Interview with Marina Rebeka – A look behind the scenes
“If I had the possibility, I’d like to forbid music.” This is a very strange statement, isn’t it? Especially, since it is coming from a singer! Opera Gazet had an exclusive interview with Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka, who sang Amelia in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra (see review) at Salzburg Festival. And she had a lot to tell!
Meeting Marina Rebeka is like meeting an old, wise soul in a young, healthy, beautiful body, spiced with high intelligence, boundless energy, and a great sense of humour. Once she starts talking about her favourite topic – music – you can hardly stop her (funny enough, she says the same about her 8-year old daughter).
“Almost everywhere they managed to ban smoking from public places – for health reasons, and because many people do not like the smell of smoke”, Marina starts answering our question for something important she would like to tell the world; and she continues, “So why on earth can’t they ban music from restaurants, shopping malls, airports etc? Nowadays, we are constantly exposed to noise pollution. Our ears are forced to hear unwanted, bad, terrible ‘kind of’ melodies, ‘elevator music’ everywhere and all day long. This degrades music to annoying, sickening background noise. But real music is so very important for our sanity, physical and psychical. However, you need to enjoy it consciously to absorb and feel its beauty and magic.”
Rebeka’s family background has shaped her. “My home town Riga has a rich historical and cultural heritage. When I was born, it was the link between the old USSR and Europe. Tradition, history and ancient arts met up with modern works. The city is breathing music and arts”, she tells, and you can feel the gratefulness for the foundation of her own widespread knowledge.
Her parents and her grandfather all were engineers, her father even a sound engineer, all of them connected to music by either playing instruments themselves (parents) or by conducting a chorus (grandfather). The grandfather was the one who took the thirteen-years old to see her first opera (Norma). She was stunned – and decided on the spot she wanted to become an opera singer. However, the path to the top was difficult, and always accompanied by extra hard working, extra more learning, and extra focussing on defined goals. She proved all people wrong who had told her, “she had no voice or she would not succeed” by passing exams with flying colours, learning five foreign languages and winning important singing competitions. After various engagements at opera houses in Germany, Switzerland, France and Italy she made it into international spotlights after a huge success at the Salzburg Festival 2009, where she sang the role of Anai in Rossini’s Moïse et Pharaon. La Scala, the Met and Vienna States Opera started to show serious interest. Phone calls were made.
The key word for her personal success has always been “dedication and passion”. “You have to love and to be completely dedicated to what you do in order to be yourself, to be credible and authentic”, she states.
When Rebeka learns a new role, she digs to its roots. She studies the historical backgrounds and pays a lot of attention to the composer’s intentions. “Why did Verdi use two piani in a row in La Traviata? Because he wanted to express the deep pain Violetta feels”, she shares her insights. “I always try to find and present the various sides of the character. Take Norma, for instance, one of my favourite characters. She has so many different facets. She is a warrior, a witch, a mother, a lover, a friend, a leader. You have to express and show this – which is not credible with ‘voice only’. It has to have a soul. If you are too concentrated only on your voice and your technical skills, you will not catch the audience. You must carry them away by the drama that is needed to make them love the opera and forget everything else around.”
What else is necessary to create the drama?
“Collaboration”, is Rebeka’s immediate answer. “In a best case scenario the entire team starts preparing an opera some years in advance. Together! The focus should not be on one single team member, not on the famous conductor, not on the ‘hip’ stage director, not on the diva in the ensemble. It only works, if each member contributes to the common goal. Together, they should develop the optimum to create a thrilling production. Unfortunately, sometimes the singers are the weakest links in the chain. If they are unlucky, they have to follow the conductor’s wishes with few possibilities to add their ideas or needs, or they have to obey the stage director’s instructions and do weird things that may affect their singing. The singers are ultimately responsible for creating the tantalising drama by their singing and acting and that should be supported by everyone in the team.”
That sounds like a complaint about too mighty stage directors?
“It is, but against those who do not understand the music that is written on the score. How can Romeo be a credible, passionate lover, if you tie him to a bed in a madhouse, while innocent Juliette works as a table dancer in a brothel? That was not written in the original story, nor is there any trace that it was in the mind of the composer, and those people were the true geniuses. A singer or an orchestra musician cannot change the notes that are written on the score, you have to bring to life what is already there, and that is the sign of a true performing artist. It is not to shock.”
How does Marina Rebeka cope with some weird ideas of modern stage directors? Are there limits of what she would be doing on stage?
“Of course! I have my principles. I would never appear naked on stage nor would I participate in an act of sexual violence. I accepted that once, but never again. As long as the story is logic and my character does not have to change the intended relationship with my singing partner, I am perfectly fine. But if I am not convinced, I will ask ‘why?’ “
But what can we do about that?
“As a singer, you can decide if you want to be involved in a certain production or not, it’s your choice. As a member of the public, I’ve walked away from operas and I’ve heard boos for the production teams of some ridiculously weird ideas or costumes. They never boo the singers for a bad production. The only way we as a public could express our dislike is not buying tickets and in that way not supporting something we do not like.”
Back to the more entertaining aspects of opera. Did you ever have a mishap on stage?
Rebeka giggles, “One? Oh no, many of them! Once in a Don Giovanni production I had to sing a duet next to the corps of my just killed father. A very dramatic, intense scene with my tenor partner. His collar was fixed with a little metal hook. During the scene he embraced me from behind and my wig got entangled with his hook, we were chained to each other. We both tried to hectically solve the knot while acting drama. I tore my (wig) hair out, he was pulling and tearing it as well. We could hardly suppress a laughing attack. When we finally could leave the stage, we both broke down and were rolling at the floor, laughing. Then there was another occasion, when during my appearance as Elektra in Idomeneo’s last scene I suddenly felt that the back seams of my costumes were falling apart. My dress was open, my blank skin was visible almost from the neck to the toes. From backstage I heard my colleagues giggling and teasing me ,Finally Marina is going to be naked on stage’, while I was frantically trying to avoid turning my back or even my side to the audience. I had to move a lot on stage, so this was quite a challenge. I was walking, creeping and jumping sidewards only while singing one of the most difficult arias and acting a scene of suicide. It must have looked hilarious.”
We can imagine that some scenes lead to intimate situations between male and female singers. Looking at the current “metoo”-discussion in the opera world, what are your experiences and your opinion about it?
“Of course, in a business that lives from drama, love, revenge, and interaction between men and women, there are always intimate situations that cannot be avoided. I have always set my limits clear – until here, and not further. Sure enough I’ve had approaches from male colleagues or people in the business in the past, but when it happened, I simply but firmly dismissed them with either humour or disdain and walked away. But if the situation goes out of hand or turns threatening, of course, the incident should be reported immediately and one should seek help. Remaining silent is dangerous, because it can be interpreted in both directions, and it can happen again.”
Aside from this debate, what is your advice for young opera singers?
“Stay yourself, don’t change for others. Believe in what you can do best and like the most! Then you will reach your goals. Money is not everything. Staying honest, grounded and authentic is much more important. The main problem of today’s very difficult opera world is that young, talented singers are too eager to get engagements, but they need to be careful and understand if the role they are being offered is suited to their voices at that particular time, because a role taken too early in your career can damage your voice, and you only have one! I refused some lucrative offers from big houses, because I did not feel ready to sing the offered roles. Of course, I lost sympathies, and money, too. But I kept my honesty, my spine, and my face. I want to remain true to what I know is right for me and that I can do to the best of my abilities. I highly recommend that to everyone, not only in my business. It makes your life happier and more satisfying.”
Next projects – Donizetti trilogy in Amsterdam
“I am preparing for different roles, e. g. Norma in Toulouse, Eugene Onegin in Vienna, Il Pirata in Dortmund, and Il Trovatore in Vienna again. And then I have a very interesting collaboration with Amsterdam. I think I can already talk about it, even if it’s still a few years ahead. We plan a sort of ‘trilogy’ about the three Donizetti Queens in Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux. It is a great project, I love it.”
You founded your own record label “Prima Classic”. What were your intentions?
“There were several reasons. One of them is that I was never completely happy with the results of my work with the bigger record labels. I understand it is business for them and they have to move on to the next project. But for a perfect result you need to handle every aspect of the production of an album with utmost care, and this requires a lot of time, dedication, and money.
If you are a young singer, an album is the perfect business card to introduce yourself, and if you are an established singer, an album is the only way of leaving a testament of who you were and how your voice sounded at a particular time in your career. Think about fifty years from now, if you don’t leave a trace, nobody will know you existed. What would have happened if Callas had refused to make recordings? We wouldn’t know how her voice sounded like. Also, only a very small percentage of people attend to opera houses, and for the remaining vast majority of music lovers, their only way to learn about a singer is through listening to a recording. There are so many incredibly talented singers with beautiful voices out there, but they simply do not get a chance to present their abilities and excellence on a high-quality recording, and they remain unknown to a lot of people.
‘Prima Classic’ is not a way for me to earn extra money – on the contrary. But I am dedicated to create a library of beautiful voices, presented in the best possible way. My husband, a sound engineer, is a genius in carefully modulating recordings. I also want to have artwork on the cover. And for the booklets: In usual commercial CDs you find a booklet with the synopsis, with some bio of the singer, some uninteresting or well-known information – and that’s it. But who needs a synopsis in a booklet? Everyone can find the facts on the internet. For me it is more interesting to hear what the singer has to tell about her or his reasons for choosing certain arias or songs, about emotions, dreams and ideas. When all this is coherent, you have a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ which you can be proud of. But of course, this all takes time, time, and even more time, and absolute dedication and passion.”
Dedication and passion – Rebeka’s mainsprings for her career. How does she combine her busy “Duracell” schedule with being a mother?
“Well, that’s difficult. Until she was 2 ½ years old, I had her with me on travels. But then children need friends of their age, and a steady home. Luckily, my own mother now cares for my little daughter who is now eight. I try to see her as often as possible, not to stay away for longer than six weeks. I wish there was a space machine to travel immediately form place to place so I could spend more time being home with her.”
Marina’s little spare time is reserved for her family – and for “silence, long walks, nature, reading books.”
And if her time permits, she gives very interesting interviews that show her strong personality, her sense of humour, her intelligence, her natural congenialness – and last, but not least: her dedication and passion for what she does and loves: music.
Gabi Eder (published 29 August 2019)