s01e07 The genre

Klára Kolonits

What will we talk about?

  • Was opera Klára’s first choice?
  • Which recording she used to listen 50 times in a row?
  • How did she convince an audition jury to take her in?
  • What less obvious genres did she try herself in (examples included…)?

I’d rather read than watch.

No problem! Just scroll down for the transcript. You may want to check last five minutes of the video though for some interesting examples!

When I started my singing study, opera wasn’t even an option. My voice was so small that I’ve been told it’s only suitable for Lied, or oratorio, at maximum. These genres were also being revived at that time.

Ibolya Verebics was a singer whose Lieder evenings would fill in the great hall in the Music Academy in the eighties, nineties. She made an international career as a recitalist and oratorio singer, meanwhile she sang a couple of roles at the opera too. In fact hers was a career I intended to follow.

And of course, there were the great recital singers whose albums I collected, like Elly Ameling, Arleen Auger and many more, not even remembered nowadays by the wider public.

My greatest love, that I inherited from my grandfather – in the form of vinyls too – was Kathleen Ferrier.

She was a contralto, but somehow I felt an affinity to her performances, I felt that she can present an entire drama in one song. And I remember there were days when I would listen to her “Die junge Nonne” fifty times in a row and in the meantime there was an entire movie going in my head, the whole drama that Schubert put in these three minutes. Kathleen Ferrier sang it in an absolutely genial and unique way, I simply couldn’t free myself from the effect it had on me.

When I first stood on stage, I realised that this impulse was even stronger than singing on its own. Onstage I can step into an interaction with the partners, also with the story itself. While in Lied I have several minutes, an opera story spreads among one to five hours long show. I realised that for my body it’s even stronger bout of positive energy and I never wanted to do without.

I decided, however, already at the beginning, that I’m not going to exclude oratorio or Lied. Actually, I would actively seek for all the styles and genres of singing that I could maybe perform with a satisfactory result.

An interesting coincidence happened in 1997. It was after I spent several years in a provincial theatre and I was back in Budapest without any regular income. Katalin Hegedüs Gönczy was my accompanying pianist back then, and we would prepare all sorts of pieces for auditions. Once a colleague whose lesson was before mine sang operetta numbers, and I was surprised because that wasn’t something that would belong in our repertory.

So I asked: what’s the purpose? She said: don’t you know, tomorrow there’s an audition in the operetta theatre and I want to try, because I would like a stable job. I caught this information like a vulture.

Tomorrow! Audition! Operetta Theatre! But… I never sang a single operetta piece in my life.

I immediately called András Aczél, whom I knew from the Zsuzsa Avar group, and who was I think artistic secretary at that time at the operetta theatre. I said Andris, please help me, I have to get into this audition, I have no job and I really need it. He wasn’t enthusiastic but finally said okay, you can come, just learn whatever relevant piece. We picked Fledermaus among the scores in Kati’s room. I had no idea how difficult it was. We went through it, I think I also had a look at it once before in the college.

The next day, armed with Fledermaus score and my incredible ambition, I went to the audition.

This first one wasn’t on stage but in the tiny room of Katalin Váradi, conductor, who sadly left us two years ago. In that room I spent long hours later on during rehearsals. The jury was her, László Makláry who was the music director, and Pál Rónai, second conductor. Kati sat at the piano. She actually had a pianist diploma and knew all the accompaniments by heart.

I went in, I introduced myself, I said that I sang Cherubino, Olympia and Nanetta in Debrecen theatre and also Contessa in the Opera Studio production, but that’s my all experience. They asked, have you ever sang operetta? No, never, I said.

“Well, what did you bring?” Kati smirked, so I opened my Fledermaus copy at Csárdás. She immediately started to play from memory, so I sang ahead. Get out, they said, so I did. I’ll remember forever, as I was closing the door, I heard Kati’s hoarse voice:


They called me back, pressed in my hands Lisa’s entrance from Land des Lächelns and said: learn this, see you in a week, for the second audition on the big stage. This is how I ended up in the operetta theatre where I sang the biggest primadonna roles for three years.

That period for me was equivalent to an opera major, or an acting studio diploma. From level zero I had to learn how to move and also speak onstage, and first of all: to behave like an operetta diva. You must know that one of the important differences here is the audience. Operetta audience decides at primadonna’s entrance if they like her or not. In opera you have entire act, or entire role to earn their appreciation. Here they react immediately: we want this one, or we don’t want her. You need to win the battle in the first moment.

I realised that it’s not only opera singing that can be “the top”, and that it’s not only this that I want to perform. Operetta singing, done well, is just as “the top” as opera. And not easier at all! In the first month, when I tried to sing at the level I was used to, while being tired from dances and spoken parts, I came to the conclusion that it’s a heavy physical work I wasn’t ready for at all. The first three months were like survival camp, I felt like I had serious exercise by the time we premiered Land des Lächelns in Germany.

Also because a part of an operetta primadonna’s stage presence is inevitably a pair of shoes on 12 cm tall heels – I couldn’t even walk in those, let alone waltz or move on stage.

I got separate choreography lessons to learn how to negotiate through these new challenges.

Later on I never protested either when an opportunity emerged to sing a jazz standard or a Gershwin song on a party. I don’t say I was the best in it, especially in the improvisation and rhythmical part, but with practice I was getting better here too. I think we should not refrain from doing something that we never tried.

Several years ago I had an honour to be approached by Kornél Fekete Kovács, the lead of Modern Art Orchestra. He asked if I would like to sing some opera arias in jazz arrangements. I already did something similar before, with Gyula Babos, when I sang the original vocal line of Rosina or Gilda aria, while the ensemble arranged the accompaniments with jazz harmony. They included variations typical for jazz as well, so I needed to be flexible to that too. I also needed to adjust the voice projection, because you cannot sing into a microphone the same way you do without on an opera show for two thousand people.

With all these experiences, I realised it would be an amazing vocal school, to write exercises to be sung in different styles. With jazz projection, operetta projection, opera one, or a historical one you would use in a baroque oratorio. I played with this a lot. Now within this project I will have an opportunity to show the difference in style, along with my great colleagues.

A voice is a voice.

But young people should learn the basics of all styles, to juggle them like you open programs in a computer. They should be able to consciously decide between an operetta voice, or opera voice, or a jazz voice “program”.

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