Violeta Urmana: She's a force of nature

From mezzo to soprano, from Lithuania to Covent Garden, the only way is up for Violeta Urmana, says Lynne Walker
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Violeta Urmana is hitting the high notes, literally. One of the world's most exciting singers - for whom alone a trip to Covent Garden's La Forza del Destino is worth the ticket price - she's putting her reputation as one of the world's most sought-after opera singers on the line. Best known as a dark-toned mezzo-soprano, she has recently reinvented herself as a bright-toned soprano soaring to stratospheric heights.

Violeta Urmana is hitting the high notes, literally. One of the world's most exciting singers - for whom alone a trip to Covent Garden's La Forza del Destino is worth the ticket price - she's putting her reputation as one of the world's most sought-after opera singers on the line. Best known as a dark-toned mezzo-soprano, she has recently reinvented herself as a bright-toned soprano soaring to stratospheric heights.

It's a gamble - taken in the full glare of the Royal Opera spotlights - that has paid off. At least, it has in the House's current production of Verdi's opera, in which the force of destiny has been unfortunate. Except for Urmana, it seems. As Edward Seckerson put it in this paper, "she sang everyone off the stage." That's just as well in a show in which brilliance appears to be in short supply.

It takes courage and determination to recreate yourself as a different type of singer but Urmana has both those qualities - though it took her a while to find her voice at all. She was born in 1960 in a small provincial town in Lithuania and, despite being taken to touring productions of opera and operetta, as a child she wasn't much interested in singing. Twenty years later, with singing still on the back burner, she had become an accomplished keyboard-player. But she realised that she was never going to make it as a professional pianist: "Too lazy," she chuckles.

Urmana left Lithuania at the end of the Communist regime in 1991, by which time she had studied singing in Vilnius. With very little money, not a word of German and nowhere to stay, she went to Munich (where she still lives). There she found Josef Loibl, whom she describes as the perfect singing-teacher. Remarkably quickly she was being acclaimed for her extraordinary musical authority and vocal beauty, exact sense of pitch and assured control. As one commentator put it, "The top of her range defies vocal gravity."

If things hadn't worked out as well as they have done for her, what path might she have followed? She looks quite blank, before remembering that she was once interested in design but since she couldn't draw or paint that was never really an option. Then, when I ask her if she still feels Lithuanian ("Absolutely, yes, yes, yes,"), she mentions that she might have been her country's leader instead of just the national hero her voice has made her.

"Someone suggested recently that I be a presidential candidate. I have never laughed so much. But it got serious and they kept saying you could be president and still sing." She must have given it some slight consideration, however, because she adds, "I thought, I can't possibly leave my career just when it's reaching its best years... not when I've worked so hard to get to where I am, and besides there's something about politics that's so very..." She can't find the word but she draws back with a shiver and a look of such sheer disgust on her face that it's clear she means "sordid".

Her big career break came early in her professional life when Riccardo Muti invited her to sing at La Scala. On her debut appearance there, she recalls, she stood looking out just before her first entrance and saw rows and rows of faces, a discerning Italian audience waiting to be impressed, eager to judge her. Never feeling more on her own, she thought, "You poor little girl from the provinces in Lithuania. What are you doing here? Then I told myself, 'You are the great Renata Tebaldi, and this is your theatre. Now go out and sing.' And I did." She laughs again, but beneath the jovial exterior it's obvious there's a steely will.

For a singer who has been highly acclaimed in such mezzo-soprano roles as Kundry in Parsifal with both Sir Simon Rattle and Claudio Abbado and who partnered Placido Domingo in Tony Palmer's film The Search for the Holy Grail, it's a major decision to hoist herself up into the upper reaches of spinto soprano.

She's quick to point out that it's not a whim or an attempt to improve her fame and fortune, nor is it an effort to become a prima donna. Quite simply, she has never felt quite right as a mezzo-soprano. "In my heart I have always been a soprano. I listened to records of great sopranos - Callas, Sutherland, Milanov - never of mezzo-sopranos. I think as a soprano and I can reach very high notes without any problem, like an athlete."

'La Forza del Destino', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000; www.royalopera.org) to 6 November. Broadcast on Radio 3 on 6 November

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