By Tamara Vallejos
Opera Colorado’s first production of the season opens next weekend, and it’s one of the most beloved operas of all time: Puccini’s La Bohème. This beautiful and heartbreaking work is one of those operatic gems that is just as powerful for first-time opera-goers as it is for seasoned patrons, and we can’t wait to share it with you when the curtain goes up on November 4! Until then, let’s take some time to get to know our fantastic cast—beginning with our Mimi. Soprano Anya Matanovic makes her Opera Colorado debut with this role, although it’s not her first turn in La Bohème. She tells us how she got her start with Mimi, fresh out of college and in none other than Baz Luhrmann’s famous production. Plus, she discusses how she discovered opera, which parts of La Bohème bring tears to her eyes, and more.
Welcome to Opera Colorado! Since you’re a new face—and a new voice—to us, can you share your musical background and how you came to opera?
My parents were musicians, of the folk era. My father played guitar and composed music, and he and my mother sang together and put out a few albums and traveled around North America performing. Then they had two kids and slowed down a bit, but when we grew up enough to carry a tune (I was five and my sister was eight), they started putting classic children’s poetry to music. They took these great poems and my dad wrote them into really sweet songs and we all sang them. We had an incredible Grammy-winning oboist and instrumentalist, Nancy Rumbel, who collaborated with us, and we put out a few albums and traveled all over the Northwest performing. That’s how I started performing.
I was really shy, and couldn’t always express what I wanted to express with only words—so my parents thought that maybe voice lessons would give me confidence. So when I found this power that I could have with my voice, to express something, it did give me great confidence and courage. It helped me in all parts of my life.
So I started studying with a teacher, and she was an opera singer. She told me that I had an operatic quality to my voice, and I would say, “No, no, no! I don’t want to do that. I didn’t really know anything about opera.” Then my mom gave me a CD of Maria Callas for my sixteenth birthday—and I didn’t stop listening to it for days. I sat in my room and I wept listening to it. I didn’t understand a word she was saying but I understood everything she was saying. That was really powerful, and I thought, “If I could make one other person feel this way, then I have to do this.” And I went for it.
Well, that’s exactly what’s so powerful about opera, isn’t it? Regardless of whether you’re looking at the supertitles or know the language, you’re able to connect with the emotion and power of the music.
I moved to New York City in 2007 to sing with New York City Opera, and that was actually my first time meeting [Opera Colorado Music Director] Ari Pelto. He was conducting La Bohème, and I was understudy for Musetta. So I sat in all those rehearsals and I would go to some of the shows, and I got tickets for my friends who were not musicians at all. But they got to see Carmen and La Bohème. For Carmen, they were sitting center orchestra and they enjoyed it. But when they saw Bohème, they couldn’t see the supertitles. And my friend said, “I preferred not seeing the supertitles, because I caught everything that as happening and I wasn’t distracted by reading and following along. It didn’t take me out of it. I knew everything I needed to know; it was right there in the performance.”
That wasn’t your only experience with La Bohème—you’ve had quite a few! Can you tell us about your background with this opera?
The first time I ever heard La Bohème, I was in my teens. It was one of the first operas I ever listened to, because I’d fallen in love with opera and I’d started going to the library to get recordings. So, I was really familiar with it. Then, in my second year of undergrad, I was cast as Musetta in the “scenes” program. And when I was finishing my undergraduate studies at USC, I heard that Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohème that had been on Broadway was coming to Los Angeles. I thought I should audition and maybe I’d be in the chorus. So I did—and I got into the chorus, but also was an understudy for Musetta. And then they started to call me in to understudy for Mimi, as well.
Two week before rehearsals started, I got a phone call. One of our Mimis couldn’t get the right paperwork to come into the country, and would I step in and sing Mimi? I was 22 years old and it was a lot to jump into—but it was incredible to be a part of this show that really made La Bohème even more mainstream. We ran for two months and I did over 20 performances.
After that, I sang Musetta in Tel Aviv, in the big Zeffirelli production there. Then I sang Musetta again in Arizona. But this production with Opera Colorado is the first time I’m coming back to the role of Mimi. So I feel like it’s been an interesting process because I’m trying to approach it freshly, and I’m really able to because it’s been so long. My voice is completely different, and I’m a different human. What’s been great is working with director Matthew Ozawa and the cast, because everyone wants to approach this La Bohème really honestly, really truthfully. And none of us are going in thinking, “Well, I did it like this last time around…”
So, compare and contrast the two women for us, since you’ve played them both. What’s it like going from performing to Musetta in the past to Mimi in this production?
It’s hard musically, rather than logistically, because my brain is so tuned to Musetta’s part; my brain hears Musetta’s cues and music! But it’s an interesting friendship they have and I think they complement each other very well. I think they are opposites in a lot of ways, but I also think they overlap in some ways, too. They both have heart, they both feel love very deeply and passionately. They just have different ways of showing it. I think it’s a lot of fun, to have explored two different characters in the opera.
Now that you’ve been spending more time with Mimi, what’s your favorite part about playing that role? What’s the connection you feel to her now?
I love all of her music in Act IV. “Sono andati,” when she is singing to Rodolfo—the reason she lived long enough is that she had to go back and sing to him—is the most beautiful page of music ever written.
And I feel connected to every part of Mimi now. Coming back to this role really feels like coming home. Musetta is so fun, but when I started working on Mimi again it felt organic. Mimi is so full of truth and joy about the little things. She feels things really deeply and I think everyone can relate to that; it’s why we all fall in love with all of these characters.
Speaking of Act IV, how do you feel when you’re lying there as Mimi at the very end, and you hear Rodolfo cry out for you? Is that as emotional for you as it is for the audience?
You know, the part that gets me even more is the part just before—that music where he is like, “What are you guys doing? What’s going on?” Because at that point everyone else knows what’s happened to Mimi and he doesn’t. I don’t know how I keep it together. Maybe they’ll have me dying upstage so you don’t see me losing it!
As an audience member, would you be able to pinpoint a favorite part or favorite act? Is it that different than being a performer on stage?
I think Act III is really great, because the show has been sweet, it’s been fun, but Act III is when it really starts to tug at your heart. You see this complication in all their lives, how these characters have all dealt with this issue, of Mimi dying. How they each approach it is really fascinating to me because I don’t know how we can all see the same thing and react so differently. It’s a real look at humankind. The music is also extraordinary.
But my favorite part is at the end, in Act IV, when Musetta has sold her earrings and brought back this muff. She puts it around Mimi’s hands, and Mimi looks at Rodolfo and asks, “Did you buy this for me?” And Musetta says, “Yes. He did.” He starts to cry and she asks him, “Why are you crying?” That moment really gets to me.