As an operaphile, much of my life involves waiting in some way for opera singers. If I am not waiting for them to come on-stage, then I am waiting for them to sing, for art to happen, to do something right or wrong, or (more rarely) turn up for interviews. Often, this time spent waiting for opera singers is devoured by questions fueled by anticipation: how will the singer react to the conductor or his/her costars? How will they sing x aria (which, of course, is my favorite) in this opera? And, most important in the case of interviews–especially if their reputation does not precede them–what are they like as a person when they are not performing?
Great personalities do not always make great performers, but I do believe they can tip the scale between a good performance and a great one. As I sat in the interview room at Covent Garden awaiting the arrival of Lianna Haroutounian, an up-and-coming Armenian soprano who has already made a name for herself singing Verdi, I wondered if she was anything like the composer’s fictional heroine. She is a singer I had never heard of before it was announced that she would be Anja Harteros’s replacement for four performances of the 2013 run of Nicholas Hytner’s Don Carlo at the Royal Opera.
Haroutounian came in and was all smiles: bubbly and cheerful on one of the hottest days London has seen in recent memory. At first glance, she is nothing like Elisabetta de Valois, the troubled and unfortunate heroine of Don Carlo; forced into a marriage with a man she does not love and to live with the man she does in an eerily oedipal way. But as Haroutounian speaks I begin to see similarities: she speaks quickly, in passionate French and, as the interview continues, reveals striking perspectives on her alter ego’s situation.
Haroutounian grew up in a small town called Mezamor in Armenia amidst a family of opera lovers: her father, grandfather, brother, and aunts listened to opera “constantly.” She says that her father had a superb tenor voice, although he was not a professional singer. Whatever the case, she clearly had a sufficient background to appreciate–at the age of 14–Zefferelli’s filmed version of La traviata, with Domingo and Stratas. This had an enormous influence on her and was “life changing” to the point that she remembers being “shocked” for an entire week after seeing it.
Mezamor was a small town, though, and she needed to get out and be in a big city, a familiar trope for artists worldwide. She began studying piano and eventually voice; she spent much of her early years training in France and Italy, most notably at the Bastille Young Artists Lyrical Training Centre in Paris. There were also masterclasses with Scotto and Ludwig, whom she cites an inspirations in addition to her father. Her early training allowed her to focus more on the purely musical side of things: harmony, rhythm, and her technique were most important to her.
As she progressed, she realized the importance of the words, the synergy between music and emotion, and especially how that synergy works in Italian opera and specifically Verdi’s music. She says that she “learned to listen to Verdi’s music, to feel it and to understand his world: one that is full of passion, hope, and the grain of life.” This brings a wide smile to my face and I ask her to elaborate. She says “you must be committed, open to this world, because it always demands more of you. Giving in to Verdi’s world makes you a Verdi singer; it is one of peace, unity, generosity, love, process, and performance.”
Perhaps ironically for a singer that has made her name singing Verdi, Haroutounian is drawn to comedy and feels that she would be great in comic opera, but her type of voice pulls her towards the heavier repertoire: in addition to Verdi, she has all the Puccini heroines and some Strauss in her back pocket, so to speak. Yet she also stays away from singing too much German because–although she speaks Russian, Armenian, French, and Italian—she does not yet speak the language fully, revealing her sensitivity to the text’s interplay with music.
As we narrow the conversation to Elisabetta, she says that “vocally [the role] presents many difficulties; from extreme vocal lines to coloratura–usually a mix whilst in an extreme dramatic situation—in a sense it is like Elena in I Vespri Siciliani but more homogenous, constrained, and yet also more expressive.” Haroutounian explains that “Elisabetta is more powerful than the other Verdi heroines…not as rich and colorful but more like a beam, one that must be sustained.”