What's it like to sing Carmen when your husband is the conductor? Magdalena Kožená (aka Lady Simon Rattle) reveals all to Kate Connolly
Magdalena Kožená believes musicians fall into two categories. "There are people who love to work with their partners and those who simply can't," she says. It is, she admits, "fortunate that I'm the first case": the celebrated Czech mezzo-soprano's husband happens to be conductor Simon Rattle.
What's the main advantage of being married to the conductor? "You can say, 'I'm sorry, darling, you know today my voice is just not in a very good condition'." Kožená feigns a swoon and turns the "not" into a raspy, laryngitic sound, before dissolving into laughter. "It's a relief," she adds, "knowing I don't have to be scared of the big maestro figure."
I meet Kožená close to her home in Schlachtensee, a leafy, well-to-do neighbourhood in Berlin, and Rattle's base since he became the Berlin Philharmonic's principal conductor in 2002. True to her "anti-diva" reputation, Kožená arrives on her bike, dressed in a crumpled cream raincoat, wearing very little makeup and a scaly, dragon-green tunic.
She and Rattle are frequent collaborators. She claims to have made her husband's life easier by never playing the prima donna. "There are plenty of singers out there who insist: 'I'm famous, and this is my way.' They decide to hold a particular note for a long time, because they consider it to be very beautiful, even if it's not written in the score like that. I know not to do that to him."
Our meeting comes a couple of weeks after the couple's most high-profile collaboration, a new staging of Bizet's Carmen for the Salzburg festival, with Jonas Kaufmann. Kožená's blonde hair is still dyed an intense auburn. "We tried a wig but it's boring not to be able to put your hand in your hair, especially for a physical role like Carmen. In fact, I feel very comfortable with it – I might keep it rather than going back to blonde."
She is the first to admit she is the opposite of the raven-haired femme fatale audiences have come to expect of the role. "I am neither physically nor vocally the typical Carmen – the big, Italian-style Carmen with a very deep voice and a chest register. I knew from the outset that [my casting] was not going to be liked by everyone." Sure enough, her performance received a mixed critical response (the Telegraph's critic described her as "never entirely comfortable ... a nice girl from Brno who got lost on the Sunday School trip to Seville"). But the 39-year-old says she developed a thick skin as part of her year-long preparation. "I learned that Carmen is the type of person who doesn't care what anybody thinks, so I decided that I didn't care, either." She also learned to play the castanets and to perform flamenco dances.
Resilience is something Kožená had to develop early on. She met Rattle at Glyndebourne in 2003, when he conducted her in Mozart's Idomeneo; their subsequent affair led to the end of both their marriages. She described the press coverage at the time as "intrusive and very unpleasant". But almost a decade later and following the birth of their two sons, Jonas and Milos, the couple have very definitely moved on.
Home life, she says, revolves around the children. "We try to talk about music as little as possible. Our two children don't let us speak about music very much when we come home – they're full of questions about the world." Even listening to classical music is rare. "We actually prefer no music. If we put something on it's mainly jazz or world music."
Kožená is often praised for being a thoughtful singer, and her inquisitive approach is evident in the way she talks about her most recent recording, Love and Longing. The disc of songs by Dvorák, Ravel and Mahler includes what Kožená describes as "one of the most erotic pieces ever written", Ravel's song cycle Shéhérazade. And yet it was composed "by a man who, as far as we know, was a virgin ... it's full of longing to experience love in an emotional and physical sense". Then there is the searingly poignant Liebst du um Schönheit, Mahler's only known love song, composed the year he married Alma Mahler. "It's probably the most beautiful song ever written for voice and orchestra."
Kožená's own interest in the lives of the composers, she admits, helps her to understand the interest in her own private life. Her husband may have been knighted, but she is almost apologetic about not being able to take her role as Lady Rattle seriously (he is known to be squeamish about the Sir). "I come from the Czech Republic where it sounds like something from a fairytale. I find it cute, but emotionally I have no attachment to it whatsoever."
Kožená's father was a mathematician and her mother a biologist; she puts the fact that her musical talent was properly nurtured down to the rigorous communist education system. The iron curtain fell at just the right time for her: "I was 16 when everything suddenly opened up. Before that ... La Scala and the Met were just fantasy places, somewhere far to the left on the map."
Despite the PR machines behind them both, Kožená and Rattle are cautious about marketing themselves too much as a musical couple. But some things you can't hide: at a recent concert performance of Carmen, it was impossible to ignore the intense eye contact between Rattle and the bare-footed Kožená. She mustered all the dramatic colour she could, but once the applause began, her co-star Kaufmann stood on the sidelines as a beaming Rattle led her off stage.
• Magdalena Kožená sings at the Wigmore Hall, London, W1, on Friday and Sunday, accompanied by Mitsuko Uchida. Box office: 020 7935 2141. Love and Longing is out now on Deutsche Grammophon.
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