"I am not an international star," protests soprano Mlada Hudoley, sipping red hibiscus tea in a Tel Aviv caf after a long day of rehearsals. "There is a chance that I will become one, but no guarantee at all. And anyway, a star is something distant from people. I prefer to see myself as a professional of international caliber." Hudoley plays the title role in the first Israel Opera production of Manon Lescaut. Set in Paris some years before the French Revolution, it tells of a young beauty from a good but poor family torn between sticking to her penniless poet lover or becoming the mistress of an elderly, rich old man. When Manon returns to the former, the latter has her banished to Louisiana, then still a French colony. Though her noble lover manages to bribe his way onto Manon's prison ship, their end in a desert on the edge of New Orleans is tragic. Manon Lescaut was Puccini's third opera, and while it was his first big success, it is not as popular as later works like Tosca, Madame Butterfly, and La Boheme. Yet like these greatest hits, Manon Lescaut features a beautiful heroine who loves with all her heart and pays for it with her life. This is Hudoly's third appearance in Tel Aviv. She made her international debut here in 1998 in the title role in Schubert's Salome, and later as Renata in Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel - both times as a member of the Mariinsky (Kirov) Opera. Hudoley belongs to a new generation of Russian singers, for whom the Iron Curtain did not prevent an international career. Married to an American, she spends most of her time in the US, appearing on American and European stages as well as with the Mariinsky. Although she hails from an intensely musical Moscow family, and had decided by the age of eight to become an opera singer, it took 20 years of study and performance for Hudoley to reach the stage of the Mariinsky Opera. "It's hard work," she explains. "Developing an operatic voice is very much like training for an Olympic team. Many give up in the middle of the journey. To become an opera singer, one needs persistence as well as an adventurous spirit." But Hudoley also thinks that many of today's successful opera performers should not be on the stage at all. "It sounds like God's mockery, as if He granted a great voice to people who don't have heart, or mind, or imagination enough to properly utilize it." Hudoley admits that while her own voice is most suited for Italian music, a large part of her professional life has been spent singing German romantic and expressionist music as well as Russian composers such as Prokofiev. "What can we do? The operatic world of today is not what it was 50 years ago, when the attitude to the art was... well, not amateurish, but more passionate. Today, the overall level of performance is so high and the competition is so fierce that you cannot pretend to be a free artist, one who sings this but refuses to sing that." Nonetheless, Hudoley tries to vary her repertoire as much as possible. "Specialization has proved wrong. You can polish your Mozart or whatever as much as you want, and then comes a singer whose quality of voice is better. To survive, you have to develop in many directions; this is not only practical, but also more interesting. The same is true for the world of opera overall. If the same singers travel all over the world just to perform the same repertoire, the public will stop coming." Hudoley alternates with Larrisa Tetuev (pictured on cover) in the title role of Manon Lescaut, which opens this afternoon at 1 p.m. at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. Performances this week also take place on Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 8, and run through February 28. As in all Israel Opera productions, surtitles will be screened in English and Hebrew. Details at (03) 692-7777; tickets run from NIS 155 to NIS 395.