On February 23, mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená makes her Carnegie Hall recital debut, accompanied by pianist Yefim Bronfman. Ms. Kožená spoke with us yesterday from Chapel Hill, North Carolina (where she was preparing for a concert) to discuss her upcoming debut and her thoughts on programming and performing recitals.
Carnegie Hall: On February 23, you team up with Yefim Bronfman for your recital debut at Carnegie Hall. How are you feeling about making your debut in the big hall?
Magdalena Kožená: I'm very curious how the recital will work because I've only ever sung in the Hall with an orchestra. This is my first experience doing a recital in such a big space, so I guess I'll have to sing a little bit differently than I would in a standard recital hall. In a way, there is a challenge to doing it there because the space is simply not as intimate as you would expect for this kind of program. But on the other hand, I find the acoustics in Stern Auditorium to be wonderful and the atmosphere is always very special. It's like these great halls that we have in Europe—like the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam: When you come in, history is breathing at you. What music and which interpreters were performing there somehow stays in the walls for me.
CH: How did you choose the repertoire for this recital?
MK: This recital is really a cross section of composers as well as the new commission by Marc-André Dalbavie. Fima [Yefim Bronfman] and I actually already did a similar recital program a couple of years ago in Europe—without the commission, of course—and since I had this amazing opportunity to work with Fima, of course I wanted to do some Russian music because of his background. Also, the Rachmaninoff Songs are really incredibly difficult for a pianist, so to have him playing those is really a huge privilege and a treasure.
CH: Had you performed any of Dalbavie's music before?
MK: I should be ashamed, but I actually didn't know him before I was asked to do this commission [Three Melodies on a Poem of Ezra Pound] and to sing this piece. But I'm very excited about doing it; there's always something special about a piece that is written for you. We all sometimes suffer from having to sing pieces that were written for someone else. It's not like pop music, where people are making songs that exactly match your voice. It's a great opportunity to have a piece like that.
CH: When you're preparing for the recital program, do you have a particular process that you follow?
MK: It really varies, but of course you know I have two children, so I have more than one job! But a recital like this takes quite a while because there's really a lot of words. If you count the number of words, it's much more than if you learn any kind of operatic role. I normally study pieces by myself on the piano. But I always ask language coaches to work with me; even if you speak the language, it's always different when you are singing. It's a process and it's never perfect, so there's always a lot of work. I find it very important, especially with pieces by such composers as Mussorgsky or Ravel where you really have to sing every single word extremely clearly. And the more you sing the pieces, the more relaxed you are and the better it is. I've done most of these pieces several times with different pianists, but not the Rachmaninoff—this is really a special thing for Yefim because it's more like a piano concerto with voice! But whatever you do in a rehearsal room is just a rehearsal; then you come on stage and you discover different difficulties. You start to breathe differently and you just have to pace your energy differently, so it's always very important to do live performances to progress in your recital program.
CH: Because you do so many types of performance—with orchestras, in operas, in recitals—do you have a preference for a particular format?
MK: I wouldn't say that I "prefer" any one. I really love them all and I would be really sad if I had to choose. I think it's extremely important when you do a recital to also have acting experience because you are actually reciting poems and you have to be an actor as well, even though you don't have a costume and all these other things that you have in opera. And on the other hand, I think if you do opera without having experience with recitals, you never get to do this detailed work with the text. So, for me, it's absolutely necessary to do both. But I have to say, I enjoy doing my recitals and choosing my own programs and kind of being my own boss—getting to decide exactly what I will sing. Opera is always a question of compromises; you have directors and other colleagues and you will not always like everything about every aspect of the production. But it's also a great skill to be able to compromise and to be the part of a bigger unit. But the advantage of the recital is that it's only you and the pianist, so there's only one person to argue with in case you need to and that makes it quite easy.
CH: So have you and Yefim had to argue a lot or is it very easy?
MK: No, not at all! I think Fima is a wonderful and easy person to work with. No, we really have a lot of fun and it's an extremely natural and pleasurable collaboration.
Related: February 23, Magdalena Kožená | Yefim Bronfman