Judit Vajland: I heard you saying many times that Norma has been your dream dream role for very long, and that you are very happy that Csokonai Theatre decided to accomodate this wish of yours.
Klára Kolonits: The amusing reality is that Norma ended up in the repertoire of Debrecen as a sort of barter prize. This year I say goodbye to Queen of the night, because its technical requirements are not corresponding to the demands of the big dramatic roles such as Norma. Queen of the night lies much higher on the scale and I accepted the request from Debrecen last year only because the managing directors were very keen on it. I said alright, but then please give me Norma next season. And Péter Gemza was happy to go along with it!
JV: Norma takes special place in the bel canto repertoire, partially because its high vocal requirements, and partially because it is preceding by far the great musical dramas – but without letting the style’s shortcomings win. The drama isn’t be scattered and the characters ring true. Is it really out of bel canto style?
KK: Now as I was preparing for this production I went deep into the matter and I realised that this opera takes a special place not only within the bel canto style, but also in the life of Bellini. The premiere took place in December 1831, which means only forty years after the apogeum of classical style, The magic flute. Bellini was very young, only 30 years old, while composing Norma. He got a very archaic and very dramatic libretto from Felice Romani. There is no other bel canto opera where this archaic recitativo style would be present. When I started to study, I was surprised how different is the opera’s musical language. People hold on to the bel canto opera stereotype which means only filigrane beauty, but Bellini was an incredible herald of the romantic musical drama – one or two decades later, Verdi in his Attila (1846) or Traviata (1853) would turn to the very same musical resources. The accompanied recitativos are nearly identical, if you compare Norma’s children murdering scene with dying Violetta’s one. Bellini’s piece became a common treasure with its radiating melodiousness, great chorus tableaux and declamation style, in a way that all the younger composers took some piece from it, the one that they considered the most important. For me the most surprising part was that in this opera I can find everything that I ever sung: dramatic Verdi, coloratura Donizetti, all Mozart – and all this melts together – the past and the future. I came to a conclusion that a piece can only be so compact and consistent, if a very good story meets a very good librettist. At home I practised a lot only reading aloud the words, I paid attention where are the accents, what is the character of the words, what do they want to express – and it became evident how much all these surpassed emotions are present in the music, in the orchestral part. I see the impact of Callas most in this – her plastic way of expressing the words makes her a real dramatic actress while she’s singing. She creates a synthesis between the singing and dramatic acting. This is really a very important piece, more than I thought as a bel canto specialist and more than the opera listeners realise.
JV: Why did you want so much to sing it?
KK: Because in this role, you have everything. I started my career in Debrecen in 1995, 23 years passed, and it’s really exactly the time for this role now. I had a kind of professional midlife crisis together with long and serious asthma between 2006 and 2010. When I managed to win over the illness and I could practise intensively again, together with my husband we realised that my voice changed. Before I used to sing with huge steam, and also because I have a very good lungs capacity – I used to pump the air out very quickly. This wasn’t possible when I was sick. Other change was in the character and quality of my voice, and it was a positive one. It became evident that I do not sing the repertoire that I should be singing, and I’m not using my voice in a way that my gifts would dictate. The change of Fach made it obvious, what kind of voice do I really have. When I graduated, I was sure that I should choose my roles basing on what I feel affinity to with my soul and personality, and sometimes the cast directors also go along with it – yes, you are this or that kind of character. But then comes the question: and what, if the voice isn’t of this kind?
JV: Isn’t it an important part of singing study, to avoid this kind of mistakes?
KK: Oh, of course, but I was very stubborn and refused to take it into consideration. I am the kind of person who always studies only on her own faculty and my whole career is a lesson coming out of it. There’s always a crisis or a disease that will show me that I’m not where I should be. When I look at this role – this is what I wanted to do already in my early twenties.
JV: This is why you decided to leave the Queen of the night?
KK: Yes. The Queen of the night has been my spectacular success and I could base my current professional position on it but it comes with an incredible stress. And even more so as my voice changes – and in the meantime it doesn’t give artistic satisfaction, because there is little chance to build a role within it. I feel that I said everything about the Queen that I had in me. The real top of this role for me was in 2013-2014. What came next, was sort of aftershock.
JV: Is the win-loose balance reattained with your recent bel canto roles?
KK: Of course it is. The recent years brought to me great bel canto roles one after another and they cannot be even compared to those basing on bravura only. The acceptance and letting go isn’t exactly my strongest side, but the life shows that certain areas are no longer part of myself.
JV: Norma gives an opportunity to show the extremes of one role, with an intensity which is rare even in the opera genre in general. Behind the beautiful melodies there is an incredibly brutal story, a portrait of a passionate woman at the verge of madness with all her internal discrepancies.
KK: this is the most complex role of my life, in which there is a whole lot of negative traits. Norma wants to kill her children only to hurt their father, who fell in love with someone else. I never faced a similar task on stage. My dramatic roles were often very resolute, but I’ve never met such a vengeful figure who would destroy her own fate ignoring the others. One have to mature to a level where it’s not only your charm and beauty that you want to show onstage. Fate plots its threads very well, because my mother-roles such as Melinda in Bánk bán were a step towards Norma – in the madness of Melinda there’s something scary and touching at the same time. Norma and her love both die but it’s a cathartic death, because Norma gets her love back. The story is very human, nothing is black or white in it. And singing career isn’t black and white either.
There is a topic that I am thinking over and over again, that a way exists, which a woman has to go through in its entirety. And I am obliged, as a performer, to show the dark sides of this way as well as the roles that are concentrated around youth and beauty. One has to preserve this yearning for purity, always, and the freshness of the voice should never ever disappear, can only be enriched with the life’s dark sides.
JV: Does it help that Norma has a story, goes from point A to point B?
KK: It’s a very good story. It would have an impact on me in the same way if I read it in a book too. I can only compare it to one thing: at some point of my life I sang a lot of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. I remember clearly when in 1998, dressed in sparkly operetta-primadonna costume I was advertising my next tournée in Germany – and in the dressing room I started to read the story of Bluebeard from the piano score and found myself sobbing, I felt such a strong affinity to this male-female story.
JV: Is music a kind of therapy then?
KK: Yes, absolutely, because we can play what we already lived through, but also what intimidates us, because it’s unfamiliar. This experience plays its part inside us, and has a huge resolving power. I grew up in a community that kept projecting the message that after all I’m a lady from Buda, who cannot do this or that. But my roles do all these things and more! This has always been a very positive thing in my career that gave me a lot of freedom.
JV: With your husband Dániel Dinyés you present a lot of educational music programs. If you decided to focus on Norma, what would you show?
KK: The children murdering scene. There is barely any similar scene in the music literature and I know – as a woman and as a mother too, that this is the essence of passion and suffering. But you can also see that Norma preserved her humanity too because when she’s about to stab the and sees the boy’s face, she realises that this is her own child. She wakes up from delirium in time. This is a very complex scene. Also because media throws up similar stories on us, and somehow we remember the women murderers’ words: that they somehow do not realise what have they done, that they saw objects to destroy instead of lives they gave birth to.
JV: It’s not your first work with Nadine Duffaut, because you already did Traviata together in Debrecen. It might help if you are on the same page with the stage director, when it comes to a difficult role. Do you have a common voice with Nadine?
KK: Already Traviata where I found myself last minute has been a wonderful cooperation. Now we had a bit more time but one can feel instantly, if you are on the same frequency with someone and I can see now that it’s absolutely not a question of age, distance or nationality. I went into a room, Nadine was there and I felt that I really know this person, that I trust her, and that the show will be rich and very good. Nadine comes a bit from the old world, she’s very educated, studied on Sorbonne, led chorus too, she knows the business from inside, she can express from inside everything on why I need to say this, do that or go there on stage. This is very rare. I don’t speak French well, and Nadine gives her directions in her mother tongue. However I realised that somehow I understand exactly, what she says, if I’m standing very close to her – because the soul connection allows such miracles. Nadine is a mixture of a fairy, a goblin and a magician who comes to the first rehearsal with a perfectly ready and complete staging. She knew exactly where each of the choir members should stand in the respective scenes. I only needed to place myself in this environment, or rather I only needed to fill in my place, where I was still completely free, and I could turn my energy exclusively to be good in this role. This is really an amazing gift.