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AND HEARD ARTIST INTERVIEW
A Very Polished Performer:
soprano Aleksandra Kurzak talks to Jim Pritchard (JPr)
When Aleksandra Kurzak made her debut as Aspasia in Mozart’s
Mitridate at Covent Garden in July 2005, Tim Ashley wrote in
The Guardian ‘
She now tackles the vocal challenges of the title role of a Rossini rarity, Mathilde di Shabran. It is one of the composer’s finest scores, and a comedy almost Shakespearean in depth. The plot is somewhat similar to The Taming of the Shrew but with the sexes reversed. Mathilde, a soldier's daughter, takes it upon herself to melt the heart of the cruel, misogynist Corradino Cuor di Ferro (‘Corradino Ironheart’). She wants him to propose marriage, but in the process nearly loses her life at one point. With both protagonists having traded feats of stratospheric vocal athleticism Mathilde finally celebrates her triumph to music that suggests she has won a military victory by singing ‘Women were born to conquer and rule’. Meanwhile Corradino has now lost his coloratura bravado and is left with only a supporting role in the accompanying ensemble. There is a great sense of anticipation about this production first seen in Pesaro in 2004 and particularly with a new pairing of Ms Kurzak’s first Mathilde with Juan Diego Flórez’s reprise of Corradino.
Speaking to Ms Kurzak after one of the early rehearsals I likened the story to the fairytale of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and wondered whether this what she thought of this.
Mathilde comes to Corradino’s Palace and knows she will win him over and is very convinced about herself, more so than ‘Beauty’. They order her to be killed but they don’t do it and Corradino is surprised she’s still alive and he realises he is in love with her. He is a very nasty character and from the beginning doesn’t know what love or friendship is. He lives for wars and killing.
How has she prepared for this current role?
When I was first asked to sing it I found it impossible to get a score and we did not have the Decca recording that is now available. I was in Hamburg and had a very good friend there who has everything and he played me some old LPs with Rolando Panerai as Isidoro and Mathilde was Cecilia Valdenassi. I heard this music and thought it was very nice. At the time I was singing Fiorilla in Il Turco in Italia and although much the same range I think Mathilde is even more difficult.
Someone told me recently that Rossini liked jokes and was a funny person but sometimes you think he must have hated singers when you see the score because it is nearly impossible to sing sometimes. I’ve had to practice quite a lot to learn all the notes. The Emperor said to Mozart about Die Entführung aus dem Serail ‘Too many notes, my dear Mozart’ and that is possibly the same here.
As I did not know the opera I bought the CD as soon as possible to help study the music and then I played on the piano the line I have to sing and so learnt the words. Our conductor, Maestro Rizzi, said he is very pleased with how I sing the role and I am too. I enjoy Rossini and even it if it can be very difficult it suits my voice. I do not need a lot of time to prepare, even for a new role like this, somehow it’s okay.
Which composer’s music does she think suits her voice best?
Mozart, like most singers will tell you, is the best music to keep the voice fresh but Mozart is hard too. You can hear everything in Mozart and there is great beauty in a simple musical line, so this simplicity creates its own huge difficulty. I believe people when they say if you can sing Mozart you can sing everything. Of course there is the bel canto of Donizetti with the legato singing where everything is difficult and you have to do it well.
With Aleksandra Kurzak’s background with her mother an opera singer and her father a horn player she seemed preordained for a life in the theatre and so I wondered whether she always wanted to be a singer.
My mother studied a lot of opera at home and they took me to many rehearsals and I really did enjoy it. I went almost every evening if I was finished with my schoolwork. I played the violin for 12 years and had to practice everyday but if I had a little bit of time I always went to the opera. We lived in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) and everything was in Polish. My mother sang Violetta in La Traviata and I saw a lot of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and Puccini.
Actually it was my big dream to be a ballet dancer but the dancers I spoke to told my mother to persuade me not to pursue this because the life of a dancer is really hard and short. I can’t remember when I decided to be an opera singer. I played solo violin with orchestras and only a few months before my entrance exam for the music academy I did a TV interview where I said I would do both, continue with the violin and sing. I began to realise that if I wanted to be a good violinist I would have to rehearse 5 or 6 hours a day so it wasn’t a good idea to do both. About 2 to 3 weeks before that major exam my mother said ‘Let’s see if you have a voice’ because I sang by imitating her without ever thinking how to do it.
For the entry exam for the Wroclaw music academy I sang Konstanze’s aria ‘Ach ich liebte’ from Die Entführung aus dem Serail because it was very high at the beginning and I had four extremely high notes that would now kill me. It was almost impossible but I didn’t have then anything in the first octave of my voice so that was my range at the time. So I sang all these high notes and it was a complete surprise and left everyone pondering ‘How is this possible as she doesn’t know how to sing and yet she sings?’ I passed the exam and was in first place.
I was at the music academy for four years from 1996 to 2000. In 1998 I won the Stanislaw Moniuszko International Voice competition in Warsaw, Moniuszko is the Polish national composer. I met there one of the professors from the Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg who I was taught by after I completed my studies in Wroclaw. In 2001 I joined the Young Artists programme of the Hamburg State Opera and after two years became a member of the ensemble. I liked my six years in Hamburg very much as it is a beautiful city. I began with small roles and covered other parts. I started with Kate Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, and then there was Gilda in Rigoletto followed by Queen of the Night. In the second year they gave me Blondchen and other bigger parts.
During my time in Hamburg I sang everything that was suitable for my voice. I sang Cleopatra, Marie in La fille du régiment, Fiorilla in Il turco in Italia, Konstanze, Nanetta, Susanna, Gretel, those sorts of roles. It can be hard if you are not really ready but I have the support of my mother and if I have problems then I can always call her and she comes to see me. I need her even now although I know my voice better and can sort some things out; it is still good to have a second person to hear you sing.
I am very pleased when I now sing in New York, here in London or elsewhere and meet people who saw me in Hamburg who have travelled especially to see me.
I wondered how important her successes in her various singing competitions were to her career.
Well I won in Warsaw, then in Helsinki in 1999 and at the 2000 Viñas International Singing Competition in Barcelona but it was the Plácido Domingo competition, the Operalia, where I didn’t win a prize, that seems to have been the most important because Peter Katona of the Royal Opera was there and discovered me. In the first round there I sang the first Queen of the Night aria but in this competition you must sing two arias and I had prepared other things and was sure they would not ask for the second Queen of the Night aria so had not even practised it with the pianist. I thought no way would they ask me for this and they did! So I sang Der Hölle Rache and they passed me into the second round.
It is probably because of the Operalia that I got to make my debut at The Met in New York because there are a lot of casting directors and opera intendants there. I never had an audition at The Met but my agent called me and said they wanted me to sing Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Still today it is a mystery how it happened but I assume they heard me at the Operalia. It was going to be December 2004 and it had always been my dream to go to New York just to see the opera house and now I had the opportunity to sing there. It was one of the happiest times of my career so far. They were so nice there and at the first rehearsal they said ‘Welcome to The Met … relax … and do not think you have to sing everything out, do what you want to do’ so I sang a little bit and kept some back because I was quite scared about being in that famous place. I had never sung Olympia so this was a role debut too, everything together, but I like this sort of challenge very much. It was a beautiful Otto Schenk production with Ramón Vargas as Hoffmann, James Morris as the villains and Frédéric Chaslin conducting.
It was my first time in America of course and my parents came to see me and it was their first time too. My mother was overcome and said ‘Don’t ask me anything, how you sang or how you looked because I don’t know anything because I was crying all the time’. I have recently sung Blondchen there and will return soon for Gilda.
About six months after my debut at The Met I came to Covent Garden for the first time as Aspasia in Mitridate and have been back for Norina in Don Pasquale, Adina, Susanna and now this. I am thrilled I can be here because it is such a great place to work.
Ms Kurzak has already worked with many important conductors and I wondered who she has enjoyed working with most.
Thankfully I have enjoyed working with everybody and never seem to have any problems with conductors, maybe it is because I learn quickly and can do what they want. I am pleased they always seem to like what I do. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Christoph von Dohnányi, Maestro Campanella here in London with Don Pasquale and, of course, Charles Mackerras recently for Le Nozze di Figaro are some of the conductors I particularly have appreciated singing for. I prefer to work with this older generation because I know they are so wise have so much experience and I can learn a lot from them. Mackerras said to me after one performance ‘Aleksandra I’ve never had such a good Susanna as you in my life.’ Can you imagine that? What a compliment that was.
Critics, me included, have been impressed by Ms Kurzak’s acting and how she seems to make her characters real and appears to enjoy what she is doing on stage.
Yes I do but often it is the nature of the roles I am singing at the moment but I’d love to die on stage like most singers. [She laughs.]
How has her voice changed since she began her career?
I find it is bigger and more round and I don’t have all those high notes now but I have a better middle voice because that is very important too. So I am going slowly in this bel canto direction, with Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti – I was offered Lucia at The Met but there was a clash of dates. I do not sing Queen of the Night any more and will say goodbye to Blondchen as well. I will sing my first Donna Anna in Vienna next year and will soon do my first Armenaide in Tancredi, and then Violetta.
I will not push my voice and will just follow what I feel like doing. There are a lot of roles I want to sing but don’t know if I ever will such as the big Verdi ones Abigaille and Leonora in Il trovatore. If the voice comes, it comes and I will not do anything special. You can’t force it and I want to sing as long as possible and not just for 4 or 5 years and then have vocal problems. That’s certainly not that I want.
My mother started with Queen of the Night and now sings Tosca and all those types of things so I don’t know yet what I will end up doing.
When Aleksandra Kurzak made her debut as Aspasia in Mozart’s Mitridate at Covent Garden in July 2005, Tim Ashley wrote in The Guardian ‘The diminutive Kurzak, meanwhile, making her house debut, delivers coloratura of such astonishing accuracy that you sit there open-mouthed.’ A year later when she returned to sing Norina in Don Pasquale Anthony Holden in The Observer commented ‘It is most significant for the discovery of a star in making: the Polish soprano, Aleksandra Kurzak, who brings to the complex role of Norina infectious theatrical charm while singing with passion, conviction and a rare subtlety.’ This young soprano, much less ‘diminutive’ in person than she can appear on stage has cemented these wonderful early impressions with equally compelling performances for the Royal Opera as Adina (L’elisir d’amore) and most recently as Susanna (Le Nozze di Figaro). These have confirmed her as a new operatic superstar with a charming, natural stage presence allied to beautiful, evenly-produced and totally secure coloratura singing.
I know she has recently moved back to Poland and I wonder if she
notices any changes now she is back there.
Well I can see now that they do not have much money for culture and the arts but I have only been back about one year so don’t really know. I will be singing one performance of Susanna soon there together with my mother as the Countess just for fun and for my family so everybody including my grandmother can come and see us.
Did she enjoy Laurent Pelly’s L’elisir d’amore that she sang in last season at Covent Garden and what does she think of some of the productions she has appeared in up to now in her career?
I liked the L’elisir production with the bales of hay but there was so much to do that it becomes too much after a while. At the beginning I did everything the director wanted me to do because I cannot say no and have to do it because these are his ideas but eventually I made slight changes to this view of Adina. I am learning more each time I work with different directors; you must as a singer respect them but I must do something I want to do as well. Can you imagine I once saw a singer singing standing on her head? It was Marlis Petersen as Lulu in a new Hamburg production in 2005 by Peter Konwitschny but at least she was also something of a gymnast and was okay with this.
Times have changed of course and twenty years ago music was the most important thing but now it is the music and the staging. In Germany you see a lot of strange things and when I was singing Cleopatra in Hamburg I had to buy my costume from the sex shops on the Reeperbahn. I had to perform in my underwear and had to sing ‘Piangerò’ crawling around on the floor. It was a disaster for the director and his team who were booed on the first night but at the next performance the audience seemed to love it. It is often a different public on opening night from those coming later.
Coming back again to what she was currently working on I wondered whether she had sung with Juan Diego Flórez before.
No and it is the first time I have worked with the entire cast, director Mario Martone and Maestro Rizzi. Flórez is fantastic, he has to be nasty but he sings very well.
I remarked that in this production it is over two hours until the only interval and asked Ms Kurzak how much of that involves her.
I appear after about 20 minutes and I am there until the interval. It is a nice production with not a lot of things on stage like we had for that recent L’elisir d’amore here. It is just mainly a staircase and it is all very beautiful with wonderful lighting and very beautiful costumes. It is more static than L’elisir and very much the Italian way of doing these operas but this is good because we have such a lot of notes to sing so we cannot be running around all the time. Mathilde di Shabran is an ensemble piece and I have only the one aria right at the end. There is a lot of ensemble, duets, trios, quintets and the music is enjoyable and also good for the voice which is what I really like.
(There are performance of Mathilde di Shabran on 23, 27, 31 October and 3, 6, and 11 November; as booking opened in July these performances are sold-out but there are always 67 seats available from the box office on the day of the performance.)
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