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

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

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions