Latvian Soprano Marina Rebeka on The Pearl Fishers, Rossini, and Upcoming Debuts

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Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka will soon be playing the mysterious priestess Leïla in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Mozart and Rossini expert has an active concert life in addition to her opera performances, and has some exciting house debuts this season. I am thrilled that Marina was willing to sit down with me and discuss The Pearl Fishers, her background, and upcoming engagements.

Marina Rebeka in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s The Pearl Fishers
Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg

You will soon be performing Leïla in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers. How does this role fit you on a personal level? Do you sympathize with the character?

Personally, I love both the strong and sensitive sides of Leïla, and I especially love the duet with Zurga in the last act of the opera.

Marina Rebeka
Marina Rebeka
Photo credit: Dario Acosta

I love the role. It has the typical features of a role development as many French opera soprano characters. They first appear with quite a high range and flexibility in the voice, but more and more throughout the story the characterization becomes fuller in the voice. Leïla is a young, beautiful, sensitive, strong woman with extraordinary abilities (she’s the priestess of Brahma). All this tells us enough of why people are attracted to her character. Personally, I love both the strong and sensitive sides of Leïla, and I especially love the duet with Zurga in the last act of the opera.

The set and costume designs for The Pearl Fishers by Zandra Rhodes are bright and vibrant! How has the set influenced your interpretation of the role?

I find the set to be enchanting. I love bright colors and I find that it fits perfectly with this fairy tale story of Sri-Lanka. It is definitely a colorful production!

What’s your favorite part of this particular production of The Pearl Fishers?

I would say I like most of it, but the most scary part is the finale of the second act, as we are circled by ballet dancers who are performing quite a strong ritualistic dance. It feels like they are going to hit us or somehow destroy us on the spot! It’s very impressive. We still have to get used to it. My favorite scene in an atmospheric sense is my second aria (“Comme autrefois”) and the duet with Nadir.

Marina Rebeka in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s The Pearl Fishers
Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg

You are one of the world’s leading Rossini and Mozart singers. Do you have a favorite Rossini or Mozart role? Is there a role you’re dying to play but simply haven’t had the chance to yet?

I love both Mozart and Rossini. I do not have a particular role that I would say I love the most or would like to sing more often. There are a few roles from Rossini which I still need to sing – Semiramide, Armida, La Donna del Lago, and Ermione – but there is plenty of time for all of them. They require a mature voice and solid technique, and I work on that more and more every year. As for Mozart, I will probably not perform his operas anymore, maybe with one exception. I am planning to concentrate on his concert arias and sacred music. The reason for this is that my repertoire is changing slightly at the moment.

Tell us about growing up in Latvia. What was the opera scene like? Who influenced you early on? When did you decide to devote your life to opera?

Marina Rebeka
Marina Rebeka in Norma
Photo credit: Teatro Lirico

I remember as a child I always watched ballet. I loved watching figure skating as well, but often went to see ballet performances in the opera house. I was dreaming of a career as a ballerina but my parents said “your bones are too heavy and the work is insane.” No! So I went on attending my choir classes. Everybody in our country sings in chorus or dances in the National dance ensemble. Every four years (the next is 2018) we have a song festival where all the Latvian choruses compete. In the end it is huge, an 11,000 person chorus sings together, led by one conductor. I have participated in that event. Then, when I was 13, my grandfather (who is now 93) said “we will see an opera tonight.” I asked “what is it?” and he said “you will see.” It was Bellini’s Norma and I fell in love with it immediately. In the first intermission I said “I will sing this!” Obviously my family did not believe me, but here I am after 24 years standing on the stage at The Metropolitan Opera and singing Norma just as I promised.

What does your playlist on Spotify consist of? When you feel like listening to music at home, what do you put on?

Mariza, Cesaria Evora, Edith Piaf, Renee Olstead, Russian music like Sergei Trofimov, Nikitiny, Jaques Loussier, Marin Marais, and some other artists. But honestly, I love silence too!

You’re an active concert performer as well. I’ve always wondered if it’s more challenging to sing in concert as opposed to an opera production. In concert, the audience has no visuals – no set, no costumes – nor do they have any context for the aria or ensemble piece you perform. Does that make concert performing more difficult, nerve-wracking, or perhaps even fun?

I love performing in concert. It all depends on what you perform. If there are opera arias, you just switch characters and are moving from one opera to the other. Meanwhile performing in an opera it is a continuous development of one character. Both are challenging and great, but different. What I find most challenging is to sing a recital with chamber music. This requires a different approach and atmosphere. You have no story and the only character is you, as yourself. There are no costumes, sets, or other partners. It is very difficult also in a sense with coloring the voice and finding different technical solutions. I performed several times an opera in concert version and am sure that even without costumes and sets it has a big influence on human hearts and emotions.

…even with no words music finds a way directly to the human heart if it is performed honestly, with passion and devotion.

I see some exciting things coming up for you this season: La traviata at Opéra National de Paris, Faust at Opéra de Monte-Carlo, and Simon Boccanegra at Wiener Staatsoper, in addition to an array of concert performances. Are any of these role or house debuts? Which one are you particularly looking forward to?

I am really looking forward to my Paris debut in Traviata. I love the city and it has major traditions. Plus, Traviata is actually set in Paris, so it will be extremely exciting! Monte Carlo is also a house debut. I am very excited to sing the role of Marguerite in Faust there, and of course to sing in Vienna is a great experience.

To finish, I’d like to ask a question I ask everyone: what is it about opera that touches your soul?

The truth of expression, the beauty of words and music in conjunction, and the fact that even with no words music finds a way directly to the human heart if it is performed honestly, with passion and devotion.

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