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Considering the connotations of the term “diva,” there are a lot of preconceived notions that come with meeting one of the opera world’s most promising rising stars. Yet Maija Kovalevska seems to effortlessly dispel them. Yes, the 31-year-old soprano is more than 15 minutes late to her interview — but that’s just a product of the labyrinthine floor plan and spotty cell service that characterize the Metropolitan Opera House.
When she arrives, Kovalevska is warm, candid and undemanding, barely sipping from the plastic cup of water in front of her. And there are no signs of the cold from which she was suffering the previous evening during a performance of “La Bohème.”
“I was just considering [whether] to announce it or not,” she says when asked whether she thought about taking the night off (a woman made an announcement that she was feeling ill right before the curtain went up). “It was just a normal, simple cold, sore throat and congestion, that’s it. [By] the third act it was much better.”
Such un-divalike behavior is clearly one of the ingredients in Kovalevska’s success: she made her Met debut when she was 27 as Mimi in a 2006 production of “La Bohème,” reprised her turn in 2008 and is now tackling Giacomo Puccini’s sweet, dying protagonist in a series of performances this calendar year, followed by additional dates in January and February (the next performance is Thursday).
“Mimi is a very simple kind of character and she’s so sick and she’s going to die and she knows it from the very beginning.…I think if you compare this opera to other operas, it’s so simple and natural. The music is written so naturally that you really believe this person is dying,” says Kovalevska, her heavily lined eyes widening, hands gesturing constantly as she discusses the Franco Zeffirelli production. “For me, the most important moment is the third act when she sings farewell in the snow.…I think Puccini wrote it so perfectly and now I feel I can more deeply go into this — it’s so emotional, heartfelt and heartbreaking.”
Kovalevska’s passion for the part is certainly evident to all, according to Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager.
“Our audiences respond enthusiastically to Maija’s sympathetic portrayal of Mimi because onstage, she is both vulnerable and passionate, with just the right voice for the role,” says Gelb. “She represents a new generation of singers who don’t need to be reminded that opera is about acting, as well as singing.”
Perhaps that’s because growing up in Riga, Latvia, she dreamed of becoming an actress, a skill she has continued to channel in her current work. The eldest of three children of an electrician father, she was surrounded by music from a young age: her father played the piano and accordion recreationally and had his daughter listening to his favorite albums from Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and The Rolling Stones; her mother took her children to the opera beginning when Kovalevska was seven.
“Every time for me it was like going to church, something special. I was there just sitting with an open mouth,” recalls the soprano, whose first memory is of “Carmen.” “And then I couldn’t sleep at night because it was so powerful.”
Once she was 17 — unlike other art forms, opera requires an older start age because of voice development — Kovalevska entered the Latvian Academy of Music in Riga, where she embarked on an eight-year study program. She made her stage debut at 23 as Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni” at the National Latvian Opera.
After graduating, she won the prestigious Placido Domingo 2006 Operalia World Opera Competition and has since performed Liu in “Turandot” at La Scala and Teresa in “Benvenuto Cellini” at the Salzburg Festival. In the next eight months alone, her blossoming career will take her to Dresden, Munich, Vienna, Milan and back to New York.
But Kovalevska is careful to avoid any possibility of overdoing it, following the advice of legendary soprano Mirella Freni, who had a 50-year career and with whom she has been studying since 2003.
“There are several roles which I might never do which are for a different type of voice. Of course, there have been prima donnas like Maria Callas who sang everything, but they had like 10, 12 years of career,” she explains. “Mirella Freni, she had a long, intelligent, clever career and that was what brought her success: slowly, step by step, but better like this than to burn. I would love to [have that] — [though] I’m not saying like 50 years.”