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Barbora Polášková - interview, OperaPLUS, May 2011

Opera PLUS, 8.5.2011, Zdena Plachá

This young lady struck at Olomouc a year ago like lightning out of  blue sky. She literally jumped onto a moving train named Carmen, standing in for a colleague who had given the role up merely a month before the first night. Less than a year from that moment, her name is being cited among opera´s three brightest talents announced by Opera PLUS blog.


1. Barbora, you were extremely lucky to find yourself making your stage debut in a role dreamed of by all mezzos! Are you really the “child of fortune” this would seem to suggest?

A child of fortune?! I wouldn´t call myself that. Perhaps I may have been a bit luckier over the last two years, as I´ve started to reap the fruit of many years of hard work. Luck and good chance definitely do play an important part in the career of every musician. In my case, though, what´s behind it all is much rather the qualities of hard work and perseverance with which, thanks God, I´m likewise endowed. In my view, I have never got anything for free.


2. To shift to a more serious tone now, when exactly did you first beget the dream of becoming an opera singer, and who stood at its inception? Your c.v. mentions conservatory studies in Prague and in Plzeň. Who were the teachers that introduced you to the world of classical singing? This is my obligatory question, and I sincerely think they deserve a tribute. For they, too, have a share in your success!

Music has always been part and parcel of my life. Still as a young child, I´d hardly ever stopped humming one tune or another. And yet, I didn´t wish to become a singer; rather, I dreamed of playing the recorder whose sound was to me the language of angels. Unfortunately, my parents then didn´t have the money needed to buy me this divine instrument, so they were quite happy when, sometime during my first year at school, Mrs Součková of the children´s choir Radost came to our class to pick new members for her ensemble. I then spent seven and a half years with Radost, as second alto, which was a period of great relevance to my development. Then I met my first voice teacher, the late Mrs Žofáková, who stood at the birth of my career as a solo singer. After two years of work, I was admitted to the Prague Conservatory, only to find there that it was very hard to find a teacher with whom I´d be on the same wavelength. Therefore, there ensued a succession of teachers following one another in a short period of time, and eventually I completed my studies at the Conservatory in Plzeň, where I met my last teacher, Mrs Jaroslava Niederlová, with whom I have worked until the present day.


3. You also studied languages. What was it then, that finally decided about your choice in favour of the arduous and indeed fickle discipline that is singing? Is there perhaps a singing tradition running in the family?

I come from a family of doctors, and the origin of my musical genes remains a mystery. I may have inherited them from my grandfather who used to play the piano, and even wished to study at the conservatory before the war. My brother is also fairly musical, but I am the only one to have embarked on a professional career in music. Probably it´s that music and singing evoke in me similar feelings as do the planets that are for me the other constant object of attraction. Whenever I have felt like giving up singing, something has made me carry on. Everyone has a certain assigned goal, every human being is predestined or, more precisely, predisposed for something. As for myself, I´m here, or at least I hope so, in order to bring to others happiness and discovery through the music that I perform. I admit that I can be perfectly happy only in music. For music more than anything else is what brings me a sense of fulfilment, satisfaction, shapes the character of my relationships, and gives meaning to my existence. Nonetheless, study of languages has likewise been a source of pleasure to me, as they enable me to obtain a much deeper insight into other European cultures, and to understand the content of the texts I sing.


4. What was your early stage experience before the appearance at Olomouc; what were your beginnings like, and how did you get to the Moravian Theatre in Olomouc?

I started out as a member of the chorus of the National Theatre in Prague, where I spent two years, then went on, for another two years to sing in the Prague Philharmonic Choir, simultaneously devoting part of my time to solo concert appearances. All through that period, I´d travel around doing various auditions and trying to obtain an engagement with a Czech opera company. Finally, I was successful at Olomouc, where I auditioned in April 2010, and was admitted as from the start of the new season. I knew they were readying a new production of Carmen, and I craved singing the part. On the other hand, however, I doubted the company would be looking for a third alternate leading lady. In the end coicidence decided, though, and in late April I had a phone call from the head of opera, Miloslav Oswald, asking me whether I would be ready to train and sing Carmen, standing in for a colleague who´d fallen ill. I then had virtually no soloist stage experience. This Carmen was my true solo debut, not an entirely easy one to be sure, as I had to learn the entire part in five days. This was made much easier by my knowledge of French, and my reasonably good memory. Likewise important was the fact of working together there with such an outstanding and sensitive director as Michael Tarant. He helped me out with my first steps on the stage, and guided me in a most unobtrusive way to a specific grasp and interpretive approach to the role. Of course this has all been just the beginning, and I know I will yet have to work hard on myself, for the rest of my life in fact.


5. I´ve read on your web site that you are not only involved on the stage, but also engage in a good deal of work on the concert platform. Which period in music suits you best, in terms of voice type and style of interpretation, and why?

I feel perhaps the greatest affinity for the second half of the 19th century, and the 20th century. I really love, and listen to, Mahler, Brahms, Dvořák, Bruckner, Zemlinsky, Strauss, Berg, but also Shostakovich, Stravinsky, or Martinů. That period saw the making of powerful, profound music abounding in emotions and colours, which attracts me, as it speaks about things that are part of my life. It´s like taking a plunge into mysterious depths and setting out to explore uncharted landscapes. Moreover, I feel that music of the high Romantic period and the 20th century are actually ideal for my voice, that it enables me to display the full scale of my potential as regards expression and voice. I genuinely relish singing the songs of Alma Mahler, or Vítězslava Kaprálová. But I feel no less fine with Rossini or Donizetti. And I am excited by the most recent production as well. I´ve repeatedly worked with Zdeněk Zahradník whose melodrama, The Art of Love, we recorded on CD not so long ago. I have drawn both inspiration and new experience from performing, earlier in the current season, song cycles of Sylvie Bodorová and Jan Vičar. Plus, I´m looking forward to a chance of bringing back to the concert circuit the chamber output of Vladimír Sommer, Jaroslav Křička or Pavel Haas, which I am right now busy studying. I am very fond of contemporary music, of course provided it´s witty and performable.


6. I admit I was thrilled by your being offered an opportunity to sing under Maestro Zdeněk Mácal´s baton. Did it make you nervous? What was working with him like?

I wouldn´t say I was nervous; rather, I felt an overwhelming respect for the music, the conductor, and the fantastic Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. But then, I have such feelings of respect whenever I get the chance to work with such authorities as are doubtless Zdeněk Mácal and the Prague Symphony. Maestro Mácal fascinated me. He is an incredibly charismatic, intelligent, erudite and cultured man, and I found working with him an awesome experience, source of enjoyment, and a great honour. We did a programme of selected songs of Alma Mahler, and I must admit we reached a point of absolute harmony. I felt the orchestra´s playing, my voice and the conductor´s guidance converging in a single wave rolling over and permeating the audience.


7. I´d say that song interpretation is a most demanding vocal discipline. How do you manage combining the stage and concert sides of your career? I believe it´s admirable to see what you have achieved during the less than one year that I´ve been following you.

It´s true that stage and concert interpretation are two diametrically different things. Each has its own rules, and each requires a different approach from the artist. In my view, performing songs occupies a place at the very top of a singer´s endeavour. I hold it to be the most challenging solo task, as there you have no one to prop you up, you´re alone on the platform, and you have to convince the audience that you are up to the occasion, both technically and expression-wise. You must know how to build up dynamics, to capture even the slightest nuances, and to embue it all with content as well as with individual feeling. To me, songs represent a truly major challenge, even perhaps an ultimate goal, one however, for the tackling of which I get back sheer enjoyment and a sense of fulfilment. I do wish to carry on with my work in both disciplines. To be sure, they cultivate each other.


8. What do you regard as your personal highlight of the 2010/2011 season?

There were several such highlights. Arguably the peak was the already mentioned concert with Zdeněk Mácal in January 2011; then Carmen at the National Theatre as part of the Opera 2011 festival in February; a concert, with Eva Urbanová, for Mrs Livia Klausová at Prague Castle in October 2010; a song recital at Palacký University in Olomouc in March 2011; or Dvořák´s Stabat Mater in Teplice, in April 2011, under the baton of Charles Olivieri-Munro.


9. What are your most imminent concert platform projects?

On May 17 this year I will appear in the opening concert of the jubilee tenth edition of the Gustav Mahler Festival in Jihlava. I will sing the mezzo-soprano solo part in Verdi´s Requiem, with the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Petr Altrichter, alongside a cast including Anda-Louise Bogza, Valentin Prolat, Roman Vocel, and the Brno Czech Philharmonic Choir. This is going to be a major event, among other things as it will be accompanied by the launch of a CD with Mahler´s Symphony No. 1 and songs by Alma Mahler which were recorded during the January concert with Zdeněk Mácal and the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Patronage over the event was accepted by the Chief Administrator of Vysočina Region.

I am very much looking forward to the 2011/2012 season: in November, I´ll sing alongside the Metropolitan Opera star soprano, Sondra Radvanovsky, then solo parts in Dvořák´s Stabat Mater with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, and in Massenet´s Marie-Magdelène with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra. My calendar is becoming pleasantly full, and I´m starting to wonder when and how I´m going to learn all that.


10. You actually first sang Carmen at the very start of your Olomouc engagement. Could there be yet another, unfulfilled dream for a young mezzo?

I still have a lot of dreams, some of them fairly daring, yet for the moment I´d rather keep them to myself. I´ve seen quite a few of them fulfilled so far, most notably involving projects with leading Czech orchestras. During the next seasonwe´ll be doing the opera The Devil and Kate at the theatre, which gives me a lot of thrill, another role of my dreams is Delilah, I long for an opportunity to perform song cycles with orchestra, such as Mahler´s Kindertotenlieder, and I´d very much like to sing, with an inspiring vocal quartet, Dvořák´s Requiem, or Beethoven´s “Ninth.” I trust that it will all eventually come true. I try to do my best enlarging my repertoire, to be ever ready to take up any new challenge, and to supply my own ideas and suggestions. I also believe I can rely on excellent training guidance as well as intelligent and experienced advisors.


11. What are you expecting from the summer season and theatre holiday? Do you plan to sit back and relax, or to go on working?

I do look forward to theatre holiday, as the past season has been really taxing. This will be my first true holiday in many years, and in view of the next season´s timetable, I will need to accumulate a lot of energy. Even so, I´m afraid that after some time I´ll grow fidgety and put in a concert or two after all.