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A Shape-Shifting Opera Singer, With a Debut to Match


You might know her as world-famous diva Emilia Marty. Or as Ellian MacGregor — maybe even Eugenia Montez or Elsa Müller. It’s an open question in Janacek’s operatic thriller “The Makropulos Case,” about the twilight of a woman who has adopted an assortment of identities throughout her unnaturally long life.

Her real name is Elina Makropulos, born 337 years ago on Crete and still going, thanks to an elixir her father tested on her as a teenager. She’s not so different from Marlis Petersen, the soprano playing the part in a new production that premieres at the Berlin State Opera on Sunday.

Petersen is a mere 54. But like Emilia, she comes from Greece and is currently inhabiting just the latest in a long line of personas. There are few singers with Petersen’s dramatic ferocity and intelligence — who understand that opera is, fundamentally, theatre.

“In the beginning of my career, the singing was most important,” she said in a recent interview at the Berlin opera house. “Then the music became as important as the text, and then came playing the role. And I wouldn’t say it’s 33-33-33. It’s three times 100.”

She loves to linger in and study the psychologies of women. It’s what has made her, despite a voice on the slender side, one of today’s greatest singer-actors — a small club with the likes of Barbara Hannigan, Asmik Grigorian and Karita Mattila — and a director’s dream.

“She’s in this extra class of singer,” said Claus Guth, who is directing the new “Makropulos Case.” “This is to a certain degree people with an energy and a little craziness, in a positive way. I would tell Marlis, ‘We do everything upside down and on the moon,’ and she would say, ‘Let’s go for it.’”

Perhaps surprisingly, Petersen never studied acting beyond basic movement in school. “It’s like a gift from nature that I have,” she said. “It came to me by God.”

Opera, too, was more of a random discovery than a deliberate plan. Born in Southern Germany, Petersen said music was “a big nothingness” in her house while she was growing up. She learned piano and flute but didn’t hear much classical music; she listened to pop, but her parents considered a lot of it dirty, like her treasured ABBA cassette tape.

Still, they were supportive, and Petersen’s piano teacher exposed her, she recalled, to “everything from Bach to Hindemith.” In a school music class, her voice was noticed, which led to singing in a church choir and learning the sacred repertory of Schubert, Mozart and more. When she was 15, her parents took her to her first opera, Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” She fell asleep.

“I didn’t understand anything,” Petersen said. “I came late to opera, actually.”

That happened when she studied voice in Stuttgart, financing her education in part by performing in a cover band called Square on weekends. Petersen played keyboard and sang hits like Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” With a keyboardist colleague, she would do gigs that included performing “Starlight Express” on roller skates.

“It was good training, because the nights were long, and there was a bit of toughness involved,” Petersen said. She imitated the voices of the original singers, a skill that paid off later when she entered a competition with categories for classical repertory, then chansons and musical theatre. She won the top prize in both, channeling Barbra Streisand in “Yentl” for her show tune. — NYT

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