Klára Kolonits, lyric artist of the week (interview)

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Source: October 12th 2019 | Paul Fourier | Toute la culture

Klara Kolonits is still little known in France. And yet, when you listen to what exists online, she is undeniably one of the greatest bel canto voices today. Norma where she was alternating with Marina Rebeka was her first French contract, so we took the opportunity to meet her and ask some questions. Interview with a professional, humble but also determined woman reveals how her career developed beyond the most obvious rules.

Hello Klara, you are singing for the first time in France, in Toulouse. How did it happen?

photo: Éder Vera

Yes it is, indeed, the first time. It’s an interesting story that made me arrive in Toulouse but also quite typical of how things are happening in my life. I am Hungarian and I’ve had a long career in my home country. Thanks to the modern technologies, since 4 or 5 years, I have been followed by a devoted group of fans. One of them comes from Cincinnati and used to have a youtube channel where he posted a lot of videos of me. One of them has been noticed by Olivier Lefevre, a Frenchman whom I also knew via social networks and who is currently trying to spread the word about me in the Western Europe. Thanks to him fairly quickly I got a chance to have an audition for Christophe Ghristi, the artistic director of the Toulouse Opera, for the role of Norma. He had never heard me before, but this was a direct hit. I got the role. I am well aware that this is an unusual way for a singer to get a contract because, normally, the artists have an agent who is contacting the directors in their name.

This was a much more direct contact.

Yes, I find it more comfortable. The audition lasted more than half an hour so I had time to comfortably show how I sing.

You can legitimately qualify yourself as one of the current queens of bel canto. Few people are able to sing these roles.

Merci. This repertoire requires particular qualities in the voice. You know, I started 25 years ago in a provincial opera house in Hungary and for what we call a repertory theatre, in which you have to sing everything. So I did Cherubino, Olympia and Nanetta from Falstaff. Then the Queen of the Night. But my voice was not really characterised. Later I started to sing at the Hungarian National Opera. And I started doing works by Ferenc Erkel (1810-1893), who was not only a composer but also opera director and the first conductor to conduct Donizetti in Hungary. His operas, our national operas are very related to bel canto. When I approached this repertoire, I immediately realised that it was the best music for me to sing and I’ve been doing it for 10 years now. I have good high notes, a normal medium, interesting colours and I have no problems with technical difficulties. So I developed my bel canto technique with singers and pianists and today, I do not sing anything else than that.

With such an amazing voice, it’s finally normal.

It’s normal in rich countries! But in Eastern Europe… well, we certainly have a rich cultural life but not enough money and not so many possibilities. I became a mother very young; it was the time when I was studying singing and then I had to make money for my family. It was not really my conscious choice to sing roles suitable for other Fachs. But I had to do this get by, simple as that!

It’s now easier for you and you can probably choose your roles more comfortably.

It’s not so easy. Our beautiful historical opera house is closed for 5 years (since June 2017) and so what we are left with the Erkel Theater which is newer and with audience big enough for 2000 people. The repertoire must therefore be adapted to fill in the seats. Since we only have one house instead of two, there are fewer performances and fewer opportunities, especially for bel canto!

Sounds like a right time for you to explore new territories then…

Yes, it’s like a new beginning for me.

In Europe, there are many countries that do a lot of bel canto. Italy, Spain, France, Germany …

Yes, but you know, I’m well over 25 and it’s not so easy for someone like me. People want young and pretty girls on stage and if you are a mature artist, not necessarily everyone is interested in your art.

But there are mature artists who sing this repertoire and succeed.

You know, I have always been “out of the system”, since my very beginnings. And it can be a long way to build a career. It doesn’t matter to me where do I sing. If I sing Mozart in a small church, it can be as fulfilling as if I did it in a big theater. I am much more concerned for the quality of the what I sing, than to a career aimed at the big houses. And also my taste is not so very modern, also in my approach to bel canto. My idols are Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills, some “old style” divas!

Your bel canto album is a jewel and showcases the “crazy” side of this music. Let’s talk about Norma. Are you as comfortable in this role as in Puritani or Lucia?

Norma – Toulouse 2019 – Photo Mirco Magliocca

Bellini wrote Norma for Giuditta Pasta who was the first Anna Bolena but also the first Amina (Sonnambula). Amina is quite close to Elvira of Puritani and Lucia. The role was not originally written for a dramatic soprano. The tradition has changed after Maria Callas and Elena Souliotis who pushed the role towards much bigger, dramatic voice, an amazon or a warrior in a way. However we should not forget that in the score you find very lyric parts. Norma is more a great manipulator, there is no actual fight scene. She uses her power for one reason: to keep her lover with her. She pays little attention to the people around her, even to her children, whom she only considers as a part of her relationship with Pollione. The only healthy human relationship she has with Adalgisa. This passion for Pollione is not normal, not human; it is exaggerated, too aggressive and possessive. Norma loves Adalgisa, but mostly because long time ago she used to be same type of woman; she finds herself in Adalgisa, a younger self, when she was young and happily in love with Pollione. Norma is selfish and proud but finally, after long suffering, she finally saves her soul. For me, it’s not a politician, a dictator, a warrior – it’s a woman in love who is purely happy at the end of the story because she regains the love of Pollione, the only thing she cares for, before she dies. I think this character is actually very vulnerable and human, she develops into a beautiful human being at the end of the opera. It’s the same for singing. The role does not only require beautiful sound, it evolves gradually until the ending with its endless phrases. In any case, this Norma was my beginning a French theater and I am very happy person now.

Let’s get back a little to the history of your life and career.

I studied music since a very young age – but not the singing; I was a flautist and then I decided to become a conductor. I soon realised that I did not have much talent for that and so turned to singing. One of my teachers at the academy was the daughter of a great Hungarian coloratura, Mária Gyurkovics. After the studies, however, my identity as coloratura soprano was not yet very clear. I sang all sorts of roles. I won several competitions in Hungary. But that was not enough to make an international career. Then I was an operetta primadonna, sang a lot of it in Budapest and in Germany. Since 2002, I’ve been doing a lot of Mozart roles but not necessarily high coloratura, such as the Countess and Fiordiligi. And finally, since 2009 I started on this journey into dramatic coloratura soprano and this was already late for an international career. There is no system of agents in Hungary, similarly as in other formerly communist countries and if you do not have personal contacts, you are completely invisible! In 2013 though, I won the Kammersängerin Award from the Hungarian State Opera, which was a considerable money that allowed me to do this bel canto CD album. I did it because I wanted to have something like a business card.

What roles would you like to do now?

I’d like to do Donizetti’s Tudor Queens and Rossini’s operas seria, like Semiramide and Donna del Lago, and also Lucrezia Borgia and, of course, again Lucia, then also Sonnambula and Puritani. I would like to step into the path of Edita Gruberova and Mariella Devia. Mariella still has such a fresh voice! When you listen to it, you still find the spirit of a young woman. This is the power of opera, regardless of the actual age of singers, it can give us something of much more depth and something very personal. And listening to a Gruberova concert is almost like doing a Masterclass (laughs)

Gruberova comes from Eastern Europe like you.

Yes! Her mother was Hungarian.
I would also like to tackle the French repertoire. Meyerbeer for example – Huguenots, that I have already sung, but also Robert le Diable, and Thaïs of Massenet. It would be good if alongside I sang more often in France. For the anecdote, funnily enough Norma has been linked to France in my mind already for a very long time because the first one that I did was directed by a French, Nadine Duffaut.

What are your future projects?

One of my projects is to record an album with arias by Erkel, or another with bel canto. In my immediate future, I return to Hungary in a few days for the premiere of another Erkel work, Erzsébet (Elisabeth in Hungarian) where I sing the lead role.

Thank you so much for this interview Klara. We wish you many successes, especially in France, both for you, and for the French public, who will hopefully soon have the opportunity and the pleasure to appreciate your art of bel canto.

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