Q & A: Soprano Mária Porubčinová Talks about Smetana’s ‘The Kiss’ and her Role as Vendulka

By Alan Neilson
Photo:Henrich Mišovič

It is the morning of the premiere of The Slovak National Theater Opera’s new production of Smetana’s opera “The Kiss,” a rarely performed work in western Europe but one that receives regular presentations in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

To find out more about the opera and the production, we met up for an interview with soprano Mária Porubčinová, who would be starring in the lead female role of Vendulka. Given the rarity with which Czech and Slovak singers perform across the West, hers is a name many are unlikely to be familiar, yet she is a singer held in high regard and, based on her performance later that day, a very accomplished singer as well. She also proved to be an interesting and engaging interviewee.

OperaWire: What is your background, and what was your path to becoming an opera singer?

Mária Porubčinová: I come from the small, beautiful town of Domaniza. It is a really gorgeous place, close to the hills.

I actually became an opera singer by chance. My father had a close relationship with music and played the organ in the local church, and he spotted my talent when I was nine or ten years old. I suspect that he was projecting his dreams onto me as he did not have the opportunity to study music professionally, and so he registered me at the local art school, which was a school for leisure activities, including music.

The school, however, focused more on folk than classical music, so it was not a school that was serious about preparing the children for a career as an opera singer. However, my teacher spotted my talent and prepared me for the conservatory.

Even when I arrived at the conservatory, I was still not that serious about a career in music. That happened when I transferred from the conservatory in Žilina to the conservatory in Bratislava. It was here that I started studying seriously, thanks to my teacher, who was really committed and made me realise I needed to take what I was doing seriously.

OW: When did you get your first professional experience?

MP: It came when I was in the third grade at university. I got a call from the opera in Brno to sing the role of Rusalka. This was the big turning point in my career.

OW: What is your main repertoire and what are your preferred roles?

MP: I believe I am most suited to singing 19th century repertoire, although I also sing contemporary opera. However, “Rusalka” will always be my number one opera! Partly, this is because when you sing on stage for the first time in front of an audience, it is a very special thing and lives in your memory. I remember being very nervous, and even today I still get nervous before a performance. In both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, “Rusalka” still holds a preeminent position in the operatic canon. I perform a lot of Czech opera, although I wouldn’t classify it as a specialisation. From the foreign repertoire, my main opera is “Andrea Chénier.”

Although I love Wagner, my voice is not really suited to singing his works.

OW: Describe your voice.

MP: Well, it’s definitely not for me to praise my own voice, but it is my voice, and I love it. It allows me to express myself, and because it is close to my heart, I am able to talk with my heart. I would describe it as a young, dramatic voice with a dark timbre, and although I don’t like singing coloratura, I would say that I have a versatile voice. 

OW: In Western Europe, productions of Smetana’s operas are almost exclusively restricted to performances of “The Bartered Bride.” His other operas are largely ignored. Is this because “The Bartered Bride” is so much better than the others?  

MP: I don’t have a definitive explanation as to why this is, but in my opinion, it may be down to the marketing and also to the fact that “The Bartered Bride” became very well established in Germany very early on, and Germany is more influential in the operatic world than Czechoslovakia was. All I do know for certain is that “The Bartered Bide” is only one of many high-quality operas written by Smetana.

OW: Currently, you are performing in Smetana’s “The Kiss.” Reading the libretto, one would get the impression that this is an opera with a very simple, uninteresting plot. Is this something with which you would agree?

MP: Yes, it is a very simple story. It is not a big drama. It does not have psychological depth. Lukáš’ wife has recently died, and he turns his attentions to his childhood sweetheart, Vendulka. Although she loves him, she won’t kiss him as she wants to behave properly, which causes Lukáš to feel rejected, and he gets drunk and cavorts with some local girls to make her jealous. Eventually, she relents and agrees to kiss him. He, however, now feels unworthy of her and refuses. So, it is not much of a plot.

However, I believe that Eliška Krásnohorská, the librettist, had another plan in mind, which was to depict life in a typical Czech village during the 19th century. I think she manages to bring this aspect to the libretto, and I also hear it in the music. It depends on the production team as to whether they can capture this in the performance. It is, of course, possible to perform it without including this aspect, but in this production, I think we managed to include it.

We also added some other interesting features to the narrative. For example, we gave the deceased wife a major role to play, which adds another dimension to the story. There is also an interesting scene for smugglers, which has been well constructed.

Also, I like the ending to the opera. It is through Vendulka’s good nature and giving Lukas a chance to reform himself that everything turns out well.

OW: You are playing the role of Vendulka. What sort of character is she, and do you like her?

MP: Vendulka is young but mature. She has a strong character with high moral values; she is considerate, and although she remembers how much in love they were when they were young, she is determined to be respectful towards the deceased wife and therefore wants to make Lukas wait a little. She believes that a relationship should be built on a strong foundation. It is not just about the kiss but about her underlying values.

She is a good person. She is a pillar of decency and respect. She could have jumped straight back into the relationship, but she didn’t. She even falls out with Lukas at one point, but she is still prepared to look after his child.

I like the character. She is close to me morally. Also, she is a little crazy, which is an aspect I like about her.

OW: Do you find it a difficult role to sing?

MP: Every role has its difficulties, so it is all about the preparation. Once you have mastered it, it is not difficult to sing, and I enjoy singing the role.

OW: What can the audience expect from the production?

MP: The sets are modern with traditional elements. There are some strange ideas, like wardrobes rising at an odd angle from the stage, which reflects the chaos of daily life in the village and also alludes to the problem of alcohol abuse, which was a problem at the time as much as it is today. The costumes are also traditional with modern elements.


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