(Credit: Gregor Hohenberg)
Last fall, soprano Aleksandra Kurzak released a new album, “Mozart Concertante”. It was a break with the work she had done recently for Sony Classical, which was devoted to the romantic repertoire and which was in line with the repertoire that she currently performs around the world.
In many ways, this album represents a return to the origins of the soprano. When Kurzak first reached the international stage, she was known for her dazzling coloratura and for roles such as the Night Queen, Lucia di Lammermoor, Olympia, Gilda and various other roles of Bel Canto and Mozart. But only a few years ago the soprano began to move away from these roles and embrace the veristic and more lyrical repertoire which will soon also include the dramatic and iconic ‘Tosca’.
OperaWire spoke to the soprano about her return to Mozart’s repertoire and how her technique allowed her to continue playing that repertoire.
OperaWire: When did you decide to record this album and how did you know you could still perform these works?
Aleksandra Kurzak: Mozart has always been very important to me from the start and I started singing a lot of these roles. I had a wonderful example at home because my mom was my teacher and she was a wonderful singer. She sang many Mozart operas. In a chamber opera company that she sang, they did all of Mozart’s operas so it was very close to me. I never had the chance to record it and as a young singer you always want to do something other than Mozart.
As I started to mature, I started to appreciate Mozart a lot more, especially how difficult it is in its simplicity. And of course, with the Queen of the Night, it was my passport to leave Poland as I sang in many competitions. And I thought it was a shame that I never recorded it and thought it would be nice to have it as a souvenir. I didn’t think about it from the start because I wanted to show how I see Mozart. I wanted to show how I see her vocal line, how instrumental it is and how to approach it. And I wanted to show that there is not a big difference between the voice and the instrument. I am a violinist and have played his music for many years. So we had this idea to show that the instruments and the voice are equal in his music. When we are on stage we forget about the soloists in the pit because we are so focused on our partners and on the story. We see ourselves as soloists on stage and I wanted to show that this is not necessarily the case. Having this chamber orchestra with musicians who are also soloists was special and it was our wish to show the possibility of the orchestra. It was great to show the Sinfonia Concertante and the tunes together. Another instrument of the orchestra is Mozart’s human voice.
OW: This album comes after you’ve recorded Verismo albums. How does it feel to come back to Mozart after having sung a heavier repertoire?
AK It’s different and I learned a lot from this recording. I learned a lot of technical things about voice and breathing and how to use it. I also learned a lot of concentration skills when singing this repertoire. It’s different, but in the past a lot of Wagnerian voices sang Mozart so Mozart doesn’t mean light or heavy. It’s a style you have to sing cleanly without the verismo portamento and it’s very instrumental. But it does not depend on the size of the voice. You have to breathe differently. For Mozart, you have to sing sul fiato because it’s a little higher and not the one linked to the diaphragm like when you sing Puccini or a larger repertoire. I learned this by singing in this repertoire and it’s really amazing to be able to have a lot of different composers at the same time.
It’s both technical and natural. It’s a sign that after 20 years on stage and after the last six or seven years of approaching a new repertoire that I can still sing it. But actually I feel more connected to my breathing and more connected to my senses and it’s easier when it comes to the high F. I never lost the note and I always vocalize to reach an F. When I sing “Butterfly” in order to hit the high B flat well, I want to have a few more notes just to be comfortable on stage. When I sang Queen of the Night, I was a few tones higher. I wouldn’t sing Queen of the Night on stage anymore because of stress and nerves. I was recently offered to sing the part and I said, âNo way. “
When I sing Desdemona and Butterfly, it’s very different. In Butterfly, the first act is really high and the duet with Pinkerton is in the passagio. And then you take the second act with the Suzuki, it’s the range of Costanze and Lucia. It is therefore very demanding. Desdemona is not as demanding and if you feel good in the middle register then everything is fine as it has three or four high notes. I think it really depends on the voice and I’ve never really been a big fan of fach. You have to listen to yourself and trust yourself. If you end the show in a healthy way and can speak clearly, this is a sign that it is good for you. We have to listen to ourselves and we have to have a third ear on the outside. It is important to register and trust each other.
OW: What was the experience like not having a conductor?
AK: It was really fun recording this album because we didn’t have a conductor so it was made like chamber music. I just gave beats to keep the tempo going and then we listened to each other and it was just wonderful. It was really about making music together and we were really focused on each other. It was really fun making this album.
As I was a violinist, I was first violin so I had this idea of ââleadership and it was easy for me. I felt like I was going back to my roots. Being a singer is different. I remember when I started singing, I was considered a singer and not a musician. But we are musicians. I remember while we were recording I looked at the faces of the musicians and they were so happy. They looked at you and saw you as one of them and there was no intermediary between me and the orchestra. In many ways, it was easier, faster and more enjoyable.
OW: This season you have a very varied repertoire and you will end the season with Musetta in “La BohÃ¨me” and “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”. Tell me about singing those roles that you did at the start of your career?
AK: You know, I didn’t think about it. It happened at the last moment because of COVID-19 and all the cancellations and directory changes. I was supposed to sing Violetta in Napoli but because of all the cancellations I sang it last season and we said, “to sing the same role after doing it so wonderfully last season” they got me asked if I wanted to come and do it again or change it. I had just started singing Rosina’s aria again and did it for the Met Opera Stars Concert and thought if the mezzo could sing it then the lyrical soprano could too. I believe coloring is a natural thing and I believe you can learn it, but it will never be precise or perfect. I think you have to be born with it to have fun and play with it. When I say the coloratura voice, it does not mean small or large voices. You have to have a coloratura to do Abigaille. I said why not to “Barbiere” because as long as you have the flexibility and you do the ornamentation in the air or the duet then you can do it. I also thought it was important to have fun after having died so much on stage last year.
OW: Is singing Bel Canto and Mozart healthier for your voice?
AK: We always repeat the idea that Bel Canto and Mozart are healthy for your voice. I do not know if we repeat it because everyone says it. But I looked back and there were so many singers who never sang Mozart. And that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. It’s because they don’t feel it or just don’t like it. You have to know your voice and your technique well to come back to this lighter repertoire. You have to know your body and you have to know yourself well.
OW: Are you going to shoot this new album?
AK: We are planning to present the album and do a concert tour. We’re getting good reviews for this and we might do a second part in the future. There are so many great Mozart arias in the repertoire.
OW: Given that you are able to go back and forth in different directories, how do you see yourself in the next few years?
AK: I really don’t know. I couldn’t see myself doing Butterfly or Tosca. It was a dream but I didn’t think it was possible. I hadn’t planned it and didn’t know how the voice was going to develop. It started with âLa Juiveâ and I explored the mid-range and the more dramatic side. I have always been a theater queen and loved dramatic works like Gilda. I also had a fine example with my mother who sang Queen of the Night and at 60 she sang the role of Turandot. But that doesn’t mean that I’ll sing Turandot because I’m happy with LiÃ¹. I do not know. Maybe I’ll stop where I am and continue doing the repertoire I’m doing. Right now I’m very happy where I am and happy to do Puccini, who is my favorite composer. We will see what the future holds.