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Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená to sing ‘Disprezzata Regina’ in Hong Kong

Appreciated by music aficionados across the globe, Kožená is to perform a solo from Monteverdi’s opera ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea’ at Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall on April 11

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 March, 2018, 9:31am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 March, 2018, 9:31am

The most well-known female roles in opera are most often sung by sopranos: Cio-Cio-san as the tragic figure of Madame Butterfly in Giacomo Puccini’s opera of the early 1900s; the sensational Queen of the Night in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute; doomed courtesan Violetta Valéry in La Traviata by Guiseppe Verdi; and the delicate Lucia in Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, to name a few.

Sopranos, able to reach the very highest notes, bring big voices and even bigger drama to the stage. Greek American Maria Callas, renowned for her musical talents, dramatic interpretation and temperamental behaviour, was one of the most adored sopranos and renowned and influential opera singers of the 20th century.

But not all operas cast a soprano in the lead role. Georges Bizet’s Carmen, possibly opera’s greatest femme fatale, for example, is a mezzo-soprano. And in the much-loved comedy, The Barber of Seville, by Gioachino Rossini, the lead role of Rosina was written for a contralto.

“There are plenty of operas where composers say ‘soprano, schmoprano’, and give a mezzo the best tunes,” Kate Hopkins of Britain’s Royal Opera House wrote in an article in December 2016. “Who says mezzo-sopranos have to play second fiddle?”

The mezzo-soprano voice lies between the soprano and contralto ranges, overlapping both of them. While the vocal range for a soprano is from about middle C up to C two octaves above, mezzo-soprano is from the G below middle C to the A two octaves above – although plenty of roles require the voice to stretch above or below this.

Contralto is the lowest of the female voice, covering roughly from the F below middle C to a high F one octave above middle C. It almost exactly matches that of a male countertenor. Polish singer Ewa Podlesśis considered perhaps the only great living contralto singer; true operatic contraltos are so rare that mezzo-sopranos are often cast in their roles instead.

Like for sopranos and contraltos – as well as for the male voice ranges of countertenor, tenor, baritone, and bass – mezzo-sopranos are further divided into subcategories based on range, vocal colour or timbre, and the weight and dexterity of the voice. The three subtypes for mezzo-sopranos are lyric, coloratura, and dramatic mezzo-soprano.

The lyric mezzo often plays the “trouser” parts, that is, women playing male roles, but there are other examples, such as Dorabella in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. Coloratura mezzos are agile across the mezzo range, while dramatic mezzo voices are warm, rich and loud, and often cast into mother or witch roles. Guiseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner wrote many dramatic mezzo roles.

But voice categories are not always easy to distinguish nor are they always fixed. Some singers have voices that span types and so allow them to sing a variety of roles, while others’ voices change over their lifetime. Some lower with age.

Some operatic roles are also difficult to classify as they have exceptional vocal requirements. Mozart, for example, wrote roles for specific singers. The Queen of the Night was to be sung by his sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer (née Weber), who had a famously high and expansive vocal range. The Queen of the Night’s Act I aria, “O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn”. “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen”, is both a dazzling zenith in the score of The Magic Flute and a challenge to many other sopranos. Hofer performed the role from the opera’s premier in 1791 for more than a decade; the aria has remained a test of coloratura sopranos’ skills ever since.

Lead roles have been written for specific mezzo-sopranos, too. Donizetti wrote Léonor in his opera La Favorite for the famed French mezzo-soprano Rosine Stoltz, who had a notably wide-ranging voice. Léonor, the mistress of the king who falls in love with an impulsive young man, is one of opera’s most passionate heroines, prefiguring Violetta in La Traviata.

Other notable mezzo-soprano roles include those created by French composer Hector Berlioz. Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust, Béatrice in Béatrice et Bénedict, and both Didon and Cassandre in Les Troyens are major roles in mezzo-soprano. Didon, the Queen of Carthage, is perhaps the greatest of these parts, with the full, sympathetic timbre of the mezzo voice conveying a noble dignity that remains even through the suicide scene.

Earlier baroque music and opera styles being developed from around 1600 to 1750 in particular offer mezzo-sopranos the opportunity to flex their vocal chords on show-stopping arias.

Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea), was first performed in 1643 at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. It was one of the first operas to draw on historical events and people, describing how Poppaea, mistress of the Roman emperor Nero, defeats the odds to be crowned empress. Despite the original manuscript of the score being lost, and the authenticity of the full work being disputed, the opera is still generally considered Monteverdi’s last, and perhaps greatest, work.

Hongkongers have the chance to experience a solo from Monteverdi’s opera next month by a mezzo-soprano at the peak of her powers. Magdalena Kožená, considered one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of her generation, will sing “Disprezzata Regina” on 11 April. Her performance will be under the direction of Italian conductor, organist, and harpsichordist Andrea Marcon and backed by the Basel La Cetra Baroque Orchestra.

Czech mezzo-soprano Kožená has won the regard of music aficionados across the globe.

Kožená’s wide opera repertoire spans works by George Frideric Handel, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Mozart, Johann Strauss and Leoš Janácek and she has appeared with the Metropolitan Opera, the Bayerische Staatsoper, the Royal Opera House, and the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, among others.

In concert she has collaborated with many of the world’s foremost orchestras, including the Berlin, Vienna, Rotterdam and Czech Philharmonic orchestras, the Philadelphia and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Kožená will also be singing an exciting new commission “Arianna Has a Problem”, which is inspired by Monteverdi’s aria, “Lamento d’Arianna”. The new work was composed by Marko Ivanović at Kožená’s own request.

L’Arianna (Ariadne in English) was Monteverdi’s second opera, composed 1607-1608. All but the extended recitative, “Lamento d’Arianna” (“Ariadne’s Lament”) has been lost. It was first performed on 28 May 1608 as part of the musical festivities for a royal wedding at the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua, Italy.

Monteverdi’s work, arranged as a five-voiced madrigal, spawned an entire genre of lament music in the 17th century. Its influence is still felt today; the piece by Ivanović provides the bridge between music of the 17th and 21st centuries.

La Cetra Baroque Orchestra will also play chamber works by Baroque violinist-composers Marco Uccellini, Tarquinio Merula and Biagio Marini, while Kožená will also sing the eerie and intense Sequenza III (1964) for female voice by experimental composer Luciano Berio. The programme showcases the beauty of Kožená’s voice and the extraordinary versatility she has displayed throughout her career as one of the world’s top mezzo-sopranos.