Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian makes belated Metropolitan Opera debut as Madame Butterfly

NEW YORK — Asmik Grigorian laughs when she recalls that she had been singing professionally for more than a decade when the International Opera Awards proclaimed her the “best young female singer” of 2016.

“So for 12 years I was nothing, and then I immediately became the best!” the Lithuanian soprano joked in an interview.

Now at the peak of her career and seemingly able to sing just about any role she chooses, from Dvorak’s lyrical “Rusalka” to Puccini’s dramatic “Turandot,” Grigorian is about to make her Metropolitan Opera debut in another Puccini classic, “Madame Butterfly.”

“My only regret is not having booked her sooner,” said Met general manager Peter Gelb. “Asmik is an operatic force of nature, one of the greatest and most complete vocal and acting packages in recent operatic history.”

Growing up in Vilnius she had plenty of exposure to opera. Both her parents, tenor Gegam Grigorian and soprano Irena Milkeviciute, were opera singers and both appeared at the Met, where Asmik traveled with them while a young girl.

When she launched her own career, she took pains not to trade on the family fame.

“I was pretty successful in that,” Grigorian said, “because even now many people say, ‘Oh you have the same name, you know he was a great tenor,’ and I say ‘Yeah, I know, he was my father.’”

It took her many years from her 2004 debut in Norway at age 23 as Donna Anna in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” to achieve the combination of dramatic intensity and seamless vocalism that have opera houses around the world competing for her talents.

“In the beginning I always had a reputation as a pure stage animal who is not really 100% able to control my voice,” she said. “It was true.

“I was too young,” she added. “Control demands experience, so of course I failed a thousand, million times and this is an amazing thing to do. I think it’s the biggest sadness of the generation now because we are so visible and people are not allowing themselves to fail anymore, and how can you develop without failing?”

Eventually the lack of a dependable vocal technique caught up with her. “You come to the age where you can’t just rely on nature,” she said. “I hurt my voice, I hurt my body, I hurt everything.”

By 2012, she said, “I could not sing anything any more. And I decided, OK I have two choices: I can continue killing myself, or I start from the beginning.”

Grigorian worked hard for years to build her technique and knew she had succeeded when a critic said “she is perfect technically, and it’s so boring because she is not so interesting as an actress.”

“Then I thought, now I did it!” Grigorian, 42, said. “But when you are so focused on technique it’s a bit too cold.” Finding she could trust her voice allowed her to flourish again as a performer “and a different type of magic” started to happen.

Triumph after triumph followed. Of her 2018 Salzburg role debut as Salome in the Richard Strauss opera, Financial Times critic Shirley Apthorp raved that “hers is a Salome to end all Salomes … Grigorian’s charisma sweeps it all in her wake.”

Three years later when she made her debut at the Wagner shrine in Bayreuth, Germany, as Senta in “The Flying Dutchman,” Joshua Barone in The New York Times called her performance “luxuriously lyrical” and noted she was “met with a roaring ovation.”

Acclaim also greeted her last year when she took on two parts many thought would be too taxing for her voice: Verdi’s Lady Macbeth in Salzburg and Turandot in Vienna.

Her fellow singers seem as enthusiastic about her as critics and audiences.

“She is the best partner I’ve ever had on stage. End of discussion,” said tenor Joshua Guerrero, who recently sang opposite her in “Madame Butterfly” at London’s Royal Opera House. He cited in particular “her willingness to remove ego and to put the other person forward when they are singing their part.”

As Butterfly, Guerrero said she brought to the role “a beautiful stillness … She played it very naively, with a childlike approach.”

Grigorian explains: “I like to hear a lyrical sound with very tender colors because she’s a 15-year-old girl.

“But at the same time, it’s pretty challenging,” she said, because a singer with too light a voice will struggle to be heard over Puccini’s thick orchestral textures.

To avoid a steady diet of heavier roles, Grigorian is diligent about mixing up her repertoire.

“I definitely don’t consider myself a dramatic soprano or a Wagnerian soprano,” she said. “If I sing something dramatic, I put something lyrical in the middle so I keep my flexibility.”

That’s why it comes as only a mild surprise to hear that — despite misgivings — one of her new roles for next season in Vienna is the Druid princess heroine of Bellini’s “Norma,” a part that demands the utmost dexterity with its long lyrical lines and rapid ornamentation.

“I have no clue. I never did any bel canto,” she said. “I’m very nervous and probably I will be the worst Norma on the planet. But I do that because I need to keep my voice flexible. I want to learn many new things.”

Grigorian is at the Met this season for five performances starting Friday, with the last one on May 11 to be shown live in movie theaters. But she’ll be back in future seasons to sing “Salome,” Janacek’s “Jenufa” — and no doubt more.

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