she replies "Oh, I don't remember". She never tells the truth. That's why in her final aria she says, "God forgive me".'
Would she like to sing more Mozart roles? 'I hope that people will finally consider me for Mozart roles. Most of them say that I have too dark a colour for Mozart, but I have the technique and I can do it, so why not? I would like to sing Mozart. Pamina would be a great challenge for me. And perhaps Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. I love her character: she gets kidnapped by the powerful Pasha and she suffers, but she's very strong and comes through it. I think strong personalities are my future!'
Are there any other roles she would like to sing in the future? 'I have a very good agent, who takes care of me, and the people here have ideas for my career, too – parts like Marguerite and Micaela, which are lyric roles but still quite strong characters. And Maestro Muti says I am more a Verdi singer than anything.'
Indeed, Poplavskaya will be teamed up with Muti this summer at Salzburg, where she will make her debut as Desdemona; the pair will also perform Otello together later in the year in Rome, where the soprano will make her Italian stage debut. 'Salzburg is great and Desdemona is great!' she exclaims. 'She's such a strong woman, actually, and Otello is like a baby. So what, it's the wrong handkerchief, what's the fuss? I'm looking forward to Salzburg enormously.'
Poplavskaya wanted to be a singer since a very early age, but she explains that her parents made it difficult. 'When I was young, my grandmother sang all kinds of old songs to me. I loved singing as a little girl, and I found out very quickly that I had quite a special voice – it was very deep and very loud. I used to sing folk songs, and people were very responsive to it – they gave me chocolates, so I was a very happy child!
'But my parents prevented me from being a singer for quite a long time, and my father thought I should be a scientist or something because I had all the skills. They wanted me to do chemistry or physics. I went to the Aviation School and everything went wrong for me – I wanted to study the humanities, literature, languages, but they sent me to study science. I graduated with great pain! We had a very strong point of studying mathematics and doing chemical experiments. Thank goodness it's over.'
Any further ambitions? 'I haven't got ambitions, but big plans. First of all, I want to be with my family – my mum and my brother, who recently got married. Secondly, I want to find a proper home instead of living out of a suitcase all the time. I need to find somewhere to rest after I come back from all my travels. And I want to find my own repertoire for my voice. I want to learn as many roles as possible, so I've already started working to see what my voice can do. Each role is a baby: it has to develop. I am committed to doing the best I can for the audience and to bringing my own vision to every role I sing.'