In music there are no compromises

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Anna Belinszky: You started the new season with the Opera House’s tournée in Transylvania with Hunyadi László. When did this role find you first and how do you feel yourself in it?

Klára Kolonits: The premiere was in 2012/2013 season in the staging of Gábor Szűcs, and in the next season the show was also played in the series for young spectators, Opera-Adventure, and in quadruple cast – I was also offered the role then. This was an important step on a new way, towards the more dramatic roles. For me the Erkel heroines are anyhow a labour of love, Melinda in Bánk Bán and Mária Bátori also belong to my most important roles. What makes Erzsébet Szilágyi so exciting is actually its central point, the two-part aria, written by Erkel for Anna La Grange and this personal attitude is present already in its first bars. The virtuoso and contrasting phrases are especially adequate to present the character’s turbulent thoughts, and so give opportunity for vocal acting. We are talking about a very concentrated, showcase-like role, which is a prototype of many bel canto roles, and so it’s not an accident that this role is very popular among the foreign opera lovers as well.

What is your relationship with this character?

One of my favourite scenes is when I look challenging and questioning in the eyes of Gara, embracing with defiant pride László and Mátyás, my two sons, like a medieval Niobe – looking down at my adversary who only has one daughter. I will pay a high price for this pride, because it puts my suspicions aside and I don’t take my enemy seriously enough. Frail and human at the same time. And personally for me, being mother of a child in the age of László, the execution of a boy in his blooming years is shockingly accurate, it has a horrendous impact on me each time we play the opera’s finale. Everyone has an idea about figure of Erzsébet, present in the ballad of Arany and also in historical books. The interesting part of Erkel’s interpretation is that not all about the majestic picture of widow matriarch of the nation. The role is more filigrane, more agile, was intentionally composed for a dramatic coloratura soprano. I needed a couple of years to make the role entirely my own, but I really love to sing it.

How did you develop the role to fit your voice? 

I always listen to great predecessors at least once, but I’m aware that in the end I need to sing the role with my own voice. In the beginning of my career I sometimes try to follow my dream to imitate solutions of some great singer, but it always resulted in technical problems. Later I accepted my own voice and I didn’t want to be similar to anyone else, so it’s rather about understanding what touches me in a show, as its listener, and what is bravura filling which disturbs in the dramatic experience. This is very demanding balance, because, putting it simple: if in dramatic coloratura singing we put too much coloratura, the effect will be empty figure, and if we focus on the dramatic side too much, we don’t fulfil the stylistic subtleties of the genre itself. Belcanto as performance practice stands in the very centre of my professional interest and has an impact on all of my roles, also Donna Anna and Konstanze, even if they are Mozart roles.
It’s very important for me to pick the lyric, coloratura and dramatic parts carefully and apply particular technical solutions, because if I sing everything with same voice projection and throat position, the role will be flat and loose its many faces. At the same time it’s not good to put an accent on those multiplicity of faces too much, not to create a mosaic, inconsistent, or even selfishly art for art performance. Only if you keep linking all elements and have control on it all the time, you can reach the depths and continuously enrich our ideas with sensitive, present attitude. The real-time question is very important in this genre. You cannot copy the performance practice of the past centuries, it is a must to find new ornaments, new cadenzas, with each newly studied role you must take into consideration how your personality and your voice grows mature. If your voice expression is organic and alive, then even these abstract, not exactly veristic roles, will be enthusiastically received.

What difference lies between Erkel bel canto roles and those of Bellini or Donizetti?

Erkel was the pioneer of bel canto in Hungary, premiered his operas at the same time that the ones of his Italian colleagues, was fully aware of their techniques, but didn’t want to be epigone. He was constantly looking for means to make his music Hungarian, he adapted verbunkos which was very popular at that time and it gave his operas this particular feeling and colour, also thanks to verbunkos Erkel developed his unique declamative, or actually typically Hungarian parlando style, which is not typical at all for other bel canto operas. Some think that Erkel’s lack of talent caused his operas to be uneven stylistically, but I really like this variety. And let’s not forget Erkel’s incredible amount of practical work that he used to do besides composing operas: he was a pianist, coach and conductor as well. He wasn’t composer par excellence, could not dedicate himself to this task only, and so it also caused the significant presence of earlier works’ excerpts in the later premiered operas. And indeed we cannot talk about stylistically coherent pieces, but despite all that I am personally absolutely on Erkel’s side, he wrote wonderful, exciting to act and sing, exceptionally grateful roles for female voice.

What are the roles that are currently in the center of your attention?

I am very lucky, because I will have three new roles in this season and this is a huge opportunity to develop. In the end of October I will perform the role of Marguerite in Les Huguenots and this will be my first time singing French bel canto. Similar to Erzsébet Szilágyi, this is also a short, concentrated but from the opera’s pont of view very important role. In January I will sing the title role of Norma in Debrecen, which is my huge dream already for a long time. Along with other roles at the Budapest Opera, I will also sing premiere of Ernani in Szeged as Elvira. Early Verdi roles are very close to my heart, I am really looking forward to this new encounter. But naturally I continue singing Lucia di Lammermoor, so I get a role from each of my favourite composers in this season.

With your husband, Dániel Dinyles, you were the star guests of this year’s Ördögkatlan Festival, where you perform already since a couple of years regularly. What do you get from such a festival, and what impact has on you this milieu, which is so different from stone-built theatres and concert halls?

Honestly, this milieu is no different! There is no festival-myself and everyday-myself, each performance of mine is a kind of exam, because the future depends on each and every of them. For Ördögkatlan it’s equally valid, that if you do not give hundred percent of yourself, you cannot expect that the audience will come to your next show. We often talk about kind of belonging to a certain genre, but as years pass, I begin to think this is simplified and incorrect theory. Bringing classical music to the festival audience isn’t difficult at all! This summer was our ninth time at the festival and we never had difficulties in finding way to those who came to see us. This year’s Verdi Requiem in Beremend was very special and important for me, and always used to dream about it, but it seemed impossible – and now we managed to bring true this dream. We were audacious and asked the most important orchestra and choir around, the Hungarian National Symphony Orchestra and Hungarian National Choir – and they immediately said yes, to our great surprise. They took part in the concert with amazing commitment, making our excitement and joy even greater, because we have chance to work with such artists, each year, who realising the nomadic circumstances and accepting wages which aren’t exactly soaring, do appreciate this chance to reach with the quality content to people, who do not consume these genres regularly.

Why Verdi’s Requiem was the piece which you yearned to be performed in Beremend?

Beremend played very important part in the Balkan war, those who escaped were watching from the hilltops how their former neighbours were bombing their houses. I was here in Baranya, in Pécs in the summer 1991, and I saw the first shots – I will never forget that! Later I sang in Osijek, where even after all these years the marks of war injuries were still visible. The invisible wounds however, I think, never do heal, and this is why remembering them will be always current matter. The music of Verdi’s Requiem express what also is symbolised by Beremend’s Chapel of Reconciliation: we shall forgive remembering, not forgetting! This thought has very powerful impact on the audience, it was very uplifting to see thousands of people deeply touched, standing ovation lasting long minutes. The professional ensembles took part in this mission with such a faith, which any artist can only dream of.

Is the audience’s feedback more direct at such a festival?

In the world of social media the feedback can be very direct after a traditional theatre show as well, there is no difference from this point of view. However the real feedback is, when the day after Requiem-concert two boys, still drunk after last night’s party, sat down in the church in Nagyharsány during the chamber music concert’s rehearsal and started to nod their heads to the music of Mozart. I was sitting in the aisles and my husband with some members of the orchestra were rehearsing Mozart’s wind quintet and piano quartet. One of the boys leaned towards me and asked: “Hey, wasn’t this awesome bearded guy conducting yesterday on the meadow down in Beremend?” “Yes, this awesome bearded guy is my husband” – I said. “This Händel is fantastic, the best way to get sober!” – continued the lads, and I could only agree with them – except there was still Mozart being played. I like this milieu very much, where music can have so visceral effect on people. It goes through them from top to toe, and next day they will yell on the Quimby’s concert for as long as their voices don’t get completely hoarse. In this mission-like activity the main point is to deliver the music on the best quality level that we are able to reach, to possibly widest layer of people. Be it village grandmas who are waiting all year for this, be it partying youngsters, there are no compromises allowed in music. If we take for a fact that it’s possible and needed to address broader audience with classical music, it’s only possible with premium quality.

Why is it important to talk about music as well? You often perform at such events with your husband, when you’re not “only” playing or singing music.

There are incredibly numerous stereotypes linked to classical music in people. In today’s world we have access to immense amount of information, but not everyone has enough experience to select well among them. There is a great tradition of consuming classical music here in Hungary, or there used to be, I was born at that time – but in the times of internet, it lost its real meaning. Now everyone can pick what he wants to watch, and most people want to win the audience with commercial marketing. I think that “no quality compromise” attitude being one important factor, the other should be making the reception easier. Sometimes you need to guide people and give them something that rings familiar. For example it’s always a great success when my husband plays certain music excerpts in various styles, or even if it was Tom and Jerry soundtrack. It shows to people that the very same harmonic and rhythmical means accompany us all the time, just often we ignore them, because if the style is different, we do not realise that the basis is the same, only sometimes simplified to the extent. There were examples that someone started to listen to pop music differently after such a show, because they became sensitive to Naples sixth, and it always turned their heads from that time on. I think that you do not need exterior tools, even costumes and sets, to make people experience art. Only the education and practice are irreplaceable.

I see that musical education is very important to you. Aren’t you considering dedicating yourself to teaching more?

I am in such a situation where I must take into consideration that I don’t have warranty that i can pursue my singing career, I can’t know till when I can sing or I am allowed to sing. I couldn’t begin to teach regularly with all my current projects going on, but I gladly help with specific problems and many colleagues turn to me with smaller or bigger technical questions. According to my official education I could only teach in the middle school, I have only a teacher’s diploma, not a music university graduation one. I started to work very quickly after finishing my studies because of my life situation, I needed to provide existence to my child. In the past ten years I felt a need for obtaining a master’s degree, but for a variety of reasons it never happened. And in the year when I received Liszt-prize, the equivalent connected to it has been discontinued as well. I couldn’t find myself in the official system and I started to think if there is place for me at all in this system, while my all career and my personality are so unorthodox and defying any kind of official frames. I start to think that what used to be disadvantage in my career, later became actually an advantage, because being independent from official roads and institutions I can choose my own way more freely. I wanted to finish master degree to be able to accept a teaching offer, but I needed to accept the fact that I won’t be able to do it, because I work all the time. I was considering more opportunities for teaching, such as specific courses dealing with particular technical problems such as elastic handling of high notes or coloratura singing. My husband has also numerous great ideas, and we will work in the upcoming years on the question of using the modern medias for the purpose of teaching.

To whom exactly would be all this addressed?

I would like to prove that actually many many people could actually learn how to sing because many people have great voices that could lead them onto the professional stages as well. The system doesn’t consider these people and they do not feel organic interest towards this. I would like to find these young people and bring the musical career to their attention. The Opera’s Ambassadors program was created for similar reasons. But I would hold an actual casting, where we could explain clearly to a 17-19 years old people, how a male opera singer can make a living now, today, in Hungary. I also think that it could be very exciting especially for boys because it’s more free and interesting than many typical career paths. There are Fachs in which we can barely find professional singers countrywise, and I think a big role in this is played by decreasing social respect for opera singer’s vocation. I do believe that possibility of following singing career is present in much more people that we would think.

It seems that a stereotype is still alive, according to which one has to be born to become an artist, or an opera singer…

And I’m no standard in this, because I know that I wasn’t born with a special voice. I don’t believe in this kind of exceptionalism, but maybe if I was someone whose voice is extremely special and great since the beginning, I would think it’s a gift from God. I need to go through many many failures, and work extremely hard to have such a voice as I have now, so I am rather rappresentative of the other way, proof that this career is reachable for many of us.

If you could list your personal qualities that helped you most during your career, what would it be?

Adaptation, ambition and curiosity. I was born in a family where my predecessors all bore a great affinity towards music on both my mother’s and my father’s side, my mother’s father Dénes Bartha was a music professor, his mother a professional singer. My parents, especially my mother, have beautiful voices as well. But in her childhood her voice has been overloaded with solos and in later years she wasn’t able anymore to pursue a complete vocal education. My father’s family was very poor and he couldn’t study music and he had also prejudices towards this career. Myself, however, already in very young age I defiantly fought my way to the music school, to study instrument and sing in the choir. But I didn’t have special voice, I didn’t get solos in the choir either, maximum in the Angels and shepherds I was allowed to wuther the angels’ top solo. I wasn’t exceptional at all in anything, but I had musical talent and I had a feeling for all genres of art. For a long time my favourite way to spend time was drawing and painting. No one forced me to do anything professionally, I could live my life freely, attend drawing classes, chess course or play in the wind orchestra, where I was requested to practice more, but I never felt the need or will to do so.
Then at 20 years old my schoolmate took me along for a singing lesson to Kati Schultz, and it left such a mark on me, that since then I could never free myself from it. I never tried any consciousness-affecting substance in my life, but I think that it’s just like a very strong addiction. I never thought about taking up singing professionally, it would never cross my mind to put my life on it. And in a year from that moment, I found myself with maximum dedication in the teacher’s college studying it. My singing teacher from there, Zsuzsa Forrai, said that she never met such an ambitious student before. I was interested in everything, through water and fire I tried to discover human voice’s infinite expression means and possibilities, I bolted down the department’s curriculum, I consumed incredibly difficult pieces impossibly fast – I was dying to know everything. Soon I found myself also in practice on stage, on the stage of Budapest Chamber Opera as the First Lady in Magic Flute, in György Vashegyi production. And there I felt this yearning for the opera stage, which also became an addiction – before I thought I’ll be a concert singer, but when I got slapped in the face and absorbed by the Theatre itself.

Nowadays you write too. Was it also love at the first sight, you just felt at certain moment that you need to express yourself in writing as well?

Actually, I let others convince me to write. Social media have two faces – people can get closer to you than you would wish for sometimes, but also you can bring your artistic or life experiences to much more people through blog or facebook posts. My facebook fanpage has been created by my stage director friend Csaba Némedi, then sent to me to manage – and my website is a gift from my young fans. Earlier I felt that I am imprisoned in Hungary, and however I did sing abroad as well, it was a suffocating feeling of not having such a career that I was wishing for. Now it’s not so black and white anymore, because I could work with internationally renowned and first class colleagues, the world opened itself for me. I could only really find harmony with myself when I started to sing my own repertoire. It was palpable, how my own personal audience was growing and since then I get incredible energy from their personal, honest attention. Thanks to facebook, my website and youtube this attention became international, and exceptional relationship that I have with my audience is an unexpected gift from my career, that compensates for many of assumed or real wounds and motivates continuously to develop and look for the new ways. I got many things in a different way from my career that I was expecting to, but this “exclusion” doesn’t mean constraint any more, but freedom!

Your Bel canto reloaded CD was an incredible success. Are you planning to continue it?

Together with my husband we are trying to compose a program for the next CD from pieces that we both find enjoyable. We agreed that we won’t register the roles that I have an opportunity to sing on stage a lot, but rather to focus on those that I won’t be able to perform live. We would still like to pick from the whole variety of Italian bel canto, and if the first album was entitled Bel canto reloaded, then maybe ironically referring to Matrix trilogy, the next will be Bel canto revolution.

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