Krisztian Cser is getting ready to sing his favourite role, Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard, in the coming weeks with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. For him, the ideal Judit is someone who adapts flexibly – and to whom he, too, can adapt flexibly. This time, he will walk through those storied doors with Viktória Vizin. Our interview with the bass with a “velvety” voice follows.
You have performed with the Budapest Festival Orchestra before: your first time was in the role of the 92-year-old Lajos Kossuth, in Iván Fischer’s opera The Red Heifer. What comes to mind about it?
Krisztián Cser: It’s a very fond memory…although my costume and make-up were so good that not even my own mother recognised me! But the real pleasure, of course, was singing for the first time in my life with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and especially in Iván Fischer’s own piece. Additionally, the director, Tamás Ascher, provided such outstanding instructions for this relatively short – but rewarding – role that I felt it turned out well. I had the opportunity for several longer conversations with Iván Fischer, and because working with the BFO was something I had long awaited, this was a wonderful feeling. I think, by the way, that the role is very well situated within the piece, essentially at its point of intersection, so the audience could really pay attention to my performance, anticipating what was to come. It is a very good role in terms of acting, and not at all difficult to sing.
What you are about to sing, Bartók’s Bluebeard, is not an easy role at all. It must be a far more serious and difficult task, even if this will not be your first time singing Bartók’s opera. Critics seemed to approve of your prior performances. What are you doing to prepare for this series of concerts?
K.Cs.: To be honest, I don’t really pay attention to critics. Especially not to Hungarian critics, because I usually know ahead of time what they’re going to say. The piece is filled with contradictions, which the singer must depict very exactingly. But it is very important to have an outstanding orchestra there, such as the BFO, which is full of so many colours that the “grand wizard” can remix every time.
This piece by Bartók is very near to Iván Fischer’s heart. How comfortable do you feel playing and singing this role?
K.Cs.: Of all that I have performed during my career, this is my favourite piece. It may sound silly, and many others feel the same way: to me, it is as though the composer had written the role for me. I’ve never felt this with any other role, even though I try to immerse myself fully in each one I sing. The strange story of Bluebeard sweeps me away every time; and I feel that each performance carries a different meaning for me. I can compare it to placing the letters of the alphabet side-by-side: you use the same letters or words but come up with a different text every time. This is how I feel about Bluebeard: we’re able to change where the emphasis goes each time, and the same piece of music thus becomes something entirely different. Like an old tree, with its countless branches – it’s only up to me which branch I choose to follow.
What makes you choose one particular branch over another?
K.Cs.: Any number of things. Perhaps it’s even a result of what mood I was in when I woke up that morning, or if – if we take a negative scenario – I had a fight with my wife, or how I happen to be feeling. And it is of course very important who sings Judit’s role. I’ve performed with ten Judits to date, and each of them had a very different take on the piece.
Who do you consider to be a “good” Judit?
K.Cs.: Someone who is able to adapt flexibly and to whom I, too, can adapt flexibly. This story is about the relationship of a man and a woman. There is nothing preordained about what either character can or cannot do. Sure, the framework is a given, since we have the wonderful music and outstanding lyrics, but within that, we are free to make decisions.
A critic has said of one of your performances that “Krisztián Cser’s deep, velvety bass oozed sinister tenderness and Freudian confusion” and mystery. Would you agree with this statement?
K.Cs.: This is from a British paper, and they were probably right. But, as I said, I think I sing Bluebeard differently in each performance. I make a conscious effort not to decide ahead of time what kind of prince I will be. Yet the contradiction that is described in this critical sentence is very typical of this Bartók opera of one act, and it is the performer’s job to share it with the audience.
You have performed with Viktória Vizin before, but you have never sung Bluebeard together. But there is an interesting set of photographs of the two of you in the two roles written by Bartók. It is almost as though you had been preparing for this upcoming performance. How did this come about?
K.Cs.: I have known Viktória Vizin a very long time. I come from Szeged; she studied in the same town and was a friend of my mother’s, so she came over often. Back then I was not yet looking to become a singer.
You wanted to be a physicist, right?
K.Cs.: Yes, that’s what I was planning on becoming. And Viki, already an accomplished singer by then, had a major impact on me. So we have had a powerful relationship for a long time. A few years ago, a photographer asked both of us to pose for photos next to the seven doors of Prince Bluebeard’s castle, evoking the appropriate moods of each scene. So this is how these photos were taken. They are online, and I am sure they are a big help as we get ready for these performances now.