Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak needs little introduction to Bachtrack readers, having won the award for Best Female Singer in our 2015 Bachtrack Opera Awards and having received a series of glowing reviews as her career has progressed to ever more prestigious houses. With the changes in her voice after the birth in 2014 of her daughter Malèna, Kurzak is steadily taking on heavier roles; her family has been able to stay together on the road by dint of her often appearing together with husband Roberto Alagna (who came within a whisker of winning our Best Male Singer award the same year).

DK: You’ve just finished the main run of singing Micaëla in Carmen at Opéra Bastille, where you were described as “the greatest vocal success of the evening”. Calixto Bieito’s Micaëla isn’t a pretty young innocent: how do you feel about the role?

Aleksandra Kurzak (Micaëla) in <i>Carmen</i> © Stella Orion
Aleksandra Kurzak (Micaëla) in Carmen
© Stella Orion

AK: It’s always developing. From the very first rehearsal to the very last show, it always changes a little bit. At the very beginning, Calixto's idea was that Micaëla was already Don José’s lover, that they had probably slept together, and he really didn't want to play her so innocent. But of course, with the words that you have to sing, it's not so easy to say "OK, they have been in a relationship" but then play the shy innocent and give Don José his mother’s kiss: it really doesn’t work. But the idea I took from Calixto is that Micaëla really loves Don José very much. I didn't want to talk about sex and all these things with him, I leave this for everyone to think about it the way they want, but it was very beautiful to show how she was extremely in love with Don José and that it is a kind of rivalry between her and Carmen in the third act, that she's not doing this only for the mother but she's doing it for herself. I think it makes the role more human and more interesting. You can show more sentiment, and I think the critics said this: that they saw for the first time that it became an important role. Because very often, it's always nice, very beautiful music to sing, but you don't really see the person on stage. And for me, it's always very important that you can be a good actress as well, it's very important to play the role, not just to sing it.

As you know, I’ll be coming to see you later this month at the Formentor Classics concert in Mallorca, with an interesting and vocally diverse programme. Can you tell us about the pieces you and Roberto have chosen?

We thought of course of Carmen with Micaela and Don José, because it’s obviously wonderful, beautiful music and because each night at the Opéra, we were able to somehow create what people described as a special kind of atmosphere, so we would like to repeat this.

I would like to pinpoint the duo from Traviata, because it's one of the most beautiful soprano roles and I will be singing it quite often in the future quite often at The Met, in London and in Paris. I'm changing the repertoire after giving birth to my daughter: I started almost twenty years ago with very light, high roles like the Queen of the Night and Zerbinetta, Blonde, Olympia – I’m now passing through the coloratura lirico and going a bit heavier with Rachel [in La Juive] (who I just sung with great acclaim in Munich), Nedda and Mimì – then Desdemona and Elisabetta in the future. So I’m being pretty daring about changing the repertoire, which is why I also chose the bolero from Vespri Siciliani, which is still a coloratura aria but is a really wonderful piece, and then Adriana [Lecouvreur], who is one of my dream roles, on the list for the future.

Aleksandra Kurzak (Mimì), Abdellah Lasri (Rodolfo), <i>La Bohème</i>, Berlin 2016 © Stella Orion
Aleksandra Kurzak (Mimì), Abdellah Lasri (Rodolfo), La Bohème, Berlin 2016
© Stella Orion

Liù’s aria is in the programme because in July, just after the concert in Mallorca, I will be singing the role for the first time at the Royal Opera House in London, with Roberto as Calàf. So there are a lot of very beautiful arias from the roles I will have pleasure to sing in the future. We also have some lighter music in the programme at the request of the organiser of the concert, so we’re singing operetta, zarzuela and some Spanish songs.

As well as those, I’ve noticed “Caro elisir”, which you're also singing in July at Covent Garden. And I think that's got a special personal significance for you...

You’re right – I forgot about the most important one! As you know, Roberto and I met for the first time singing this opera in London. We didn't plan anything, we didn't plan the whole thing in our life, it just happened. Everything seems to happen when I’m singing L’elisir d’amore. It's incredible: we met with Elisir d'amore, we got married singing L’elisir, I found out that I was pregnant expecting my baby when I sang L’elisir, I came back to the stage after giving birth singing L’elisir. So I'm really very happy to come back to London to sing again, now with our daughter. I hope she will come with us to the opera for the first time to see the show or the rehearsal, because I think this Laurent Pelly production is the greatest Elisir I have ever seen in my life. It's really very funny, very pleasant, entertaining: the people love it and laugh at it all. It’s very clever, maybe the best Elisir that ever has been done, so I'm very very happy to come back with this production again to London.

You and Roberto look so in love in the photos of that 2012 production. Of course, you're supposed to be on stage, but I think the real thing is in there somewhere.

Maybe there's something in the air, as they say in the song...

Aleksandra Kurzak (Adina), Roberto Alagna (Nemorino), <i>L'elisir d'Amore</i>, 2012 © Royal Opera, Catherine Ashmore
Aleksandra Kurzak (Adina), Roberto Alagna (Nemorino), L'elisir d'Amore, 2012
© Royal Opera, Catherine Ashmore

So many opere buffe were written around that time. L'elisir was written in six weeks and it's still one of the great pieces. Why do you think that is, and why is the role of Adina so special?

I have really no idea, because the role of Adina, it's not so grateful. It was never a role I wanted to sing, compared to different roles, and it's not even the main character of the opera, because everything is written around Nemorino. Adina sings a lot of the whole evening, and she has this aria at the end of the opera which is very beautiful but kind of underrated. The way it’s written is very difficult, with a lot of coloratura – I think it’s really more difficult than Violetta’s “È strano”. You have to have the agility, the voice, and of course at the very end of the evening, you are really tired, not even very often because of the singing but because of the playing – especially in this production when you spend the whole time running up and down the haystacks.

Aleksandra Kurzak (Adina), Roberto Alagna (Nemorino) © Vincent Pontet
Aleksandra Kurzak (Adina), Roberto Alagna (Nemorino)
© Vincent Pontet

And of course, it's much more difficult because of Nemorino’s very famous aria right before [“Una furtiva lagrima”], which everybody is waiting for. Sometimes, the tenor does an encore, which makes it even more difficult for Adina, because you are in tension, expecting your aria and then everything goes down as the tenor repeats. Adina has to sing beautiful legato and a lot of coloratura, as bel canto requires. You have everything in this role, but it’s still not rated as highly as a bel canto role as, say, Lucia di Lammermoor or the Three Queens.

Something that's very notable about your voice is that when you're doing that kind of quick and precise coloratura, you're able to maintain the sweetness of your voice. What do you do to keep it in shape?

I do not do anything. I think coloratura is a gift: you have to be born with it. It's really not easy. You can of course practise, but it will be never natural, never so precise. It's really a gift, it's the kind of the voice, whether you have it or not. And I do not do a lot of special exercises at home; I am vocalising, of course, sometimes with this quick passage but I don't do anything special. And of course, I think it's very important as well, even if you're changing repertoire singing the heavy roles sometimes to come back to bel canto, to Mozart roles as well, to have the voice in good shape, but I do not do anything special to afford this. The voice is just like this.

Your voice has obviously changed after motherhood, and you're taking on heavier roles. The next one we’re going to see in London is Liù in Turandot. Can you tell me about preparing for that?

I would say that I found finally the huge pleasure I was always dreaming about since I was a small girl, because I always used to be a bit of a drama queen, even then, maybe because I grew up in the theatre with all the fantastic big dramatic operas like Madam Butterfly and Tosca. My very first CD I have ever bought was Pagliacci with Maria Callas and I was dreaming all my life to sing Nedda, now I had for the first time the opportunity, to the Met and to London in future with Nedda, so this is always where my heart was. I sang for 18 years the lighter repertoire, I had great fun, of course, because I really love music, but my heart, my soul was always in the dramatic parts. It's really a big pleasure for me now to sing these kinds of operas, and Liù of course is such beautiful, such wonderful music as well. To be able to do all these things that Puccini wrote in the score it's very demanding because of the lot of pianissimo that he used for Liù, very high, and the music is so sweet and so beautiful. I can't describe this in a different way than pure happiness for me. Maybe it sounds a bit naive, I don't know, very common, but it is how I feel, extremely happy now that my voice gave me this opportunity, that I can now sing this repertoire that I was dreaming of since I was five or six.

Aleksandra Kurzak as Nedda in <i>Pagliacci</i>, 2016 © RR
Aleksandra Kurzak as Nedda in Pagliacci, 2016
© RR

At the end of July, you'll be taking on all four heroines in Hoffmann in Munich - that's all of the voices in one opera! That's such a big challenge to do - how do you go about even starting?

Oh, we will see then! But I'm a very courageous person, so I think I can do it very well, because now, the voice is actually perfect for Antonia. Olympia I can still sing, not badly. If you really think about all three roles and you really see what Offenbach wrote for Olympia: we're always these very light coloratura, doll-like singers, but the very high note in the aria is written only once or twice, the high E flat staccato. It's a tradition but it's like Traviata: the note is not written but if you have it, you sing it. A lot of big voices had this high note, so it's not a problem, and the rest of the Olympia aria is really not high, the tessitura is not high. It demands, of course, the coloratura but if your voice has it, deal with it, no problem! And Giulietta is often sung by a mezzo but again, the aria, I would say, has nothing specially difficult in it. The most difficult thing is learning all these parts by heart, as I'm making ten role debuts within one single year.

Aleksandra Kurzak © Kasia Paskuda
Aleksandra Kurzak
© Kasia Paskuda

Other than your voice, how has motherhood affected your career?

It’s now very nice because Malèna is very little and Roberto and I can sing together in a lot of places. Of course it’s different because on the day I perform, I can’t think just about myself, I have to worry about feeding her, I can’t be so selfish. But it’s lovely that the three of us can travel everywhere together. You know, a lot of singers find it very hard, always being in a hotel room on your own, it is very depressing.

I’m frightened about how it’s going to work she is at school - it’s terrifying, I don’t want to think about it. Maybe I will have to travel less.

Are there any other roles are you planning in future?

Well, a lot of them we have already said. Elisabetta in Don Carlos is the one that I am really excited about, because I love Verdi so much: I am also working on Desdemona and Luisa Miller.

You’ve been recording Polish music recently, but there hasn’t been a CD for Decca since Bel raggio. Are there any recording projects coming up?

I've recorded 2 CDs of Polish music recently, Karol Szymanowski's Stabat Mater and Litany to the Virgin Mary (the CD has been released by Warner Classics & Erato) as well as Feliks Nowowiejski's oratorio, Quo Vadis. I will also record two complete operas by Moniuszko for the Chopin National Institute.

Besides, I have a surprise to announce soon, a new exclusive recording contract, as my collaboration with Decca is finished. I can't tell you about it right now... But what I can say is that I have many very nice and exciting recording projects forthcoming. So stay tuned, there will be more in a next discussion!