Emőke Baráth
© Csibi Szilvia

Soprano Emőke Baráth has had a lifelong relationship with Müpa in Budapest. She was still a student when the venue opened its doors in 2005, a modern concert hall with state-of-the art acoustics. Even in recitals, it was possible to hear every pianissimo from every artist, from the top floor. She remembers going there with cheap standing room tickets as a girl, an experience that exposed her to world-renowned artists, shaping her understanding of classical music and the singing art.

When she finally performed there for the first time, in 2011, it was a great achievement: finally a large, important concert hall and an intimidating and important milestone. Since then, she sang there almost every year and that venue became a fundamental part of how she grew as an artist. This year, Baráth has been named as Müpa Artist of the Season for a series of three concerts, including one of Handel’s arias with Philippe Jaroussky and his Ensemble Artaserse.

Baráth started playing the harp as a teenager. She studied it as far as that could go, but there came a point when she had to choose between the harp and singing. “The harp is a very intimate instrument,” she tells me, “and playing it is a solitary, introverted activity. Singing gives me a chance to be more communicative, it challenges my natural introverted character.” This is one of the reasons she chose singing, as a way to open up to the audience.

A breakthrough in her musical education came in 2009, when she attended a course at the Austria Barock Akademie in Gmunden, near Salzburg. “I grew so much as a musician during this experience, I realised that this is what I wanted to do in my life.” She describes a masterclass with Deborah York as “mind blowing”. The course was structured not only around singing lessons or masterclasses: there was yoga, outdoor activities, concerts, producing chamber music together with all the other students, it was a full immersion in Baroque music, an all-embracing experience.

After this, she dedicated herself almost exclusively to Baroque and Early music, and her career took off. Many are the artists who inspired her and helped her grow. The fruitful professional relationship with Jaroussky is an obvious example: “With him, I don’t need to discuss things,” she tells me. “We have the same approach to music: we share an aesthetic taste for Baroque music which guides us in our performances. Everything is very natural.” She likes to recall that time when, as a student, she stood in line for hours to get tickets to hear him sing at Müpa. Sadly he had to cancel, and she was sorely disappointed, although she remembers that the performance, even without him, was very good. “If somebody had told me in that moment that I would be singing with him in a stable professional relationship, I would have thought it absurd,” she laughs.

Philippe Jaroussky and Emőke Baráth

Following the conversation on artists and colleagues who have inspired her, Baráth recalls an instance, in 2018, when she was called at the last minute to replace Julie Fuchs, who fell ill, as Morgana, in a performance of Handel’s Alcina at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris. Fuchs was acting on stage while Baráth sang from the pit. In that performance, Alcina was sung by Cecilia Bartoli, and Baráth remembers being completely mesmerised: “I couldn’t remove my eyes from her. Every note, every gesture, every gaze was an illustration of her commitment, her deep study and understanding of the music, her obsession with every detail. It was a life-determining moment which I carried inside me ever since,” she tells me.

Baráth also finds Italian conductors very inspiring – “They have a different approach to Italian music. I feel the difference.” – and as an example she mentions Ottavio Dantone: “His orchestra is fantastic. He doesn’t speak much but his artistic view is always very clear.” She also speaks fondly of the time she worked with Hungarian conductor György Vashegyi, who leads an accomplished Baroque ensemble and has a collaboration with the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles.

During this last year, she started working with a new teacher she trusts and cherishes, and her voice is taking a new direction towards bel canto. In her future she sees more dramatic Mozart roles: she enjoyed singing Susanna (and even Cherubino), but now she is looking at the Contessa in Le nozze di Figaro, or Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. “It also depends on the casting,” she says.” If there is a more dramatic soprano as the Contessa, then I can sing Susanna again. But paired up with a lighter soprano, I would love to be the Contessa”.

Italian bel canto seems to be around the corner: “Rossini seems particularly suited to my voice, it is a lot of work, but it feels comfortable. It fits me like a glove”. Baráth has concrete goals in the near future: Donna Anna in a concert performance, Sifare in Mozart’s Mitridate in Copenhagen, Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi in concert again, while Ilia in Idomeneo is farther away. I ask her for a role she’s dreaming of, something far away in the future: “Rossini’s Semiramide, perhaps. The big Rossini roles in his opera seria would be a great achievement, something to work towards,” she answers, sounding very committed to this new path her voice is following.

When asked to talk about her strengths, she talks about her dedication to her work. “I’m a fast learner. I’m very good at sight-reading, and I am not afraid to jump in to substitute somebody, because I know I can learn the role very quickly”. A hard worker, she sacrifices everything for singing, yet feels it might not always be good in the long run. Her main weakness, on the other hand, is self-doubt. “I think I’ve suffered from impostor syndrome for many years,” she tells me. She recalls being so nervous before going on stage that she just could not calm herself down in any way. “Once I completely forgot every word I needed to sing. I could remember all the notes, but not one single word. I had to fake it”. Now, with experience, she has learned how to compose herself, and frenzied stress has made way for healthy excitement. “I am much more confident now, both about my voice and about myself. Self-doubt is always lurking underneath, but I am much better at keeping it at bay”. 

Baráth recalls watching a programme about Anna Netrebko, and how she said that every bad moment in anybody’s life is momentary: the good times don’t last, but neither do the bad times. “It was such a simple concept,” she tells me, “but it hit me as a big revelation. Wisdom is sometimes straightforward and very important: we need to gain perspective on our failures. Artists sometimes tend to exaggerate their shortcomings, but really, audiences often don’t care about a note which doesn’t come out perfect, or if you forget the words. People who care about these things tend to be sad characters: if you go to a concert hunting for mistakes, you will certainly find them”.

Philippe Jaroussky and Emőke Baráth performing at the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall
© Attila Nagy | MUPA
Emőke Baráth in The Fairy Queen at the Hungarian State Opera
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera
Emőke Baráth in Orontea
© Gabor Kotschy
Emőke Baráth in Hipermestra at the Glyndebourne Festival
© Tristam Krenton
Philippe Jaroussky and Emőke Baráth performing at the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall
© Attila Nagy | MUPA
Emőke Baráth in The Fairy Queen at the Hungarian State Opera
© Attila Nagy | Hungarian State Opera
Emőke Baráth in Orontea
© Gabor Kotschy
Emőke Baráth in Hipermestra at the Glyndebourne Festival
© Tristam Krenton

Baráth has an intense concert schedule; when asked to compare the concert and the staged opera experiences she mentions how concerts can be more exciting and intense. Tours of opera in concert – as the recent Radamisto, which touched six European cities in barely ten days – can be particularly intense and tiring, but extremely satisfying. With staged opera, the rehearsals can take eight hours a day for weeks, and it can become a bit boring. “Of course, if the part is interesting and rewarding, it is worth it”.

I ask if there's anything she would change in the music industry. Baráth has a very clear idea: she doesn’t like the trend of looks becoming more important than talent and music making. “There is a new generation of opera singers who use Instagram to promote their supermodel looks and are rewarded by that. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the singers themselves promoting this trend, or the ‘marketing factories’ behind them,” she says. “Talent and musical ability should determine whether an artist gets a part, and nothing else”. She has a very strong opinion about this, and it’s hard to blame her.

In the end, I ask her what her art means to her. She gives me an inspired answer: giving birth to the music, being a medium. “It’s a spiritual experience. We are at the service of the music. When I sing, I want the music to shine, and become more important than me”. She also feels the calling to teach young generations and share her gift and insights. Her dream – already in the making – is to establish in Hungary an organisation similar to the one which was fundamental to her musical development, an academy where young singers can totally immerse themselves in the music, with classes, lessons, music performances and social activities. We wish her all possible luck with this project.

This article was sponsored by Wavemaker Hungary, on behalf of MUPA.