s01e05 The teacher – post scriptum

Klára Kolonits

What will we talk about?

  • Why Klára ran away from a hospital?
  • Why is love dangerous?
  • Should we pick our repertoire basing on our affinity towards certain roles?
  • Is it possible to sing an opera when you suddenly have no voice?

I’d rather read than watch.

No problem! Just scroll down for the transcript.

In my life I had a chance to study with amazing teachers and yet – peculiar as it is – I needed to find my final identity as a singer myself.

I started with Katalin Schultz, who encouraged me a lot and somehow saw the possibilities hidden in my tiny, thin baby voice. Then in the College Zsuzsanna Forrai took me into her class.It was interesting because she is daughter of the greatest Hungarian coloratura of her times, Mária Gyurkovics. She mentioned to me that she thinks I do have an affinity to coloratura singing but I didn’t feel this affinity inside of me.

I considered myself a great dramatic, even tragic figure who needs to express some endless suffering with her immensely huge voice.

I had difficulties in accepting the fact that my physique is different, and that also technically I have still a lot of work to do before I can have a considerable volume gain.

During the first year of College, professor Imre Földes had a special award for those who got the best grade from music history exam. They brought six of us to Salzburg, and we had an opportunity to watch three concerts during Festspiele, it was in I think 1993. First one was L’incoronazione di Poppea with Harnoncourt and Sylvia McNair which was terrific, second was a matiné with Mahler’s Second Symphony under Lorin Maazel, one of the greatest experiences in my life. Nothing could ever compare to that, and in the effect I did sing soprano solo in Mahler’s Second more than once. Clearly it is not a showpiece for my voice, but I can’t even describe the feeling of standing in the orchestra and feeling the divine music of the Finale flowing through my body.

The third concert wasn’t even in the original plan but professor Imre Földes said that there’s this concert of the famous soprano, Jessye Norman. It was a Liederabend, with a bit weird program, Hindemith, Poulenc, a bit of Schumann too but not my usual repertoire – and he asked if I want to go. Our seats weren’t in the auditorium but in the extra rows onstage, next to the singer, maybe twenty feet from her. At that time I’ve never seen a singer from so close by, let alone a world star, so I just sat merrily next to the professor.

All of a sudden there was a PRESENCE that swept by, like a breeze, she was immense, like a battleship, as we know Jessye Norman was never a tiny person, I’d say she was almost as wide as she was tall. But she was SO beautiful! It is difficult to explain nowadays when the international standard for a soprano singer is 100 pounds, well, Norman was at least twice as much but INCREDIBLY beautiful and she had an INCREDIBLE air to her. So she started this difficult program, and I felt her voice, every sound that she sang caressing and arousing my skin, my face,

my face started to tingle, as if in love ecstasy, when at the climax you feel like you are going to explode through your skin pores.

Her voice excited all of my body, a voice that I longed for through my entire life. My love for Jessye Norman and her voice swept me into a dead end as an artist for five or six years. This is why I fought back the advice to study coloratura repertoire suitable for my voice, at any price I wanted to produce something similar to what I heard at Salzburger Festspiele’s stage in 1993 and then also on records, because of course I also started to collect Jessye Norman’s albums.

Now I can tell, such love can be dangerous.

My teachers respected my independence and let me go my way, and I think I would be more strict with a pupil. I would try to direct this omnivore attitude that I represented myself for most of my life into certain reasonable frames. Zsuzsanna Forrai did make me try out the coloratura repertoire, I even sang Gilda or Queen of the Night on my College exams. She thought that it would be the best for me, but the dean, Melánia Králikné Rosner said “No, this girl should be a Jungdramatisch” – clearly because my personality was more like that.

I finished the College and it wasn’t decided yet. I didn’t have a possibility to continue my study at the Music Academy, because I was already raising my child on my own and I needed to find a job as soon as possible so I took part in HSO auditions where I got a scholarship, and ended up as ensemble member in Debrecen, where my first role was, well, Cherubino. A mezzo role, and clearly, not a coloratura soprano range.

But in provincial theatres you don’t sing what you would like to sing – you sing what they tell you to sing because there’s no one else to do that.

So my next role was a lyric soprano one, Nanetta in Falstaff, and the third one – Olympia, absolutely a showpiece coloratura role. And the only reason was: the theatre had no other singer to do those. From this perspective the theatre was my greatest master of singing but also of flexibility and sacrifice. I sang Donna Elvira and Queen of the Night at the same time, for example, and the conclusion was that none was close to perfection.

Moreover, I always looked for singing coaches who were my stage idols. This is how I ended up with Judit Németh, or with Ionel Panthea who was also the director of Opera Studio at the time. But no one had an idea for me or my voice, everyone just tried to work on a given role. I had a chance to take part in Walter Berry‘s masterclass, also I had an audition and a singing lesson with Ileana Cotrubas thanks to Ionel Panthea. We worked on Fiordiligi and Violetta, but as I said – again all that was coaching on specific roles.

No one ventured far enough to give an idea on what kind of voice I actually have.

After my Operetta period I finally ended up at HSO, but also there I had to jump into roles that were vacant. I had to jump into Cosi fan tutte with four days advance, and based on that they said: fine, so this girl should go towards the heavier Mozart roles, Contessa and the like. I somehow skipped the usual period of lyric roles of young girls, that would have shown that I should sing higher, with more agility, more coloratura. They put me in a box of “good for every kind of role” singers. It lasted till 2006, meanwhile I also did entire runs of Bluebeard’s Judit that is also a mezzo role, and in general sang everything and anything.

At that point, maybe it was the end of certain period in life, or a crisis, I can’t tell.

I begun to struggle with very acute asthma.

The asthma meant that I could use a small percentage of my normal lung capacity, it meant a ton of medicines, that had their effect on the timbre, my voice chords got tired and inflamed from continuous coughing, but I needed to deal with it. At that time there was no soloist ensemble at HSO, I lived all my career as a freelancer, and that means there is no sick leave. You can’t be sick and cancel, even if you end up in the hospital, like myself, with the asthma, I needed to get out on my own responsibility.

It didn’t matter my life was in danger because I was so sick, if I didn’t sing then my life would be in danger because I wouldn’t have means to pay my bills.

One of the most extreme experiences was in I think 2006, they invited me to jump into Donna Anna in Zagreb. I was so sick that I didn’t even have speaking voice from the coughing. But I knew I HAD to do it. I communicated in gestures on the night train, that I cannot speak, I gave the ticket to the agent. I arrived to Zagreb, I still couldn’t speak and I still couldn’t imagine singing at all, and on top of that Donna Anna, which is a difficult role I’ve been only singing for 3 years before that. I had it “in my throat”, but anything could happen, I cannot really compare this mental stress to anything else. In the theatre I only had time to quickly warm up my voice in the ladies’ room. And interestingly enough, quite good sound came out, but it was somehow higher, as if it wasn’t me singing. It was as if someone else sang in front of me, or above me, I thought that my hearing is impaired from coughing and this is why I hear myself so strangely. So I went there after four days of non-stop couching and choking, sang the role, and they applauded and bravoed.

When I wiped the sweat and the deadly fear from my forehead I sat down and thought: what did I do differently?

I came to the conclusion that I sang beyond my usual voice, that my larynx and my face muscles were all focused upwards, and so the hang rang differently. Somehow this caused my tired larynx to work more optimally, than it normally would, even before that. I had to experience such an extreme situation to find out how can I survive this at all. There were more, but this was the worst. It came out that when I sing with much less air, not because I want to, but because I am constrained to, my voice in certain range is more beautiful than before. I would never know, no teacher told me that, it was only the sickness that forced me to look for another way of singing.

The other most extreme story happened about two years later, and I was better or worse but I sang all this time. And there were roles, like Violetta in Traviata or Mimí in La boheme, that are supposed to have tuberculosis and cough. And those who know me could hear that it wasn’t stage coughing: that it was asthma, that by the fourth act already took over my larynx and forced me to cough.

Colleagues were getting a heart attack hearing my heavy breathing and they were scared that I will actually die in their arms.

To their credit, my lungs were at this stadium of sickness. At this point my dresser, Zizike, used to make concentric circles around the stage with my bronchodilator, so that if I could step aside for a second she could spray it into my mouth.

Autumn 2008 came, I was preparing for Fiordiligi, we had a premiere upcoming in Thalia theatre. Bronchodilator didn’t help any more during the rehearsals. At home, when I wasn’t rehearsing, I used to lay flat to avoid any physical activity not to trigger coughing. I thought that this way MAYBE I will be able to sing the shows. But one day

my husband sensed something was very wrong, he had a rehearsal himself but he called my mom and asked her to bring me to the hospital immediately.

We used to live on the same street then, close to the Saint John Hospital. They measured my blood oxygen level and and announced that I need to stay in, because my circulation is about to stop, and I’m in immediate life danger. But even then, I only had in my head that it is Thursday, and on Sunday I need to sing Fiordiligi and cancelling is not an option. I agreed to have a steroid infusion, but I felt that there has to be a solution, it can’t remain this way. They said I should accept the fact that I am very sick, that I should cancel the show and come to terms with the fact that my condition is very severe. On top of that a lady in my hospital room got brain hemorrhage during her treatment and I think she also died at that point.

I stood up, pulled the catheter out of my arm and called my husband to say: take me home.

They made me sign all kinds of papers about claiming the responsibility, but I snapped back that I won’t get better here, only singing and stage can heal me. We went home and I sang Fiordiligi, there’s even a video of that. I felt I was fighting for life. My brain didn’t get enough oxygen, so it was possible that I won’t even remember the next phrase to sing.

I couldn’t see colours. I saw only certain people, like the conductore who was Gyuri Vashegyi, in a sort of a bubble.

My colleagues had no idea my condition is this bad, but my husband stood there in the aisle saying Holy Father-s and praying for us to survive this somehow. We did survive. I got better by the end of the show. As Fiordiligi I didn’t have to cough, nor die, for that matter. It also helped that I had to use my lungs, that they weren’t in a passive state.

Now I would like to jump in time again, this time to 2012. It got better or worse, but I did suffer from asthma all this time from 2006 till 2012. I needed bronchodilator several times a day for all this period. How I found out that its frequent use can make asthma itself more acute, was thanks to my mom, who read an article online about Buteyko-therapy, principle of which is the theory that it isn’t oxygen shortage that causes asthma, but the excess of it in the organism. It is likely that my asthma developed because of singing, because I took such enormous breaths, I wanted to sing with such a huge voice, to fulfill all the expectations including my own, that I developed hyperventilation. It means that when I took this enormous forced breath before singing, and then of course mid-phrase couldn’t inhale for that long any more, my brain sensed it as a danger because it had the “normal” level of oxygen that should arrive with each breath set for that enormous one I took in the beginning. And so the brain would trigger the organism to inhale again like that, but it won’t be possible, so you start to choke.

The solution was first the therapy, which is all about breathing into a plastic bag several times – you inhale your own CO2, which slows breathing down and tells the brain to turn off the trigger, to get its oxygen demand back on track.

And the second part was singing, I started to sing with much smaller amount of air, in a much more concentrated way. Instead of singing WITH the air, I started to sing ONTO the air.

Since 2012 I had no single asthma fit any more. Not even once.

But it was also caused by the fact that I found my own voice, my own repertoire and since 2010 I function as coloratura soprano. I did one or two exceptions but besides that I work exclusively within my own Fach. As you see,

my two most important singing teachers were the stage and the sickness itself.

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