Q & A: Alžběta Poláčková On The Brno Janacek Festival, ‘Osud’ & Establishing A Successful Career In The Czech RepublicBy Alan Neilson
The Brno Janacek Festival 2020 kicked off with a performance of one of Janacek’s lesser known works, his semi-autobiographical opera “Osud,” with the Czech soprano Alžběta Poláčková in the lead female role of Mila.
It would be a fair description to refer to Poláčková as one of the stars of the Czech National Opera, and no surprise that it was her image that was primarily used in the publicity material for the production, even though Mila is not the main role, nor the focus of the opera. Listening to her performance in the role, it was easy to understand why she has such a high reputation. She possesses a voice of rare beauty with a well-honed technique which she used to develop a strongly defined character, full of nuance and depth. Moreover, she has an engaging stage presence which added to the presentation.
Looking down her schedule for the coming six months, it is striking to see the number and the variety of roles she is down to perform, ranging from Mimi, Liù, and the Marschallin to Jitka (Dalibor) and Krasava (Libuse) among many others, COVID restrictions permitting, of course.
Nevertheless, despite her heavy schedule and many other commitments, Poláčková was more than happy to make time for an interview with OperaWire, in which the passion for her work and family, her strong determination and her well-balanced approach to life were evident.
OperaWire: Was your pathway to becoming an opera singer an easy one?
Alžběta Poláčková: No, not really. My father was a good, although not a classical musician. He played the guitar, and we would sit around the fire and he would play folk songs. My parents wanted me to have a musical education and so they sent me to music school to learn the flute, which I continued with for 12 years.
At this point, I had no desire to become an opera singer. Then someone told my parents that I should learn to sing, so I thought ok I will give it a try. But my parents were determined this was not to be at the expense of an academic education, and insisted I should go to the gymnasium to study “proper subjects,” but at the same time, I continued to learn the flute and to sing.
Then at 18, my singing teacher told me I should go to the university to study opera. But they rejected me. The reason was that they did not know my family name, it was not known in musical circles, and at the time this was important. It was a closed environment and you needed to be known. They told me to go away and do more studying, then to try again. I tried three times before I was accepted. But even when I started the course I always felt like an outsider. The people in my class were so different from the people I was used to. I didn’t fit in.
During my third year at the university, I was accepted at the National Theatre in Prague. I was the only one in my year to do this, nobody else did. The university was not supportive and gave me a lot to study, simply because they knew I was at the theatre; they deliberately put obstacles in my way! At the theatre, I was new and very young and again was treated as an outsider. People used to ask what is she doing here? Why has she been accepted? It was a very difficult period for me, but I was determined to make it. Eventually, I managed to convince them with my hard work, my talent, and what I like to think of as my humble approach, but basically, I had to force my way in, and ultimately I think this made me much stronger.
OW: I notice that you perform a wide range of roles. Is this something you want to do, or is it the norm in the Czech Republic?
AP: It is normal to have a very diverse repertoire in the Czech Republic. It is not unusual to do five roles per month. So yes I have an enormous repertoire, it is inevitable.
My first ever role was Zerlina in “Don Giovanni.” It went well, it was a success, but being my first it was a hard period. Since then I have sung so many different roles in many different styles ranging from Philip Glass to Mozart, Bizet, Puccini, and of course there have been many Czech roles. We have so many excellent composers here, so it is natural that I sing a lot of their music, such as Smetana, Dvorak, and of course Janacek, as well as many others.
To sing so many roles, in so many different styles with their different demands you need to have a good technique, you really have to know how to sing the roles. It is difficult, but it makes us stronger. It helps you to develop vocal flexibility and teaches you to be more adaptable. Also, you can bring something to every part from other styles, and I find this aspect very interesting. But you have to know what you are doing, you can’t sing Mozart one day and Smetana the next.
I must say that I prefer having such a diverse schedule. I was in Glyndebourne singing Janacek’s vixen for three months, just one part. After one month, I really needed to sing something else.
OW: Do you have any roles you prefer to sing?
AP: I love to sing the big famous parts by composers such as Puccini, but I consider three roles as favorites. There is Mozart’s Countess Almaviva which I found very difficult at first, but it is now very important to me. Then there is Jenufa and Rusalka. Also I shouldn’t forget Vixen which is also important for me.
OW: How would you describe your voice?
AP: I like to think of my voice like honey. It is not a sharp voice, and I hope the audience feels comfortable. It is important to me that my voice can transmit all my emotions to the audience. Occasionally, my voice can be difficult. This morning, for instance, I had a big battle with it, but I don’t push it, I listen to it. I don’t want to do things that are not good for my voice.
Actually, I don’t like listening to my own voice. I don’t like listening to recordings, nor even playbacks during recording sessions in the studio.
OW: From what I have read about you, it is clear that your family is very important to you. Do you find it difficult to manage a career as well as looking after a family?
AP: My family comes first! I have three children which take up a lot of time. But I also love my job, I love singing. In fact, I believe that singing helps me be a good mother.
On the other hand, my family commitments stop me from taking all the roles I am offered from abroad as I would be away from my family for too long, maybe two or three months, which makes it impossible. It isn’t something that I regret, however. I am very happy with my situation, I have a good balance between my work and family life. Also it doesn’t prevent me from singing the roles I want to do; in Prague I get to perform most of the roles I want to sing.
OW: You are currently appearing as Mila in Janacek’s “Osud,” an opera that has never managed to establish itself, unlike many of his other operas. Why do you think this is?
AP: To be honest, it is not one of his best. It is not to the same standard as for example “Jenufa,” “The Cunning Little Vixen” or “The Makropulos Case,” neither musically nor dramatically. However, since I have been working on “Osud” here in Brno with Robert Carsen and his team I am starting to find it more interesting.
OW: What is Robert Carsen’s approach to directing “Osud?”
AP: Robert respects the music and the libretto. He wants to know what every word in Czech means. He didn’t want to impose his meaning onto the work, he just wanted to perform what was written, but very carefully.
He has created a strong reading. Robert split the role of Živny into two parts. One is the young Živny, who is played by Enrico Casari, and the other is the old Živny played by Philip Sheffield, who is dressed up to appear as Janacek. In the first and second acts Philip is remembering his past. He wanders around the stage, composing all the time and watching his younger self. We are his memories.
OW: What were the challenges of singing the role of Mila?
AP: I love to sing Janacek, it comes very naturally to me. I can learn the role in a couple of days. The first time I studied Janacek it looked very complicated and very daunting, but it wasn’t. I found the key to singing it, and that was it. It is very easy, very natural. I feel very comfortable singing it, and also Mila is not a long role, it isn’t difficult me.
OW: How important is the Brno Janacek Festival for opera in the Czech Republic?
AP: Unfortunately, not many people come to the theatre when “Jenufa” or “Kat’a Kabanova” is played. Janacek is an important composer, he is famous around the world, and a genius. His operas are performed everywhere, but in the Czech Republic the theatres do not sell out. Nevertheless, I feel the festival to be very important: this is Janacek’s home town, this is where he lived and wrote his music. I know they want to make it more high profile, and I think this is right.
OW: How would you like your career to develop?
AP: I am very happy with my position at the moment. I must admit I don’t have very big ambitions, and I manage to sing all the roles that I want to sing. It is more important for me to do good work, sing well and to co-operate successfully with other musicians.
I have performed at Paris’ Opera Bastille, and maybe I would like to sing at the New York Met and Covent Garden one day, but if it doesn’t happen, then I can live with that.