Never-Ending Discovery – Mezzo-Soprano Magdalena Kožená On Lincoln Center Recital, Met Opera ‘Rosenkavalier,’ Making Music With Sir Simon Rattle

By David Salazar
(Credit: Oleg Rostovstev)

Singing a recital in New York City is a rare occasion for an artist of any caliber. So, it is understandable that when a major opera star gets a chance to perform in one of the city’s hallowed halls, their choice of repertory would truly highlight their vocal and interpretative prowess.

The idea of programming a recital that features a pianist, a string quartet, a flue, and a clarinet is probably not what they have in mind.

Unless your name is Magdalena Kožená and your whole career has been built on breaking the mold. Kožená, whose mother told her that she could sing before she could ever talk, was but 22-years-old when she won the International Mozart Competition and launched an international career that saw her record her first album by 24 and appeared and soloed on another 12 before her 30th birthday. She would finish her 20s not only with a Gramophone Solo Vocal Award in 2001, but begin the third decade of her life with the title of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. A year later she was the Gramophone Awards Artist of the Year.

She hasn’t stopped creating music or developing unique musical opportunities for her closest colleagues. And that is why she programmed her Lincoln Center recital as a big chamber music celebration.

“I wanted to bring these wonderful people together just to create the atmosphere of a house concert where each person has an opportunity to shine and it isn’t just about the singer,” the Czech mezzo-soprano told OperaWire in a recent interview. “I really wanted to compose a program where there will be more instruments and not only accompaniment but all the group members are soloists.”

Shakespeare & Other Inspirations

At the core of the program for the recital are pieces inspired by the work of William Shakespeare. While Stravinsky’s piece “Three Songs From William Shakespeare” explicitly mentions the bard, the other two selections are centered on the tragic character of Ophelia from “Hamlet,” one by Brahms and the other by Stravinsky.

The Brahms cycle was arranged for string quartet and with it, Kožená hoped to provide a unique contrast between the two German composers and their individual musical languages. There are also two songs by Brahms for alto, viola, and piano.

But the program also centered on a lot of works that the mezzo-soprano has performed throughout her career.

She performed Ravel’s “Madagascar Songs” since she was a student and “always loved it.” Chausson’s “Chanson perpétuelle,” another piece that Kožená has performed many times before, is a special selection for her as is as “close as I can get to Wagnerian type of writing.”

Then there is the music of Janáček and Dvořák, the “Nursery Rhymes” and “Gypsy Songs” respectively, which are very close to her heart.

“As a Czech person, to arrange Dvorak and Janáček is always going to be special,” she enthused. “The whole concert will be special because everyone will get an opportunity to truly shine.”

Across the Way

After her big recital, Kožená will be headed across Lincoln Center to the Metropolitan Opera House where she will take on what she posits is one of her favorite roles – Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier.”

Per the mezzo, this will be her fourth production of the role, following performances of the role at the Berlin Staatsoper in 2009 and Baden Baden Easter Festival in 2015.

“I just love the variety of emotions and expressions in acting that you can bring to this role,” she noted. “Each act is quite different vocally and in terms of how he goes from being a man to a man playing a woman. There is so much to explore. For mezzo it is one of the masterpieces that everyone wants to sing.”

Strauss, despite being one of the central pillars of the opera repertory, is arguably one of the most difficult to interpret on the opera stage. Kožená relayed that the challenge of Strauss is not necessarily the rhythmic or harmonic virtuosity he imposes on the artist, but the blending of different styles in a way that few other composers have ever achieved.

“It is the combination of this need to be very lyric and you have to sing beautiful phrases vocally. You also have to give a lot of juice while also, at the same, the text is so essential,” she noted. “There are moments where it is more recitatives. Sometimes phrases seem to come from an Italian opera while in others there is this German emphasis on the text, this necessity to be there with the words. That is very special. This is what Strauss knew so well and could combine these things very closely.”

While most singers might engage with the comedic antics of the character in the third act or the breathtaking splendor of the climactic trio, Kožená’s preferred scene actually takes place at the close of the first Act when the Marschallin tells Octavian that there will come a time where he won’t love her any longer.

“I feel that this moment is so true and connected to real life,” she noted. “Part of Rosenkavalier is that it is set in a particular time in Vienna with a specific aesthetic. It isn’t something we experience every day. But this intimate scene between him and Marschallin about time and Them not understanding each other is so true in what they are thinking and saying. It is the most touching moment of the opera.”


Family Life & Music

One of the Kožená’s key collaborators on both the recital and “Der Rosenkavalier” is her husband and noted conductor Sir Simon Rattle. The two have been married since 2008 and have worked very closely throughout the ensuing decade.

Not only has Rattle worked with Kožená on numerous opera productions and concerts, but they have recorded the works of Debussy, Rameau, Mahler, Bizet, and Mozart.

When talking about her artistic partnership with Rattle, the mezzo noted that the intimacy of knowing him on a deep level creates a unique level of comfort in performance.

“I think if you are with someone you know so well you can really relax,” she stated. “When musicians are on stage and when they are relaxed, it always brings the best out of everyone. For me it is a positive feeling. Simon for me is one of the most brilliant musicians on this planet. Any opportunity to do something with him is always inspiring as a musician.”

Kožená also emphasized that Rattle was a major creative spark for her in how he helped her develop as an artist. When they first met, she was focused on a lot of baroque and early music. A look at her catalogue of early recordings showcases a focus on such composers as Gluck, Bach, Handel, Rameau, Charpentier, with some Mozart sprinkled in.

But the conductor, who is renowned for a wider range of repertory, challenged her to try out more modern music.

“The Beriot ‘Sequenza,’ is one of my favorite pieces to sing, but I don’t think that I would have done it without meeting him,” she revealed. “I wouldn’t have dared to try out this kind of contemporary repertory without his encouragement. So, he helped me to develop and moved me in a new direction than the one I had been pursuing.”

The mezzo-soprano did note that performing together and living together does not necessarily equate to talking music non-stop at home.

“We are not this couple that likes to rehearse at home or even talk about music,” the mezzo-soprano emphasized. “Some people think that we are always so prepared because we are working on the scores at home and doing every scene together 100 times. But usually, I am actually the last one to know what he is going to do in a particular moment.”

The main reason for this shift away from music at home is because Kožená likes to place that time on the couple’s three children, Jonáš, Miloš, and Anežka (the mezzo noted that even though the couple doesn’t spend all of its time rehearsing music together, the children do have some musical leanings, at least in the case of Jonáš, a double bass player who dreams of being a “football star” and five-year-old Anežka who “sings very well but is still too small to say whether she is going to fall in love with music.” Miloš doesn’t seem the least bit interested).

For many artists, balancing the personal and the professional in the opera world is a handful. Most singers, constantly on the go from city to city and production to production, don’t have much time for family. Those that do give themselves over to family, might often slim down on their own career aspirations.

In order to find the appropriate balance to dedicate time to her career and family over the past decade, Kožená has diminished the number of opera productions she has engaged with to about one or two per year. In turn, she has favored concert performances that would enable her to remain closer to her family.

As such, she has not really added many roles to her repertory over the past few years, often returning to major standbys like Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier.”

A Special Role

One role that she has added over the past decade that has become a major signature of her is the heroine in Debussy’s “Pélleas et Mélisande.”

Kožená noted that she has loved Debussy throughout her life, dating back to her early life as a pianist.

“I always loved Debussy’s music,” she enthused. “His piano pieces are exquisite. It was always Bach and French impressionistic things that I always fell in love with even as a student.”

That love only grew with her work on his masterpiece opera, which she recorded, with Rattle, in 2017.

When describing her passion for the opera, Kožená whittled it down to two major factors. The first of these is the music, which she describes as colorful and full of endless interpretative opportunity.

“As a singer you can explore so many different colors. And it is a lot of speaking,” she noted. “I love to tell stories. I always joke that even in Mozart I prefer recitatives to arias. Always when I can tell a story and find a different color in my voice, I am truly happy.”

The other reason that she loves taking on the character of Mélisande is her mystery.

“I just love the fact that nobody knows who Mélisande is,” Kožená explained. “There can be so many interpretations of this piece and her personality. With each director you can explore a different person. It’s never the same. It’s never boring. You just discover new things.”

Audiences will be discovering a unique experience at her Lincoln Center recital on Nov. 26, 2019.


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