Nino Machaidze, the 28-year-old soprano from Tbilisi, Georgia, has only been singing professionally for a little more than four years, but the origin of her latest turn in L.A. stretches to 2005 and includes a few twists of fate.
In January of that year, Los Angeles Opera's production of Gounod's "Romeo and Juliet" helped catapult into operatic superstardom young singers Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón. Soon these two were headlining at major houses and in 2008 were set to re-create their L.A. roles with a highly anticipated new production at the Salzburg Festival — until Netrebko dropped out due to a much publicized pregnancy.
Enter La Nino.
Having just turned 25 that year, the soprano was singing for only her second time at Milan's La Scala where she had recently graduated from their Academia. Jürgen Flimm, the head of the Salzburg Festival, happened to be there shortly after Netrebko canceled. After hearing the Georgian soprano sing "O mio babbino caro" at La Scala, Flimm declared: "This is our new Juliet."
Machaidze giggles after recounting this story. She did indeed become Salzburg's Juliet, a role she reprised at La Scala and Verona this summer, and is performing at L.A. Opera starting Sunday.
Whereas her onstage persona is intense and striking (she is often called the opera world's Angelina Jolie, a comparison that owes to her large dark eyes and naturally plump lips), offstage she's relaxed and informal. She says opera stars are not really famous offstage — which she claims is equally the case in Los Angeles as in opera-centric Milan, where she lives with her newlywed husband, baritone Guido Loconsolo.
"You know, the people who are really famous, that a normal person in a supermarket can recognize, in opera it's really only one or two people," she says. "Opera's beauty is recognized in the theater."
Machaidze was talking over lunch at the Music Center last spring. She was in town charming audiences in "The Turk in Italy" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which has become a sort of home away from home for the young singer.
L.A. Opera general director Plácido Domingo was aware early on of Machaidze's ascent. Reached by email, Domingo says her "triumph as Juliet in Salzburg made me certain that our audience would embrace such a talented artist. I was eager to find a way to present her for her American debut."
This took place on opening night 2009, with the company's new production of "L'Elisir d'Amore," which Times music critic Mark Swed described as "a genuine star turn" for Machaidze.
During her time here, Machaidze finds herself drawn to Los Angeles.
"I like L.A. so much because it's very beautiful and [has a] positive aura," she gushes. "The audiences are fantastic. I'm really a fan of L.A., I really love this city. Every time that I'm working here I'm happy … so I hope to do a lot of and lot of and lot of and lot of operas here!"
Again Machaidze laughs. In speaking candidly about her career ambitions, she sounds more like a girl picking out lollipops in a candy store than a world-class artist charting an international career. Asked about this carefree, un-self-conscious attitude, she says, "You know, our job is so beautiful, but it's also so difficult because we are traveling, doing crazy things like: Do one performance in one city, and the day after do a concert in another city. I think if you take a job like this, and don't have attitude like, 'OK, let's do it,' you get crazy. So definitely this is my personality, I'm happy that — thank God — I'm like this."
This ebullient attitude is also visible on stage. There are singers with more refined voices and more nuanced acting, but Machaidze has risen fast in opera because she combines skill with a sense of danger. She attacks high notes with an intensity that has led more than one critic in Europe to caution that her all-out, devil-may-care approach to performances could shorten her career.
But Machaidze says that studying her roles, practicing and "knowing what you are doing" allows her to throw herself musically and dramatically into her parts. She insists she has no fears when it comes to singing or being on stage, saying, "It's useless to be nervous … if you worry about what will go wrong, it's dangerous."
Again she laughs. "I think it's personality, it's something inside that you can change. You are like this or like this," she says without any American need to be self-deprecating. "It's a lot of practice, when you are doing this all your life. When you are enjoying what you are doing, the happiness is so big it kills everything else."
Indeed, a few months later backstage after one of her first performances at the Metropolitan Opera (as Gilda in "Rigoletto"), she insists that not even performing on the world's biggest opera stage makes her the slightest bit nervous.
Part of this, she explains, is that she started performing in Georgia at the Tbilisi State Conservatoire when she was 8 years old. Beginning so early means that Machaidze is at home on stage whatever the challenge. When she auditioned for her first part at La Scala back in 2007, she sang two arias from "La Fille Du Régiment," and, she recalls, "They say, 'OK, you are good' and give me the part…. but I didn't know the role, so I studied it for one month. I remember: one month all in French."
After that success, when she was offered the part of Juliet, she said yes again, even though she didn't know the part. How long did it take her to learn that part? "In one month and half."
When asked if going onstage in Salzburg in 2008, in a performance that would be broadcast live and released on video, made her nervous, she seems almost taken aback: "No, I was not nervous."
Machaidze's confidence is not just in herself, but in her selection of roles: "I think it helps when you are comfortable with a part that you are doing, that you know this part fits really well on you… I was feeling exactly like this way with Juliet. Because from the first rehearsals that I did, I said: 'Oh my God, this is my part. I love this part.'"
When asked if there are roles that aren't instantly conquerable, Machaidze is equally candid — and acknowledges, yes, some parts didn't come quite as easily: "I think Lucia is really difficult, as a woman and as a part. So to do well, I think you have to understand this woman; but if you are trying to understand Lucia, it's so dangerous."
After arriving in Los Angeles last week to begin rehearsing for "Romeo and Juliet," Machaidze spoke again about the star-crossed lover, and how she continues to learn about this character after playing her again this summer in Italy. "Musically I always find small details, something should be more 'piano' that I didn't do last time," she says, "I am always discovering something new about this girl."