Csaba Szegedi: „Beautiful dream roles fulfil.”

He was at home making regular appearances at the Budapest Opera House until the end of April when he started off towards Buenos Aires. We were talking to Csaba Szegedi about his line-up of roles for the season, about his foreign performances, about his first master class held as well as about the typical look of opera singers. Furthermore, the subject of how he, as a concerned artist, sees the new face of the institution was also raised.

– In this theatrical year you have been playing in the revised and the original versions of Bánk bán, respectively, in Così fan tutte…, La Bohѐme and Simon Boccanegra. How do you evaluate this season?

– It has been a really exciting period for me : life arranged things so that I would start the year with intriguing figures. I am not yet Iago or Scarpia in age so these roles are still in front of me, although luckily, composers provided young singers who would try themselves as “villains” with the opportunity to do so. Biberach in the original Bánk bán version is a real snake in the grass who keeps whispering in man’s ear while persistently trying to sow evil seeds in their minds. Paolo Albiani in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, however, is almost like a small-scale counterpart of Iago. I loved singing this role, though initially it was quite a big struggle for me as the tessitura is uncomfortably low for my noticeably high baritone register. In an aria at the beginning of Act II., however, while mixing that poison one can sing out a natural G tone, which is a truly remarkable task. Not a major role but the opera as such can not do without it. Then a sharp change came next with Puccini’s La Bohѐme. This brought me great pleasure, for after last year’s Schaunard I could better myself by stepping in the role of Marcello. It is an extremely delicate, difficult piece of music. At the same time, we are  talking about bohemian people who enjoy life, wine and the company of women. Naturally, Marcello and Musetta are having a rather stormy affair – just like in a marriage. I had the possibility to sing this part as many as six times altogether. I am not saying that the role is entirely mine but now I have got it ready in my throat. What delighted me the most was the character of Guglielmo itself, whose role I would not be able to mention a more comic one right now. I think that, similarly to all other singers, I am also on very good terms with Mozart. Verdi, Puccini, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky all tend to “pull your singing voice apart”, while Mozart never does the same. Two years ago I managed to play Papageno before appearing in Győr as Don Giovanni nine times last year, and that all was like a balm to my throat. That is also the reason why I am really looking forward to the part of Count Almaviva from The Marriage of Figaro performed on the occasion of the Iseum Outdoor Games of Szombathely.

– Let us elaborate a little bit more on framing theatrical characters. It is widely held that it is easier to play negative roles as you have a greater number of techniques then to draw on from your artistic repertoire that enables you to shape these figures in a chiselled way. Do you share this view?

– I would not say that heroes are easier to enact but authentically representing negative figures is a great challenge nonetheless. In Papageno I largely imitate my true self and showing Figaro from The Barber of Seville is not so difficult either. In the cases of Paolo Albiani, or even of Iago or Scarpia, however, one must carefully consult historical documents in order to know exactly who the real models were – if at all they had been taken from life –, to see what the eras were like they were living in. Furthermore, of course one has to be familiar with the stories of the various roles and the great predecessors having played them. I spend a lot of time experimenting with watching and listening to archive footages or records as these are also good ways for junior soloists to learn by taking over some masterstrokes. I would mention my maestros, namely Sándor Sólyom-Nagy and Lajos Miller above all, or a very fresh experience of mine, that is, a recently watched version of Tosca with Béla Perencz singing Scarpia. Once we are surrounded by singers like them, it helps us to become authentic Iagos or Scarpias one day. I had a minor role in Otello where it was just Béla Perencz playing Iago so I could see in the flesh one of the most fantastic baritones of our days to me.

– I saw you appear in a play as a guest not far from the Budapest Opera House: you acted János Háry in the Kolibri Theatre for Children and Youth. How did you get into that production and how did it feel to perform on a rather pocket-sized stage compared to that of the Opera House, to play in front of an infant audience and being surrounded by puppets besides?

– My professor at the Music Academy and a dear old friend of mine at the same time, Péter Oberfrank asked me if I would have been interested in a sort of mission, that is, to sing János Háry for children. I replied that he was not needed to continue as I went anywhere, any time and for any pay. I like singing to children very much, as they are sincere and I receive accurate feedback from them on how I sing or play. They do not applaud because this is the decent thing to do. They do not smile because the singer expects them to. They rather show these reactions as just then I induced such feelings in them. In today’s world, for an opera singer who takes his profession seriously it is important to partly undertake the tasks of educating the public, as well as sacrificing time and money to go to certain places where people do not possibly listen to operas. Together with Lúcia Megyesi Schwartz, Géza Gábor and under the musical leadership of Péter Oberfrank we are now able to make appearances in a prestigious production and I can also say it in their names that we feel very well in this truly special performance. Since children do not merely see a puppet show here, but the quasi-miniature puppet scenes are projected onto a screen above the stage while we emerge on the sides singing our parts wearing symbolic costumes such as hussar jackets or other folk garb. In this way, the figure of the puppet, the projection image and the live performance are connected in this version of János Háry.

– Does shaping the character of János Háry cause you any difficulty?

– I think for us, Hungarians it is not difficult for Háry is innate in our men just as Örzse in our women. Háry is a hero, an extremely clean living, patriotic soul and we would all like to become heroes. He is a simple man, not a player of mind games, not a hypocrite. He does not manipulate others. He sings only about real values, about his love for his homeland and Örzse and about the fact that it makes him happy. Also, the same thing makes me glad if I may serve my country by singing on stage, and thus electrifying my audience.

– There followed quite an adventure then, namely Buenos Aires.

– It was a great pleasure and honour to be invited there. Going to the city presents a big challenge in itself as perhaps it is only New Zealand that can be further away. A 16-hour flight and a 2-hour wait in the departure lounge in Rome; so the trip was, so to say it with a Spanish term, fairly turbulent and once I arrived there I slightly felt as if I had reached at the end of nowhere. I had, nevertheless, twelve fantastic days ahead of me consisting of a four-day travel and several appearances and master classes for the other eight. To conclude, I have not regretted going there on business at all and, anyway, I do not like being bored. Now I am full of energy and experiences.

– Where did you appear on stage and what kind of repertoire did you take along?

– I gave a concert to the local Hungarian diaspora that, interestingly enough, was visited even by the younger members of the second- and third-generation compatriots who could speak a more or less proper Hungarian standard. When at home I had started to make a selection for my programme I was aiming at designing a colourful show first in order to demonstrate as many sides of mine as possible and, second, to be able to like it myself for this is the key for being sincere. Do not imagine it in such a way that I stood out in the front singing before bowing to the audience. It happened but a lot more informally: I talked of the very musical pieces, of their stories and my related experiences. At the Recruiting Song (a.k.a. Recruit of the third adventure based on ‘verbunkos’ music) from the Háry János Suite I told the listeners the entire Kolibri performance; in connection with One Stem of a Rose/A Rose Stem (“Egy rózsaszál szebben beszél”, disambiguation) from János Vitéz (Sir John) I gave an account of the fact that as an undergraduate at the Hungarian Music Academy it had been my first real role to perform; I talked about how I had discovered Pongrác Kacsóh in relation to Rákóczi megtérése (approx The Conversion of Rákóczi). I took some wine songs along: Uncle Marci’s Drinking-Song or Petúr’s Wine Song. I sang the big aria of Bánk bán, presented them with operetta songs, namely Bob’s Entrance Song, You Are My Heart’s Delight, Tell Them I Adore The Women of Pest. I also performed my favourite melody called Nem tudok én megjavulni, józan ember lenni (approx “I Can Not Mend My Ways to Become a Sober Man Again”). I had two concerts altogether. One of them was held at the Hungarian Embassy, the other in the auditorium of the Ars Hungarica Civil Association of Music and Culture. I also participated in a most serious musical intonation where I soloed three international arias. For superstitious reasons, however, I would not elaborate more on this occasion now.

– And you also held master classes.

– Exactly. Two of them, with one at the Conservatory of Music for Argentinian pupils – though they were smaller, one of the schoolgirls, quite surprisingly, sang Mária Gara – and the other being held at the Hungarian Music Academy for senior boys. Initially, I was afraid that I would not find a way to help them or to join their discussion, for I myself was an undergraduate then and I also needed some more experience. Despite my fears, however, I finally managed to advise them on technique and linguistic utterance.

– You have already mentioned Figaro from The Barber of Seville. In an advertising campaign of the Opera House you can be seen throughout the city wearing his disguise, dressed in “Sevilla strip” with an open razor while making faces. How did you accept this extraordinary invitation?

– I think that this series, this new image is brilliant, for it does operatic performances real good by arousing public interest. That the opera is by Rossini is not written anywhere on the poster and the Sevilla logo may not be striking for everyone at first glance, either. The razor, however, is a rather peculiar object. Anyone who sees this is sure to be taken aback and at home they might type in “Opera” to search Google. If we are able to reach this point or, what is more, if people search for us by visiting our event management section in order to ask for a programme calendar or to inquire about season tickets – tickets for the next season are available until 30th July [the editor]– then it is already a success. I am delighted to be one of the faces of this campaign and it feels terrific to be paraded for public admiration at the entrance of the Opera as the Barber of Seville. I am doing my best to deserve this honour again next season.

– In what can the audience hear you next year?

– I am not going to have a dull season and beautiful dream roles fulfil. We start with The Barber of Seville then comes La Bohѐme – all of them are roles I already possess, except that the character gradually deepens during the course of performances, and so I can step on stage in an increasingly peaceful, confident mood. I am to sing Don Giovanni six times here once again and I am playing Malatesta from Don Pasquale. As an undergraduate at the Music Academy it was a big dream of mine to sing this part together with Sándor Sólyom-Nagy who  still has a marvellous singing voice even today. The part of Onegin is also fulfilled that I would like to sing since one of my Academic exams likewise. Sound-wise this play, particularly its duet with Tatyana, is a considerable amount of singing. Emotionally, however, the performance means much more to me and it gives me a lot greater difficulty. To top it all the libretto has to be sung in Russian and I love to sing in this language. Next, I am going to be Ping in Turandot that is a very high-pitched role with much room to play. I am also playing Bagó that I feel special about as now I can sing one of my kindest parts in the Opera House. And there is a brand new production called Ariadne on Naxos in which I appear as Harlequin. Although I am not afraid of it, I am sure that the latter role will be an arduous work to do, for Strauss is rather difficult to deal with.

– So tell us, Csaba, have you ever had a season ticket to the Opera?

– I come from Perkupa and we lived in humble circumstances. For us, even getting to the National Theatre of Miskolc counted as miracle. I wanted to become a reformed minister and I got to the Budapest Music Academy on a most winding road. When I could creep into the Opera – usually up to the roost seating porch – or I got a ticket from somebody, then it was an exceptional evening for me. Luckily I am on the other side now and this fact alone can make those evenings when I can appear at this theatre special for me. If I receive feedback from the audience, either by someone coming to me or by him writing me an email stating that they saw me in a play and would love to see me back again in even more performances, then it is a wonderful acknowledgement and a big responsibility all at once.

– If already you have mentioned roost: the day the sale of 300 HUF student tickets started young people standing in the queue, tourists passing by and the adult audience for the evening play were jointly welcomed by your performance of Escamillo’s Toreador Song.

– And there has been a similar action since then, namely at the start of vending season tickets. I would sing the Don Giovanni – Zerlina duet with Rita Rácz as well as soloed Don Giovanni’s canzonetta then. What unforgettable minutes they are! Both of them feel impressive and respective professional challenges now, for one minute you are standing there as a completely ordinary person in the crowd and the next you are transformed to be an actor while finding yourself in a theatrical situation. It is necessary to overcome difficulties resulting from the casual spot. The decision as to when you should start it is yours. The strength of surprise contributes to the effect. Similarly to posters, it is also an excellent means of arousing public interest through something unusual but something of high quality at the same time.

– Do you think that without such a campaign or event it is not possible to gain support of new fans for the genre of opera?

– Opera has never been a light genre, not even at those times when this type of music counted to be an unequivocally popular form of entertainment and composers were producing hits. Now the world has changed and we must bring opera closer to people and, most importantly, to future generations so as not to let the stereotype of the big fat dame and uncle appearing in the middle of the stage and singing live on in them. Some decades ago people still thought that powerful sounding can exclusively be emanated from a large body. But then again, let us just think of Anna Netrebko or, to take a native example, Erika Miklósa. Today’s world is not all about it as we also need aesthetic quality. A soloist has to show up much more than a noble singing voice: they have to be flexible, they have to know how to fence, dance, ride a horse, how to control their bodies. They have to be exceptional, unique. However, the ideas mentioned above are needed so as to make people pay attention to us, that is, to opera as such.

Fidelio – 20th June 2012
by Tímea Papp