“I thought, what a stupid girl! I can’t understand her, why does she do these things?” bemoans the Russian soprano Irina Lungu. The girl in question is Gilda, one of Verdi’s famously wronged heroines, and a role that’s fast becoming one of Lungu’s signature roles. It’s also the role with which she’ll make her Opera Australia debut this month, opposite the Rigoletto of Dalibor Jenis.

Irina Lungu. Photo © Victor Santiago

At 37, Lungu is slowly but surely becoming a well known and sought after quantity in Europe. With a conservative estimate of approximately 30 roles in her diverse repertoire, the soprano’s rock solid bel canto training, glamorous sound, and keen dramatic instincts make her an undeniable talent. Born in Moldova and raised in Russia, Lungu began studying music at six, but it wasn’t until she turned 18 that she decided to focus purely on the voice.

“Until 18, I had never even been to the opera,” she says. “And my first time was just awful. It was a production of La Traviata and I fell asleep in the second act. Disastrous. It was opera performed at not a very high level and I thought, ‘wow, I don’t ever want to sing Traviata and I definitely don’t like opera.’”

Despite this inauspicious introduction to the art form, Lungu soon found herself a trusted vocal teacher who helped build up her technique, as well as instilling in her a lifelong love of opera. She became one of the soloists at the Voronezh State Theatre in Russia not long after that, at “20 or 21”, she says modestly. As for Traviata, Lungu is in between performances of Violetta at the Vienna State Opera at the time of our chat, and I’ve caught her the morning after a particularly gruelling night in the theatre. “I’m tired but I’m okay,” she says. She’s performed the role something like 170 times now, and counts it among her very favourites.

Lungu in the Vienna State Opera’s Traviata. Photo © Wiener Staatsoper

After five years of study and some performance opportunities at the State Theatre, Lungu moved to Italy at 23 after winning a vocal competition. Invited to try out for the prestigious Accademia Teatro Alla Scala, she impressed Riccardo Muti sufficiently to secure herself a place at the school. Among her teachers there, none was more personally important to Lungu than the late cult diva Leyla Gencer. “I am a huge fan of her, and back then I couldn’t separate her from the characters she portrayed onstage. For me she was just the same thing – she was Norma, she was Anna Bolena, she was Elisabetta.”

From there we embark on a 10-minute tangent about Gencer’s greatest roles, the depth of her psychologist insight and the sheer beauty of her instrument, all qualities Lungu herself possesses. I ask her about the most important lessons she learnt from the great diva.

Leyla Gencer

“Of course she was a bel canto interpreter, and she gave us great lessons on the style of bel canto,” she says. “How to phrase, how to make the cantabile line as beautiful and as expressive as possible. And of course she was a great personality and made us see how important it was to make your interpretations really strong and more moving. We all came to her with good techniques but she gave us something more – something about the style, about the Italian language, about the personality.”

But back to Rigoletto. Much like her first impression of Traviata, Lungu’s initial appraisal of the role of Gilda left her cold. Or rather, frustrated with what she terms as a character that “seemed more like a stupid doll.”

“I tried to focus on the fact that she has great music to sing,” Lungu says. “After all, it’s a moving, touching opera. But I remember I also thought to myself, I would really prefer to sing Rigoletto! That’s the perfect character for me, not Gilda. Her sacrifice just didn’t make sense to me. I felt I was too old, too dramatic, too clever to play this girl. I’m too strong for this role!”

It was not until she began work on a new production of Rigoletto for the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2013 that her perception of the role started to shift. “It was all because of the great opera director Robert Carsen. We rehearsed for two months, and I could see it wasn’t easy for him either. I think he disliked her as much as I did. Neither of us were convinced by her which made it a really difficult period of rehearsal.”

Lungu in Carsen’s Rigoletto for Aix-en-Provence. Photo: supplied

What did they do to overcome this significant hurdle? After all, Gilda should be the beating heart of the opera. “We worked harder,” she tells me matter-of-factly, with no small amount of pride. “We read together Le roi s’amuse by Victor Hugo, the original play that the opera is based on, and thought a lot about what we could do to make this character right for me. And I think we found a way to shape a really convincing Gilda who was strong and passionate, and from that moment on I’ve fallen completely in love with her.”

Lungu has now performed Gilda approximately 50 times all around the world. Something of a lucky charm, she made both her Metropolitan and Paris Opera debuts in the role and admits to being astonished by how much she used to dislike Gilda.

Lungu and the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the Metropolitan Opera’s Rigoletto. Photo © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Though the role no doubt poses myriad challenges for even the most accomplished of sopranos – Caro Nome alone is a vocal minefield – Lungu insists that the greatest challenge lies in Verdi’s highly dramatic writing. “I don’t think of it as a vocal role necessarily, but a dramatic one. We have three acts, which have three very different situations, which means three very different vocalities. It’s a little bit like in Traviata, where you need almost a different voice for each act. So for Gilda you have to first show innocence, then anguish, then even more anguish,” she laughs. “For me it’s really challenging because I have to find these different colours. I think I can do it, but that’s thanks to my bel canto training.”

It’s often been said that Rigoletto is really an opera of duets, so rich are they in psychological acuity and musical detail. Lungu agrees. “For me the duet of the second act [Sí! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta, which sees Rigoletto swear terrible vengeance against the Duke, who has raped Gilda] is the most powerful in maybe my entire repertoire. I feel like it’s my music. I adore it and to make the duet as strong as possible you need to have a good relationship with your Rigoletto. I know Dalibor Jenis, I’ve sung with him before, so I think it will be really good. I can’t wait.”

Lungu in the title role of Maria Stuarda for La Scala. Photo © Marco Brescia

Lungu and I talk about what’s next for her. She’s steadily added heavier bel canto roles like Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena to her diet of more conventional lyric-coloratura fare like Gounod’s Juliette and Massenet’s Manon. When I ask her if she’s at all tempted by Puccini’s Manon – a much more substantial sing than its French sister – she shoots me down quickly. “No, not now. It’s too much for me now. My approach is if you’re doing a role you have to be able to do it everywhere, so this way of only singing certain roles that are too big for you in a small theatre makes no sense to me. We can’t choose our conductors, our partners, the orchestras – we can’t control what they’re doing. But we can control the roles we sing, and for me it’s always about the voice. I don’t want to force. I do the roles that feel right for me. And I have never accepted these kinds of compromises.”

That’s certainly me told. I tell her I applaud her ethos, which seems increasingly unique in an industry with intense forward planning, where singers are often pushed to do too many roles too soon, or to take on roles that are simply uncongenial to their natural vocal endowment. “Thank you,” she says, and tells me she’s dying to sing Mozart’s Contessa. Verdi’s Desdemona is also a role that she’s eyeing, but that’s still a few seasons into the future, she reckons.

“But when it comes to my favourite roles, I always say in interviews that it’s the one that I’m singing in this moment, and that’s the truth. At the moment it’s Violetta, but when I’m in Australia it will be Gilda. I feel great empathy for the people I play, and when I study and perform a role, I’m living just for that role.” You certainly don’t want to miss her Gilda then.

Opera Australia’s Rigoletto is on at the Joan Sutherland Theatre from July 6 – August 24