Magdalena Kozena: Czech mate

Magdalena Kozena has a mesmerising vocal range, lives with Simon Rattle, and is about to debut in London. Michael Church meets the mezzo with all the right moves

Wednesday 14 November 2007 01:00

Preparing to write this article, I've fallen in love. Not with a person; but with a seven-minute track. It's a 17th-century setting by Johann Christoph Bach of one of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, in which the baroque instruments of Musica Antiqua Köln weave a plangent miasma around a contralto voice. The piece moves gravely forward, but also seems utterly frozen in time: it's a minor miracle.

Magdalena Kozena's recording of Bach family rarities, Lamento, was released in 2005. Since then, there have been CDs of Gluck and Mozart arias, the latter conducted by her partner, Sir Simon Rattle. This month, she is giving a Barbican recital to mark the release of a collection of Handel arias, Ah! mio cor. In December, she makes her Covent Garden debut in La Cenerentola. As critics have pointed out, there's a certain parallel between the rags-to-riches of Rossini's Cinderella and the trajectory of Kozena's own life.

Brought up, as she puts it, "under a big factory chimney" in the Czech city of Brno, she benefited from a Soviet-era education. "In kindergarten, our teacher played the piano a lot, and I fell completely in love with the sound of it." Kozena describes daily rehearsals with the Brno Philharmonic Children's Choir from the age of six, when she also began piano lessons. She enjoyed practising so much that her friends regarded her as weird; when she entered the gymnasium at 14, she was on course for a career as a concert pianist. But she had to spend more time singing after breaking her hand, and, after passing her finals, decided to pursue piano and voice in tandem.

What pushed her towards the latter? "I gradually realised that I felt more comfortable singing. It was basically a matter of stage fright. When I was 16 I met a lutenist and we started doing concerts of Dowland and Monteverdi, so even then I was doing the job I do now."

If Kozena's voice was versatile then, now it's positively protean. Her range is huge – from D below middle C to high soprano – as is the spectrum of colour she deploys. "What's beautiful about my profession is that you can sing the same thing very differently at different stages. Age, and your life experiences, can completely change your approach. My instrument is part of my body; it changes as my body does."

Two years ago, she gave birth to a son. Has motherhood altered her voice? "Yes, I think so, but the change is mainly to do with the emotions involved. Having a child is such a strong life-experience, bringing such strong, new emotions – and it is a hormonal change, which can be heard in the voice. It may not have changed the quality, but it's changed what I give and how I interpret.

"When you are young, you think you can do anything. Even though you don't have much knowledge, you dare to do things you don't dare later."

Her new Handel disc represents daring of a different kind, as many of the characters are suffering from forms of madness. "I tend to choose pieces that have a lot to say emotionally," she says. "For me, the only way to do these is to be firmly inside the character – inside their often extreme emotions. The music often seems very simple, but it always has a strength – and if you don't go with that, and just sing beautifully, it can sound, frankly, boring."

This is one of the keys to her art: how the shock-value of a thoroughly ugly sound can ram home a dramatic point. "Of course, there are rules of ornamentation and phrasing and vibrato, but I just go with what I feel in my heart. I feel free doing [Handel] because we don't know exactly how it was – I'm not interested in 'authenticity'. In this recording, I've applied what I've learnt from [conductor] Andrea Marcon – not feeling obliged to sing on the beat. It's a bit like jazz; you can wait between the beats. That can give the music a lightness."

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How does she feel about making her Covent Garden debut? "Frankly, Rossini is not my favourite composer, and it's very hard to find any deep emotion in this work. It's like being in the circus – if you don't like to show off, you shouldn't sing it. But I just can't take the story seriously – the whole thing is kind of silly. But for me it will be an adventure."

Home, meanwhile, is Berlin, "though I still consider the town in Czechoslovakia where my mother lives my home". Does her touring, plus Rattle's Berlin Philharmonic duties, pose problems for family life? "My son is mainly with me, and we organise our life to be together – it's not that bad."

Meanwhile, from her accompanist Malcolm Martineau, I learn more about her musicianship. She's a very fast learner, with an incredible ear: "Each time she does a song, it's different, and in the concert, it's different again. In Idomeneo, she did different ornaments every single night, though always in keeping with the style of the period. She gets bored doing the same thing twice. She's really just a musician who happens to sing. And like so many people who are shy offstage, something happens when she goes on, and she becomes a different person. But above all, she doesn't seek approval. She just sets out her stall and says, 'This is me. If you like it, fine, but if you don't, that's also fine.'"

When I ask her what advice this 34-year-old mezzo would give to a young singer, Kozena's reply is brief and to the point: "Study foreign languages – and study baroque music and Mozart." Plus talent and determination, but that goes without saying.

Magdalena Kozena appears at the Barbican, London EC1 (020-7638 8891) tomorrow; 'Ah! mio cor' is out now on Deutsche Grammophon

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