Q & A: Katarina Bradić & Nenad Jović on Getting Back to The Stage, Serbian Origins and COVID-19By Dejan Vukosavljevic
(Credits: Dragana Branković/Katarina Bradić)
Known for her deep and diverse vocal versatility and also theatrical prowess, Katarina Bradić swiftly conquered the major European opera stages—Teatro Real, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Staatsoper unter der Linden, Komische Oper Berlin, Theater Basel, Bolshoi Theater, Theater an der Wien, Den Norske Opera, Opernhaus Zürich, Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Bayerische Staatsoper, La Monnaie, De Nationale Opera Amsterdam, and Staatsoper Hamburg, among others. Bradić has also taken part in productions at the major opera festivals, such as Aix-en-Provence, Glyndebourne and BBC Proms.
Nenad Jović holds a position as the Guest Principal Double Bass at Opéra de Toulon. Throughout his rich and lengthy career, Jović has performed with several major orchestras such as Philharmonia London, Gran Teatre del Liceu, and Orquesta Sinfónica de Barcelona y Nacional de Cataluña.
OperaWire spoke with Bradić and Jović about their hopes for returning to the stage, Serbian roots, and COVID-19 lockdowns in Spain.
Operawire: What have you done during these challenging times to keep yourselves positive and productive?
Katarina Bradić: As we live in Barcelona, Spanish summer arrives a bit early, let‘s say near the end of May. Since that day, I‘ve been living practically on the beach. I drink my morning coffee on the beach, and I also swim a lot. I do a lot of paddle-surfing and snorkeling as well—that gives me a great joy. You know, just put on the mask and the snorkel and swim with the fish. Picking up shells has become a new thing for me too. I often ride a bicycle with Nenad. I am doing a lot of sports, which is very important not just for my physical, but also for my emotional well-being.
I have also intensified communications with my friends and family, and I even got in touch with some friends with whom I haven‘t had contact for years. The lockdown in Spain, which began in March, was a very strict one. We were not allowed out of the house except for some grocery shopping, or urgent needs. It was challenging, but Nenad and I found some additional dimensions that kept us engaged. For example, we did sport activities inside our home. We would literally put our sports clothes on, including sneakers, and then started running for 30 minutes in one place. It was quite funny in the beginning. We also did lots of exercises together.
The rest of each day is spent communicating with family and friends, cooking, and reading. I practice a lot as well. That really has kept me sane. Because all of my upcoming productions were cancelled, it has been very tough.
Nenad Jović: When the pandemic started in March, nobody really knew for how long it would last. Originally it was a two-week long lockdown, so many people were thinking,”If we behave properly for these two weeks, then we‘re done and over with this.” Then the lockdown was extended for an additional period of two weeks, and it became quite clear that the pandemic would eventually take much longer than we thought at the beginning.
I‘ve been practicing every single day for the last 20 years, so all of a sudden I found myself in the position to have lots of time to do more and more practice. I was even thinking about new auditions. I had this realization that, after 20 years, I now had an opportunity to do my daily practicing routine in a different way. I had an idea to put a high C-string on my bass, to be able to play more melodies. It makes the bass more like a cello. I started recording my own compositions. I also play a guitar and piano in my own music, so that process opened a whole new world for me.
I have been recording my compositions ever since. It was challenging in the beginning, but when I listen back to those recordings now, I realize that my ability to compose and to play music has dramatically improved. The microphone is like a microscope, revealing all the details. We also incorporated percussion—Katarina helped me a lot with that.
And of course, I have enjoyed doing lots of snorkeling, and other outdoor activities with Katarina as the restrictions were gradually lifted.
OW: Katarina, your performance in Handel’s opera “Xerxes” at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein has also been broadcasted as a part of the massive free streaming offerings since mid-March. How did you feel about it? There were also some live performances without public being broadcasted.
KB: I only found out about the broadcast accidentally, as a friend called me to tell me. I had no idea it was happening before my friend’s call. It truly wish the opera house had just informed me about it—I believe that would have been the kind thing to do. Nothing more though—just the information would have been appreciated. But in general, I believe that it was quite nice that they decided to offer the opera as a part of the free streaming program. It was such a difficult moment—a moment when nobody knew how this situation was going to develop. Opera houses wanted to offer something positive and uplifting to the audiences in a very dark moment. I surely understand that.
NJ: Some orchestras did live-streamings of their performances, but without public, as the audiences were obviously not allowed into concert halls due to the pandemic concerns. It was a very strange experience, both to watch and to participate. I have spoken with a few colleagues, and we shared the overwhelming feeling that this new way of performing was something very strange, due to the absence of the public. We perform for the public. We live for the music and the public.
OW: How do you anticipate the pandemic will most impact your lives and work moving forward?
KB: The first thing that I anticipate is the damage to some personal relationships, which makes me extremely sad. The pandemic is obviously a very extreme situation. Furthermore, it is likely the most extreme situation for many citizens of developed countries in Europe and all over the world. Situations like this one, in all of their bleakness, evoke lots of fear and panic. Reactions based in panic can seriously damage interpersonal relationships. In my opinion, the state of panic can alter the state of mind.
Situations that have been perceived as normal and benign up until the pandemic, can feel extreme and aggressive in a fearful state of mind. Panic can be damaging. I see this as, potentially, the biggest impact of the pandemic on my personal life and relationships with other people.
In contrast, I have started to appreciate Barcelona much more than before because of the pandemic. I started seeing it not as a short stop, but instead as a true home. Living the life of an international opera singer is quite demanding, and means being away from home a lot, and living out of a suitcase quite often. I finally had much more time to breathe this home air, and also spend much more time with my husband and my stepdaughter.
I had my doubts, even moments of fear, over prospects for the future regarding my job. But I was not alone in this—the whole planet was there too. It was so grounding. The pandemic has already jeopardized my ability to work and perform. I hope that we will be able to perform in some form until an effective vaccine arrives—either the semi-staged opera versions or concert performances. Ultimately, I believe that we will become more aware of our own health and the public health as a consequence.
NJ: First, as Serbs, we did not have an easy childhood and youth in our home country. We suffered a nasty wartime, lots of economic bleakness, and finally bombs were dropping on our heads in 1999 during the bombing campaign of Serbia. Our previous experiences have made handling this pandemic much easier.
I believe that the greatest impact of the pandemic on our lives could be this massive gift of time. All of a sudden we have much more time to do things and much more time to engage in certain activities. Until the pandemic such an amount of a free time was a bit of a luxury in our way of life.
Regarding my work as a professional musician, I see two possible scenarios. First, that we will have a safe and effective vaccine and leave the pandemic and the horrors of it behind us. The second scenario I fear more though. It is very expensive to have large orchestras and to have permanent jobs in the orchestra. Freelancing is much cheaper for the opera and concert houses. Because of so many musicians around, there will always be a choice. I fear that the pandemic might be the signal for the government to cut the funds for culture. Many people will be freelancing as a result—orchestras might get smaller, doing more chamber music and fewer big operas. As a result, it would be more difficult to get a job.
OW: What are the sources of your internal energy in order to overcome this?
KB: The first and foremost answer is love. I have a very strong connection with my husband, and also with my family and friends. During this time, I made one special friendship, with a person with whom I have created a very strong bond. He has been a great support for me, both in life in general, and also professional matters. For that, I am extremely grateful. It was a big energy source for me.
I also enjoy small, but very important, moments in my life, like sitting in my living room and listening to Nenad playing Tajikistani drums and Tarabuka, or the Goblet drum downstairs. Until the pandemic, the main repertoire that you could have heard in our house was either opera, or classical repertoire for a double bass. But these new moments bring me much laughter and serve as big energy source as well.
NJ: I am a very competitive person, but I am exclusively competitive with myself. The biggest internal energy source for me is the desire to be constantly improving. For example, if this improvement relates to the field of music, I would make a recording and start from there. I also ride a bicycle every day, going over 20 kilometers at high speed. I am always trying to beat the record of the previous day.
OW: How do you deal with the absence of close contacts that you had until the pandemic?
KB: The absence of close contacts, specifically physical contacts, that has resulted from COVID-19 is very hard indeed. When I think of my family in Serbia—my Mom, my sister and my nieces—it really becomes unbearable. I long to hug them all, to feel them and be close to them again. I understand that is not possible at the moment, but it does not hurt less, even with that awareness. We used to visit Serbia, our home country, at least once a year. Very often, I’d go twice a year. I was last in Serbia in November of last year, and we were planning to visit again this July. However, it was not possible due to the rapidly rising COVID-19 cases in Serbia.
Being deprived of the possibility to go to the city where I was born and to see my family makes me very sad. That is usually how it goes in life though—when one door closes, the other door opens. I was not able to go to Serbia to see my family, but, for the first time since we were married, I was able to spend a full five months with my husband. That was not even imaginable given our careers as professional musicians until the pandemic.
I’ve been having the first morning coffee with Nenad ever since March, and that is something absolutely incredible. We have always been very close—he regularly attended my performances and rehearsals. Now, we have really found another great time in our marriage.
NJ: Yes, the absence is very difficult, mostly because we aren’t able to visit our families in Serbia. But I am really enjoying having so much time with Katarina after being together for over seven years. We have never been able to spend so much time together, without any interruption, either because of her or my projects. As I am a soloist at Opéra de Toulon, Katarina was also coming to visit me as I was performing. We have shared so many good times over the years, but now we have this unique opportunity to discover much more in our marriage—that is priceless. We hope to be able to share more closeness with our families and friends soon.
OW: Being a couple in real life, how often do you get a chance to make music together?
KB: We have never had an opportunity to perform together professionally. I do not work in Spain at the moment. I did three productions at the Teatro Real previously, but that was a while ago. We make music at our home, and that is something entirely different. Nenad keeps one of his big instruments in the living room, right next to the guitar. It is called Begeš, and it is a traditional folk instrument that can be found in the Balkans. We use it a lot to make music.
And from those situations frequently develop very nice musical evenings with our family and friends, or just the two of us. Our closest friends here in Barcelona come from the countries that were once part of a former Yugoslavia, so we share a love for the music of the Balkans. That repertoire usually includes sevdah, songs from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the spicy, rhythmical songs from southern Serbia.
We also perform songs from Spanish or Latino repertoire. We recently did a home recording of the beautiful song “Alfonsina y el Mar” which tells of the tragic death of the Argentinian poet Alfonsina Storni. I heard this song when I was a child, and I heard it from my Mom. This song has a very special place in my heart. Of course, I was not able to understand the words when I heard it the first time. Now, I can understand the words—and the song is absolutely beautiful.
NJ: Katarina mentioned the Begeš—the largest instrument in the tamburica family—which is heavily used in folk music orchestras in Serbia. It can only be played standing and is used for playing bass lines. It cannot be played with a bow, but is instead traditionally played with a pick. It is very special to me, and I use it frequently. We use it a lot, along with the guitar, in the moments when we perform together, in intimate settings.
OW: Katarina, the beginning of the pandemic found you in Paris, where you rehearsed for your role debut as Lady Macbeth in Dusapin’s opera “Macbeth Underworld” at the Opéra Comique. How did you deal with the situation from a practical point of view?
KB: We managed to rehearse for four days in Paris. Each day was marked with increasing uncertainty over the production. Furthermore, as the news kept arriving, the artists felt more and more concerned about our ability to travel back to our homes. Borders were closing fast and some anxiety and fear was definitely setting in. It became quite clear that the production would eventually be cancelled. However, I did not panic. I woke up early in the morning on the fifth day, and I started packing. I had this strong feeling that I would be going home. I got the phone call from management, and everything was quite obvious. I was extremely sad, but also very practical. I immediately booked a flight home. In the afternoon that same day, I was back in Barcelona.
What also helped me remain calm was the fact that I was used to wearing face masks during my flights even before the pandemic, so I just proceeded with the same routine. The plane was not full, so that helped as well.
OW: You are both freelancers, and you have lost some work in the last 5 months. How do you feel about the support for the cultural sector, especially freelancers?
KB: I am disappointed, I have to admit. When the government takes taxes from us, it takes generously. When it comes to the support during these difficult times, it is rather symbolic. We were expecting bigger financial support, but then it turned out to be a very modest amount. As all of my productions were canceled until September, I applied for help from the government. It is very hard to cover the basic needs with it, let alone the rent for the apartment.
Fortunately, I did get compensation for some of my canceled performances—from Opéra de Rouen Normandie, and also Bayerische Staatsoper. That was a really big help and I am thankful to them.
NJ: I have been living in Spain for 17 years now. The main problem here, in my opinion, is that the culture sector freelance workers do not get any specific help. We do get help on a general level, like everyone else, but funds aimed specifically to support the workers in the field of culture do not exist. It is incredible. When compared to many other European countries that do have hefty funds for the culture sector, Spain does not do well. I was paid from Opéra de Toulon for my canceled projects in April. That provided some concrete help during these last dry months. It was something that I was able to use to cover the basic needs at least.
OW: Katarina, you are slated to return to the stage in October, making a big role debut as the title role in “Samson et Dalila” at Opéra du Rhin. What are your expectations regarding artistic performance and the ongoing pandemic concerns?
KB: I have not received any bad news from the opera house yet, so I hope that we will be able to go ahead with the fully-staged production. However, realistically, I expect that could change to either a semi-staged or concert version of the opera given the ongoing pandemic concerns. We had a really good experience with the recent performances of Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Teatro Real, and also the current 2020 edition of the Salzburg Festival. Both events deployed some very strict safety rules and hygiene measures in order to keep infections at bay and provide safe experiences for both the artists and the public. I fully expect that the opera house in Rhin will do everything possible to protect the artists during rehearsals and subsequent performances.
As for the role of Dalila, it is truly a dream role. The music is so gorgeous and Dalila’s arias are out of this world. I can now feel Dalila with all of my body, not just the voice. Learning the score and practicing the role of Dalila has literally saved my sanity over the past few months.
OW: What do you expect to become the “new normal” post-pandemic, and how do you think this new normal could effect your connections with family and friends?
KB: I have to say that I am optimistic. I do expect that we will have a safe and effective vaccine for COVID-19 in some reasonable amount of time, making it possible to go back to the old normal, but with a new flavor—not just to finally exchange the virtual hugs for real ones, but also to enjoy good times with our families and friends even more than before.
NJ: You know what they say—this, too, shall pass. Yes, it is a very extreme and traumatic time, happening once in a century or so. However, as we get safer treatments and hopefully a vaccine, I expect it will become just a nasty collective memory. From it, we should learn how to behave more safely in the future. It is quite possible, in my opinion, that the future holds a “new normal” that might be even better than the old one—one in which we will have more time for people that are important to us.
OW: What gets you up in the morning?
KB: Well, that has a very short answer—it is a new day. The sun, the beach, early morning coffee with Nenad, and swimming with the fish. Every new day brings new enthusiasm for my daily practices and, of course, for going back to the stage. I just push through despite everything.
NJ: Katarina, my daughter Sofi, breakfast, practicing my bass, and the possibility of ongoing improvements in all areas of my private and professional life.