Czech opera singer Kateřina Kněžíková: My heart beats for songs

Kateřina Kněžíková

Kateřina Kněžíková is currently one of the most sought-after Czech opera singers. In the spring of this year, she starred in the title role of Leoš Janáček’s Katya Kabanova at the prestigious Glyndenbourne Festival Opera in England, receiving huge critical acclaim. She also released a debut solo album called Phydilé, with songs by Bohuslav Martinů, Henri Duparc and Maurice Ravel. Her second solo album, Fantasies, is about to come out in just a few weeks’ time.

I met with Kateřina Kněžíková to discuss her recent successes and started by asking her what it was like to be back on stage after the long pause caused by the Covid pandemic:

“It was very tough, because when I came to Glyndenbourne at the end of March, there were very strict anti-Covid rules all over the country.

“On one hand, we had to keep a distance of at least two metres from each other and we had to wear face masks all the time. But on the other hand, it was like a miracle for everybody.

“When I saw the audience for the first time, I just wanted to wave at everybody. We enjoyed the performances immensely, because without the viewers, the experience is not complete.”

How long did you actually spend in Britain?

“I was there for almost three months. We were rehearsing for one and a half month and performing for almost the same time.”

The coronavirus has affected many cultural events - many of them had to be cancelled. What effect did it have on your schedule?

Kateřina Kněžíková | Photo: Petra Hajská,  Czech Radio

“It was a pity because I had to cancel a lot of concerts and theatre performances, both in the National Theatre and in the Estates Theatre.

“On the other hand, many of the events have been postponed. For example I am going to Rome next June for an event that was actually planned for June of last year. So that’s a good thing.”

How long did it take you to prepare for the role of Katya Kabanova?

“At first it felt like I couldn’t sing this part, because I used to sing a completely different repertoire until then. But you can’t say no to such an offer, so I tried to do my best.

“I had prepared for almost two years, because Janáček was new to me and I didn’t know how to approach his music. So I had to work a lot on the part with my coach Mark Pinzow.”

And looking back now, would you say Katya Kabanova has become one of your favourite roles?

“Definitely. I really immersed myself in the role. The cooperation with conductor Robin Ticciati and stage designer Damiano Michieletto was amazing, and the cast was amazing as well, so I couldn’t be happier to share the stage with them.”

You received rave reviews for your performance…

“Yes. I couldn’t believe they were writing these things about me!”

How important is this success for your future career?

“It is hard to say at the moment, but I hope something good will come out of it. For me, as a person, it was a great feeling and I really hope I have done something important for myself as well as for the Glyndenbourne festival.”

What is it like preparing for a role in a family of two opera singers and two small children?

“We are trying to keep life as normal as possible, but it is quite complicated, because we have different work. I like to have a lot of time for preparation at home because I spend quite a lot of time reading the text, before I work with my pianist and coach Mark Pinzow.

“The rehearsing for opera is usually six or seven weeks but I always like to have more time for preparation. In case of Katya Kabanova, I felt I was really ready and it was a great lesson for me, that if you are well prepared, you can do anything on the stage. You simply don’t feel any boundaries or insecurities.”

In May of this year, Kateřina Kněžíková released a debut solo album called Phydilé, with orchestral songs by Bohuslav Martinů, Henri Duparc and Maurice Ravel and Karol Szymanowski, which she recorded with the Janáček Philharmonic Ostrava, conducted by Robert Jindra. I asked her how she selected the repertoire for the album:

“I wanted to record Martinů’s songs The Magic Nights, because no Czech singer has recorded them before, so that part was easy. And then we agreed to add Duparc and Ravel, the two beautiful cycles of songs, and Szymanowski as well.”

One of the songs, Phydilé by Henri Duparc, also gives name to the whole album. Why?

Kateřina Kněžíková | Photo: Petr Weigl

“Phydilé was a real person, she was very religious. I remember I was travelling somewhere and heard the song for the first time and it was like everything stopped at the moment.

“I was just listening and living the song with her. So it was a very special and magic moment for me and I decided at that moment that I would give the album this name.”

You are about to release another album. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

“It’s called Fantasies and when I selected the repertoire I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland. It is very colourful – there are Czech, French and German songs again, because songs are really my favourite genre and my heart beats for them. So it’s another song album, but this time not with an orchestra but with an accompaniment by the great pianist David Švec.”

So when exactly is it going to be released?

“We are having a concert on November 11, and it is going to be released at the start of the month.”

And finally, what are you working on at the moment?

“At the moment I am working on Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka because in just a few weeks’ time I am going to join the production at the State Opera here in Prague.

“In the beginning of December we will start the rehearsing period of Cosi fan Tutte at the Estates Theatre. So there is a lot of amazing and interesting work ahead of me.”