The Russian soprano sets the record straight.
In 2010, the New Yorker ran a profile of Marina Poplavskaya, bylined by Gay Talese and running in excess of 6,500 words. Talese chronicled his time on the road with the Russian opera singer (whose 2007 Met debut as Natasha in “War and Peace” had been the legendary journalist’s conversion to opera fandom), beginning in a wildfire-gripped Moscow, and continuing on to Buenos Aires and New York. It ran just as Poplavskaya was taking on a unicorn of a double-header at the Met: Violetta in “La traviata” and Elisabetta in “Don Carlo.”
That the profile was dismissed by many opera fans as unusually cruel and savored by others as gleeful camp was perhaps inevitable. It not only mirrored the division around those who admired Poplavskaya’s prepossessing, abstruse performances, but was also the logical outcome of sending two equally-strong personalities on a transcontinental odyssey. Talese, famous for his profile of Frank Sinatra that interviewed everyone except Sinatra himself, seemed to have built a myth around Poplavskaya before flying to Moscow. Poplavskaya, with a Gogol-esque sense of weariness and an overloaded performance schedule, seemed overwhelmed. Still, as Pushkin wrote, the illusion that exalts us is dearer than ten thousand truths. With the New Yorker profile added to an arsenal of hype, she seemed poised, like Angela Gheorghiu and Anna Netrebko before her, on the brink of mega-stardom.
And then, silence. In the years that followed, Poplavskaya was seen less frequently in season announcements. Several planned performances were cancelled. A common question became: “What happened to Marina Poplavskaya?”
A lot, it turns out: Poplavskaya married Karim Guedouar, the general manager of Daniel, Daniel Boulud’s Michelin-starred restaurant in New York. The couple had a daughter in 2015, and Marina became heavily invested in early childhood development and Montessori techniques. In 2018, Poplavskaya received her real estate license and began working with the popular New York brokerage firm Citi Habitats (which merged last year with Corcoran). She’s also still singing, and developing a new mezzo-focused repertoire. From her home in Manhattan, Poplavskaya spoke with me at the end of last summer about her career trajectory, the gendered dynamics that underscore the diva myth, and what it was like to read her New Yorker profile—for the first time—10 years later.
VAN: You haven’t retired from singing, but you have been on pause for the last few years. Do you miss being in an opera house?
Marina Poplavskaya: I enjoyed singing. I can reproduce something that I like. I can take, I can learn. By a stroke of luck, I met amazing agents like Alan Green, and he brought me into these amazing teams. I got into the Young Artist Program at Covent Garden.
I slept inside the theater! I was kicked out so many times by the room cleaners saying, “What are you doing here? Go home!” I was the first to arrive and I left last when the doors were closed. And I was happy because that was the point: You just give it, everything you have. Otherwise you don’t pursue any dreams, and then life is pointless.
How did you end up getting your real estate license?
I like housing; I like digging for the information. I don’t know why, maybe it’s because I’m a Virgo: I have to do everything according to plan. The plan’s got to work. If there’s no plan working, you have to have backup up to Plan Z. But it gives me a thrill, if I find something that works for everyone. It’s horrifying, of course, meeting a stranger and just going for it, but you have to be a little bit of a psychopath. [Laughs.]
I found [my husband and myself] a beautiful duplex on the West Side, and that’s where we resided. But when I was pregnant, for the baby I thought it would not be so safe—and also for me, climbing up and down those stairs.… So I started searching and we couldn’t quite find where to move. I met Jimmi C. [Circosta, of Citi Habitats/Corcoran], and he’s a great chap—and a musician. I found that a lot of people who are musicians are also in real estate. The building he proposed, I went and studied it, and said, “No, I know that they’re doing repairs and I know what the price would be,” and he goes, “You know what? If you ever leave singing, come to real estate.” And I said, “Oh, well, I’ll think about it…”
In 2011, 2012, I had a hormonal disorder because of fibroids. This year was the last surgery. Hormones, they do affect the body: not only how you feel, but also the voice. In 2013, we were doing this “Onegin” production at the Met, and I said, “Look, I just feel something is happening to the top passaggio. I used to stretch it freely, and I used to enjoy it. I didn’t have to work for it. But now I really have to calculate and work for it.” And they said, “Oh, maybe because you’re arriving at the age of 40 you just have to think about it.” No. Rosa Ponselle didn’t have to think about it. Nobody else had to think about it. The rest [of the voice] was fine. The bottom was fine, the top was fine, but that middle region was becoming not very habitable for my voice.
And the thing is, at a certain age, having my daughter and thinking about her future… The hormones had to calm down after the birth and everything. I took a year off completely, in 2017. Bouche cousue; no talking, no singing. I love real estate, but also I had to earn.
It’s interesting, talking about taking a year off during this quarantine. For many, time has slowed down and it feels like a break. But there’s also a pressure to keep making progress, to stay active and visible.
My break came from the necessity to step back. The point when it stopped being enjoyable for me, that’s when I had to take a step back. It was a very difficult decision, because I love the stage. There was a crazy thought: What would it be like if I just stopped singing? What will I do? No, it’s too horrifying, don’t think about that, just go into the next rehearsal. But it was always in the back of my mind.
I remember about eight years ago first hearing that you struggled with nerves. Was that thought part of the nerves?
I do have stage fright. I love performing, yet every single evening I’d have to come like three hours prior to every performance. Just to breathe [the role], just to walk in it and think about how it’s going to be.
Were there other frustrations with the profession?
The story about this character [of the diva] or something, it’s rubbish. It’s just lies. It’s presumptions made by people who don’t know me, who never spoke to me, who don’t know who I am and how I work. I’ve never ever in my life been rude to anyone in [a production] team. For me, it is the most horrible thing, to be selfish. It doesn’t work. What’s the point of the performance, then?
You have the right to speak out, to speak your opinion. If only the conductor is the one to have the word to say and the rest of us should shut up and do what he tells us, that’s wrong! Because he doesn’t have my body, he doesn’t have my experience. For my entire life, I met two conductors—only two—who were interested in the singer’s opinion: Riccardo Muti and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
And you have worked with more than two conductors.
I mean, I wish I could work only for those two, because the experience of singing for Riccardo Muti or the experience of singing for Yannick Nézet-Séguin is elevating. That’s what we all want. To just tell the singer, Do that. Do this. Now that. Do as I say… It doesn’t work. You kill our personality, and that’s how we’re supposed to express ourselves. If we all step in the same shoes, in the same pattern, what is the point?
And then it comes like, Oh, there’s no irreplaceable singers. There are! Ponselle, Callas… We have Angelina Gheorghiu: She’s an amazing artist, an amazing woman, and everyone for some reason decided to publicly criticize her for being an artist. In the newspaper, I’ve read disgusting articles. Who are these people? She has her opinion, she expresses her opinion in a polite way. She doesn’t throw, I don’t know, a cup of coffee in the face of someone.
It can feel sometimes like that sort of criticism is very gendered, too.
Oh, that’s another thing. There was a conductor who said, “I never conducted this piece.” And then he took a nine-hour rehearsal. Singing for nine hours. And then that wonderful human being told me off in the front of the orchestra for trying to mark—singing not at full voice. And that’s OK, it’s normal. It’s all right because he’s a man, he can insult me in front of everyone.
The funny thing is that they think, you’re in the production, meaning: They can paint your face green with purple dots, and you go and sing, and it will not affect your performance knowing that you look ugly. Because if you’re in the production, your face, your image, your hair don’t belong to you anymore. They belong to people who don’t want to communicate because they don’t want to do any extra work. They’re to come and pin the wig on you, even if the wig doesn’t fit you at all. And they use dirty brushes and dirty makeup, or outdated makeup on your face, so your face will go all pimply. And you can’t even mention anything about it because they’ll go and report you to their supervisor and their supervisor will storm into your dressing room right before your general rehearsal and yell at you. Calling you names and yelling until you cry. And then you go and sing.
Do you think that Gay Talese’s profile of you added to the misconceptions people have had of you?
I read it just recently; I didn’t read it in 2010. But I mean, Gay Talese… it’s like he came from a movie. I saw him first when I was in this production of “War and Peace.” He always said “Hi” to everyone, but he never said hello to me. I saw him seated at a table [in the Met cafeteria], and I didn’t know who he was. I thought he was part of the production, and it bothered me. I thought, I have to make up; I have to build the connection. Because if somebody in the production doesn’t like me, it’s like having a big fight in a family. So I said, “Excuse me, my name is Marina.” And he said, “Yeah, I know who you are.” I said, “It seems like you don’t like me. Is it something that I did or said?” He said “What do you mean?!” And then we started talking.
What do you remember of your time in Moscow together a few years later?
It was the scariest period of my life. I didn’t want to go to Moscow, but because he bought the tickets, I went. Moscow was burning. I have a video made in my mom’s car—you couldn’t see anything within a meter. You couldn’t see anything but grey smoke. You couldn’t breathe.
What he wrote in the article, I did collapse. I don’t know what it was, maybe it was already the hormones starting. The emergency crew arrived in, like, two hours. [Laughs in disbelief.] I don’t know why, maybe because of the traffic, but when they arrived, they said, “Oh, you have a simple flu.” And I said, “What flu? I feel great.”
That’s why I became very irritable—because I had to take care of Gay who went literally everywhere, despite my telling him: “Stay in the hotel, don’t go anywhere. There’s smoke. Put a mask on. Better, six masks on. A respirator. Oxygen masks.” He didn’t listen.
It’s a very strange part of the piece to read now, in the age of COVID-19 and respirator masks.
That was crazy. Traveling with him was also crazy because he’s very demanding. [Flying from Moscow to Buenos Aires], they tried to check his briefcase in the security line, and he was not happy. He started saying something to the officers, so I said “Leave my grandfather alone.” [Laughs.] “He’s just tired, please leave him alone, he’s like 90 years old.” That made him hate me probably forever, but I was really, really trying. He was like, “Are you happy? Shall I take my pants off?” That didn’t go in the story.
He was following me around and writing. Following and writing. And then he asked me the same thing again and again and again. I said, “Do you work for the FBI? I don’t understand why you ask me again and again the same thing.” And then he stared shouting back at me. And I said, “Look, I have no voice to argue.” ¶