The Magazine

Modern Mélisande

From the ashes of communism, a voice for the new century.

Jan 24, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 18 • By CATHY YOUNG
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One of the most sought-after classical singers in Europe, Magdalena Kozena has very little of the diva about her. The 37-year-old Czech-born, Berlin-based mezzo-soprano is warm and unpretentious, whether in interviews or in conversation with backstage visitors. A mother of two sons, ages five and two, she speaks of family as her first priority and readily turns down engagements that would interfere with it. This may be one of the reasons that, while Kozena has many devoted American fans, she is not as widely known among opera and classical music audiences here as she is across the Atlantic.

Modern Mélisande

Magdalena Kozena, 2010

Jens Kalaene / AFP / Getty Images

Her name was new to me when I heard her in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony at a Berlin Philharmonic concert in New York in 2006. Struck by her luminous voice and wrenching dramatic intensity, I set out in search of Kozena recordings and discovered a singer of unique personality and power. Since then, I have been fortunate to see Kozena in several other live performances, most recently as Mélisande in a brief run of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at the Metropolitan Opera. The effect remains undiminished.

A few years ago, Michael Church of the Independent described Kozena’s voice as “protean,” with an astonishing range and spectrum of colors. The range of her repertoire is equally impressive. She has received high praise for her performances in familiar operatic roles: Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, Zerlina in Don Giovanni. Yet her performances I have attended in the last two years span the gamut from the silver-voiced angel in Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius to the brash street peddler Lazuli in a revival of Chabrier’s operetta L’étoile—a trouser role Kozena imbued with boyish energy and sassy humor as well as sweet lyricism. In her song albums, the heart-stopping tenderness of Britten’s lullabies coexists with the mordant sarcasm of Shostakovich’s satires and the subtle nuance and mystery of Debussy, Ravel, and Duparc.

Kozena is particularly renowned as a baroque singer, with choices that often stray from the beaten path. Her latest album, Lettere Amorose, released last fall, offers what she calls “discoveries” from the early baroque; Lamento, a collection of vocal pieces by members of the Bach family, became a bestseller in 2005. Her other uncommon interest has to do with her Czech heritage: Two fascinating albums, Songs My Mother Taught Me and Love Songs, feature pieces by Dvorak, Janacek, and the lesser-known contemporary Czech composers Bohuslav Martinu, Petr Eben, and Erwin Schulhoff. 

More recent additions to Kozena’s growing repertoire include Mahler, whose dramatic expressionism and rapid mood shifts are especially well-suited to her particular gifts.

Kozena’s versatility extends to different interpretations of the same role. Her new Mélisande—her fourth—was a striking contrast to the previous one I saw at the Berlin State Opera in 2008, in a production far more modern and edgy than the Metropolitan’s. (Both were conducted by Kozena’s husband, Sir Simon Rattle, music director of the Berlin Philharmonic.) The State Opera’s Mélisande was childlike, frightened, helpless, all angles and nerves. Her incarnation at the Met was still vulnerable and victimized but also willful and self-contained, at times seductive, at times angry. In an interview a few days before the opening, Kozena told me that Mélisande was perhaps her favorite operatic role because it can be done in so many ways: “Every time, you can create a different personality, because nobody knows where she’s from; it’s all very symbolic and mysterious.”

The daughter of a mathematician father and biologist mother, Kozena grew up in the industrial city of Brno and entered the Brno Conservatoire at 14, then studied piano and singing at the College of Performing Arts in Bratislava. These were the twilight years of Communist rule; the teenage Magdalena was among the student protesters who ushered in the Velvet Revolution. Today, she has fond memories of her musical training under the old regime but has not lost sight of its grim repressiveness: “I remember that fear. Our parents would say something and then tell us, ‘Never say that at school, because we’ll go to prison.’ ”

Has Kozena’s early experience of communism left a lasting effect? For one, she believes it has given her a special affinity for Shostakovich; she notes that he “always had a suitcase packed,” fearing arrest. Ironically, performing these pieces initially required her to defy a still-strong prejudice among Czechs against the Russian language as the language of official Communist texts. Today, after living in Berlin for several years, Kozena retains strong emotional ties to her native country, where she still gives regular recitals and where, she notes, the classical musical culture still thrives despite the financial woes of its institutions.

With the Iron Curtain gone, Kozena’s international career developed at a swift pace. In 1995, she placed first in the Sixth International Mozart Competition in Salzburg. Two years later, her first disc of Bach arias drew the attention of executives at Deutsche
Grammophon, and the studio at once signed her to an exclusive contract. By 2002, the Guardian was describing her as a “hot property” whose career was “about to go stratospheric.” She has won three Gramophone Awards, including Artist of the Year in 2004. Kozena’s success was all the more remarkable because of her often unorthodox choices. (She has said that she did not expect Lamento to have much appeal except among aficionados of obscure baroque music.)

Her relationship with Rattle attracted a less welcome kind of attention when they left their previous spouses after meeting at the Glyndebourne Festival. Yet today, their partnership, intensely private and family-oriented, could not be more different from glamorous celebrity coupledom: It is a professional partnership as well, based on an obvious and striking artistic rapport. Kozena and Rattle often work together, allowing them to combine their time on the road with family time. The boys invariably travel with them, or with Kozena when she tours alone.

Kozena’s next trip here is scheduled for February 2012, a tour with pianist Yefim Bronfman concluding with a recital at Carnegie Hall. In the meantime, anyone wishing to enjoy her work without going to Europe has a rich discography to choose from. Lamento, Songs My Mother Taught Me, and Songs (a 2004 album that includes the Shostakovich satires and the Britten lullabies), and albums of Handel and Vivaldi arias are particularly notable. Other standouts include Mahler’s Der Knaben Wunderhorn, recorded in 2010 with the Cleveland Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, and fragments from Martinu’s opera Juliette. On DVD, Kozena can be seen as Idamante in Mozart’s Idomeneo and as Orpheus in Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice.

What’s next? Her upcoming engagements include Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (her first), another run of L’étoile, and the role of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. When we spoke in New York, she mentioned that, with her older son Jonas now in school and unable to travel with her during the school year, she will have to further curtail her tours. It was a matter-of-fact statement with no trace of disappointment. Kozena has said elsewhere that she sees motherhood as recharging her emotional energy and completing, rather than hindering, her work. For her, both are labors of love.

Cathy Young is a columnist for Real Clear Politics and a contributing editor to Reason.


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