21.01.2002 I'm Not a Model
With a CD of arias out and big roles at Salzburg and Glyndebourne imminent, Magdalena Kozena's opera career is about to go stratospheric. But is her sudden success solely to do with her voice?
It's a cruel and cynical world, so there is no point in pretending that one particular question is not hovering near the surface when you talk to Magdalena Kozena. So let's get it out of the way: has Kozena got where she is because of how she looks or because of how she sounds? At 28, the blue-eyed, blonde Czech mezzo-soprano is the classical recording industry's latest hot property. This month sees the release of her CD of arias by Gluck, Mozart and Myslivecek. It follows the huge success of her Love Songs CD, featuring songs by Dvorak, Janacek and Martinu, which won a 2001 Gramophone award. Her opera career is taking off, too: she will be in Don Giovanni under Nikolaus Harnoncourt at Salzburg this summer, and Idomenio at Glyndebourne under Simon Rattle next year.
All of a sudden Kozena is the singer whom "they" are all talking about. But she is, undeniably, an attractive woman, and the recording industry knows the value of eye candy for breaking into the mass market. Look at the way it has packaged and promoted Renee Fleming or Angela Georghiu rather than, say, Jane Eaglen or Deborah Voigt, though all four are top-rank singers. So does Kozena owe her success to her looks?
She replies, as she must, that it is the music that matters.
"I don't think the recording company is promoting me on my photos," she insists. "That is not a good direction to go and it doesn't say anything I want said. It's good to have nice photos taken of you, of course, but sometimes I think the pictures are not really me. I'm not a model."
An objective answer must rely on the ears, not the eyes. The discs reveal a youthful, bright and high-lying mezzo - silver rather than golden, perhaps, with a charming Slav inflection reminiscent of the late Lucia Popp. The technique seems effortless, and she projects very naturally, without the attention-seeking or the kitsch that are beginning to infect the singing of the last hot mezzo, Cecilia Bartoli.
But where Bartoli is almost a contralto, Kozena sounds as if she is moving in the other direction. Some soprano roles already fall within her compass, such as Zerlina in Don Giovanni. She may sing Donna Elvira next, and she could one day be a Leonora in Fidelio. But that is all in the future.
"Some soprano roles are good for me. Some are not," she says.
A vital clue to Kozena comes from the repertoire on which she is concentrating. No one could pretend that Janacek, Martinu or even Dvorak are names that shift large numbers of CDs. And Josef Myslivecek, who shares the honours on Kozena's latest recording, is a composer who is likely to send most of us hurrying to Grove's for more details (1737-81, in case you were wondering). This focus speaks of a serious artist, but one who has not yet been tested in the traditional peaks of the repertoire.
All of which brings us to the second most obvious thing about Kozena.
"I am very proud of my country and my Czech heritage," she says. While many central and eastern European artists have moved to the wealthier west, Kozena's home and heart are still in Prague; she grew up in Brno, capital of Moravia, city of Janacek.
"I have a strong Moravian accent, and everyone knows I'm from Brno when I speak."
Janacek remains "a very big presence" in Brno, she says. "Everyone is very aware of him. He founded the conservatory where I studied and I met many people who were Janacek's own students. All the teachers have scores with notes and marks on them that Janacek made in his own hand, so it is a very live thing."
Czechs of Kozena's generation see themselves as both Europeans and Czechs, she says, and move easily between the two identities.
"My grandparents hated Germans and my parents hated Russians, both for understandable reasons, but my generation does not have these fears."
This new attitude can still cause problems at home. "I'm going to sing a recital at the Prague spring festival and I'm planning to sing some of the Shostakovich satires. But some people are not happy about it. They still have this feeling [about Russians]. But I want to break it a bit."
As a girl, Kozena wanted to be a pianist. But on the eve of her entrance exams for the Brno conservatory, when she was 14, she damaged her hand. Instead she took the singing entrance exams; the rest is history. Yet she still loves the piano.
"When I got my flat, the first thing I bought was a new bath, then a new piano." She can still accompany herself to this day, though "my technique is quite gone".
"I started as a real alto," she says, "though you would not know now. I had a very deep voice. I sang a lot of Bach and late renaissance music at the conservatory. We had a small baroque ensemble and did two concerts a week. It was a great way to learn and to earn money at the same time."
Kozena's breakthrough came when she recorded some Bach arias with the Czech baroque ensemble Musica Florea. As a dare, one of the group sent a copy to Polygram in Hamburg. The disc was passed to Peter Czorny, head of Polygram's Archiv division, and he was bowled over by the Kozena sound.
"That was how I suddenly got to work with all those great conductors" - Minkowski, Gardiner (she sang on several of John Eliot's recent Bach Cantata series), and now Harnoncourt and Rattle - "and that was where my international career started."
She goes on: "I work very hard to keep my career under control. I try to be quite simple. I just want people to be made happy by my singing. I know it sounds corny, but the communication with an audience is what I seek most. I don't like this diva stuff - expensive cars, fur coats and all that. My image is that I don't want to have an image."
Martin Kettle, The Guardian
Copyright 2004 © C.E.M.A., optimized for IE 5.0 and hihger