Text: Julika von Werder, 01.08.2023
Despite a warm waistcoat and a jacket
»The worst thing about breeches parts is that men always have so many clothes on: undershirt, shirt, waistcoat, jacket – it’s just much too warm!«, says Magdalena Kožená in this phone interview and laughs. You can’t help but laugh with her – and feel a little surprised: if the costumes are her biggest problem, then she must really know her stuff. And that she does: despite a warm waistcoat and a jacket, the mezzosoprano, who was born in the Czech city of Brno in 1973, has been singing showcase parts such as Oktavian in Richard Strauss’s »Rosenkavalier« for many years now.
Kožená is full of concentration on the phone. She answers the questions in detail but without digressing, and the way she puts things sounds fresh. She is completely focused on the subject.
»There are more than you can get through in a 40-year career.«
Are there times when she wishes all the breeches roles would just disappear, or does she wish she had chosen to sing soprano after all? »If so, then only so I could sing Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová at least once« is her prompt answer – »otherwise, no. I love the variation of the mezzo parts. There are more of them than you can possibly get through in a 40-year active career.«
Through different centuries and styles
And it’s true that the repertoire for the women’s voice between soprano and alto covers a wide range, from pubescent youths to mature women. Many mezzos specialise, making a name for themselves either in light breeches roles or as a grande dame, either sticking to the Baroque or tending towards dramatic Mahler parts. But not Magdalena Kožená: »I would probably get bored,« she admits. She sees her choice not only as an artistic decision, but as a matter of character too. She explains modestly and factually that she is someone who likes to try out new things and is always on the look-out for new challenges.
This approach prompts her to wander through different centuries and styles. At the Met she has sung Mozart’s lovelorn Cherubino as well as Debussy’s equally timid Mélisande; she was brilliant in Salzburg as a seductive Carmen and in Aix-en-Provence in Kaija Saariaho’s new opera »Innocence«. And on the concert platform she has sung with a warm voice in Mahler’s »Lied von der Erde« and with Baroque sensitivity in the Bach passions, as well as in Handel’s »Alcina«, which she has also performed at the Elbphilharmonie. Anyone who knows their way around voice training might well think that Kožená needs to retrain every few weeks, regularly adapting her voice to suit new technical demands. One thing’s for sure: she is nothing if not versatile.
And there’s more to come: in between her countless classical albums, Kožená suddenly found time to record Cole Porter. »I fell in love with Cole Porter songs when I was still a student,« she says. So it comes as no surprise that jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee are among her leading role models. As part of her residency in 2016, she performed the evergreens from the American Songbook in Hamburg as well. The Hamburger Abendblatt found this »a peculiar choice«, while the surprising excursion into the realm of popular music was a hit with the audience.
On stage with her husband, Sir Simon Rattle
Magdalena Kožená has been a regular visitor to the Elbe for many years, where she has also appeared several times together with her husband, Sir Simon Rattle. Rattle even sits down at the piano for her on occasion – a rare and special chance to hear the conductor at the keyboard. Does it make a different whether he accompanies her from the piano stool or from the rostrum? "Oh, definitely,« says Kožená with a laugh: »As a piano accompanist, he really has to follow me.«
Vindictive title role
In November 2023 the two of them return to the Elbphilharmonie with Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s »Médée«. In the title role, Kožená plays a desperate, jealous wife whose vindictiveness makes her kill not only her rival, but her own children as well. »Even if the story is dreadfully cruel,« says the singer, »I am very fond of this part. I can hardly think of any other role where you have to portray so many different, intense emotions«.
She had her first big success as Médée in 2015 at the Theater in Basel. One Swiss reviewer at the time praised »the intense emotion in her every word and gesture,« adding that »Kožená brings all the colours of anger into play«. Magdalena herself remembers the performance as follows: »It was a very naturalistic production by Nicolas Brieger, with plenty of theatrical blood flowing. In the scene where the children are murdered, I always looked at the parents at the edge of the rehearsal and thought: : ›Ooooh sorry, that’s not a pretty sight, is it?‹«. It still makes her chuckle now to think back to it. Her sense of humour offstage is as terrifying as her wrath onstage.
»I would never even have dreamt of New York, Vienna or Paris.« :From a children’s choir in the Czech city of Brno to the world stage
She too was once a child on the opera stage, singing in her native Brno’s children’s choir, where she breathed the unique air of the theatre world for the first time. And she too had all kinds of dreams, though they they didn’t reach beyond the boundaries of her home town at the time – mainly because she grew up behind the Iron Curtain. »For a long time, all I dreamt of was a career at the Brno Opera. It would never even have occurred to me that I would appear at the Metropolitan Opera one day, or in Vienna or Paris.« Magdalena Kožená didn’t grow up in a musical family: her mother was a biologist and her father a mathematician.
Her first contact with music was in kindergarten. The teacher there played the piano and the little girl was completely enchanted. »I can still remember watching her and thinking that I wanted to do exactly the same thing one day.« Her parents took her wish seriously and organised piano lessons for her – »and I had always enjoyed singing anyway,« she adds.
A kind of miracle
But her teenager’s dream of becoming a pianist suffered a setback when she broke her hand on the way to the entrance exam. So she resolved without further ado to audition to study voice, and to her surprise, she was accepted. This oft-told story is seen by many as a stroke of fate that pointed the way to her future, but Kožená waves the idea aside with a smile: »I just broke my hand, as many children do. I took the entrance exam for the piano year later, and then studied both voice and piano.«
Later on, the moment arrived when she had to decide on one or the other, and she chose to stick to singing. The boundary between East and West, long seen as insurmountable, dissolved and the young singer was soon making a name for herself in adjoining European countries. She won a couple of prizes, made some spectacular debuts, was given a recording contract by Deutschen Grammophon, and before she knew it, she found herself at the top all over the world. Today she calls it »a kind of miracle«, one that she is truly grateful for.
Magdalena Kožená / Sir Simon Rattle: »Mein lieber Heiland, du« from Bach’s »St Matthew Passion«
At home with the Kožená-¬Rattle family
In the meantime, Magdalena Kožená has three children with Simon Rattle, aged 18, 14 and 8, and they live in Berlin. »Having children put everything into a new perspective for me. It gives you a completely different feeling about what really counts in life,« she says. How does she combine her career with the family? »It’s not easy, of course. We often just take the children along with us.« Kožená doesn’t like being separated from them at all; it’s important to her to really be there for them as a mother.
Some readers may be assuming that Kožená and Rattle have an active family ensemble that plays chamber music all the time, but this is not the case. It’s true that all three children are learning an instrument, but more as a hobby; they are not interested in playing together or even taking lessons with their parents. The singer is amused by the idea: »There would be nothing but arguments.«
She is actually almost relieved that none of her children are thinking of a career as a musician: »Things are getting harder and harder in the music business, plus, it’s probably not so easy being the son of Sir Simon Rattle.« And up to now, the children haven’t turned into real classical-music fans, though Kožená says that she does force them to come to one of her concerts now and again. And what do they think of their famous parents’ profession? »We’re making progress. My eldest recently said he thought it was okay!« You can hear a big smile in her voice as she says this.
Translation: Clive Williams
This article appeared in the Elbphilharmonie Magazin (3/23)