There’s plenty of hustle and bustle backstage at the Royal Opera House as a rehearsal for Il turco in Italia, which opens this weekend, has just finished.
I’m more than overjoyed that Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak had agreed to forsake her precious lunchtime to take time out to have a chat with me about her meteoric rise to fame and her forthcoming appearances as Fiorilla in said Rossini opera.
I’m reminded that Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s staging of this comedy is a riot of colour as a member of the wardrobe department quickly checks with Aleksandra what alterations need making to one of her dresses, and the four pairs of brightly coloured shoes in the corner of her dressing room catch my eye as well, although Miss Kurzak’s Polish roots are a long way from Kansas.
She grew up in Wroclaw, and as her mother was a soprano with the opera company there and her father played the French horn in the orchestra, her first memories are of being in the opera house: “I grew up in the opera house. When I was a small baby my mother would take me to rehearsals if she couldn’t find a babysitter and all her colleagues and the backstage staff were basically my nannies.” Not a bad introduction to the world of opera, but Aleksandra’s household was musical through and through as not only did she play the violin but began singing at the tender of age of four. Incredibly for such a young child her repertoire was rather more advanced than ‘Three Blind Mice’ as she found herself completely at home with the Queen of the Night’s famous aria from Die Zauberflte. “When my mother was rehearsing at the opera house, I would sing along with her and one day the conductor asked ‘Who is that singing with you’ and she would say ‘Why, that’s my daughter’ and he immediately wanted to make a recording of my singing.”
Aleksandra is grateful that her parents refused as she believes it would have catapulted her to stardom at far too early an age. Indeed it was only in her late teens, having been the Concertmaster in the Conservatoire orchestra, that her mother suggested that her future may be as a singer. She chose Constanze’s aria from Die Entfhrung aus dem Serail as her audition piece, “as my voice as always been very high. I feel really at home in the stratosphere,” and, of course, she was accepted.
Whilst many singers find that as their voice develops they have to find different teachers Aleksandra has only ever had one teacher, namely her mother. “My voice continues to develop and change. It’s getting warmer in the middle register and I never push or force my voice and I have her to thank for constantly nurturing my voice.”
Her big break came in 2000 when she entered Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition but as she ruefully explains, “I didn’t win. I wasn’t even in the final but a few months later I received a letter from Peter Katona (The Royal Opera’s casting director) saying that he had heard me in the competition and would like to know what I was doing, and how my career was going.”
She had just been accepted into the Young Singers’ programme at the Hamburg State Opera where she was embarking on familiar roles such as the Queen of the Night and Gilda and a few years later Katona came to hear her there and they began discussing potential roles for her at Covent Garden but it wasn’t until a soprano withdrew from Mitridate that she was offered the role in which she would make her Royal Opera debut in July 2005, Aspasia. “Earlier that year I had made my debut at the New York Met as Olympia, and here I was a few months later appearing at Covent Garden for the first time. I couldn’t quite believe that I had appeared at two of the most famous opera houses in the world within such a short space of time.”
Critics raved, but she still was on contract at Hamburg and whilst she acknowledges that her time at the German house gave her a great grounding, during one season she was scheduled to make seven role debuts which, to say the least, she found rather daunting. Recently she took the bold decision to relinquish many of the German roles that had been her calling cards and as opera houses have to plan years in advance she was due to sing Lulu with the Royal Opera last year, but withdrew having decided that those roles were no longer for her, instead deciding to concentrate more on bel canto and Mozart.
This lead to her dazzling assumption of the title role in Rossini’s Matilde di Shabran at Covent Garden when she had critics eating out of the palm of her hand and as I pointed out to her, despite being mounted more as a vehicle for Juan Diego Florez, she stole the show. “I take to Rossini like a fish to water and I love doing comedy as well. It was great working with Florez and I loved competing with him in a positive way.” Ironically everyone came to hear him, but left with Aleksandra’s name on their lips. We agree that this was a career-defining performance for her and as I suggest, finally cemented her true Diva-status.
So this month she’s back at Covent Garden for more Rossini, a house which she praises to the skies for its professionalism and being a joy to work in, for more comedy, this time as the ‘hard-nosed, bitchy’ Fiorilla in Il turco in Italia. “I’ve sung the role before in Germany in Christof Loy’s staging and I’m very much enjoying what Caurier and Leiser have done here. Fiorilla can be quite a hard character to love as she uses men and doesn’t care what happens as long as she gets her own way, but here we have done a lot of talking and thinking about the character so I think more people are going to like her!”
In person Aleksandra is outgoing, and a joy to talk to and we not only have her Fiorilla to look forward to this month, but she’ll back next season as Rosina and looking further ahead she’ll repeat her wonderful Susanna with Antonio Pappano at the helm in 2011 a role that she sang at the last revival under Mackerras. She’s recently added Violetta to her repertoire and has Lucia on the horizon too, so let’s hope we’re lucky enough to hear both in the not too distant future.
Aleksandra Kurzak sings Fiorilla in The Royal Opera’s revival of Il turco in Italia from 3 April. Maurizio Benini conducts and the cast includes Colin Lee, Alessandro Corbelli, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Thomas Allen.