Mother Knows Best

Having recently triumphed in the title role of Giordano’s Fedora (pictured above), Sonya Yoncheva is back at the Met this month to headline Bellini’s scorching bel canto drama Norma—which centers on a druid priestess betrayed by her illicit lover, the father of her children. As she prepared to take on another touchstone soprano role, Yoncheva spoke to the Met’s Christopher Browner about her personal connection to the character and why she has Norma in her veins.

This is your first bel canto role at the Met, but already you’ve starred in operas by Verdi, Puccini, Giordano, and Tchaikovsky. What attracts you to such varied repertoire?
I’m like this in every part of my life—I never want things to be monotonous. So when it comes to my career, I am a very curious musician. Of course, I have to be aware of the risks and really calculate if I’m able to sing it, but if you give me something and I love it, I absorb it into my veins. I completely fall in love with the characters that I play.

Fedora and Norma are both tour-de-force heroines. How do they compare?
Fedora is very straightforward. There is all of this drama, but for her, everything is black or white. Norma has so many other colors. We see her public and private lives so vividly. We see her as the priestess and leader who prays for her people, and then as the betrayed woman who considers killing her children out of revenge. She must be so strong in front of her people that I sometimes think that’s why she is so weak in her private life.

As a mother yourself, you must connect with her emotions in an especially personal way.
Having children changed the whole picture for me. If I didn’t have children, I don’t think that I could truly understand all that is going on in Norma’s head. Characters who are mothers, like Norma and Madama Butterfly, are very special to me. I’m able to show such an important part of who I am. When I was beginning my career, I was told that I should only be married to my voice and not have a family, so I think it’s beautiful that I can bring this part of myself on stage when I sing these roles.

What are some of your favorite moments in Norma?
Oh my God, the entire second act! It’s perfect—the shape is perfect, the pacing is perfect, even the music Bellini chose to connect the scenes. And it’s when I can really develop the character. To me, the first act doesn’t give us enough information about her. But in Act II, Norma barely leaves the stage, which I like, because then I never lose the energy. From the first scene—when she almost murders her children—to her death at the end, we really get to see who Norma is.