28.11.2003 Magdalena, You're a Devil!
At your September concert in Prague Castle the French ambassador presented you with a high state honour of the French Republic. How does it feel to be a Chevalier de l’Art?
I can’t quite get used to it, and I was very much surprised, because these sorts of medals are given for lifelong achievements. Well, perhaps not always, since I was told that I was the youngest knight. Since one can’t speak of lifelong achievements in my case, for me it mainly means an obligation to do even more in the future. Perhaps they partly gave it in the hope that I will carry on in the right direction.
You have a close relationship with France not only because your husband is French but also because of your affinity for French culture. What part did that play when you decided on the form of your last project, which is completely French from repertoire to conductor?
It was a combination of several things. In the past I have done a lot of French music, mainly songs, and have tried to penetrate the mysteries of the French language. For several years now I have been working with Marc Minkowski and I have many friends in France. I and the people from Deutsche Grammophon agreed that since the previous disc had been as it were a “Prague” collection, then this one could be French; it is music that suits me and I wanted to devote even more time to French music than before.
Was it clear from the beginning that you would work with Marc Minkowski?
Well, as you know, they (Note: the management of Deutsche Grammophon] try to ensure that one recording of mine with orchestra comes out every year. It‘s more expensive, but it sells better than smaller scale work. And so when it was clear what kind of album this one was going to be, Marc Minkowski was the only possible conductor.
You‘ve already worked on several wonderful projects with Minkowski, and he must be a good friend of yours, but he is a conductor, after all, and conductors like to dominate...
I was a little worried about that, because like every conductor he has his own ego and accompanying a singer on a recording isn‘t something pleasant for a conductor, because he simply has to keep in the background. Then the best that people say about it is that the conductor has supported the soloist well, and that‘s usually all. At that point every good conductor has the feeling that life is short and he ought to be doing something else. At the beginning it really was like that. And there‘s yet another problem with Minkowski, which is that he hates recording in a studio and does his best to avoid it. He does live recordings. Naturally there are then some corrections, although there were none with Giulius Cesar, but otherwise the recording is taken from one of two performances and the final rehearsal. In this case he had to admit that you can‘t record 14 opera arias live. He had to accept that there wouldn‘t be an audience and it was a situation that frightened him.
What was it like working with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra?
It‘s an excellent orchestra. Basically all the members are about the same age as me, they have huge enthusiasm and they really enjoy the music. Just like conductors, orchestras don‘t like doing records in which they are just accompanying singers, because they don‘t get to really play to the full, they feel pushed into the background and the whole advertising campaign is based on the singer. But in the end it went very well and even Minkowski, who as I‘ve said doesn‘t like doing this sort of thing, gritted his teeth at first and did it because he liked me. It went well – it had to, since companies today can‘t afford to make a CD with an orchestra every week.
Did you make the choice? What couldn‘t you find space for?
TI was keen on plenty of Gounods, some Offenbachs, Le roi d'Ys by Edouard Lalo... It was mainly me who actually made the choice, Minkowski made various suggestions, and sometimes there was a compromise. In the end I was pleased that he pushed me to the Eboli, for example, which was the one I resisted the hardest. He convinced me that in the French version it is a sort of popular Spanish song, and the coloraturas in it need a lighter voice. I gave in – at the end of the day it may be the first and last Verdi in my life...And so I had quite a ball with it. Another of his ideas was Carmen. He convinced my that the first Carmen was actually a soprano, that it was written for the Opera Comique and not for the Opera Bastille and that today‘s idea of a Carmen with a deepthroated, darker voice is completely different from what Bizet had in mind. And so I thought, why not? Why not do it differently?
Will you sing the whole role of Carmen some time?
Singing Carmen is every mezzosoprano‘s dream, since the role is worth it, and I don‘t think I shall be any different. If the conductor was someone who would work with my conception of the role and not push me into a traditional Carmen, and if it was with a good orchestra and in more chamber-style conditions, then I probably wouldn‘t say no. But in view of my itinerary it still couldn‘t happen for another four or five years.
The choice of music on the CD is very diverse. Are they numbers that you have really fallen in love with?
There are some things I would really like to sing on the stage. One of them is Massenet‘s Cinderella, which is rarely staged and the whole opera is beautiful. I‘m also terribly fond of the arias of Cleopatra. From the stage point of view I‘m very tempted by Ravel‘s The Spanish Hour. He is one of my favourite composers, and the acting style of the work and recitative mode of singing, which I enjoy, are close to my heart.
At Easter next year you will be working for the first time with Cecilia Bartoli in Salzburg. Although you are very different as types, you are often seen as competitors in the field of Baroque and Classical music. Are you worried that there might be tension?
I‘m very much looking forward to it. I‘ve only ever talked to Cecilia once, in London. She is very pleasant and natural and it’s the managers buzzing around her who turn her into an awesome wonder. I didn‘t get the feeling that she would feel threatened by me, or that we would somehow necessarily have to compete. What is more, Cosi fan tutte has no leading soloist. All six characters are equal, and the point isn‘t to be star of the evening. I hope this performance will be based on our all enjoying the meeting and having fun together. I expect it will be like with Simon Rattle, who just enjoys music and whose guiding principle is the incredible power that he draws from music, with every other consideration taking a back seat. When he‘s around there is no place for star scenes. When I was with him in the summer in Glyndebourne, the atmosphere there was incredibly ordinary and sincere, and there was none of the tension you often find at festivals or opera productions. So what I expect from Salzburg is mainly pleasure in music-making and I‘m curious how it will work out because our voices really are very different. I‘m curious what will arise from the combination of different kinds of energy.
You have just mentioned the summer with Simon Rattle. After Gardiner and Harnoncourt he is another of the conducting giants of today. What plans does he have with you?
We gave concert performances of the Idomeneo that we did in Glyndebourne in Lucerne and Berlin and we shall be repeating it again in the Spring in Salzburg. We also plan to do Sheherazade in Berlin, to do a tour with his ensemble of period instruments the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and put on Rameau‘s opera Hippolite et Aricie. To be frank, I don‘t know a better conductor today.
You‘ve also worked with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. How do you see the two conductors?
It‘s hard to compare Harnoncourt and Rattle. They are geniuses, who have a rather different way of expressing themselves and different temperaments. Harnoncourt is more musicological, he has very definite views and not everyone agrees with him. I too have felt that I would like to do something differently, but the force of his personality and his own conviction persuades you, Perhaps in later productions people go back to their own ideas, but at the time when he persuades me, I know why I‘m doing it his way. It’s a strange magical feeling. If I have someone I trust and admire beside me, then I‘m willing to change things that I feel differently about. This is because I think music can be done in many ways and there is not just one correct path. And so I have no problems trying something a different way. Quite the reverse in fact. I enjoy trying something out. My work with Harnoncourt was enriching, for example I learned a lot on the theoretical side. What most catches your attention are his eyes, he actually conducts with his eyes – he looks and the person knows what he must do. Simon Rattle is very impulsive and for him music comes more from emotion than the rational study of books. He has unmeasurably positive energy and he puts a great deal of trust in the people he has chosen, leaving them a lot of freedom too. It‘s all a matter of real co-operation, not the usual model – I‘m the conductor, I have the idea and everyone else is supposed to fulfil it. In the end he gets what he wants as well, but in a completely unforced way. Both conductors are rare people, in artistic and human terms. Unlike some of their colleagues they don‘t use conducting as an instrument of power.
Why does Rattle conduct an orchestra playing on copies of period instruments as well as normal symphony orchestras?
There‘s no contradiction. On the contrary, when he is conducting his period instrument orchestra, he very frequently talks about jazz, which he loves. I agree with him that Baroque music approaches jazz in its greater freedom, improvisation. For example in the phrasing he says he wants us to do some appoggiaturas like Billy Holiday, which means before the relevant bar. Historians might say it was almost in bad taste, but with him it isn‘t disruptive of the drive of the music. You ought to fit into the bar, as it were, and the tempo shouldn‘t change, but within individual bars a performer can move and speak with the music according to his or her emotions. There was a huge freedom not only in the recitatives but also in the arias we have done together. He often said to me, “At these points we have to meet up, but otherwise you can do what you like. “That is a wonderful thing and one I have encountered only very rarely. With Simon Rattle I‘m not bound by any strict rules, and that suits me.
Next year the French album will be followed by a song recital. Will it be non-traditional again, like the Martinů with the Dvořák?
It will be a great mixture of languages and instrumental settings. From Shostakovich‘s Russian Satires, which have been sung only once – by Vishnyevska, for whom they were written, to Britten‘s English Lullabies, the German Songs for Violin, Voice and Piano by Erwin Schulhoff [it will be the first Schulhoff in the DG catalogue - note LS], the Il tramonto from the Italian Respighi for string quartet and mezzosoprano to the French Madagascar Songs by Ravel for cello, flute, voice and piano. I‘m pleased that the cellist will be Jiří Bárta.
How did you manage to get the Deutsche Grammophon managers to take him on?
I just said that he was going to play on the record. I lent them his Dvořák album and then there was nothing to discuss. Jirka Bárta has a superb tone and expression and anyone with even a little understanding of the music can see it at once.
Generally it must take a lot of obstinacy to get agreement for a record with such a selection of songs...
I‘m not the type to make scenes to get what I want. I‘ve been talking about the Shostakovich and Britten for several years now, but it‘s only now that it‘s come off. The simple fact is that when you record a CD with an orchestra that sells well, occasionally you can afford a rather non-commercial project. Nobody expects this record to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Sometimes you are forced to make compromises.
And so this was a kind of reward?
Yes, I’ve earned my reward. I couldn‘t say that I‘d actually been suffering before, but this CD will be a sort of cherry on the cake. It‘s music that I love.
Perhaps its means that your position with Deutsche Grammophon is now so strong that you can record what you like.
That‘s more or less true. We have thought up several projects and now we‘re trying to choose the commercial project that will be a payment for the cherries in my plan. I should touch wood, but at the moment I‘m lucky in being almost the most recorded female singer. Because I also sing earlier music and the company has its Archiv series, then instead of one CD there are at least two every year, which is exceptional these days. Of course it means a lot of work, not just musical, but also company promotion including “promodays“ when I spend the whole day giving interviews for example.
Apart from the French album, this year saw the release of the remarkable recording of Handel‘s opera Cleopatra. Is it really live?
I am very proud of it. We only used two concerts for the recording (there‘s not usually money for recording operas today) and between them we only re-recorded the beginnings and ends, to get rid of the applause. And even though we recorded both operas, there are no cuts inside the numbers and we just chose the best version of each number. What‘s more, it was an experiment for me, because it was my first. The beginning was at eight, and the toughest aria came at around midnight. After six performances and four hours I really had to concentrate to the utmost to make sure that the recording should be the best possible. It was a kind of Olympic games with two chances. Otherwise I had a fabulous time, because the role of Cleopatra has so many different levels, from soubrette flirt through transformation into a woman in love to vocal gymnastics. I recorded the French album just a week after the Cleopatra tour, and I wondered whether I would manage it because it was on the limits of human possibilities. After that I was sick for three weeks. I wouldn‘t want to do such crazy things too often.
You have taken on the patronage of Czech Dreams 2004? What do you hope for from the event?
I very much hope it will work out as the organisers want. I welcome every attempt to promote Czech music and I am pleased that Czech centres abroad have become involved. Meeting people outside the country I always discover a great admiration for Czech music. Those people are open to deeper knowledge of our music, and what Czech Dreams should offer is precisely some lesser known composers alongside the great classics. I get the feeling that the general trend, in the recording industry for example, is for people to buy interesting, lesser known music and not always the same old Beethoven symphonies and Mozart arias. A few years ago when I recorded the album Mozart - Gluck - Mysliveček, everyone asked about Mysliveček and Mozart didn‘t interest them much. People are avid for new things, and so they expect new things from Czech Dreams as well as other events. Of course, for someone abroad the New World Symphony could be a discovery, but we should be thankful for every soul gained for classical music.
How has Magdalena Kožená changed since the period of the legendary Bach recordings?
I‘ve certainly changed. I wouldn‘t say that I was an absolute rebel, but I was never an industrious student, and more a sort of original. I was always interested in what I sensed in the music, and I didn‘t let anyone else get much of a word in. I don‘t know if I can express it precisely, but today I‘ve matured to the view that music is what you want to say with it. I am fundamentally less restricted by views around me on how it ought to sound. You must live your own life somehow and then you must somehow project it into your role on the stage, and you must transmit something to people, or at least try. That is my mission. People should leave a concert with some new feeling or idea. In Baroque music I‘ve freed myself more from views on how it ought to be authentic as in the Baroque. I may sound cruel, but in fact that no longer interests me much. The priority for me is feeling, emotion, what it is that music gives human beings.
In the context of Ravel you talk about how it is like singing pictures. Is that something that could be generalised as your musical philosophy?
In a way, yes. Of course sometimes it is the text that is more central, and at other times the expression of colours, moods, pictures. At all events, for me it isn‘t a question of creating beautiful notes. Unfortunately many singers cannot get free of the idea and for them the most important thing is to have a well positioned voice, to sing technically correctly and to make beautiful notes. But that is just the foundation. The singer must then know how to produce ugly notes as well, he must know why, and what for, and must learn the art of exploiting them. Art isn‘t just beautiful images, and life isn‘t just beautiful. When you listen to Anja Silja, it isn‘t beautiful, but something meaningful is happening there. There must always be a meaning, otherwise it wouldn‘t be interesting for me, even if it were beautiful.
Recently I read that your voice was once translucent and now it is opulent. What is your voice like?
I have never had a feeling of translucency. Naturally people mature, usually for the better, which is a good thing. What frightens me is that one day I might reach a point when it would start going down hill. At the beginning I was bothered by self-doubt, but today I‘m somewhere else and tackling other things. Voices simply change, and in another ten years for example I may not be able to sing coloratura and Baroque repertoire. My voice will be heavier and “more opulent”, but why not? One of the beautiful aspects of singing is precisely the way the voice develops, and sings other repertoire. I‘m not afraid of that, since I like change.
Over seven years you have become an international star. Some enthusiastic fans take it as far as falling in platonic love with you. Do you have any defence against fame, and is it changing your view of the world and values in life?
I’ve had to learn to keep a certain distance. Naturally I get into situations where the loss of privacy is unpleasant. Fortunately in classical music the problem isn‘t as serious as in pop. I can‘t imagine the kind of life Madonna must lead, for example, or a famous footballer. For me it would be unbearable. But when I go out into the streets of London, maybe a couple of people who go to concerts recognise me, but otherwise I do as I like. I feel best, of course, when I‘m with old friends and we talk about cooking, about my friends‘ children and completely ordinary things.
I gather your grandfather, who is 87, came to your September concert in Prague Castle...
It was magic. My grandmother, who died in March, had heart problems and identified tremendously with my career. She had once wanted to be an actress, but hadn‘t managed it, and so she saw herself in it all, a little. But throughout my career she couldn‘t come to my concerts, because the emotion might have been too much for her heart. And granddad stayed at home to show solidarity with her. That‘s why it was only now that he first came to a concert of mine, and for me it was a terribly important and marvellous moment. He was terrifically moved and after the concert he said, "Magdalena, you're a devil," which made me laugh.
Luboš Stehlík, Harmonie
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