Q & A: Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak on ‘Tosca,’ Dream Roles & Performing with Roberto AlagnaBy Mike Hardy
Aleksandra Kurzak’s early singing career saw her perform as a specialist in lyric and coloratura soprano roles before moving into heavier roles in 19th-century Romantic and verismo operas. The 2004-05 season saw her have two hugely successful debuts, at the Metropolitan Opera House and the Royal Opera House.
She has since sung many leading roles in opera houses throughout the world. Among her notable roles are Susanna in “The Marriage of Figaro,” Adina in “L’elisir d’amore,” Gilda in “Rigoletto,” Violetta in “La Traviata,” and Nedda in “Pagliacci.” Since the age of 10, Kurzak has dreamed about performing the titular role in “Tosca.” That dream became a reality in a recent and highly successful debut.
She is married to tenor Roberto Alagna, whom she met during a performance of “L’elisir d’amore” in 2012. They perform together frequently in both opera and concerts.
OperaWire caught up with Kurzak as she was renovating a home in Europe.
OperaWire: You are about to sing a number of performances of “L’elisir d’amore” this season. This opera has played a somewhat pivotal role in your life, has it not? It is the role in which you met your husband, Roberto Alagna, I believe?
Aleksandra Kurzak: Yes, I am singing it in January in Rome, and then in April at the Met. I have become so used to singing it with Roberto over the last ten years. Though it was a role that was never really planned for me, all the most important things that have happened in my life in the last decade have somehow been surrounded by “L’elisir!” It’s crazy!
I met Roberto singing the role at the Royal Opera House in 2012—a production which I found to be the best “L’elisir” ever, by the way. It was so funny, so full of charm: really fantastic. Then we got married, in-between two shows of the same production, this time in Paris. Then I got the news I was pregnant—my daughter—when I sang the role with Rolando Villazon, now in Barcelona. And then, after giving birth to my child, I was supposed to come back with a new production and role for me: “I Puritani” in Bilbao. But this was two months after I had had my daughter, and it was absolutely too early and I was not ready. So I cancelled it and came back a month later with another “L’elisir” in Munich. It’s incredible how this opera is always going through my life.
And now, I’m singing it again in Rome. It was not scheduled, but I was free after having cancelled my infamous “Tosca” in Barcelona… I don’t know whether you are familiar with the reason I canceled the production? Regardless, I was free and the proposition came and it was always my dream to go to Rome and I had never had the possibility to do this before now, so I took it.
OW: Let’s speak about your canceled “Tosca” in a little while, but first, congratulations on your recently completed “Tosca,” which was widely well received!
AK: Yes, thank you, it’s a totally different role for me. I am asking myself how it will be for me to come back to Adina (“L’elisir”). I did only one performance of it, a year ago, in Paris, and it felt quite different. After having been on the stage for over 20 years with comedic, funny roles, and lighter repertoire, I was growing a bit tired of them. It was always my big dream to sing the kind of repertoire that I’m singing now, and I honestly thought it would never happen. It was really all just in my dreams: so landing “Tosca” was as amazing as it was unexpected.
I can say today, I had a triumph with “La Traviata” in New York. After the opening night, maybe a day or two after, I got a message from the secretary of Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, that he would like to talk with me. After having had some beautiful shows and great reviews, I met with him, wondering and dreaming what I may get offered now.
In truth, I didn’t have anything lined up for the future at the Met after “La Traviata;” only a “La Bohème” which had been arranged even earlier than this “Traviata.” So I went to the meeting and got an offer. An audition. An audition for “Tosca!” Gelb said he thought I could do it, but the role was hugely different to what I had done before, and he wanted to listen to me onstage. It was really unexpected, and quite a bit of a shock. I said “Of course I can do it, no problem,” and this is how I got “Tosca.” I thought to recite the aria “Vissi D’ Arte.” Usually, for an audition, it should be something very simple, not showing off; but my approach to “Tosca” was different. I made it more, I would say, feminine.
When I saw the first review of it from March, I was shocked: shocked in the positive sense, that is! I was so happy because my interpretation of her was exactly how the review was written: it meant that somebody understood exactly my point of view and how I had wanted to present her. I was really touched. By the way, all the reviews by OperaWire are incredible. Not just those of me, but all of them. It’s so rare today to have such well-written reviews that exhibit such knowledge. I feel that from the bottom of my heart, really.
OW: So now that you have mentioned it, let us speak about your canceled Barcelona “Tosca,” which both yourself and Roberto withdrew from. I read somewhere that you made a quote which roughly translated to: “I signed a contract to sing “Tosca” by Puccini, not pricks by Pasolini!”
AK: It makes me laugh because in Italian, ‘Pisello di Pasolini’ means a green bean. They use the word around children, you know… When I saw all these naked man on the stage I said, ‘What’s going on here?’ It’s not about the nudity, it’s not about that at all. I’ve seen and done things onstage like that before. I once sung Handel and had to act out an orgasm onstage during my cadenza. I’m the last person to be prudish or ashamed of something, but when a production chooses to do this this kind of thing, it has to have meaning. It can’t be there just to provoke…
Then they had a figure of Pasolini, the Italian poet, on the stage. What was he doing there? With all respect to his artistry, it had nothing to do with “Tosca.” It was like going to the museum and destroying a beautiful piece of art: it was the same thing. There were some other members of the cast who also dropped out of the performance, so I think the production will be changed a lot now. I had been waiting for this opera all my life and never thought I would sing it one day, so to be invited onto a production that had defiled it… I think of “Tosca” as sacred, and I really didn’t want to destroy it. I wanted to fulfil my dreams. At my age—I’m not twenty-something anymore—I want to make myself happy on the stage.
OW: How did you cope with the infamous leap at the end of “Tosca” from the parapets of Castel Sant’Angelo?
AK: The first time I did it I thought I would die! I was so scared during that rehearsal. I don’t know why, because it is all very nicely organized. There is no mattress: there’s like this huge box, filled with sponges. You end up buried to your head with sponges, it’s actually very funny. The first time I was really nervous, but Roberto was with me and he said: “Excuse me, I have one question. I have been singing this role for many years, a maybe 30-40 year-long career: can I try the leap just once?”
He jumped and after that I was not so afraid.
OW: Your mother was a soprano, you grew up listening to opera, but you first elected to learn the violin?
AK: I began playing the violin when I was seven and I played for 12 years. It was my parents’ idea. I was born and grew up in a communist country. My father was a french horn player: he now teaches at the university, though he used to play in the opera as well. They had many friends, including those in the closest Western European city: Berlin. West Berlin, that is. At the time it was still divided. My parents’ friends said it would be a great thing for their child to play violin; the Western orchestra was always in need of violin players, and it would be a means to escape and lead a normal life. So the instrument was my parent’s idea. But I liked the school very much. I spent twelve years in one building. The friendships we built there were very, very tight. Even now, twenty-something years after graduating, we still call each other and all have really beautiful memories of our time at the school.
I always went to the opera with my father, after school. No symphony music, only opera. So it’s true: I really did grow up in the opera, backstage and in the wardrobe of my mother’s dressing room. But I do not really remember when I said that I do not want to play the violin anymore, that I wanted only to be an opera singer. I don’t recall this moment at all.
OW: Do you think your daughter, Malena, wants to sing like her mother, and will her mother teach her the way your mother taught you?
AK: For the moment I am practicing the piano with her. Oh my god, there is nothing worse than teaching your own children! Now I understand it! My mother always used to say this to me, or my father would say it when he was with me when I played violin. When you are being taught by your parents, you always dare to say more than if you were with a teacher from a school. So, it’s not that easy. You need a lot of patience. I do not have the patience at all! When she was smaller, though, maybe three or four years old, she sang opera. She used to prepare concerts for us, little shows in three parts: opera, ballet and then pop! Like everyone, she likes Beyoncé and TikTok and all these things, so… We will see. I think she will be an artist. She has it in the blood. She dances very well and has a very good ear.
OW: And she’s fearless! I saw her onstage, singing with Roberto, and she was totally unfazed.
AK: Yes I know! I was so surprised when she went with him onstage, singing a duet. Me, at her age? You would have never dragged me onstage with a hundred horses. I was very shy.
OW: You recently sang two highly acclaimed performances, “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci,” at the Royal Opera House. How do you approach the two, somewhat different, characters of Nedda and Santuzza?
AK: It was quite unexpected because I went there to sing the role of Santuzza (“Pagliacci”), and then found out two days before opening that I would also sing the role of Nedda (“Cavalleria Rusticana”). Tony Pappano came to me and said, “It’s crazy what we are doing but let’s do it…” When we did the eight shows it was, of course, beautiful. All the work I do with Pappano and his colleagues becomes beautiful memories. Pappano said to me, “Aleksandra, I don’t know how we are doing it, but we are doing it and you are doing it, and it is really great.”
These two roles are so different. How to manage them both? I think everything is about good technique. Then you can keep your voice elastic and make it lighter or make it deeper, depending. You can make color. Color is important because if the voice carries, it will be observed. Being heard is obviously important, but it is color that gives meaning to each role.
Nedda is a very complex role. Her arias are very light—almost coloratura light—and the tessitura is very high. I saw it somewhere in a review, that the duet between Nedda and Tonio is almost like a small “Tosca” Act Two, with the tension and near-violence of the moment. Then you have the beautiful, big, lyrical duets with Sylvio and Columbina, with bursts of dramatic strings. I love it. Absolutely love the role. It has a lot of color. It’s pure joy.
Santuzza is very different from Nedda. It’s a sadder, deeper role. I find her responsible for all the problems in the story, for everything that happens. I don’t see Turridu as the bad person: I see Santuzza as more the villain. Turridu was betrayed by everybody: by Santuzza, because she was with Alfio, and by Lola, his great love. This is why I love verismo opera. It’s never black and white. It’s like real life. You can’t judge the people. The truth is always in the middle.
OW: Of course, you have sung many roles with Roberto Alagna. Is it easier or more difficult to sing with your husband than with other tenors?
AK: It is both easier and more difficult, at the same time. More difficult, of course, because it’s the person you love, the person you care for. When you’re onstage you need to think first and foremost about yourself, with all due respect for your colleagues, of course. I love to have my colleagues, but your focus has to be very much on yourself. With your husband it’s different. You want to help him, so you are more nervous.
From another point of view, we met on the stage. We fell in love on the stage. We have always had a special kind of energy or chemistry between us. It works for us both on the stage as artists, and in our private life. Very often we hear from reviewers or fans or audience members after the shows that there is some magic, something special, between us. They’re right, and I can’t describe it. It’s just something that you sometimes have between two people. Roberto is a bit like me: he really becomes the person who he is playing onstage. It’s not Roberto Alagna singing something: he really becomes the character. In “Pagliacci” I look at him and I think, “He’s really going to kill me!”
OW: What roles would you like to perform in the future?
My two big dreams were always to sing “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly.” I have now achieved both of them. I will sing “Butterfly” at the Met next season. I love Puccini’s music, so I suppose another one of my dreams is to perform “Manon Lescaut.” I will be singing “Suor Angelica” soon, and I have “Fedora” and “La Gioconda” lined up as future projects. I am thinking about “Aida” as well. But from a very early age—maybe 10 years of age—I always wanted to sing “Tosca” and “Butterfly.” So, right now, I feel really fulfilled.