Elīna Garanča sings gypsy-themed gems
The artist in conversation with George Hall
George Hall: What was your original idea for this album?
Elīna Garanča: There were a couple of them. Clearly I wanted to do something on the theme of gypsies. But another reason was that I love Spanish zarzuela, and indeed everything about Spain – the whole Spanish temperament, the way they think, the way they live. All that has fascinated me ever since I saw the film of Carmen with Julia Migenes and Plácido Domingo. I must have been about eight at the time. With this album, I also wanted to pay a little homage to Spain and the Spanish temperament.
GH: The role of Carmen is perhaps the most famous embodiment of Spain in all of music, and you’ve been singing it a great deal recently. How do you conceive her character?
EG: That isn’t easy to define, because in every production the stage director sees her character differently. So you have to be flexible – whether it’s going to be more about sex and violence, or freedom and despair, or destiny and joie-de-vivre. For me Carmen is certainly a free-spirited person who lives from day to day. As an audience member, you should experience every kind of feeling for her. You should love her, hate her, feel sorry for her, laugh with her, and feel that you want to embrace her like a little child and say, “It’s going to be alright tomorrow.”
GH: . . . and each one of Carmen’s solos is very different.
EG: Yes, and the difference has a lot to do with vocal production – you have to sound sensual or brilliant or very dark. In the “Seguidilla” it’s crucial to have a Don José you can interact with, a colleague who can really respond to you. Carmen’s sexuality very often depends on how other people react to her on stage.
GH: Only a few people know that there are two versions of the famous “Habanera”. You sing them both on your album.
EG: I adore that early aria, which is the version that Bizet later replaced – it’s absolutely gorgeous! I thought it would be interesting to have the opportunity to hear both habaneras, which are so completely different. It would be fascinating, even a little shocking, to have a production with the first one.
GH: Carmen is, of course, one of the greatest and probably the most famous of all operas. But let’s talk a bit about zarzuelas. Many people outside Spain know very little about this form of musical theatre.
EG: Zarzuela is the Spanish form of operetta. People often underestimate it, but to perform zarzuela well is very difficult – exactly the same as with German operetta. Because it’s a serious genre – whatever some people might think. I find a great deal of flamenco influence in it. Zarzuela speaks to every nationality, to every audience in every concert hall where I’ve performed it.
GH: How did you get to know it?
EG: Well, my husband is Gibraltarian, so he grew up very close to Spain. He brought the genre to my attention and introduced me to some of the popular pieces from it.
GH: Do you have any particular favourites in the zarzuela repertoire?
EG: Well, I love El barquillero. There’s a line in it, for instance, that says, “How can you control the force of a woman who is in love?” – that’s life, isn’t it!
GH: Another repertoire to which Spanish composers have made an invaluable contribution is song. Your Spanish selections by Falla, Montsalvatge and the others are very beautiful. What’s the special connection you have with them?
EG: As a child of musicians I heard many songs by Obradors, Falla, Serrano and other Spanish composers at home, so you can see that these gorgeous pieces have been with me since my earliest days! I’m particularly grateful that José María Gallardo del Rey agreed to record them with me. I love flamenco and often go to those little taverns where it’s performed. For me, the guitar brings out more of the character of these Falla songs.
GH: Let’s leave Spain for a moment . . . but staying with the theme of gypsies: you sound as if you really enjoy performing the song and csárdás from Lehár’s Zigeunerliebe!
EG: Of course I do! Obviously, having lived in Austria for six years, I allow myself to say that I know a bit about German operetta. It’s just a great piece, the kind that gets an audience stamping their feet when you do it at the end of a recital. Again, it’s not so easy to sing, but coming from an ex-Soviet country I believe I can bring out its melancholy qualities. And I hope that I also have the right colours for it.
GH: Moving from an Austro-Hungarian composer’s take on gypsy music to an Irishman’s: I was delighted to see that you’ve included Arline’s famous aria from Balfe’s Bohemian Girl!
EG: It’s such a lovely melody! For me, it’s one of those pieces you listen to at night at home by candlelight with a glass of wonderful wine. Singing it I try to imagine how that girl, kidnapped by gypsies, must feel as she recalls her childhood in a castle with marble floors!
GH: The Old Lady’s number from Bernstein’s Candide could hardly be more different.
EG: Maybe I’m not old enough to say this yet, but fun is not a question of age! And because I wanted to be a musical singer before I decided to become an opera singer, I love performing this repertoire . . .
GH: And, of course, it’s a tango!
EG: Yes, that’s right. I think gypsies never know where the borders are, and I hope that people will realize it’s also true for composers and singers. I’m deeply convinced that you don’t have to grow up in a certain country or with a certain musical repertoire to have the temperament and understanding to do this kind of music justice.
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