Magdalena Kozena: Don't fence her in

The mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena learnt to watch her words when her relationship with Simon Rattle became big news. But she's still following her own path, she tells Lynne Walker
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"Sometimes surprising things happen in your life, so you have to take it just as it comes," says Magdalena Kozena. The Czech mezzo-soprano had little option when her appearance at the Proms last year coincided with news of her affair with Sir Simon Rattle, attracting some juicy headlines. It is a mark of her cool professionalism that her impeccable performance of Czech orchestral songs showed no evidence of the hounding she was experiencing in the press. But she's since become very wary of intrusion into her personal life, and our interview is attended by a minder, a director from the London management whose list of artists also includes Rattle, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

"Sometimes surprising things happen in your life, so you have to take it just as it comes," says Magdalena Kozena. The Czech mezzo-soprano had little option when her appearance at the Proms last year coincided with news of her affair with Sir Simon Rattle, attracting some juicy headlines. It is a mark of her cool professionalism that her impeccable performance of Czech orchestral songs showed no evidence of the hounding she was experiencing in the press. But she's since become very wary of intrusion into her personal life, and our interview is attended by a minder, a director from the London management whose list of artists also includes Rattle, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Kozena loves Berlin, she says, and finds living there exciting. An obvious attraction is the chance to attend the Berlin Philharmonic, which she considers a privilege. "Some parts of the city remind me of my own country - if not always pretty, they're at least interesting. The streets are big and wide and you can really breathe."

By her "own country" she means, of course, the Czech Republic. And the parts of Berlin that seem familiar to her are not here in West Berlin - where she and Rattle live with their new baby, Jonas, in what one friend describes as "great happiness in a lovely house" - but on the East side. There are certainly parallels between it and the industrial city of Brno where Kozena was born in 1973. Her father, a mathematician, died when she was 11; her mother, a biologist, brought up Kozena and her sister alone. Kozena's childhood was spent singing, from the age of six, "every day, even weekends" in the Brno Philharmonic Children's Choir. Yet it was as a pianist that she planned to make a career. She was, she recalls, "totally in love with the piano".

But an accident at school, resulting in a broken hand, left her suddenly having to audition instead as a singer for the Brno Conservatoire. There, and later in Bratislava, she became captivated by her native music while cultivating an interest in the Baroque repertoire. It was in this field that she first attracted critical acclaim. A disc of a Bach aria with a Czech ensemble happened to catch the ears of the bosses at Deutsche Grammophon and, with almost indecent haste, Kozena's international career was launched.

She explains her passion for her native country's music. "It is so difficult for foreigners to sing the Czech language properly and to capture the mood. This music really should be sung in its original language, not in German. I am the one who should perform it because I can. Many people can sing Brahms but I prefer to bring something new to audiences. Besides, my roots are Czech, my passport is Czech, my friends and family are there. I feel it will always be home to me."

Kozena has plans to record a complete anthology of Czech song drawn from several centuries but the problem is deciding what not to include. "I can sing for just 65 minutes on a CD so it's quite a problem." Anxious not to be pigeon-holed, she is also keen to develop her interest in French music, already demonstrated on her French arias disc. "The record company wanted something more modern and a bit different, and anyway I am someone who gets easily bored. When I hear something lovely, I have to sing it. French repertoire appeals to me. But only certain roles suit one's voice, not so many opera houses do these works and even then it's not always easy to find the right production."

The light lyric dimension of her voice suits the role of Debussy's Mélisande, which she has sung and will return to, but the role of Carmen is a different challenge. For Kozena, whether the music is for soprano or mezzo doesn't much matter - especially, she points out, since a lot was written when there was a less marked difference between the voices. It's the character that interests her, or not. "The part of Carmen was written for a singer who sounded more like a soprano but now we're used to the richer colour of a dark chest voice." We need to wait until 2009, however, to hear her in the role of the gipsy for whom "love is a rebellious bird that nobody can tame", in Aix-en-Provence.

Kozena will be including Ravel's three songs Don Quichotte à Dulcinée in her London recital this week. Composed for the great Russian bass, Chaliapin, their subject matter - a romance, a chivalrous prayer and a boisterous drinking song - makes them a curious item for a fragrant mezzo. Kozena is quick to defend her choice. "It may sound weird but a lot of music was written for men, because poets and composers were male. No one asks me why I sing trouser roles like Idamante, or Cherubino or Sesto. Women perform male song-cycles such as Wintereisse. If the music is beautiful - and it is - why shouldn't I sing it?"

As well as these Ravel pieces, she sings the same composer's erotic Shéhérazade with the Berlin Philharmonic and Rattle in Frankfurt in September. The third song in the series, "L'Indifférent", is intriguing in the sexual ambiguity of the boy stranger with eyes "soft like a girl's" and hips swaying in a "languid feminine way". She's on safer ground with Mussorgsky's five witty Nursery Songs about a little boy and his nanny, also featured in London this week. Kozena is looking decidedly dark under the eyes when we meet - not surprisingly since Jonas was born only at the beginning of March. It's brave of her to get back into the recital circuit so soon, I venture. "I just hope I get some sleep before these concerts," she replies.

Kozena's reputation as a blue-eyed blonde bombshell with a fondness for glamorous fashion photoshoots and a penchant for dizzily high heels doesn't seem to fit with this rather willowy woman possessed of a transparent voice, effortless technique and penetrative interpretative style. But her clothes are all made by the Czech fashion designer Daniela Flejsarova - even the maternity dresses - and judging by the numerous stylish pictures splashed over her CD covers, Kozena alone could keep her in business.

This autumn sees her in a programme of duets by Monteverdi and Handel with the counter-tenor David Daniels, followed by a tour of Mozart and Haydn arias with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Rattle, which takes in the Sage Gateshead as well as Vienna and London. The lower pitch of an authentic instrument band does sometimes help her, she admits. "I don't change my voice whether I'm singing Bach or Britten," she says. "I rely instead on colour and the emotion I put into my interpretation. It has to feel right but I am always just me."

Her future stage appearances include a couple of appearances as Papagena in The Magic Flute under Abbado in Modena in September and Zerlina in Don Giovanni with the Metropolitan Opera on tour in Japan next year. Other plans include the premiere of Henze's next opera, Phaedra, and she still hopes to find time to learn a setting of some Michelangelo sonnets composed for her by a Czech contemporary.

She's doubtful about the impact, if any, that her much talked-about relationship with Rattle has had on her career (though she has described working with him as "heaven"), and has been surprised at the amount of unpleasant foraging into her personal life, "especially in the British media". As for the future, she's cagey. Although she has a good mix of engagements booked into her diary over the next few years, Kozena doesn't look very far ahead. "I'm not good at making plans," she says firmly.

Magdalena Kozena is in recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0870 380 0400) tomorrow; at the Aldeburgh Festival (01728 687110) on 14 June; and at the Edinburgh International Festival (0131-473 2000) in recital on 19 August and in Mozart's 'La Clemenza di Tito' on 16 August

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