Soprano debuts in 2 Met Opera roles within day

AP News
Posted: Apr 05, 2014 7:47 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Kristine Opolais got to bed at 5 a.m. Saturday after singing her first "Madama Butterfly'" at the Metropolitan Opera and going out for dinner.

Just 2½ hours later, the 34-year-old Latvian soprano was awakened by Met General Manager Peter Gelb, who wanted to know if she could take over a televised performance of Puccini's "La Boheme" that afternoon after Anita Hartig took ill.

Given the crazy question and unusual hour, Opolais said no thanks.

Five minutes later, she changed her mind.

Opolais on Saturday become the first singer in the Met's 131-year history to make two major role debuts within a day.

When the final curtain came down, Opolais covered her face and dropped to her knees to the stage, overcome with emotion during the 5-minute ovation. In addition to 4,000 people at the Metropolitan Opera House, her Mimi was seen live by an estimated 92,000 in movie theaters in North America and 110,000 more in 32 nations in Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

"I still think it's not reality," she said.

The wife of incoming Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Andris Nelsons, Opolais had not sung Mimi since performances at the Vienna State Opera in April 2013.

When the phone first rang, she didn't answer it. But it kept ringing and ringing and ringing. And when she first spoke to Gelb, she had trouble believing he was serious.

"I was in a shock. The first seconds I couldn't even speak," she recalled. "It's just impossible for anybody."

After she hung up, she started to think.

"Some voice inside me said, 'Why not? It's a chance, and you just said no. Maybe you should take it?'" she said.

Once Opolais agreed, Gelb and the Met staff scrambled to bring J. Knighten Smit, the stage director for the revival of Franco Zeffirelli's 1981 production, to the house for a walk through. Resident costume designer Sylvia Nolan was on the subway when she got an email on the cast change at 9:37 a.m. and went to work along with assistant costume shop head Elissa Iberti, first draper Regina Schuster and seamstresses Arlina Wilks and Svetlana Terentiev to get dresses ready for Opolais.

While Opolais had blonde hair and Mimi refers to "miei capelli bruni (my dark hair)" in the first act, there was no time to make a wig, so the staff decided she should go on stage with her natural locks.

"This is the kind of thing that makes our life exciting and actually makes the Met exciting," Nolan said. "It is a moment when we get to swing into action and do what we do best because we have people here with extraordinary expertise. They not only have skill, but they have speed."

Clutching rails in the third act as the dying Mimi, Opolais displayed heartbreaking acting and a shimmering voice, though perhaps not at its strongest because of the previous night's exertions. Prompter Joan Dornemann and conductor Stefano Ranzani helped her get through along with her Rodolfo, tenor Vittorio Grigolo.

Met director of archives Robert Tuggle said the Met had never before had company role debuts in consecutive performances.

Opolais' husband was in Switzerland and couldn't listen to a web stream because he was busy rehearsing Sunday's Claudio Abbado memorial concert with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra.

Opolais made her Met debut in January 2013 in Puccini's "La Rondine" and is scheduled to sing Puccini's "Boheme," ''Tosca" and "Manon Lescaut" at the Met in future seasons along with Dvorak's "Rusalka."