By Ronald Blum, AP
NEW YORK–Soprano Kristine Opolais has made Metropolitan Opera history, becoming the first singer in its 131 years to debut in two major company roles within 24 hours.
The 34-year-old Latvian soprano sang Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” on Friday night, went to dinner and got to bed at 5 a.m. Met General Manager Peter Gelb called 2.5 hours later, asking if she could replace ailing Anita Hartig as Mimi in a performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” that was broadcast live to movie theaters around the world Saturday afternoon.
Opolais said no, then changed her mind five minutes later and agreed.
“I guess it was destiny,” she said later.
When the final curtain came down, Opolais covered her face and dropped to her knees to the stage, overcome with emotion during the five-minute ovation. In addition to 4,000 people at the Metropolitan Opera House, her Mimi was seen live by an estimated 92,000 in movie theaters in North America and 110,000 more in 32 nations in Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.
“I still think it’s not reality,” she said.
Opolais had not sung Mimi since performances at the Vienna State Opera in April 2013.
When the phone first rang, she didn’t answer it. But it kept ringing and ringing and ringing. And when she first spoke to Gelb, she had trouble believing he was serious.
“I was in a shock. The first seconds I couldn’t even speak,” she recalled. “It’s just impossible for anybody.”
After she hung up, she started to think.
“Some voice inside me said, ‘Why not? It’s a chance, and you just said no. Maybe you should take it?’” she said.
Once Opolais agreed, Gelb and the Met staff scrambled to bring J. Knighten Smit, the stage director for the revival of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 production, to the house for a walk through. Resident costume designer Sylvia Nolan was on the subway when she got an email on the cast change at 9:37 a.m. and went to work to get dresses ready.
While Opolais had blonde hair and Mimi refers to “miei capelli bruni (my dark hair)” in the first act, there was no time to make a wig, so the staff decided she should go on stage with her natural locks.
“This is the kind of thing that makes our life exciting and actually makes the Met exciting,” Nolan said. “It is a moment when we get to swing into action and do what we do best because we have people here with extraordinary expertise. They not only have skill, but they have speed.”
Opolais made her Met debut in January 2013 in Puccini’s “La Rondine” and is scheduled to sing Puccini’s “Boheme,” “Tosca” and “Manon Lescaut” at the Met in future seasons along with Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”