Ivo Zídek

Lyric operatic tenor with a long singing career
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The Independent Online

Ivo Zídek, opera singer: born Kravare, Czechoslovakia 4 June 1926; married 1947 Libuse Mrázová (two sons); died Prague 19 May 2003.

For those who remember the visits of the Prague National Theatre to the Edinburgh International Festival in 1964 and 1970, the death of the leading Czech tenor Ivo Zídek will bring warmly to mind performances of operas by Smetana, Dvorák and Janácek. Zídek was one of that extraordinary team of great Czech operatic singers, including Helena Tattermuschová, Milada Subrtová, Beno Blachut, Eduard Haken, Vilém Pribyl and Karel Berman, that graced both the Prague and international stages in the second half of the 20th century.

In Zídek's case he continued to serve his nation's opera, becoming later in life director of the opera of the National Theatre.

Ivo Zídek was born at Kravare near Opava, not far from the Czech-Polish border, in the former Silesia. His father, Libor Zídek, was an actor and singer, coming from a long line of teachers and cantors with a strong family tradition of music-making. Completing his schooling in Ostrava in 1945, the young Ivo suffered from the effects of the Nazi occupation which had closed the local music schools. In compensation, he found an outlet for his artistic leanings by studying painting.

However, by the end of the Second World War he had begun private singing lessons as a baritone with Rudolf Vasek which he continued up to 1949, at the same time studying music theory with Josef Schreiber. Having been heard by the conductor Zdenek Chalabala, he was given the opportunity to sing with the opera in Ostrava bewteen 1944 and 1948, making his début as Werther in Massenet's opera of that name.

During this period, in 1947, he was invited as a guest soloist to the National Theatre in Prague, singing Jeník in Smetana's Prodaná nevesta (The Bartered Bride), a role with which he was to be associated to the end of his long singing career and which he sang more than 500 times. Parts in Smetana's Tajemství (The Secret) and Fibich's Boure (The Tempest). In 1948 he became a soloist of the National Theatre and was to remain there as a leading operatic figure for the next 37 years.

By the 1950s his lyric tenor was attracting attention abroad. From 1956 to 1959 he was in demand at the Vienna State Opera and from 1956 to 1968 at the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin. Engagements took him to other European opera houses, to South America and to the Wexford opera festival in Ireland.

Zídek was blessed with a bright tenor voice, an attractive youthful appearance and a lively personality which allowed him successfully to portray leading heroic tenor roles with conviction well into the 1970s, after which he embraced more senior and dramatic parts such as his study of the lead role in Britten's Peter Grimes in 1979 or Claude Valée in the Slovak opera Hra o lásce a smrti (The Game of Love and Death) by Ján Cikker in 1983.

At the National Theatre in his earlier years he took his place easily alongside the leading Czech singers, complementing vocally and in character portrayal his part of the Prince in Dvorák's Rusalka with Eduard Haken's Vodník in that opera, or sharing leading tenor roles with his senior friend Beno Blachut. In such a long singing career Zídek brought a wide range of interpretative experience to so many characters in Czech operas, not only in those by Smetana, Dvorák, Janácek and Martinu but also in the works of Fibich, Kovarovic, Ostrcil and Kvapil, as well as the Slovaks Suchon and Cikker.

As with his Jeník in The Bartered Bride, he will be long associated with Janácek's characters of Steva and Laca in Její pastorkyna (Jenufa), Mazal/Azurean/Petrík in Vylety pana Broucka (The Excursions of Mr Broucek), Gregor in Vec Makropulos (The Makropulos Case) and Skuratov in Z mrtvého domu (From the House of the Dead). In Martinu's operas his interpretations of Michel in Julietta, Manolois in Recké pasije (The Greek Passion) and Fabrizio in Mirandolina have entered operatic legend, as has his portrayal of Zaboj in the Slovak opera Svätopluk by Suchon.

Of the international repertoire his Tamino in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and Florestan in Beethoven's Fidelio also remain in the memory but he sang most major tenor roles from Mozart, Weber and Rossini to Prokofiev, Berg and Shostakovich, taking in Wagnerian portrayals such as Lohengrin and Tannhäuser en route. Such a talented and versatile singer and actor was a popular choice with leading Czech conductors, especially Jaroslav Krombholc, Jaroslav Vogel, Zdenek Chalabala, Zdenek Kosler and Bohumil Gregor.

At the Prague Opera visit to the Edinburgh Festival in 1964 he received critical acclaim for his fine portrayal of the Prince in Rusalka and Skuratov in From the House of the Dead, the latter under Gregor. Again, in the popular return of the Prague Opera to Edinburgh in 1970 he sang memorable accounts of Dalibor in Smetana's opera of the same name, Jeník in The Bartered Bride, Gregor in The Makropulos Case and Macal/Azurean/Petrík in The Excursions of Mr Broucek.

Following the earlier successes of Janácek's Jenufa, Káta Kabanová and Príhody lisky Bystrousky (The Cunning Little Vixen) in post-war London, it was thanks to the foresight of Lord Harewood and the strength of Czech opera in the 1960s that the Edinburgh performances did so much to make Janácek the popular composer he is in Britain today, in which success Ivo Zídek and his colleagues played no small part.

Zídek's last operatic appearance was in Prague in 1985, singing Adam Ecl in Kovarovic's opera Psohlavci (The Dogheads). Although no supporter of the Communist regime, he was awarded a state prize in 1952, made a Merited Artist in 1958 and a National Artist in 1976. With the Velvet Revolution in November 1989 he publicly renounced these titles when he joined Václav Havel on the balcony overlooking the packed Wenceslas Square and led the crowds in singing the Czech National Anthem.

However, his retirement from the opera house was relatively short, as he was recalled in 1989 to take over directorship of the National Theatre's opera to guide it through the difficult first two years after the end of the Socialist totalitarian era.

It was at this time that the Edinburgh Festival decided to invite the Prague Opera again. After initial official discussions, Ivo Zídek invited me to a private lunch and it was typical of his open, honest self that he reminded me of the National Theatre's Edinburgh successes in 1964 and 1970, saying that he felt the opera of 1990-91 was not of a standard to do justice to its former reputation nor that of the Edinburgh International Festival, requesting that the invitation be postponed until standards could be restored to former glory.

In December last year, although already very seriously ill, he and his wife attended the first night of a new production of Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen at the National Theatre, conducted by his old friend Bohumil Gregor. We talked for a while after the performance when again he recalled with warmth and nostalgic pleasure his time in Edinburgh and the satisfaction of having presented some of the best of Czech opera there.

Zídek was a kindly, gentle man but also a popular national figure not only from the opera house but from concert and television appearances. In 1998 he was awarded the Thálie Prize for his life's work but awards meant less to him than his lifelong objective in presenting opera - and especially Czech opera - truthfully and to the highest possible standard. The family theatrical and musical tradition is continued by his two sons, Ivo, a stage designer, and Libor, a soloist with the operetta company at Karlín.

Outside opera his pleasures were simple. He was never happier than when working in the garden of his weekend house at Kitlice in the region of Ceská Lípa or indulging in his earlier interest in painting.

Graham Melville-Mason