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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 11, No. 5

Magdalena Kozena - Beauty and Grace

by Wah Keung Chan / February 21, 2006

Version française...

For Magdalena Kozena, beautiful is an adjective often used to describe both her voice and appearance. With photogenic looks and innate musicality, the 32-year-old Czech mezzo-soprano is seen as one of classical music's hottest rising stars.

Many already compare her to Cecilia Bartoli. Last March, her relationship with maestro Simon Rattle, widely reported in 2004 by the British press, produced a son, Jonas.

Kozena first came to international attention in 1995 after winning the 6th International Mozart Competition in Salzburg. She made her operatic debut as Dorabella in Mozart's Cos� fan tutte at the Jan�cek Theatre in Brno and in 1996, she joined the Vienna Volksoper. From the beginning, Kozena had a fascination for baroque music. Her first disc of Bach Arias with the Czech ensemble Musica Florea won the Czech Harmonie Award. Kozena 's big break however, came when an executive at Deutsche Grammophon heard the Bach CD, which was respomsible for transforming her into an international recording star. Far from being a one-hit wonder, her repertoire has expanded beyond the baroque and Czech to French arias and 20th Century art songs. Her growing discography now numbers 19.

La Scena Musicale has kept a close eye on Kozena and her string of recordings. Philip Anson wrote, "Kozena has a light, high-flying mezzo reminiscent of Ann Sophie von Otter. Her slow arias, when she sounds like a natural woman singing without mannerisms (eg. her ravishing "te lascia la luce" from HWV 99) are bewitching." Fr�d�ric Cardin found her creamy voice, "Soft and supple, yet powerful and firm, Kozena demonstrates extraordinary musicality without sacrificing anything for technical precision, and vice-versa."

In January 2006, Kozena began two months of North-American engagements beginning with the Metropolitan Opera production of Cos� fan tutte. She will also make a stop in Montreal and Quebec City.

LaScena Musicale How did you develop your musical interest?

Magdalena Kozena When I was little, I imitated sounds. In kindergarten, I was fascinated by my teacher playing the piano and I wanted to be a pianist. I also sang in a Brno Philharmonic Children's Choir.

LSM Your father was a mathematician and your mother was a biologist. Your parents reportedly used
their savings to buy you a piano.

MK They were really supportive. They didn't know much about classical music and they also learned with me. They were always proud of me and they didn't force me to do anything I didn't want to do. I was a strange kid. My parents would have to tell me to stop practicing. It was my passion. I studied piano very seriously, playing 5 or 6 hours after school. If you want to be a pianist, you have to practice moving your fingers and it takes many hours a day.

That training was really good for me. I can't play anymore, but I can accompany myself and study the pieces on my own. I learned all the musicality and the approach to studying when I was a kid.

Just before my exam for the conservatory, I broke my hand, so I had to audition for the Brno Conservatory in singing.

LSM Why did you want to be a musician?

MK It was always because of the emotions. Music always allowed me to express the feelings I could not say. Playing music is kind of a relaxation, on stage or when you perform for yourself. It is a kind of relief that if you feel really sad or joyful, you can just put it in your voice and sing. I think that music should appeal to feelings and to the heart mainly, more than to the brain.

When I fell in love with a piece, I wanted to be able to play well. It wasn't about being on the stage. When I was a kid, the concerts were actually torture.

LSM How did you conquer the stage fright?

MK In piano, it never really went away. I was always asking myself why do I want to do this. In singing it wasn't like that. It was the most natural choice to choose singing.

LSM Which works do you like to use to express yourself?

MK When I played piano, I was really into Bach and Debussy. It's kind of the same in singing; I love Bach and twentieth-century French music. I do sing romantic lieder, but it is a little less suited to my temperament, to my approach to music.

LSM How do you explain the difference in Bach and Debussy?

MK I love them for different reasons. Bach's music makes artists modest. It's not about being the centre of attention. In singing, you are just one of the voices of the orchestra. It is always a blend, a mixture of mathematics and emotion for me because it is so perfectly made. You feel very small on the earth. I love Debussy for painting. It's like expressing little tiny pictures and emotions, a bit like drawing. I like the possibility of drawing with my voice and finding colours. It's a very colourful music. I find this music allows me to find expressions in different sounds.

LSM I read that you consider yourself quite lucky.

MK In a socialist country, the training was very tough. Only talent mattered. The generations before me had this wonderful education, but they couldn't actually use it internationally. Not many artists were coming in either. When I was studying, the only international singer I knew was Russian.

Everything changed with the velvet revolution in 1989 and suddenly everything we learned we could use abroad. Now students have many possibilities to compare and to see, and they can study abroad. I am happy and feel lucky that I could leave the country to meet wonderful conductors and colleagues.

LSM What makes a good teacher?

MK I think a teacher should be strict, ask a lot from students, but also be encouraging. Every student is different. Some do better if they are told they are good and talented, and some work better if they are told that they need to practice more. It's a bit of psychology.

I need to be praised. My piano teacher told me that I wasn't good enough and finally I learned that he didn't mean it. It was a way to encourage me to work more, but it didn't work with me. I think it's more important to care, to be on the student's side, to know well for him what works and what doesn't. Some teachers work for some and not others. It's like a relationship. It's about chemistry.

There were competitions, which is another issue. I don't think it is good to have competitions in art, because you can't measure who is the best. Competitions were actually very frightening, but it tested whether I have the nerves to do it. It's important for young people to try it and to see what it does to them. This job is quite tough psychologically because you are always under the pressure of stage fright and of the critics. It's not natural to perform in front of many people, so you have to learn and cope.

My teacher Eva Blahov� was very wise, positive and very encouraging. She didn't let me sing pieces that were too difficult, even though I always wanted to. It's very easy to destroy any voice, but young voices especially. She took me to many competitions, and she also let me perform. When I was 16, I performed Baroque music a lot.I sang in a couple of groups which were doing authentic style. She thought it was a good thing and was very helpful. She wanted to help me get out of my voice and body what I wanted.

LSM Tell us about your technique.

MK The colour was always there. It's something you are born with. Through the technique, you develop high and low notes. After a couple of years, you are more mature as a person and the voice becomes different, gaining qualities and maybe losing others. You get to sing a different repertoire as you go along.

I would like to sound as natural as possible. Singing is very close to speaking and you should be able to say something with your singing. Some singers do the opposite; they want to impress people, to make it feel difficult. It's another approach, but I prefer people to feel that it is very easy and that they could do it too.

I don't have a method. It is something that comes from inside. You use your voice, your body and face to make the sound you want. You are telling a story. I don't actually like to think about technique.

LSM You've included some soprano roles in your repertoire

MK There is a challenge to sing some soprano repertoire, because the mezzo repertoire, if you don't have a heavy voice, is not that large. I think every role depends on the colour of your voice and your character.

I need both opera and recitals for the right balance. If you work with a great opera director, you can then use [the experience] in recital because for me every song is like a little opera. In a dark theatre, you can't see people's faces. In a recital, I love the direct energy response. Also, the repertoire is so wide. I can be my own boss, build my own program and decide what I want to do. Opera is an art of compromise. Many people sing Brahms and Schumann in recital. I think there is a lot of music which is also beautiful that nobody knows and that is not often performed. You have to be realistic about what kind of music people will buy.

LSM What new recordings will be coming out?

MK There's a Mozart arias CD with period instruments containing arias I love to sing and have not recorded before. Next will be a disc of complete Ravel orchestra songs.

LSM Has motherhood changed your voice?

MK No. I wish it had made my voice darker, but it hasn't.

All photos by : Kasskara / Deutsche Grammophon
Favourite Singers: Frederica von Stade, Janet Baker
Favourite Neglected Composer: Bohuslav Martinu
Favourite Work: Claude Debussy Pell�as et M�lisande
Current Readings : Arundhati Roy The God of Small Things
Cell phone ringtone : Normal
This article was produced in part with the generous donation of Virgina K.H. Lam.

In concert
Magdalena Kozen� sing Rameau and Gluck with Les Violons du Roy directed by Bernard Labadie in Montreal (February 28 at Salle Claude-Champagne) and in Quebec City (March 2 at the Saint-Dominique Church). Montreal: 514.844.2172; Quebec: 418.692.3026.

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