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»Things Get Pretty Emotional«

Magdalena Kožená talks about brisk flamenco and the Spanish Baroque

»I like variety«, Magdalena Kožená declared when she was giving four completely different concerts at the Laeiszhalle and at Kampnagel as Artist in Residence in the 2015/16 season – among them a Cole Porter evening, and a dramatic opera scene including a knightly duel where she sang all three roles on her own.

And in addition to oratorio and opera recordings, her extensive discography also includes several compilations of arias, in which the passion and deeper dramatic meaning behind her interpretations can be heard. Now she appears at the Elbphilharmonie for the first time with her new project »Amor: entre el cielo y el infierno« (Love: Between Heaven and Hell), which she talks about in the following interview.

Magdalena Kožená
Magdalena Kožená © Oleg Rostovtsev

Magdalena Kožená, in your new project you combine flamenco with Spanish Baroque music from the 17th century. What gave you the idea?

Well, a couple of things were involved; I need to go into a little detail to explain. The original idea was born a few years ago. In 2010 I recorded the CD »Lettere Amorose« featuring Early Baroque Italian love songs together with Pierre Pitzl and his ensemble Private Musicke. In the studio, and at the concerts we gave afterwards, I became friends with the musicians, and we decided we wanted to go on playing together after the tour. This prompted Pierre to suggest that we take a look at Spanish Baroque arias. I must admit that I didn't really know this somewhat obscure repertoire, but I soon got very interested in it.

I realised that there were certain similarities between flamenco and Spanish Baroque arias

Magdalena Kožená

At the same time I had to rehearse for my role as Carmen at the Salzburg Easter Festival. I wanted to prepare as well as I could, as I was supposed to play the castanets as well, and even to dance a bit of flamenco. I had a German flamenco teacher at first, but after a few months he suggested I take lessons with a Spanish teacher. He recommended Antonio El Pipa, who gives regular master classes in Germany, and after a first meeting with him I travelled to Jerez in Andalusia, where I took lessons for three hours a day. During our lessons I gradually realised that there were certain similarities between flamenco and these Spanish Baroque arias, and that gave me the idea of combining the two styles in concert.

Magdalena Kožená / Private Musicke
Magdalena Kožená / Private Musicke © C.E.M.A. / Lukáš Vídeňský

Can you describe the similarities?

Firstly, there’s the rhythm. In flamenco, it’s true, the rhythm is often more complex and more irregular, but there are still some parallels. For example, so-called hemiolas occur in both styles: triple time is temporarily reduced to duple time, the emphases change and the music becomes brisker. Another similarity can be found in the subject matter, which possesses great depth. The Spanish arias are much more dramatic than their Italian counterparts. There are some whimsical moments, such as the aria where a man declares that he wants to satisfy all women, and compares himself to a butterfly flitting from one flower to the next; but in general, the texts are stirring and passionate. Things get rather emotional, which is typical of the Iberian peninsula.

Does improvisation also play a role here?

Not so much. We generally agree beforehand what instruments we’re going to use, which verses we’re going to sing, and whether there will be introductions or interludes. Otherwise, this repertoire doesn’t call for much embellishment, unlike Handel’s music, for example, where the singer has the chance to incorporate spontaneous ornaments, trills and so on. Such spontaneity tends to occur more in flamenco pieces.

Magdalena Kožená/ Antonio El Pipa
Magdalena Kožená/ Antonio El Pipa © C.E.M.A. Lukáš Vídeňský

To what extent do the two styles intermingle?

Well, sometimes Antonio dances to Baroque music, or his singers accompany me. But this is definitely not »crossover«: the two styles retain their individual purity.

How did you arrive at the title »Amor: entre el cielo y el infierno«?

The title was the product of the contrasts that we obviously noticed ourselves when we were rehearsing this repertoire. But it was also inspired by the texts, which are full of passion and tell how love can be heaven – or hell. In choosing the arias, we made a point of looking for contrasts and new timbres. We didn’t really attach any importance to the names of the composers, most of whom are little-known anyway: our aim was to produce a programme as attractive and full of contrast as possible.

What is special for you about singing in Spanish?

I’ve already sung songs by Manuel de Falla, but my Spanish isn’t good. But I revived it while I was rehearsing in Jerez as the flamenco artists didn’t speak English. The vowels in Spanish are similar to Italian vowels; as far as consonants are concerned, there are very soft S’s and D’s and an R that really vibrates. I worked together with a voice coach to make sure my pronunciation sounded as natural as possible. But these songs present an enormous challenge, as they are based on texts where you need to understand not just the literal translation, but also the poetic meaning: this is sometimes harder than it sounds. I decided to learn this programme by heart and then sing it from memory, even though it meant a lot of work.

Magdalena Kožená

The Spanish texts presented a challenge – here, you need to understand not just the literal translation, but also the poetic meaning.

Magdalena Kožená

Pierre Pitzl is like the Paul McCartney of Baroque music

Magdalena Kožená

And what have you learnt from your colleagues Pierre Pitzl und Antonio El Pipa?

I already loved working with Pierre during our first joint project. He is something like the Paul McCartney of Baroque music! He possesses an incredible imagination for using the instruments in different ways depending on the character of the piece, and he also has infallible intuition. In Pierre’s hands, the pieces almost turn into pop music. And I mean that as a compliment: he loves pop, and his enthusiasm leaves its mark on his readings of Baroque repertoire.

As far as the dance element is concerned: I won’t really be dancing – I don’t have the self-confidence for that, especially not alongside these great flamenco dancers we have. I’ll just be moving with the music. But I must say that the contact with dance that this programme involves turned out to be very useful. Flamenco dancers have loads of self-confidence, derived from their typical Spanish energy and vivacity. At the outset I wasn’t sure whether this was really my style. After all, I come from Eastern Europe, where the people aren’t as emotional and lively as Spaniards. And they have a more relaxed posture as well. So it wasn’t easy for me to adopt the tension and vigour that this music calls for. Working with Antonio certainly gave me a lot: it enabled me to experience new feelings and try to not only focus on the finished result and on what people might think of it.

Interview led by Anne Payot-Le Nabour