Q & A: Soprano Linda Ballová On Her Career Path, ‘Salome,’ & the Challenges for Slovak Singers in Europe

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Tamara Cerna SofiG)

Immediately after the curtain came down on Brno National Theater’s excellent production of Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” OperaWire nipped around to the stage door for an interview appointment with Slovakian soprano Linda Ballová, who had just produced a stunning performance in the titular role.

It is unlikely that many opera-goers in Western countries will have heard the name; her performances have largely been confined to Slovakia and the Czech Republic, while her experience in Western houses has been confined to a four-year stint spent at Aachen Opera in Germany when she first started out in her professional career.

After witnessing her interpretation of Salome, one can only wonder why her name is not far better known!

OperaWire: Why did you become an opera singer?

Linda Ballová: My mother tells me that when I was a little child, of about four or five years old, I told her that I wanted to be an opera singer, not a pop singer, but an opera singer. When she asked me why, I replied that I knew I wanted to do this. This occurred just after we had been to watch “Carmen” at the Bratislava National Theatre.

OW: What was your path into the profession?

LB: At five, I was a little too young to go to a special school for music, but there was a children’s choir I joined, and I got a singing teacher. The conductor of the choir was, in fact, my singing teacher. I stayed with her for lessons from the age of five until I was 19. In the meantime, I studied languages at the gymnasium, even though at the time I wanted to go to the conservatory. But my parents told me that I had to have a proper education so that if singing didn’t work out for me, there would be something to fall back on. After this, I went to the conservatory for six years, where I studied with Dagmar Livorová, and then to the University of Musical Arts in Bratislava for five years, where I studied with Zlatica Livorová. So, I was 30 before I finished my studies, although I started performing before that. I was really lucky because I had very good teachers.

OW: When did you start performing on stage? 

LB: I started when I was in the conservatory with very small parts. At the time, I was mezzo-soprano, or at least that is how I saw myself. This was because my middle range was nothing, and my teachers told me that if I didn’t have the middle range, then I wouldn’t have the lows or highs. Then, in my third year at university, I was asked to sing Milada in Smetana’s opera “Dalibor.” My teachers told me not to do it because it would destroy my voice. But I did it anyway, and it worked!

Afterwards, my teacher asked me to sing one of Milada’s arias, which I did. She said, Okay, you are a soprano!

At the beginning, I was doing small roles and covering larger roles. Then I got a place at the opera in Aachen, in Germany, where I stayed for four years, and I sang roles like Jenufa, Ariadne and Rusalka, which were really good for my voice. This is where I gained much of my initial experience. After that, I returned to Slovakia. I sang a few roles in the National Theatre and applied for a job teaching in the conservatory.

OW: How did you start singing at the Brno National Theatre? 

LB: They have really good singers here in Brno and they went to China to perform “The Makropulos Case,” for which I was the cover. They said that I didn’t need to travel as they did not expect I would be required; however, just in case, they had a visa sorted out. I was told that if I didn’t hear the day before the performance, then I could relax. On the day of the performance, they called me and told me that I would be singing that evening. I thought that it would be impossible. They called me at 9:00 a.m. and by 2:00 p.m., I was flying to Shanghai. I was rushed through the arrivals in record time and taken straight to the theatre. I had never sung in this production. I had to get changed immediately, and the conductor was speaking in one ear and the assistant director in the other ear. Amazingly, it went really well, but I cannot remember a thing about it! The next day, the adrenalin kicked in, and I became really stressed, and I couldn’t eat a thing. Five months later, they offered me the role of Elisabetta in “Don Carlos.” That is how I started in Brno.

OW: You sing a wide range of roles in a wide variety of languages. What are your favorite roles and composers to sing?

 LB: I like to sing Puccini, but people tell me that I should do more Verdi. Both fit my voice well. I would love to sing Tosca, but I know I am not Tosca! It may come later. I was asked to sing Turandot, but that is also not for me, and so I turned it down. My favorite composer is Janáček and I want to sing more of his roles.

Everybody was telling me that the role of Salome was very hard, but I don’t have that feeling; it is so well-written that I didn’t feel any stress or anxiety in the voice.

OW: Describe your voice. 

LB: I used to think that my voice had an iron-like quality, but when I listen to recordings of myself, I don’t have the same impression. If I had to describe it, I would say it has a full, round sound. I can go as high as D3, but I don’t like to go that high. I just use it to warm up.

OW: Are there specific challenges for Czech and Slovak singers who wish to sing in Western theaters?

LB: Yes, it is more difficult, but this is only if you do not have a Western agent, which I don’t. I think that is really the only problem. I would say that here we sing in a greater variety of languages, for example, French, German, Russian, Czech and Italian, far more frequently, but we have fewer opportunities. But if you don’t have the right agent, it is like that you don’t exist!

OW: Are there any significant differences between Slovak singers and Czech singers? 

LB: There are big differences. The schools are very different. So, for example, in Slovakia there is more emphasis on the bel canto style of singing, while in the Czech Republic there is more of a German style of singing. Also, with Slovakian singers, you don’t hear a strong Slovakian accent, but when a Czech singer is singing in Italian or German, you can immediately hear the Czech accent; not all of them, of course, but in general.

OW: What were the challenges of singing “Salome?”

LB: Of course, there are musical challenges for the breathing, the position and the technique, but I found the biggest challenge to be psychological; by this, I mean the way I need to deal with the emotions that role generates in me. I was in a grocery store after rehearsals one day, and a lady asked me how I was, and I just burst into tears. I was in the wrong mental state, caused by my close identification with Salome. David Radok, the director, told me that if I didn’t feel like this, then I wouldn’t be normal, as he was trying to push me to the limits, but to a point where he can still manipulate the character. At one point, I actually felt that it was not going to work and that I needed to visit a psychiatrist. It was much harder for me to live with Salome than to sing the role. My colleagues told me that it is great to play a negative role because everyone has hatred inside, and you can just put it out there on the stage. It doesn’t work for me, however.

OW: What are your ambitions? 

LB: Honestly, my ambitions are to sing well and to do my job well.

However, I would really like to sing in Covent Garden or at the Vienna State Opera. Also, I would like to sing in one of the big German houses, such as Berlin or Munich. My big dream is obviously the New York Met. But I need to keep my feet on the ground.

I am happy singing the repertory I am already doing. I am not too fond of Salome, however, because I don’t like the character, but many people have told me that it was very good.


InterviewsStage Spotlight