VIENNA — "I consider myself a young singer still," the 32-year-old Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca said last month at Cafe Mozart between performances at the Vienna State Opera, and few would disagree. Yet to add the adjective "rising" would be to miss the mark. In Central Europe, where the right opera star can still rock the tabloids, Ms. Garanca has been called "the blond Netrebko."
Reality check from Anna Netrebko: Hooey, or words to that effect.
"Come on, guys," Ms. Netrebko said recently from San Francisco, where she was rehearsing for her latest "Traviata." "Of course Elina is a wonderful singer. We work together quite often and are good friends, but we don't even have the same voice type or sing the same roles."
Both make a splash dressed in Escada, however, as at concert performances of Bellini's "Capuleti e i Montecchi" in Vienna last year, when Ms. Garanca's sleek, blue-eyed Romeo romanced Ms. Netrebko's smoldering, raven-haired Juliet. (Deutsche Grammophon has just released a live recording, along with Ms. Garanca's new recital CD, "Bel Canto.") In short order Ms. Garanca has emerged as a headliner at summertime opera potpourris on sweeping outdoor concert stages in Europe, a Roman quarry and a Baroque Benedictine monastery among them.
Here in Vienna and in Paris, London and the festival meccas Salzburg and Aix-en-Provence, Ms. Garanca (pronounced gah-RAHN-chah) is a star of the first magnitude. In America she has worked exclusively at the Metropolitan Opera, singing Rossini: first as a spitfire Rosina in "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" two seasons ago, then as Cinderella in "La Cenerentola" this spring, broadcast worldwide in high definition. In December she returns for Bartlett Sher's new production of Offenbach's "Contes d'Hoffmann."
Her role is the Muse, who masquerades through most of the opera as Nicklausse, the poet Hoffmann's friend and companion. Though Nicklausse never takes decisive action in his friend's tale of hopeless love, modern editions of the opera (which was left in disarray at Offenbach's death) give him lots to sing, and his contributions — sometimes ironic, sometimes ardent — enhance the aura of romantic fantasy. There are flashier parts in "Les Contes d'Hoffmann" (the mechanical doll and the Four Villains, for starters), but Ms. Garanca's gifts could elevate this confidant to parity with any of the obvious principals. Mr. Sher has said he intends to keep her onstage all evening.
Down the road Ms. Garanca can envision heavier parts like Saint-Saëns's Dalila or her favorite, Amneris, Aida's rival in Verdi's opera. "Sometimes," she said, "I look at the score for the sheer pleasure of it." Blessed with easy high notes, she is also attracted to soprano parts like Tatiana in Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and Puccini's imperious Tosca. "I might try her in concert some day," she said of Tosca, "just to get her out of my system."
But for now Ms. Garanca remains safely within the lyrical mezzo territory variously colonized by illustrious predecessors like Frederica von Stade, Anne Sofie von Otter, Susan Graham and Cecilia Bartoli. More than 200 YouTube clips capture her in classic trouser roles by Mozart and Richard Strauss, bel canto fireworks and tantalizing glimpses of French heroines like Bizet's Carmen and Charlotte in Massenet's "Werther." Further afield only collectors of historic recordings are likely to recognize Ruperto Chapí's sizzling zarzuela number "Al pensar en el dueño," a favorite of Latin charmers of yesteryear, plucked from oblivion as the opening track of "Aria Cantilena," Ms. Garanca's first recital disc for Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 2006.
"My career has built step by step," Ms. Garanca said. "It's a very quiet story."
She was born to a musical family in Riga, her mother being a lieder singer, her father a choral director. She enrolled at the Latvian Academy of Music in Riga at 19, made her mark in competitions and quickly got to work as an ensemble artist, completing her academic degree mostly in absentia while on the job abroad, parachuting back to Riga for final exams. Her first stop was in the tiny German town of Meiningen. Next came Frankfurt and finally the renowned Vienna State Opera. In 2005 she went freelance.
Leaving home at 22 was not easy. "I didn't speak German," Ms. Garanca said. "I had to rent an apartment, register with the authorities, apply for insurance. I was desperate. I was always calling mom and crying, 'I'm coming home.' " Assignments ranged from crumbs (the Third Lady in Mozart's "Zauberflöte") to the prize of the well-born teenage amorist Octavian in Richard Strauss's "Rosenkavalier," now one of her signature parts.
"I sang my first Octavian at 23," Ms. Garanca said. "I would never recommend that. But I could do it. When the Soviet Union broke up, we lived on cabbage and potatoes, and when we had to, we cleaned sugar beets on my grandparents' farm. I'm strong. For that first 'Rosenkavalier' I had a fantastic conductor, Kirill Petrenko. He really carried me. It was a nice collaboration."
At the Vienna State Opera the trials by fire continued, beginning in 2003 with her house debut as Lola, the temptress of Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana," a walk-on part, but nevertheless. "I had had no orchestra rehearsal," she said. "I was petrified. I had to control my knees, or the balcony I was standing on would have started to shake."
In 2005 the company's general manager, Ioan Holender, gave her the starring role of Charlotte in Andrei Serban's new production of "Werther," though she was still a member of the ensemble.
Like Goethe's runaway best seller of 1774 the opera shows the sorrows of hypersensitive young romantics crushed by bourgeois propriety. Mr. Serban conceived the action as naturalistic mid-20th-century melodrama, somewhere between O'Neill and Edward Albee, enacted under (and sometimes on) the heavily symbolic branches of one all-shadowing tree.
Charlotte customarily comes off as a gently grieving martyr, trapped in a loveless marriage arranged before her mother's death. Ms. Garanca instead disintegrated from scrubbed ingénue to archetypal mad housewife: nicotine fiend, closet drinker, sexual malcontent.
"I don't think Charlotte is just a simple girl who keeps her promise to her dead mother," Ms. Garanca said. "I think she's more crazy, more manipulative. She likes being a victim of self-imposed obligations. She's like Werther. She likes to suffer. The two are like trains heading for a collision. But then they just miss."
Gert Korentschnig, of the Vienna newspaper Kurier, was one of many critics who pulled out all the stops. "Elina Garanca looks dazzling, is an excellent actress and an outstanding singer," he wrote. "Her mezzo-soprano is warm, refined in timbre, technically mature, secure in all registers, still very lyrical yet already blessed with dramatic intensity: a joy for everyone who comes to the opera."
A revival of "Werther" in May confirmed that assessment, as does a DVD on the TDK label. Yet Ms. Garanca is quick to acknowledge a certain detachment as a keynote of her persona.
"I'm analytical, not wild," she said. "When I'm onstage my brain is running like a computer. There are different programs, for voice, for acting, for my body, for the conductor, my colleagues, the staging. And in a pinch I just open a file, or many."
Unlike certain colleagues who buy into the fashionable dogma of living their parts, playing down vocalism as just one tool in the kit, Ms. Garanca upholds the venerable operatic ideal.
"To me it's not professional to go onstage and burn up," she said. "My first goal is to present my voice. To this, I add — in no particular order — expression, character, emotion. But first of all it's about the voice. I'm a singer after all. Otherwise I would have been an actress."