My stereotype of Krisztina Szabó is inaccurate of course. My questions may have made her laugh, even though she’s too polite to send me packing. In cobbling together a few questions –concerning a pair of 20th century compositions—I was far too narrow in my characterization of a singer who has cut a big swath through the Toronto scene. While she appeared in the Toronto Symphony’s concert performance of Benjamin’s Written On Skin just a few weeks ago, and played the Pilgrim in Canadian Opera Company’s L’Amour de Loin –the first COC opera composed in the 21st Century—she also sang the mezzo-soprano part in Handel’s Messiah for Against the Grain. So while she’s worked with the experimental opera groups such as Tapestry and Queen of Puddings (who regularly staged experiments that couldn’t happen without artists like Szabó) she also sings Mozart, Bach & Puccini.
This spring Szabó will again be exploring challenging compositions. First she stars in the Robert Lepage production of Schonberg’s atonal monodrama Erwartung for the COC opening May 6th. A few weeks later she sings Harawi in Against the Grain’s Death and Desire opening June 2nd. I had to ask Szabó ten questions: five about herself followed by five more about her upcoming projects.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
Somehow this feels like a trick question. Hmmm… well, I feel like I am becoming more my mother every day, but I think that I probably resemble my father more, at least in emotional make-up. Certainly, I resemble neither of them when it comes to career – my father was foreman of a welding company for 40 years and my mother was an accountant. My sister is an actuary, so I am the “weirdo” in the family. But I am told that my father had a beautiful voice – he refused to sing by the time I came into this world because he claimed to have “smoked his voice away”. And both my parents took part in local operettas and plays in their hometown of Écs, Hungary. So perhaps, I’m not such an anomaly after all…?
2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a specialist in “new” music, often creating original work or singing unfamiliar repertoire?
Am I a specialist in “new” music? How did that happen?! When I think of “specialist”, I think of my dear friend, Barbara Hannigan who has a passion for contemporary music like no one else I know. I have done quite a lot of new music, particularly in Toronto, and I do love it, at least most of the time. I love dissecting music, and yes, I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to sight-reading… I owe that to my 6 years in the Toronto Children’s Chorus and piano training. I think the best part of doing new music is the freedom that it holds – nobody slots you into a box that you don’t fit into..in fact, if you’re lucky you get to work with a living composer who writes music tailor made to your strengths. But, would I love to sing Mozart: absolutely. I would love to sing a lot of things, but mostly I just want to keep singing, full stop.
3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I am a slightly obsessive Netflix watcher at the moment. In the last few months, I have watched 10 seasons of Friends, the new season of House of Cards, all 5 seasons of Downton Abbey (twice!) and most recently 2 seasons of Mr. Selfridge. When I’m on the road, I binge watch, and when I’m home, I like to watch an episode of something at the end of a day to wind down and relax.
4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
There are many skills that I wish I had, but the one that pops to my brain at the moment is the ability to “schmooze”. I am terrible at it, and in my business, it is an integral part of how things work. I used to be quite a shy child and I don’t think of myself now as shy necessarily, but in situations where I have to talk to people I don’t know, or make small talk with industry people I know only a little, my mind goes blank. Very annoying.
5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
Netflix, Netflix and more Netflix. Sleep. Oh, and eat sushi.
Five more about Erwartung in the Canadian Opera Company’s spring season (May 6th), and Harawi with Against the Grain Theatre (June 2nd) .
1-What are the challenges in singing Erwartung?
The challenge of Erwartung has so far been learning the thing. It is a beast of a piece – hands down, the hardest thing I have ever learned. And Schönberg doesn’t really help you much with a cue note here or there, or – God forbid – double the vocal line! I can think of only a few bars in which that happens. Learning it was daunting. But it is now learned, and either I have actually gone a little crazy, or I’ve just prepared well, because I’m feeling pretty relaxed about it (at the moment.. ask me again on opening night..!).
The challenge now that rehearsals have begun are to get all the details in the score correct, all the details that my lovely conductor, Johannes Debus, is after, get all the dramatic shifts of her madness.. and then there is the singing with the orchestra! The role can be quite sprech-y in places, but when she goes crazy, its big, full, dare I say “balls to the wall” singing. And its 35ish minutes of just me singing. No pressure..! Gulp.
2-As far as your personal politics vis a vis a work such as Erwartung or your upcoming appearance with Against the Grain Theatre (singing Messiaen’s Harawi), please talk about how modern music might lead to a different way of seeing tragedy and violence in theatre & story-telling, especially for the female roles.
I’m not sure I have “personal politics” as such. I’m excited by the human journey of every character I play. And I have been lucky in that I haven’t played too many victimized women, as such, but then, when I’m not doing contemporary shows, I do a fair amount of trouser roles. I like 3 dimensional characters, I like finding my way in the skin of these characters. I love singing Donna Elvira as much as I love singing The Woman. As for the Harawi with Against the Grain Theatre.. since it’s a song cycle that we’re staging, not an opera, there is a freedom to that that is quite exciting. It will be whatever we make it! And I have no doubt that Joel Ivany will take me on an interesting journey with that production..
3-Please talk about the psychology of your portrayals and how you come at the character.
I always approach things rather intuitively in terms of how to portray characters. Yes, I look at the text, but the music – or the choices the composer has made with the text – informs so much of the character. I respond instinctively to those musical choices. And I really try to find a way to make that character a real person with real emotions and a real journey, as much as I can. I have also been lucky to work with many wonderful directors who bring deeper insight into the characters and their journey. I find I really feed off of the process of rehearsing – I love any and all ideas thrown at me because it makes me think more, makes me feel more, and, not to sound too cheesy, it makes me be more.
(Because Erwartung is a remount, Lepage is not here to direct, but we are lucky to work with Francois Racine, who has worked on this show since its inception. The choices made by Lepage and his design team are pretty amazing…I think it’s a remarkable piece of theatre. I’m not sure how much more detail I can give at this point since today was our first day of staging..!)
4-Please put your feelings about new opera and new music into context for us.
My feelings about new opera? Well, I am excited by the possibilities that new opera presents. I like that we are doing innovative chamber operas in funky spaces, I am excited about doing big new operas in traditional houses – like George Benjamin’s Written on Skin and Saariaho’s L’amour de Loin. It exciting to create something new, its exciting to challenge myself as an artist, and I think we, as audience members, need a little challenging as well. One might be surprised at what one loves..
5-Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
There have been a few pivotal people in my life along the way – I must mention Jean Ashworth-Bartle, founder and former conductor of the Toronto Children’s Chorus, because not only was the TCC the first place I really felt like I belonged and began to thrive, but she was one of the first people to see something special in me and give me a chance. Then, at the University of Western Ontario, I was lucky to find my first singing teacher, Darryl Edwards, who not only given me a solid technique, but guided me through so much – university and beyond, and most recently invited me to teach at the University of Toronto, a position I am enjoying very much. He’s always had my back, and that’s a pretty great thing to have. And finally, two very special conductors – Richard Bradshaw and Bernard Labadie. Richard gave me my first opportunities at the COC, and really was responsible for launching my career. And Bernard Labadie was the first person after my Ensemble Studio days were over to provide me with performance opportunities – so vital to a young artist trying to build a career.
Official plug: come see the Canadian Opera Company’s Bluebeard Castle/Erwartung , and Against the Grain Theatre’s Death and Desire! The COC double bill opens May 6th at the Four Seasons Centre, while the AtG program of Messaien’s Harawi also including Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin opens June 2nd at Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery.