Her singing voice is lit from within with shades of amber and gold. So when mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozenš speaks, her earthy, assertive inflections and throaty laugh come as a surprise.
"What is wonderful about recitals is that you can be your own boss and do what you really like," she says by phone from Salzburg, where she has just wrapped up an exhausting rehearsal for Mozart's Idomeneo. "I think that to listen to one singer all evening can be — I don't want to say boring, but it's very naked. You have to keep people interested. I try to find pieces that fit together but at the same time are quite different, so that you make it as colorful as possible."
A certain kaleidoscopic quality and an unfailing ability to surprise have been the 33-year-old Kozenš's hallmarks since she burst onto the international scene some ten years ago, fresh out of the Brno Conservatory in the Czech Republic and the Bratislava College of Performing Arts in Slovakia. Her early recording of Bach arias was a prizewinner, and her recent discs for Deutsche Grammophon (where she is an exclusive artist) have earned the prestigious Gramophone Award and other international honors. Now she comes to Alice Tully Hall for a recital on November 19.
In the opera house, Kozenš has triumphed as both Gluck's Orph_e, a role often undertaken by plummy-voiced contraltos, and Handel's Cleopatra, a part in which silvery-toned, high-flying sopranos such as Beverly Sills and Kathleen Battle won fame. A glamorous woman, Kozenš has made an unlikely specialty of Mozart's "pants parts" — Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro (the role of her 2003 Metropolitan Opera debut), Sesto in La clemenza di Tito, and Idamante in Idomeneo (which she sings at the Met this fall). She will soon add Octavian, the dashing Count Rofrano of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, to her gallery of portrayals and seems unfazed by the challenge of playing male characters. "What's important is the person and what their emotions are about," she says. "I love Idamante, because his story is so much about the relationship between a son and a father — it so much reflects Mozart's relationship to his father."
Kozenš is equally matter-of-fact about switching between mezzo and soprano roles, pointing out that the designation "mezzo-soprano" was not frequently used in centuries past. "You have to try what is good for the color of your voice, for your character — it's not only about the range. I can do some soprano roles, and others I can't do at all."
The 2006 Mozart anniversary brought among its bounty Kozenš's recording of La clemenza di Tito under Charles Mackerras and a program of Mozart arias led by Simon Rattle. Of the latter, she remarks: "It was very challenging for me to record this CD because there are many soprano arias. Unfortunately, there is not so much for mezzos in Mozart." Among Mozart roles usually assigned to sopranos, she has her sights set on Despina in CosÐ fan tutte — "It's fun, and I think it's good when there is a kind of experienced woman on stage in this role" — and Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro.
Kozenš's versatility and keen intellect have allowed her to master a vast range of composers, from Monteverdi and Rameau to contemporary artists. In her earliest years as a performer, as a member of a children's choir, she regularly sang new Czech music. The works of her compatriots remain close to her heart — Dvoršk (represented in her Alice Tully Hall program), Janšcek (Varvara in Katya Kabanovš, one of her Met roles), Josef Myslivecek (an older contemporary of Mozart, whose arias Kozenš sings as part of her memorable Le belle immagini CD). Next year, she will sing a new opera written especially for her: the title role in Hans Werner Henze's new opera based on the legendary tragic queen Phaedra, a challenge Kozenš deems "very special, very exciting."
Kozenš also plans to add more mainstream operatic roles to her repertoire: Angelina in Rossini's La Cenerentola and, in 2011, the title role in Bizet's Carmen. (New Yorkers can look forward to hearing her as M_lisande, a role she sang to great acclaim in the Paris centenary production of Debussy's Pell_as et M_lisande.) She joked that she was considered "a black sheep" back in her student days because she refused to sing Verdi.
"I love Verdi, but it's not for my voice and character. At that time, the classical study of singing was very much based on these big operas — which I think is wrong for young voices, even for people who are going to sing this repertoire later." Kozenš did set down a stylish, effervescent version of Princess Eboli's "Veil Song" from Verdi's Don Carlos as part of her French Arias CD led by Marc Minkowski. "Well, that was the French version of Eboli, and this particular aria is a canzonetta with a little bit of coloratura. Plus, of course, it's one thing to make a recording and another to sing it on a big stage."
Kozenš brings a similar level of self-awareness to her recitals. As she sees it, a compelling program must offer more than contrast and variety. "You figure out what you want to sing, then you figure out what really works with what," she explains. "Sometimes, when I do a recital tour, I even find out that I have to change it a little bit. It always looks good on paper or in the rehearsal room, and then with the public it's different." She paused. "It's a little bit about ... cooking and what to put inside."
That swerve from the rarefied world of art song to the homey confines of the kitchen suggests yet again Kozenš's ability to surprise — and the hearty, specific emotion she can bring to music that is far off the beaten track. A young woman whose career has reached stratospheric heights in a remarkably short time, she has a similarly down-to-earth and practical perspective on what best nourishes vocal artists.
"A lot of singers, if they have a gap in their diary, they become hysterical," she says with a wicked giggle. "But every artist should live what everybody else lives — and not just be in the bubble of this classical music world. You have to tell people stories, and I find it important to live them. If I were just going by car from the hotel to the concert hall and never took a subway, never had a real life, I wouldn't know what I'm singing about."
Marion Lignana Rosenberg writes frequently about the arts.