Coloratura singing is an extreme sport

Gramofon, Zsuzsanna Réfi: One of the reviews says, that with Lucia you placed yourself among the unforgettable interpretations in the history of Hungarian opera. And it was already your third Lucia, and only this one brought the real success.

Klára Kolonits: I performed this Donizetti-heroine first time 10 years ago, these two earlier productions were kind of pre-study for this season’s premiere. On that shows I felt that I can only reach the surface of the ole. Last year in the opera house’s premiere the main new thing was the fact that we were working on the orignal score, which means that everything – including the Mad scene – had to be sung even a whole tone higher. And my own obsession is that each time I sing a bel canto role – therefore here as well – the colours of my voice should bear the drama. My goal is that a spectator can tell, even closing his eyes and only hearing my timbre – what my character is feeling and doing. Another version of the score always means new ornaments as well, because if I sing all the time the same coloraturas, they will loose their freshness and attractiveness. Singing is similar to sports: if you are only exercising your muscles in one way, after a time they won’t develop any more, they will stagnate. I have diverse vocal patterns, that I vary depending on the show, partners, circumstances, style of the production. And if I add any ornaments of my own, they have to be always part of my interpretation of the role. I put them together like a mosaic. But it is this variety that lets me bring into life my characters both as a singer and as an actress. The audience doesn’t like the manner of singing something each time just the same way, they require virtuosity. I think that coloratura singing is like an extreme sport…

Karola Ágai said once that coloratura singing is a show of equilibrist…

Exactly. There is always a fear, but if you succeed, it gives you such a boost of adrenaline, that you’ll want to live this through again and again. I often sing one of my favourite Lady Macbeth arias, that together with my husband we stuffed with high Fs (same ones, like in Queen of the night). It is always a challenge, but if I succeed to sing it, it’s always such a joy that I can’t even describe it in words. It’s essential to always put an emotional and physical stake on the show, because then it will never be boring. And this is why I can’t sing any of my roles often enough to get bored. One of my dearest characters is Traviata, in Debrecen I could enter into Violetta’s body and soul eleven times within one month. I enjoyed it a lot, but I still have a yearning for it, because I can never reach the level that lives in me as a sort of internal expectation. This is why I can’t get bored with any of my roles even if I sing it a lot.

Even the Queen of the night?

With this role I got rather tired with many journeys and stress that comes with them. Besides, I still find something I can play with even in Queen of the night. For me the question is, if the orchestra pit is breathing together with me or not. I decide, if I like the given Magic Flute production or not, basing on one thing: if in my vengeance aria I can feel the musical explosion, if I experience that the musicians care for me, listen, if I can feel energy coming from them. I love to make music together, I am addicted to partnership.

You got the Award of Excellence for the Traviata you mentioned, then in Katona Theatre you got the Vastaps award for Fiordiligi, and the Opera House presented you with the Mihály Szekély medal. You work a lot and in many areas and the awards seem to assure that you are successful in all of them.

Finding my way and the roles that would fit me wasn’t easy. My career is a series of accidents and surprises, beginning with my first singing lesson with Katalin Schultz, where I found myself by pure case. At the same time, I got addicted to singing already in the first moment, and this kept me alive – even literally. But I had difficulties to find the repertoire which is right for my voice and my stage presence. In the very beginning I was Cherubino and Contessa one after another, then operetta-primadonnas like Rosalinda and Sylvia, then the adventure with Judit in Bluebeard’s Castle… In an interesting way a disease set me on the right way. From 2006 I suffered heavy asthma, once I reached the hospital in the last moments, my life was in danger. I started to think about the amount of air I use to sing, that it has to bee too much, and this is why my voice is not focused as it should. I left the hospital because I needed to sing Cosi fan tutte – my husband was in the aisle, praying, so that nothing bad happens… It didn’t, the show was successful. And the next day I continued practising with multiplied energy, I prepared myself to live and sing with this disease whole my life. I had to find out how to sing like everything was okay with lungs functioning only around 70%. I studied this thing every day. And in the end I fought with hyperventilation, bronchial spasms and attacks for “only” six years – and during this time I learned that what won’t kill you, will strengthen you. I started to sing with less air, and it brought the essential change, the voice became more beautiful, legatos more smooth, registers more even. Then I found the Buteyko-therapy, which made my asthma disappear completely – but it left behind completely different singing technique. The other essential moment, when I look back at my career, was the original Bánk Bán that I performed in 2010. Since then I got more and more bel canto roles, in which I could prove that I found my own Fach, dramatic coloratura soprano. I owe a lot to the title of the Kammersängerin of the HSO, it put me in the spotlight in 2013 and brought some offers. In the previous years, around 2011, I started to teach. My own example taught me that I shouldn’t judge what I hear at the moment, but I should concentrate on where can I bring this pupil, in both vocal and personal area.

Do you still teach?

Nowadays I have so many offers that I do not have time for this. I would like to teach later on, if not necessarily within institutional borders. I would gladly be a vocal coach, who can solve problems and stress linked to the earlier wrongly learned reflexes, physically or mentally. Once I went to a special phoniatry lab, where I could see on a live video how do my vocal cords work. I would totally work in this area as well, in endoscope therapy, because during such an examination you can immediately see the technical problems in the voice projection and so they can be immediately addressed. The singing technique is not only theory and feeling, but a medical truth as well, and as such can be seen and examined.

By then, however, you still have a lot to sing. Only this year you had Melinda, Erzsébet Szilágyi, Elvira in Puritani, and after Lucia you got a new premiere in the Opera House: Les Huguenots.

And in Szeged I will have an opportunity to sing in Ernani. My next season really looks like a dream one can only wish for. But this is already my twenty-fourth year on stage, and even if I know examples of singers who did these roles at the age of sixty-five, somehow I don’t see myself at this age onstage performing these characters. I am sure I will always find some good artistic challenge to aim at.

You do exciting things nowadays as well, you took part in OperaLab in Katona Theatre, you also performed in Lautrec va danser, you seem to gladly accept invitations coming from various artistic branches.

I was always very open and accepting. It’s a great inspiration to work with a good stage director, I enjoy unusual tasks on stage and I can actually take a lot. With bravura singing you are anyway forced to put such a kind of reflex in your body, that will work in any kind of circumstances. And if a stage or music directors comes up with new and uncommon ideas, I try my best to find the fulfil them as well as possible. In Katona Theatre I did thirteen Fiordiligis within one season, so many shows mean a huge possibility to improve. Especially because the audience there is not composed of typical opera spectators so we could build upon the spontaneous reactions. There were also actors in the production, we developed into a micro-ensemble, and this kind of stage work excites me more than anything else. It has a huge impact the roles I bring to the big stage as well.

These exciting adventures are also possible because of your husband, Dániel Dinyés, with him you created the OperaLab production for instance.

Dani became a conductor partially under my impact, before he was accompanying pianist and composer. We did a lot of chamber music together since the beginning, so that naturally we became parts of each other’s artistic life. I owe him very very much, he works with me since many many years and he is my “external ear” as well. Our goal is that I should always step forward and this is what we work on.

Seems you are on a good way, as last year you received also Karola Ágai and László Szendrey Karper Memorial Medal. 

This is important recognition that really feels good, because I knew Karola and she helped me to prepare for the role of Melinda. I will always regret I didn’t dare to sing for her. She belongs to my real idols, because she was really a singer with a queen’s attitude, and despite many blows that reached her she always kept the joy of life and radiated with a very positive energy. I would like to reach this as well, because the bitterness leaves mark on the voice after a time, while the audience who buys the ticket wants an artistic experience, and isn’t curious about the personal problems.

Well in this area you can be also proud of yourself, you have a serious cordon of admirers who follow you everywhere.

The feedback provides a great drive and inspiration, and so does the kind of applause. I know what the mediocre reception feels like – it was typical for the first ten years of my career – and I remember exactly how felt my first real success in the role of Melinda. It the world that we live it is a huge thing that many of them come to each and every of my shows. It means a huge responsibility towards them as well, because my followers keep count of each note and each cadenza. But we make all this art exactly for this kind of trust. It’s interesting that I was singing in Debrecen at the beginning of my career, and I left this town with many wounds. Now I heard from the box office lady, that there was a serious war for the last available tickets for my Traviata. And next year they stage Norma for me, which is a very good feeling.

How do you imagine the upcoming period, what are the plans?

I would like to give more Liederabends with my husband, because we don’t have much opportunity to do it. It would be good to make the follow-up on my bel canto cd, with arias of Rossini, Bellini and Verdi. And I would also love to do an Erkel album. In the Opera House I have eleven shows next year. When I put together the past decades, I can tell that my career is not a spectacular one, but it’s very rich. This isn’t a big deal, because I always liked the work itself. I get so much energy from the music and from singing that it helps me to get through various difficulties – and very much so, my husband likes to say “If there was no wind against your face, you’d just fall”. At that time I did not imagine that I will reach my greatest successes after more than two decades, and that then I will have chance to bring into life my favourite characters one after another. But what is surprising even for myself, I kept all of my energy and curiosity through all these years, and they direct me always on new and new paths.

Source: Gramofon magazine, Summer 2017, pages 10-13

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