JUDITH CAN’T FIND HER WAY INTO MENS’ HEARTS
Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra will be playing Béla Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle in the Palace of Arts on three consecutive evenings between 9 and 11 December. The lead role will be sung by Béla Perencz, while the role of Judith will be sung by the exceptional Andrea Szántó from the National Theatre Mannheim. We talked to the singer in a Budapest hotel.
Andrea Szántó is not the easiest person to interview. She is short-spoken, reserved yet open, but her eyes are always smiling, and the more she opens up the more she laughs. There is no hint of anything diva about her, she is human and modest beyond measure, and does not attribute any particular significance to her vocal talents. She is simply happy that she is talented in something.
I heard her in this role for the first time in September, and back then I wrote some enthusiastic notes about her performance. Now I eagerly await Sunday. What kind of Judith will she play with a different partner, with a different orchestra and conductor?
We recall the performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle in September. Surprisingly, she asks the first question. “What do you think, is it a good idea if I make some signalling gestures with my hands during the performance?” – she asks. I did all I could to convince her just what a massive impact the few gestures and hand movements had on me. They intensified the operatic features of the work. My first question related to the same thing. Bartók considered it an opera, while the librettist, Béla Balázs, looked on Bluebeard as a mystery play. Which one is it?
Andrea Szántó believes it is clearly a music drama, an opera with two characters that does not require a stage. A genuine balance is struck between the realistic and stylistic elements when it is performed as a concert, when a few gestures reminiscent of oriental theatres have a symbolic effect. Bartók’s music is so strong that the “encore” can trigger the opposite effect, trivialising the performance and even degrading it by turning it into a self-parody. There are of course exceptions, Philipp Himmelmann managed to stage the opera in the National Theatre Mannheim using minimalist means. This was a lasting experience for Andrea, also because Ádám Fischer was the conductor. She is really curious what it will be like working with Iván Fischer.
Andrea first sung the role of Judith in 2000. In September this year she appeared in this role again, after six years. She has changed a lot since her first performance, she is a wife and a mother now. On her mobile she shows me the photo of her lovely daughter, Emily, who is three now. Andrea has seemingly managed to strike a balance between motherly life and her opera career. She loves being a mother. Reading tales to her daughter is just as important and life-fulfilling as singing.
Are there any similarities between Andrea Szántó and Judith, and if so, how much?
When shaping this role, I mostly rely on my own self, all my human experience is concentrated inside, including, for example, the patterns of relationships between the people around me, men and women, she says. Because this piece is about the failure of a man and a woman to learn about each other, to come to know each other. Judith cannot find her way to the heart of Bluebeard, because he is not willing to devote himself to her wholeheartedly.
The story of Andrea Szántó is completely different from that of Judith. A few years ago a British military officer saw her on stage and from that moment on he couldn’t get her out of his mind. He wrote a letter to Andrea asking her to meet him. They met, fell in love, got married and now they have a wonderful daughter.
“What is the most important thing in a relationship?” – she repeats the question. “A sense of humour. My husband has an extraordinary sense of humour. It is very important to be able to laugh at yourself. This is a way to save each other from a lot of pain.”
“Very much depends on the partner’s disposition on the stage as well. If my partner sings expressively, that is a source of joy for me too, it fills me with energy, overwhelms me and makes me feel good in my role. However, if the partner does not let me close to him, then I have only myself to rely on, which makes my job much more difficult. Of course, I don’t give up easily, I provoke him as long as I can. There is nothing more horrible than a stage with nothing happening on it.”
She confirms what Ramón Vargas said, namely that the opera today is dominated by authoritarian directors, who very often try to stage their own, petty problems through the performance, with varying degrees of success.
Andrea says that she has met very few conductors, no more than 5, who paid attention to the singer at all, who gave them enough time to breathe and helped them enter at the right time.
János Kovács is one of the exceptional few (read the interview with János Kovács here), who during that performance in September inspired Andrea to show colours and emotions that she had not thought she had at all.
“He radiates warmth, love and knowledge. I am on the verge of crying when I think of how wonderful it is to have such a person around. He is full of energy, carries you with him, supports you, pays attention and the singer suddenly realises that she or he is flying” – she says enthusiastically, and her eyes are indeed filled with tears.
It was such an uplifting experience that led her towards a singing career. She made her public debut when she was at nursery school, and sang a folk song at the wedding ceremony of her teacher.
Her talent was recognised at an early stage, and she was always in good hands, she studied under masters to whom she is still very grateful. When it became clear that she was cut out for a career on the opera stage, she became despondent as then she was much more interested in pop music.
But later, in Szeged, she found her own way, thanks to Vali Berdál. “Her personality was a decisive experience for me. She was capable of creating an intimate and loving environment that you only have in the best families. She was the one who showed me my first opera performance. I saw Tosca and I immediately understood that opera is a fantastic genre, a key to developing emotional intelligence.”
Teachers still play a very important role in her life. When she is in Budapest, Andrea has lessons with Margit Kaposi. She even has a class after this interview. “This is a refreshing experience for my voice, body and soul. She takes a holistic approach. She knows precisely where any slight tension is and comes up with exercises that loosen up the tension in no time”, she says.
Andrea Szántó has made highly successful appearances as Carmen, Maddalena in Rigoletto, Charlotte in Werther, Santuzza in Cavaliera Rusticana, and many more. You can find the whole list of her roles on her website, and further roles await. She has increasingly been attracted to Verdi and Wagner. Andrea is learning Eboli from Don Carlos and Kundry from Parsifal. Her voice is maturing like a good wine, and has not yet reached its prime.
Andrea Szántó was born in Berettyóújfalu, she started her secondary school studies at the Erkel Secondary School in Gyula, then continued them in Szeged, where she attended the secondary school of music. She graduated as a singer from the Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music.
After graduating she was contracted by the Hungarian State Opera in 1997. In the following year she became the soloist of the Bielefeld Theatre, and since 2000 she has been a member of the National Theatre Mannheim.
Andrea Szántó has sung in the Hungarian State Opera, the Scottish Opera, the Opera of Hannover, Graz, Frankfurt and Wiesbaden, in Japan, Zagreb, at the Bregenz Festspiele and at many other opera venues around the world.