Saturday, March 02, 2013

Who's your Tosca?

Two rising stars of the opera world are taking on Tosca at Covent Garden: Amanda Echalaz and Kristine Opolais. They're very different. Which is the Tosca for you? I talked to them both and a bit of our chats is in today's Independent. More appears below. Incidentally, I popped into the ROH the other day to do some more interviews and found the foyers hearteningly packed with kids, who were excited and shouting after the first act of the Tosca schools' matinee. They saw Amanda, and she certainly seemed to be doing the trick for them.

Tosca is an opera for a diva about a diva. No wonder this perennial Puccini favourite is, to many sopranos, the ultimate prize of the repertoire. Floria Tosca is an opera singer trapped between the artist she loves and the dictator who lusts after her, and in the Royal Opera’s latest revival, the spotlight falls on two fast-rising stars who take on the role in turn. 

I remember speaking to Angela Gheorghiu about Tosca once: she declared that in this role she was simply playing herself. So does a soprano have to be a diva - in every sense - to be a great Tosca? 

Amanda Echalaz, 36, thinks not. She shot to prominence in this same work at Opera Holland Park in 2008, since when it has become her “signature” role (audiences may also have spotted her in the Cardiff Singer of the World 2005 in which she represented her native South Africa). More recently she has performed Tosca at ENO and, crucially, stepped in at Covent Garden about three years ago when Angela Gheorghiu dropped out - since when she has been hailed as this star's successor in the role. “I never get tired of singing it,” she says. 

For her, she adds, “Tosca is a very human figure: she’s full of wonderful qualities and like most people she has her flaws, which makes her very likeable. I’m drawn to the passionate, fiery side of her: she has a real zest for life. Her diva characteristics are obvious, but it’s more interesting to try to find the real woman behind that, especially the real woman in love.” Echalaz herself, unlike Tosca, seems serene and relatively down to earth. She identifies with Tosca’s vitality and passion for music – but there, she insists, the resemblance ends.  “Playing someone so extreme can be liberating, but I’m a little calmer in real life.”

But the Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, 33, whose 2011 Royal Opera House debut in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly took her audience by storm, declares simply: “Tosca is like me! She’s an opera singer and she’s very jealous. 

"You can find everything in this very colourful and powerful woman. She’s strong, emotional and impulsive, and what happens to her is a great tragedy as she gives everything she is capable of giving for love. I feel very at home when I sing this role.”

Opolais, who is married to the conductor Andris Nelsons and has recently had her first child, adds with a laugh that she thinks “divas” are inherently “not normal”. “Who would want to do this job? You’re nervous, you go on stage and all the time you are afraid whether the audience will love you or not. Even if you are stable, you are always afraid. So I think Tosca is already a little bit crazy – as every big diva has to be.”