For a country of two million people, Latvia has produced an amazing number of world-class opera singers. I have the good fortune to have heard many of them, including Elina Garanča, Kristine Opolais, Marina Rebeka, Inga Kalna, and Maija Kovalevska. While these ladies wow audiences all over the world, very few have sung on Canadian stages. In recent years, only the wonderful Baroque specialist Inga Kalna has sung in Toronto, the role of Cinna in Lucio Silla with Opera Atelier two seasons ago.
Now Torontonians will have the opportunity to hear another terrific Latvian soprano, Maija Kovalevska. She will be making her Canadian debut as the soloist in Mahler’s magical Fourth Symphony, with the Ontario Philharmonic under the direction of conductor Marco Parisotto, on January 28 at Koerner Hall. 2018 marks the Centenary of Latvia, and Kovalevska is flying in from Vienna to help the Latvian Canadians celebrate this momentous occasion.
Born in Riga, Kovalevska shot to fame after winning the prestigious Operalia competition in 2006. That was one of several important competitions she won, but it led to her debut as Mimi in La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera, under the baton of Placido Domingo. She has since sung more than 50 performances at the Met, including Gala Concert celebrating Domingo’s 40 years at the Met. She’s also a regular guest at the Vienna State Opera since her debut in 2011 as Tatiana in Eugene Onegin.
I had the good fortune of hearing her as Mimi, her signature role. She combines gleaming vocalism with an engaging stage persona. You can sample her artistry in the many video clips of her performance on Youtube. Here’s one of her singing “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi, on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera.
And a second one of her in the Act One due “O soave fanciulla” from La bohème with tenor Murat Karahan.
In anticipation of her Canadian debut, I contacted Ms. Kovalevska two weeks before her arrival for an interview. Below is our slightly edited conversation:
First of all, we opera lovers in Toronto are looking forward to hearing you sing in our city for the first time! Have you been to Canada before?
I am excited to be performing in Canada for the first time. And in a concert that celebrates Latvia 100, with conductor Marco Parisotto and the Ontario Philharmonic. This is the opening of my World Tour. The invitation came after I sang Desdemona in Otello with Maestro Parisotto, at the Teatro Degollado in Mexico. I have never been to Toronto and Canada before. I am looking forward to my visit very much. I have met in the opera world some great Canadians and I loved every minute of working together with them!
You were born in Riga. Do you come from a musical family? Any musicians in your family? Brothers and sisters?
My cousin Armands Ābols is a professional pianist; he lives in Chile. My father Gunārs was very musical and he noticed my talent. I started to play the piano when I was 6, later I played the flute. I also have a younger brother, Joseph, who lives in London. He is musical too, likes to play the guitar. My mother Ināra often took me and my sister Laura to opera, when we were kids. I first saw the opera Carmen when I was maybe 6 years old and it was so powerful an experience that I couldn’t sleep at night. I was overwhelmed and wished to be back in the beautiful opera world.
What was your earliest memory of singing?
Earliest memory of singing was every Christmas, when we made concerts at home, singing with my sister Laura.
When did you start taking voice lessons? Tell us about your early music education. When did you decide to make a career as a singer?
I wanted to study languages, because I always loved to travel, but many people around suggested that I study voice when they heard me sing. So I followed their advice and I started to take voice lessons when I was 17. Then I started to love opera singing.
When you were a voice student, did you have a favourite singer, an idol whose voice you love? A singer you listened to a lot?
When I was a student, I listened to many recordings. My favourites were Maria Callas, Renée Fleming, Kiri te Kanawa, Renata Tebaldi and Mirella Freni. I was a Bon Jovi fan and listened a lot to his recordings. I still admire his voice and warm personality. His Soul foundation is an inspiration. My dream was to sing with Jon. Pavarotti did. Maybe one day.
Tell us about your experience of winning the Operalia Competition in 2006. And your experience of singing Mimi at the Met! Who was your Rodolfo?
Winning the Operalia Competition was an experience I will never forget. It is like Formula 1 for singers! The first time in Operalia in 2005, I reached the final round, but couldn’t sing because I had a cold. So it took a lot of courage and backbone to participate again a year later, 2006 in Valencia, and this time I won! The best singers from all over the world meet in Plácido Domingo’s opera competition. You hear only the best voices, which is great and gives you the motivation to sing even better. A week later, I had an invitation to sing Mimi in La bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with Rolando Villazón as Rodolfo and Maestro Plácido Domingo conducting. After this I started international career.
The voice is like a diamond and we learn all our life to polish its shape and shine.
Your website mentions that you work with Mirella Freni in Italy. Is she your main voice teacher? Do you work with other teachers and coaches? Conductors?
I have been working with the best coaches and great conductors worldwide. The voice is like a diamond and we learn all our life to polish its shape and shine. I had the honour to work in Italy with Mrs.Freni for many years; she was my voice teacher. She gave me good advices of voice technique and interpretation, and she is the best example of a long-lasting career for the younger generation.
You are one of many excellent opera singers from Latvia. For a small country of 2 million people, why do you think Latvia has produced so many wonderful singers? Is it the musical education? The cultural tradition of music?
We have a very strong musical education together with cultural tradition. Our nation comes from singing together. Every Latvian sings and we love to come and sing all together. We have a big song and dance festival, “Dziesmu un deju svētki.” Also this year we are celebrating Latvia 100.
Do you have a favourite role, and a favourite composer?
My favourite roles are Mimi, Liù, Tatiana, Micaela, Desdemona and Alice Ford. I adore comedy, so Verdi’s Falstaff is one of my favorite operas, but my favourite composer is Puccini.
Do you sing any Latvian opera?
I haven’t sung any Latvian operas yet, but I have a quiet wish one day to sing Spīdola in Jānis Mediņš opera “Fire and Night “.
I trust that the right roles will come to me in the right time.
What are your dream roles, for the future? I noticed you have started singing the heavier lirico-spinto roles like Alice Ford and Desdemona recently. Any plans to take on roles like the Trovatore Leonora or Amelia from Ballo?
I will sing my first Maddalena di Coigny in Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier this summer, and I am looking forward to this new repertoire as my voice is becoming lirico-spinto. Everything is in God’s hands for the future; I just take it easy. I trust that the right roles will come to me in the right time. This summer I will work on my first opera arias recording. I feel my voice is mature enough and ready for it.
I know you are singing the soprano solo in Mahler 4th, a very beautiful piece of music…the child’s view of heaven. I love it! Have you done this work before? What other Mahler works do you sing?
I have already sung Mahler’s Second Symphony, and now I will sing with great pleasure Mahler’s Celestial 4th Symphony for the first time. Mahler’s music is sacred but playful at the same time. It’s difficult to perform. Soprano’s solo is crystal clear. His music leads us into another dimension.
I understand you have worked with Maestro Marco Parisotto before. Can you tell us a bit about that?
With Maestro Marco Parisotto we have a very nice and fruitful collaboration. I cannot express in words how happy I am to sing these concerts in Canada!
I understand you are also singing a concert for the Latvian community. What are you going to sing?
I will sing a selection of musical pearls — Latvian songs and sacred music songs as a prayer for Latvia, together with Latvian pianist Rūdolfs Ozoliņš.
Where is home for you? What do you enjoy doing, for fun? What do you enjoy the most about being an opera singer?
I used to live in Italy for more than 10 years, where I studied with Mirella Freni. Now I am always on the road, travelling around the globe. Of course, the most beautiful moments are being on stage, becoming a character and performing beautiful music. I feel blessed and happy to be an opera singer. I enjoy sports, reading books and relaxing in nature, by the sea. I like to spend quality time with my family and friends.
What is the best piece of advice anyone has given you? An advice that has been a guiding light for you in your career and your life?
My mother gave me the best piece of advice: always smile! Smiling helps me to be positive, happy and always look on the bright side of life.
Thank you, Maija. We hope you’ll come back to sing in Toronto in the future. Toi toi toi for your upcoming Canadian debut!
LUDWIG VAN TORONTO