Tamás Márok: In a TV report you were talking about bel canto as if it wasn’t opera but some completely different genre, like musical or operetta…
Klára Kolonits: There is not that big difference! These pieces are particular mainly because the personal taste and tradition isn’t marked in the score. When someone gets the score and sings what is written, with correct tempos and dynamics, it isn’t bel canto yet. The bel canto singing is an interesting mixture od performance practice, tradition and personal taste. Even among the fans of this style there are vivid arguments going on: some like the performances strongly based on the score, and others think that those are boring and lack fantasy. What is written is only a draft, that can be developed basing on taste and capabilities. I experience it now very strongly in my role, because we have double cast. Jessica Pratt, an internationally famous coloratura soprano is a bit different voice character than myself, so we use different ornamentations and cadenzas. At times I see our conductor is a bit concerned – for him of course it would be easier if we sang the same version. But as he knows the style very well, he accepts the fact that what suits me, does not suit Jessica and on the contrary. And obviously everyone wants to show his own abilities at their best. In the past the singers – and especially the castratos – were all rivals and there were measurable parameters to it: who can sing a higher note, who does longer phrase on one breath, who is faster at coloraturas…?
You are also in this kind of rivalry with Jessica?
Of course not, already because of the differences that I already mentioned! We met for the first time now, but we heard about each other because international circles of our followers and fans are – in an interesting way – very similar. And even if our voice characters are not similar, the repertoire we perform is partially the same and we already knew the other one’s recordings. Now when we met, it felt like if we already knew each other.
Your musical approach is similar?
Rather our human attitude. She also takes the singing very seriously, she’s humble and has no star-fancies, she is very natural. And also for her the appearances and bravura is far less important than the feelings and the expression. And because of Jessica’s singing I realised with all force – again – how much do I love this genre and why: because of the choice it gives! I’ll give you an example: I always follow the old stars, and I look for their ways. It’s possible that the ornaments used by Beverly Sills, or Gruberova, or now Jessica won’t suit me as well, but I can take inspiration from them. The most exciting part of our job is practising. In bel canto pieces even more than in other operas. When in my own room I can try all the heard variations, or the ideas I just composed. In this solitary practice I work to find a solution that works best for me, and it’s good only if it seems spontaneous: not a mechanical ornament, but something improvisational, fresh, not more than an expression of certain feelings, a sigh, a sobbing or a laugh.
Just like fitting a dress?
Exactly! in this genre, I am free to show myself from more sides. In a recitativo accompagnato – or an arioso – in bel canto pieces I am free to use the dramatic time as I wish. If Donizetti or Bellini lived longer, they would certainly modify their own style with time. But bel canto as a genre gave them possibilities to expose their talents. Verdi – after his early bel canto pieces – went the other way, inspired by the literary pieces he adapted, the works of Schiller (Luisa Miller), Dumas (La Traviata) or Shakespeare (Otello, Falstaff) offer more than a dramatic „filling” to the piece, they pushed apart the frames of the earlier musical structures. In the late Verdi pieces the drama is reigning upon the music, while in bel canto the drama always plays second fiddle to the beautiful singing.
The composers did not write the ornaments, but they awaited them from the singers. We do not have recordings of these old greats and what we do have is rather disappointing with a modern ear.
But we have them written! The greats like Adelina Patti or Maria Malibran or even Maria Callas wrote down their own ornaments and they remained to these days. This traditions comes down to us as well. In my Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia) I took my ornaments from the scores of Mária Gyurkovics – I was a student of her daughter, Zsuzsa Forrai, and it was thanks to her that I had access to it. If I may stay with the dress parallel – the particular patterns are timeless.
Especially in ladies singers… how would you like to sing these roles? As they did in the older times, or taking into consideration the modern expectations and needs?
I come from the world of bravura coloratura roles like Queen of the night or Olympia, and naturally this left a mark on my interpretations. But in the recent years my voice changed a little and so I sing differently also the bel canto operas. In dramatic coloratura soprano Fach for me the accent is on dramatic, not on coloratura any more. Coloratura, as it name says, needs to be a colour, a shade, only a tool, not the goal. But this is possible to do only in a new role. And while I met Elvira role already 2 years ago when I sang a vast selection of it in Zamardi, this was my first time to have a possibility to sing the whole opera. In the new season I will have three new roles from this period and I can study them already with this new attitude.
In the times when this style was triumphant, it was the singers who were reigning upon the opera stage. Now the bigger role is given to stage directors and the conductors. What kind of stage director and conductor is needed to make the bel canto opera sound its best?
Not a „what kind of stage director and conductor” but rather „what kind of work”: this style requires a lot of preparation work. There is money and time needed, and a repertoire theatre not always can permit itself this sacrifice. We study the pieces with pianists, and it would be crucial to study with conductors during personal rehearsals. It’s 23 years I’m working as a lead singer and I can count on one hand, how many times I had a chance to work like this.
One of the main characteristics of bel canto is beautiful melody. How is it possible to express the drama this way?
The main composing rule of bel canto style is that the main carrier of the drama is the melody itself – we have nothing else to do, only form this melody. Important layer is the way in which we manage time. We are used that everything happens in real time in life or in movies. In the opera it doesn’t! People are always ironically telling how they cut someone’s head in the opera, but then he sang for another ten minutes. But they do not consider the fact that it’s ten minutes from the dying person’s point of view, not the real time! The time becomes abstract. If the singer has dramatic power, creativity and feelings that he wants to show, then it won’t be foolish or unbelievable, it will give a full experience! As if you were looking at a sculptures from all its sides. The scene gets four-dimensional emotional exposition.
By the way Violetta’s dying of tuberculosis is believable even from a medical point of view.
I used to have heavy asthma a couple of years ago. I was in hospital because of it. Later, singing Mimí and Violetta, I experienced really suffocating again and again, my organism used to bring this reaction up. My dear lady in tier was there in the aisles with my inhalation spray and helped me each time when I could escape for a second. They say that when the circulation stops, it’s similar to what Violetta does. The oxygen intake is less and less, you can’t see or hear, the time and space ceases to exist. It was very interesting for me to sing Mimí after all these years when I jumped into it in December… for the first time, being healthy.
Elvira in Puritani looses her senses, then comes back to them. I think it is an emotional bomb for the interpreter as well.
I have a good comparison. This figure reminds a lot myself at the age of 16, and all that I used to think about love and relationships back then. I used to read a lot and my expectations towards men were based on works of Tolstoy and Balzac. If a boy didn’t tak to me just the way I expected him to, I reacted very vividly just like an opera heroine. It remains deep in your subconsciousness. When my feminity started to wake up, I wasn’t exactly popular among boys but a bit later – on the contrary and then I was able to reason only in the extreme way like Elvira does. I can completely identify myself with her dedication, vulnerability, jealousy and with seeing things in black and white, as everything was a question of life and death. Within one sheet of music such things happen with her that completely exclude themselves. And I do understand because I experienced it myself.
This show brings up the figure of Maria Callas whose important role was Elvira, though she sang it only in the first part of her career. In my experience singers or adore her or reject her at all…
Her art and life has a very big impact on me but rather as an exclamation mark, that it’s nor the way I should go. I like the way in which she adjusted all her roles to be her own, and she is one of a kind and impossible to copy in all that she does. But her own legend discarded the human already during her life. “The Callas” who did not dare or could not be simple, vulnerable could not loose. This staging puts accent exactly on these features and on mark that she left on opera history – forever.
You will sing Puritani in Pécs in Kodály Centre. Do you like to sing there?
Yes, a lot! I like when the hall is covered with wood, and wood seems to like my voice, makes it magically warmer, softer, rich in harmonics. The hall always helps a lot if we can hear ourselves. And this gives the audience a wonderful experience as well.