Aleksandra Kurzak has become one of the world’s most celebrated sopranos, performing in major opera houses from Vienna to New York and London. Earlier this month, she proved to be an outstanding Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito at the Opéra Garnier.
Having excelled in belcanto, high notes and virtuosity, Aleksandra Kurzak is now singing more dramatic roles, including Verdi and Puccini. For Revopera, Aleksandra Kurzak speaks about her debut, about learning many new roles at the same time, and about performing with her husband, Roberto Alagna.
Between 2001 and 2007, you were a member of the ensemble of the Hamburg State Opera. How important was this period for your voice, and for your career ?
Following on from some competitions in which I took part in the late 90’s, I joined the Young Artists programme of the Hamburgische Staatsoper in 2001 for two years, then became a member of the ensemble for four years. I have very fond memories of these six years I spent in Hamburg, a beautiful city. During this time, I sang everything that was then suitable for my voice : Cleopatra, Fiorilla in Il turco in Italia, Blonde, Nanetta, Susanna, Gretel. It allowed me to ground my technical and stage skills, and to build a quite wide repertoire, incorporating Johann Strauss as well as Richard Strauss, and from Handel (Giulio Cesare) to Thomas Adès (Powder Her Face).
Above all, it has been a key time for me because, as young artists, we had to sing small parts but with opportunities to cover other roles and a chance to go forward, to jump to other things. My first small role was as Kate Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, but then I jumped indeed by being asked to sing Gilda in Rigoletto. I had a real success with that so I was next offered the Queen of the Night. By my second year they were enthusiastic enough to map out important roles for me, which suited my voice. Continuing to work there was a wonderful opportunity to develop my repertoire in German and Italian – and in French too, because I did also Marie in La fille du Régiment.
And it grew very quick in fact. As soon as in 2004, I was making my debut at the Met (in Les contes d’Hoffmann as Olympia), and a few months later, I was appearing at Covent Garden for the first time in Mozart’s Mitridate, followed by Don Pasquale. I couldn’t quite believe that I had appeared at two of the most famous opera houses in the world within such a short space of time. It was wonderful but at a same time a challenge and considerable pressure to manage. I learned a lot.
You just sang Vitellia in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Opéra de Paris. How would you describe this production ? Would you like to sing more Mozart roles ?
I love Mozart’s music: it is a balm for the voice, and it is also very good for technique. Often, there is no time to warm up in his scores, you have to manage high notes and need a great concentration to overcome the tricky moments. The specificity of Vitellia’s part, which was a role debut for me, is that it requires a huge vocal adaptability to reach very high notes, followed by very low ones in chest voice and back again, moving very quickly from ones to the others. Also the acting part is particularly interesting, as this character is very rich and complex : manipulative, at the same time venomous and frail.
I was very happy to perform it at the Opera National de Paris in Willy Decker’s staging. It’s a nice and intelligent production, which has been played for 20 years now, and has proved its worth all around the world. It appears to me that it’s a sound production, very consistent on an aesthetic and dramatical point of view. This staging is simple and stripped-down. Not bare for all that, but maybe it places particular demands on the performers to also convey the humanity and emotional closeness of Mozart’s characters and drama. It’s exactly like Mozart’s music : the apparent simplicity creates it owns huge difficulty.
Would I like to sing more Mozart ? Frankly speaking, I would say no. I love the music and it’s very good for a singer to keep the voice fresh but I sang Mozart’s pieces very often in my career (La Clemenza di Tito is nothing less than the 10th opera by Mozart I added to my repertoire), and I would prefer now to move forward and concentrate on new challenges, as performing or expanding my repertoire to major soprano roles in the operas of Verdi and Puccini, all works that I love. Of course I am grateful to have this opportunity to keep a great flexibility in my voice enabling me to sing a large range of roles.
In March 2018, you are about to make another debut : Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello in Wien. Is this a big challenge for you ?
Over the last seasons, I tackled many houses and roles debuts. Indeed I learned 11 new roles since Maria Stuarda in June 2015, within a 2 years and a half period, plus 3 additional ones coming in the forthcoming season, it’s a lot ! I’m progressively changing my repertoire, after giving birth to my daughter. I know that some beautiful parts lie ahead of me. After Rachel, Nedda, Mimì, Liù, I am now preparing Desdemona, Luisa Miller and Elisabetta in Don Carlo. I am particularly enthusiastic about that, and happy to take up new challenges. However I don’t feel I ever push my voice, you can’t force it if you want to sing as long as possible, I just work, enjoy the stage, and follow what I feel like doing. It’s very important for me to stay open to new fields to explore.
The challenge could also be in the mind (even before in their ears) of some observers who remain with some « preconception » of what my repertoire is or should be, as they know, that I started my carrier singing for example Queen of the night or Olympia, instead of judging on what I am able to demonstrate on stage now.
Anyway, I am really looking forward to performing in Verdi’s Otello. Vocally, Desdemona is of course a challenging role, requiring a full lyric soprano, but which should also be very emotional, pure and almost angelic at the same time. And requiring as well on a performer’s perspective, to find the good way to render this psychologically tense figure inspired by Shakespeare’s drama of a character who, maybe, is too often portrayed as a weak and submissive spouse only, but is also a strong, loving woman dignified in adversity, staunch in her way to face Otello and in her try to dispel his doubts and jealousy.
Would you like to sing more baroque music or with period instruments ?
I sang a lot of baroque music in the past, and it is not really in my expectations to sing it more. I sang Haendel (Alcina, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Radamisto), Monteverdi (L’Incoronazione di Poppea), Purcell (Dido and Aeneas), and also a German baroque composer, Reinhard Keiser (Der lächerliche Prinz Jodelet).
I sang Chopin with the period piano, I performed concerts of Mozart’s pieces accompanied with baroque orchestras. It’s nice to sing with period instruments, as it tends to render the sound, acoustic balance and authentic musicality anticipated by the composer at his time. Baroque music or baroque interpretations of scores of the past can convey a very special emotion, but music should also « live » in the contemporaneity. All in all, when you think about it, the oldest « period » instrument is still the human voice. Instruments, technique and technology evolved, but opera singers are still performing with their only two vocal cords in the throat, even if the technique of the singing has changed, we sing in the same conditions as 2 or 3 centuries ago.
Last year, you sang with Roberto Alagna in Carmen at the Opéra Bastille : is it difficult to find productions in which you both sing ?
Definitively, it’s important to live together as often as possible, like any other couple and family. It’s a normal aspiration to find a right balance. And as Roberto and I are both singers, with a heavy schedule ahead and appearances all around the world, the best way to be together is at least to work in the same city at the same time, and at best to perform in the same production.
I can’t say it has been really difficult to find productions in which we could sing together. As surprising as it could be, from the very beginning we had already some common projects in our agendas whereas they were agreed years before we met. Afterwards, we managed to more and more organize our work in such a way that we are able to stay almost always together. It sometimes requires to become a true expert in logistic, but it is worthwhile! To be separated is really suffering… The way in which my repertoire is progressively developing is also a good opportunity to perform in works which suit our both voices. We have now a large numbers of joint projects. I am very grateful for that.
We can see also that whenever we are on stage, it works very well. I think the audience simply loves real-life couples acting together and our shows are sold out. Even if we are not putting our private life on stage, probably it is creating a very special chemistry and authenticity, that the audience can feel and appreciate, as well as our own joy to share a same stage and a same artistic project. Our joint appearance in L’Elisir d’amore, Pagliacci, La Juive or more recently in Carmen in Bastille was a great experience.
What are your main projects today and which roles would you like to sing in the future ?
I am lucky, numerous projects are underway, on stage and in the studio ! Over the last months, I learned La Navarraise, Antonia and Giulietta (Les contes d’Hoffman), Micaëla (Carmen), Liù (Turandot), Alice (Falstaff), Vitellia (La Clemenza di Tito), and as I said above, I am now preparing my three major forthcoming appearances : Desdemona (Otello), Luisa Miller, then Elisabetta (Don Carlo).
Changing progressively my repertoire for heavier roles means to learn new parts at a rapid pace. It’s very important to maintain the sweetness and agility of my voice. But I am extremely happy that my voice is now enabling me to sing in big dramatic operas, because I had been dreaming about this since my childhood ! The very first CD I bought was Pagliacci with Maria Callas, and I was just dreaming to sing Nedda. This dream came true when I made my role debut in Leoncavallo’s work in 2016, and I am singing it again at the Metropolitan Opera in a few days [from 8th January 2018].
It was the same thing with Liù : I had a huge pleasure to embody this character for the first time 6 months ago. Even if it is challenging and a great deal of work (above all when you add the recordings part, as I’m preparing a few new ones in next year), I am looking forward for my next role debuts with great anticipation. My soul was always in the dramatic parts ! Among the operas in which I would love to perform in the future, I would probably first mention Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Tosca.
Which artists would you like to work with ?
Honestly ? Roberto Alagna ! You know, on stage, he passes on an unbelievable, palpable, strength and energy to his partners. His presence simply makes the show alive. That’s all I love, and I have always felt a very special thing, an immediate and powerful chemistry, each time we performed together.
I can feel the emotion with him, more than with any other partner. It’s very easy to play and interact together. Roberto is always supportive with everyone, open for improvisation, never short in inspiration, never stuck to any guidelines or pre-established directives. I believe he has a kind of unique intelligence of the dramatic and vocal performance.
Each time it’s different. As an artist, he is both multifaceted and unique !