Q & A: Aleksandra Kurzak on Mozart, Verismo & the Singer as Musician

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Gregor Hohenberg)

This past fall soprano Aleksandra Kurzak released a new album, “Mozart Concertante.” It was a departure from the work that she had recently done for Sony Classical, which was dedicated to the Romantic repertoire and which was in line with the repertoire she is currently performing all over the world.

In many ways, this album represents a return to the soprano’s origins. When Kurzak first hit the international stage, she was known for her dazzling coloratura and for such roles as the Queen of the Night, Lucia di Lammermoor, Olympia, Gilda, and various other Bel Canto and Mozart roles. But only a few years ago, the soprano started moving away from these roles and taking on the verismo and more lyric repertoire that will soon also include the dramatic and iconic “Tosca.”

OperaWire spoke to the soprano about her return to the Mozart repertoire and how her technique permitted her to still perform this repertoire.

OperaWire: When did you decide to record this album and how did you know you could still perform these works?

Aleksandra Kurzak: Mozart was always very important for me from the very beginning and I started to sing a lot of these roles. I had a wonderful example at home because my mother was my teacher and she was a wonderful singer. She sang a lot of Mozart operas. In a chamber opera company that she sang, they did all the operas by Mozart so it was very close to me. I never had the possibility 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 much more especially how difficult he is in his simplicity. And of course, with the Queen of the Night, it was my passport to leave Poland as I sang it in many competitions. And I thought it was a pity I never recorded it and I thought, it would be nice to have it as a souvenir. I did not think about it from the beginning because I wanted to show how I see Mozart. I wanted to show how I see his vocal line, how instrumental it is, and how you should approach it. And I wanted to show how there is no big difference between voice and the instrument. I am a violin player and I used to play 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 the stage, we forget about the soloists in the pit because we are so focused on our partners and on the story. We consider ourselves soloists on stage and I wanted to show that this is not necessarily the case. Having this chamber orchestra with players that are also soloists was special and it was our wish to show the orchestra’s possibility. It was great to show the Sinfonia Concertante and the arias together. The human voice in Mozart is another instrument to the orchestra.

OW: This album comes after you recorded Verismo albums. How does it feel to go back to Mozart after singing heavier repertoire?

AK It’s different and I learned a lot during this recording. I learned a lot of technical things about the voice and breathing and how to use it. I also learned a lot of concentration skills when you sing this repertoire. It’s different but in the past, a lot of Wagnerian voices used to sing Mozart so Mozart does not mean light or heavy. It’s a style that you have to sing clean without the verismo portamento and its very instrumental. But it does not depend on how large the voice is. You have to breathe differently. For Mozart, you have to sing sul fiato because it is a bit higher and not that connected to the diaphragm like when you sing Puccini or larger repertoire. I learned this from singing in this repertoire and it’s really amazing to be able to dot a lot of different composers at the same time.

It’s both technique and nature. It’s a sign that after 20 years on stage and after the last six or seven years approaching new repertoire that I can still sing it. But actually, I feel more connected to my breath and more connected to my senses and it comes 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 reach the High B Flat nicely, I want to have a few notes more just to be comfortable on stage. When I sang Queen of the Night, I had a few tones higher. I wouldn’t sing Queen of the Night on stage anymore because of the stress and nerves. I was recently offered to sing the role and I said, “No 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 tessitura of Costanze and Lucia. So it’s very demanding. Desdemona is not as demanding and if you feel good in the middle register, then you are fine because it has three or four high notes. I think it really depends on the voice and I was never really a big fan of the fach. You have to listen to yourself and you have to trust yourself. If you finish the show in a healthy way and you can speak clearly, then it is a sign that it is good for you. We have to listen to ourselves and we have to have a third ear outside. It is important to record yourself and to trust yourself.

OW: What was the experience of having no conductor?

AK: It was really fun to record this album because we had no conductor so it was done as chamber music. I just gave down beats to keep the tempo and then we listened to each other and it was just wonderful. It was really about making music together and we were really concentrated on each other. It was really fun to do this album.

Since I was a violin player, I was the concertmaster so I had this leadership idea and that was easy for me. I felt like I was going back to my roots. Being a singer is different. I remember the time when I started singing, I was seen as a singer and not a musician. But we are musicians. I remember while we recorded, I looked at the musician’s faces and they were so happy. They looked at you and considered you as one of them and there was no intermediary between me and the orchestra. In many ways, it was easier and faster and was more pleasurable.

OW: This season you have a very varied repertoire and you will end the season with Musetta in “La Bohème” and “Il Barbiere di Siviglia.” Tell me about singing these roles which you did at the beginning of your career?

AK: You know, I didn’t think about that. It came at the last moment because of COVID-19 and all the cancelations and changes of repertoire. I was supposed to sing Violetta in Napoli but because of all the cancelations, I actually sang it last season and we said, “to sing the same role after doing it so wonderfully last season,” they asked if I wanted to come and do it again or change it. I had just restarted to sing the Rosina aria and I did it for the Met Opera Stars Concert and I thought that if the mezzo could sing it, then the lyric soprano can do it as well. I believe that coloratura 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 the small or big voices. You have to have coloratura to do Abigaille. I said why not to “Barbiere” because as long you have the flexibility and you do some ornamentation in the aria or the duet, then you can do it. I also thought that it was important to have fun after dying so much on stage this past year.

OW: Is singing Bel Canto and Mozart more healthy for your voice?

AK: We always repeat the idea that Bel Canto and Mozart are healthy for your voice. I don’t know if we repeat this because everyone says it. But I have looked back and there were so many singers that never sang Mozart. And that does not mean they are not good. It’s because they don’t feel it or they just don’t like it. You have to know your voice and your technique very well to come back to this lighter repertoire. You have to know your body and you have to know yourself well.

OW: Will you tour this new album?

AK: We are planning on presenting the album and doing a concert tour. We are receiving good reviews for it and we may do a part two 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 repertoire, how do you see yourself in the next few years?

AK: I really don’t know. I didn’t see myself doing Butterfly or Tosca. It was a dream but I didn’t think it was possible. I did not plan it and I did not know how the voice would develop. It started with “La Juive” and I explored the middle range and more dramatic side. I was always a drama queen and I enjoyed dramatic works like Gilda. I also had a great example in my mother who sang Queen of the Night and at 60 she sang the role of Turandot. But that does not mean I will sing Turandot because I am happy with Liù. I don’t know. Maybe I will stop where I am and continue to do the repertoire that I am doing. At the moment, I am very happy where I am and I am happy doing Puccini, who is my favorite composer. We will see what the future will bring.


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