s01e03 The beginnings and the failures

Klára Kolonits

What will we talk about?

  • How did nine years old Klára behave on her first opera show?
  • What is her strongest addiction?
  • What László Polgár thought of her singing?
  • Are tantrums a good thing?

I’d rather read than watch.

No problem! Just scroll down for the transcript.

There were musicians in my family, but I don’t remember being directly affected by them making music. My grandfather, Dénes Bartha, was a world-renowned musicologist but at the time when I was born he was a professor on several American universities, and I rarely saw him.
My mom had a beautiful solo voice, an alto, as a child, but she sang so much that her voice chords got permanently damaged to a point where she couldn’t sing any more as an adult. She used to hum for me when I was a child, but that wasn’t actual singing, we didn’t learn songs together. However, somehow, I was surrounded by music.

Dénes Bartha

I cannot really explain this to many young people nowadays, but at the time when I was a child, in the seventies, there was one radio and usually it played music, classical music. That wasn’t even a question, music was everywhere. In the preschool at that time children used to sing a lot too.

First serious impulse towards music was a declaration of my friend, a neighbour, one year older than me, who announced she was going to frequent a music school, primary music school. But my mom really wanted me to just go to the closest neighbourhood primary school, and the music one was several bus stops away.

It was the first time when the part of me who will always try to get what she wants at any price became prominent. I threw tantrum after tantrum, until they eventually brought me to the entrance exams at the music school in the Kosciuszko street. The exams were pretty difficult, consisted of hearing checks, singing, clapping the rhythm back. I wasn’t very good rhythmically – to this day it remained my Achilles’ heel – but I passed the exams.

My mom thought she could tick out this “music” thing, I was happy, I was in a primary music school. The only problem was waking up way earlier to bring me to the school with a bus, but she felt she fulfilled the parent’s duty.

But what my poor mom couldn’t know, was that younger Ferenc Sapszon, who later reformed whole choir culture in Hungary, was just starting his career as a teacher in this very school. I think he raised a lot the level of teaching, and especially of making music in that school – and mind you it was already very high level. We were singing all the time, three times a week choir, also singing lessons consisted of chamber music. I would even say that music theory fell victim of that approach.

In our free time there was a ton of concerts we took part in, and I used to sing on weekends too, in Janka Szendrei’s choir in the Krisztinaváros Church in Budapest. Already when I was 6 years old I used to sing Graduale – clearly, that was mainly because of my famous grandfather, whom Janka Szendrei knew. This way, already as a six year old child I became familiar with the stress of singing a new piece each week in front of hundreds of people.

As the time passed, I thought that all was not enough for me: I wanted to study an instrument too. My mom was in major distress, because all the schools were several bus stops apart, and as a single parent she was responsible for all of that commuting.

I went in full-blown hysteria mode, tantrums with throwing myself on the floor.

I got it my way: I went to the music school at the other part of the Danube. I studied flute, before that a bit of piccolo. That led in a straight line to chamber music, first with the piano, then another flute, more flutes, flute orchestras – I played in Saint Stephen flute orchestra in Zugló at that time, where my flute teacher, Ilona Karász, was active too.

I could draw circles, to show how I got immersed into music and I did not even have a chance to pick anything else. And it wasn’t for lack of education or interest, I could study letters, or history that fascinated me for a long time, or languages.

But nothing could compete with the elementary impact that music had on me.

However, what exactly am I going to do was an open question till I was more than twenty years old, only then I decided to sing. Now that I talked to my colleagues, many of them said, that their first experiences with opera and opera singers were rather amusing in their childhood, at its best. I’m not proud of that but I must admit that there was such an incident in my childhood too.

I was 9 years old and my mom bought a “student” season ticket to the opera and we sat to watch The Magic Flute. Next to us was sitting my childhood friend with her equally very serious mother. We were misbehaving quite terribly. The show wasn’t exciting, we couldn’t see well from the third balcony but first of all – we were not satisfied with the artistic level. And, surely, our candies and what’s more,

our dress shoes ended up being thrown from the balcony towards the stage, accompanied by loud expressions of our dissatisfaction.

The ushers assured my mother that they will pay back the season ticket price, provided, that these two kids will never be brought here again. My mom likes to say that the fact, that I stepped on the HSO stage relatively late as a singer, was a punishment for that behaviour. My friend became musicologist, music historian later, so in the end it didn’t repulse us from pursuing career in music, however, I remember very clearly that this kind of traditional opera singing and acting really did not get across to children or young people.

I’ve been hooked after I finished high school and I ended up in the solfeggio group of Zsuzsa Avar. She was active in more places, in the first district, also in the sixth, in the Lipótváros Music School. She gathered those young people who wanted to be musicians, but didn’t go to the conservatory. And actually all creme de la creme of today’s Hungarian music life was there. All the conductors, or at present the Hungarian Academy of Arts’ director, György Vashegyi, for example. But also Gergely Kesselyák, Gergely Kaposi, Imre Kollár, Gábor Werner – and those are only conductors, on top of that also many musicians, soloists, also singers – we started out in the same group, remembered by everyone as “The Zsuzsa Avar group”.

It was different, because we learned music theory, solfeggio, music literature, counterpoint all on very high level but the practical lessons were almost all spent on simply making music, chamber music. We got an ocean of information, in which everyone was free to swim the way they could and wanted to.

I was there as a flautist, and I was preparing for the chorus master department, I wanted to be a conductor. I got all preparation I needed, but in the end they always counted on me when it came to singing too. I think that along with the fact that I’ve been surrounded by music since early childhood, this solfeggio group had the biggest influence on our throughout musical education and reception.

How did I choose singing in the end? Once I met a high school friend at Régiposta street corner, who said: hey, I told you so much about my singing teacher, come with me, have her listen to you. Of course I said no, look, it’s not really a good moment… she wouldn’t have no for an answer. And this is how I met Katalin Schultz, who had the biggest part in my choice of singing for a career.

After that audition and a short singing lesson I felt as if a strongest addiction ever developed in me.

It wasn’t even a question, if I will continue those lessons. After one, two lessons, so relatively fast, she asked: wouldn’t you want to do this for a living? When she decided that she will prepare me, I applied for the Music Academy’s vocal department but also for the Music Teachers’ College. Already then the system was that you needed to go to different singing teachers for an audition, so I did, to all of the famous teachers on the Academy, including Zsuzsanna Forrai, daughter of Mária Gyurkovics, who eventually took me into her class. But most of the Music Academy famous teachers looked down on me pitifully stating that my voice isn’t good enough for training, that the expectations are different. I’m sorry, they said, but you should pick some other career. But I’m stubborn, and in general I usually do not convince a teacher, or a jury at first time, but at the second yes, and without leaving a doubt. And I went to the entrance exams – if for no other reason, then to show them.

Interestingly, among people who have been admitted that year to the Music Academy, most never even begun a singing career, and those who did, quickly disappeared. All those who ended up in Music Teachers’ College, with one exception, made singing career and are still performing nowadays. Already at that point I begun to think that maybe not the most obvious and prestigious way will be the best for me.

And in general, sometimes what appears the straightest way, isn’t straight at all in the long run.

Even before I started the College, in 1989 I had an opportunity to take part as a soloist in the first concert of Purcell Choir, the one that gave us the name. We did John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. György Vashegyi who had very much impact on my early career, who knew that I have soloist ambitions, offered me the First Witch role in Dido, along with choir parts. And so we did the rehearsals, there was no issue, I thought that I was very good. No one told me that, well,

my vocal production was tolerable in the choir but surely not in a solo role, and that is putting it politely.

The concert was great, Katalin Halmai who later made a big career was Dido, Márta Fers was Belinda. All smaller roles were sung by professional singers. I was the First Witch, Éva Várhelyi was the Second. I was all proud and happy with myself, up to the point when I listened back to the concert that I registered from the radio. I heard how my voice was a bit pitchy, a bit grainy, a bit embarrassing. But no one said anything, so I felt I did good. The next year Gyuri did this production again, this time Hungarian Philharmonic Society ordered it. Unfortunately he needed to call me to the side and tell me that they put a condition – he had to change the First Witch, because my production was not satisfactory. When you got slapped in the face by reality it’s always a shock. But I have this lucky sort of personality, even if often it is put on serious trial, that the difficulties make me want “to show them”, just for the spite of it.

In 1994 this lighting-effect that my first singing lesson had on me struck me again, and it was again Gyuri Vashegyi who called me on the phone and said that he is doing Magic Flute ath the Chamber Opera and if I want to be Queen of the Night’s First Lady. And at that point I never sang on stage before. I did oratorios, sacred music, early music, sang in the choir and this is what I thought I will do for life.

Klára Kolonits, Lúcia Megyesi-Schwartz, József Mukk, Judit Németh

That Magic Flute was staged by József Ruszt, very famous director, who sadly is not among us any more. There was a great cast, as the three ladies myself, Lúcia Megyesi-Schwartz and Judit Németh, Queen of the Night was Erika Miklósa who built a great career on this role later on, as Pamina we had Márta Kosztolányi who made career abroad, József Mukk was Tamino, Péter Kálmán was amazing Papageno, Márta Fers was Papagena, And the crown of the whole production was supposed to be László Polgár as Sarastro.

We went ahead with the study, Gyuri taught me the First Lady role very meticulously, of course I was anxious. And so the time of the group rehearsals came, and László Polgár arrived, at the top of his career, looking like a Greek god. And I am not exaggerating: no sound worth mentioning came out of my throat. László Polgár knew I was only a student then and a complete beginner. He went to Gyuri after the rehearsal and said:

What is this baby girl doing here?

This is a dramatic role, main dramatic sopranos of the house usually sing it. A charming little thing, but please find someone else. Gyuri repeated that to me and of course I burst into tears immediately, but also I felt that just for the spite of it, I’ll practice till I drop dead. Gyuri managed to beg László Polgár to give me one more chance, in the meantime he also got a real dramatic soprano, later a singing teacher, hopefully she won’t mind I mention her name, Magdolna Szabó. At that point she already had a gorgeous voice, and I was still just looking for mine.

László Polgár as Sarastro

On a February day, at the Music Academy, in the artists room where the sunlight danced on the wall,

László Polgár marched in, in his crisp white shirt, his long hair and his Greek god air, even more impressive than before.

But at that point it couldn’t intimidate me any more, I had a goal. Gyuri sat at the piano, and we had to sing excerpts back to back with Magdi. I’m not an idiot, I heard how wonderfully she sang. But I can be extremely focused and it was then when it became clear the first time, I really wanted to sing this role very much, to try myself onstage. I think I sang much better than I actually was able to at that time. And at the end of this rehearsal László Polgár stood up, again in all his glory, came up to me, patted my back and said:

Alright, sweetheart, you’ll get there eventually.

They thanked Magdi for coming, she knew me already for a long time, she kissed me on the cheek and left so I got to sing the role.

The rehearsals didn’t go smoothly, but I developed such an addiction, such love for the stage that I never thought I would be capable of. And I felt for sure, that whatever happens, no matter the obstacles, I will try to get there, I want to sing. There were periods in my career, when I can tell exactly in what company, under what influence, this love and addiction appeared in me, and because of this no sickness, no disappointment, no lack of fulfillment could make me give up singing.

You simply cannot give up this career.

I am telling you these stories so that everyone can see that a singer who is making a career an sings great roles on the HSO stage surely had periods of disappointments and battles before they actually learned to sing.

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