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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.

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