NEW YORK (AP) — Looking for a lyric soprano who can parachute into your production at the last minute, sing melodiously and then die movingly? At the Metropolitan Opera these days, they send out for Sonya Yoncheva.
Yoncheva is in New York singing four performances as Violetta, the glamorous courtesan who finds love too late, in Verdi's "La Traviata." It's a role she has sung often — unlike her first two Met assignments, which she had never performed onstage. She debuted in 2013 as Gilda in Verdi's "Rigoletto" and this past November stepped in as Mimi in Puccini's "La Boheme" on just a few weeks notice.
"I had to learn it (the role of Mimi) in the last five days before starting rehearsals here so it was really, really rushed," the Bulgarian soprano recounted in an interview at the Met earlier this month.
Yoncheva, who makes her home in Switzerland with her husband, conductor Domingo Hindoyan, had just given birth to their son, Mateo, in October.
"I remember myself in the night, nursing and studying Mimi, and not sleeping, and thinking about visas, papers, my son's passport," she said.
A flight to New York, a few run-throughs in the studio, and she was onstage.
"When you do these kinds of things, you don't have any time to think, so it's better," she said. "You don't think about the pressure, you just go for it. You're like a sportsman, you have to play the match."
Judging by the critical reception, she won the match easily. Zachary Woolfe wrote in The New York Times that "astonishingly, this was Ms. Yoncheva's first staged performance of the role. Her delicate, dreamy, detailed Mimi has arrived more or less fully formed."
Similar praise had greeted her debut a year earlier as Gilda, and now in "Traviata" she has scored her biggest triumph to date.
Yoncheva discounts the old cliche that Violetta requires a soprano who has "three different voices" — high-flying coloratura for Act 1, a lyric line for Act 2 and a fuller, more dramatic sound for her death scene.
"I don't have a button here or there where you go 'ping' and suddenly you're singing with a certain kind of voice," she said, playfully poking her right cheek and then her forehead. "But the approach is different of course because Verdi is representing Violetta in three different little pieces of her life."
For her, Act 1 poses the greatest challenge. "Those vocal fireworks are very difficult for voices like mine," she said, "because I feel more lyric and this is absolutely coloratura."
Indeed, at her first performance last week Yoncheva struggled a bit with the runs and high notes in her bravura aria, "Sempre libera," and omitted the often-interpolated high E-flat at the end — a note she manages successfully on her just-released Sony album, "Paris, mon amour."
But even here she was dramatically compelling, and she came completely into her own vocally in the later acts, earning a thunderous ovation at the end.
Yoncheva's rapid rise to fame — she's only 33 — started in her hometown of Plovdiv, where her mother, a frustrated actress who had played bit parts in films, was determined to turn her daughter into some kind of artist.
"She would try everything with me," Yoncheva said, laughing. "She would put me onstage, in choruses, in the theater, painting, dancing, writing poetry." She even sent her as a teenager to audition for a modeling job, but she ended up instead as host of a TV music show.
Then one day while performing in a chorus, she heard a soloist sing a Mozart aria that particularly struck her. "I never heard such a pure thing in my life," she remembered. "I said I absolutely want to produce the same sound, so I tried it at home. My mother heard me and said, 'I think you have talent.'"
She began taking singing lessons and won some contests at home, then went to Geneva, Switzerland, to study and was accepted into conductor William Christie's academy for young singers in 2007. Three years later, a first-place finish in Placido Domingo's "Operalia" competition sent her on her way to stardom.
Happily for her and her fans, Yoncheva's life as a stand-in appears to have run its course. Next fall she opens the Met season as Desdemona in a new production of Verdi's "Otello."
Not surprisingly, that's yet another role she will be performing for the first time.