Conversations with Markella Hatziano
by Katerina Anastasiou
translated from the original Greek
The great Greek mezzo expounds upon life,
music and the eternal quest for mastery
October 2013 Interview
KA: It is always wonderful to reconnect with you Markella, as our relationship spans so many years. You might remember that I was present at some of your first solo appearances with orchestra in Herodes Atticus at the tender age of 17.
MH: Of course I remember, and it's fascinating that you bring that up, because just last week a friend uncovered a performance of me singing Rosina's aria "Una voce poco fa" with orchestra at that very age recorded with the Radio and Television Orchestra in Athens. I didn't even know there was a recording!
KA: How poetic - 'a voice a little while ago' - and fitting way for us to begin our conversation.
MH: Indeed. Time is so malleable…
KA: I observed you go through many phases in your career, from your teenage years studying with Tito Gobbi, followed by the wonderful collaborations with Sarah Caldwell, the onset of your international career where you sang virtually eleven months out of the year, to periods of reflection and respite from the difficult life of a musician and raising your daughter, Alexandra. It seems that you have had to face some difficult choices?
MH: Choices, yes. Difficult, no.
KA: Well, I mean when your daughter was born, she had some serious respiratory problems that required hospitalization and periods in pediatric intensive care. You chose after the initial extremely difficult period to step away from your career.
MH: It wasn't really a choice. I was just following the instinct of a mother.
KA: An instinct that resulted in you stepping away from several years of lucrative contracts.
MH: Yes, but it was never a difficult decision. I was scheduled to do some concert performances of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust in Australia and an Orfeo ed Euridice concert in Thessalonika several months after Alexandra was out of intensive care, but I withdrew.
KA: And then you began cutting even further…?
MH: Sure, I decided that being a mother was a higher priority than having a career.
KA: How was that viewed by people in the profession?
MH: To be fair, I think many understood, and maybe even envied someone who they perceived had the courage to make such decisions. There were others who were less charitable in their assessment.
KA: Such as managers and administrators?
MH: A few, yes, especially those who stood to profit greatly from my future contracts.
KA: I remember a journalist from the Australian newspaper The Age writing about Markella Hatziano's exemplary tact, insight and obvious humanity. When I look at your daughter Alexandra, I always think of that quote. You have created and molded a wonderful human being - I see your humanity reflected in her.
MH: That's a wonderful thing to say, Katerina. Thank you. I hope so, and in that sense I will never regret my decision to place the career on hold.
KA: And for a rather long time as some note. As you are preparing to return to the classical and opera world, what is it you believe your are bringing to the scene now that might be lacking in the music world.
MH: That's a rather difficult question to answer. I guess the answer to that is inextricably connect to how I have always embraced the concept of mastery since my National Conservatory days and time with my only teacher, and Gobbi, of course.
KA: Mastery? You mean such as in mastering vocal technique.
MH: Well vocal technique is certainly an element of what I am talking about, but I mean more the gestalt of mastery.
KA: Your Rosina aria at age 17 that I just heard seemed like mastery to me!
MH: To me, mastery is a path, not a destination or a result. It is something to be strived for but never reached. Learning begins anew every day, with total humility. I try to resist the temptation to engage in mindless practice sessions. Practicing, vocalizing, assimilating roles and language, must be done deliberatively, with total focus, complete concentration. That's how I have approached music every day of my life, including during the years being a mom away from the career. One must be confident of the accumulative process and embrace the discipline of delayed gratification in artistic growth.
KA: This philosophy must have helped maintain this incredible freshness of voice and spirit that you possess, not to have to sing performances all over the world during that period.
MH: Probably, but I've learned to take care of and respect the voice above all. The Zemsky/Green years and their over-booking style of management cured me of that once and for all. Having an abundance of engagements is not worth it if an adverse effect on the voice results.
KA: What is your typical routine? How do you work every day, balancing repertoire with technique, for instance.
MH: I don't vocalize every day, but aim for seven days of serious work in a two-week period. To warm up, I usually do something ingrained in long term memory, although with complete precision and focus. I improvise the creation of exercises, based on my sense of what is needed the most. If I sense a deficiency, I tackle it creatively.
KA: I can't imagine you having any deficiencies!
MH: One can't even walk on the path to mastery without complete humility. That's how I begin every day. Everyone has deficiencies. I like to conquer things that are difficult for me to do.
KA: You sang some rather florid vocals culminating in an earth-shattering high E-flat in one of your recent fun projects, which became a mainstay song on one of the Greek prime time shows last year. How did you manage that.
MH: With humility and hard work. The fiorituri were similar to Rossini, but maybe more challenging because of the extreme range.
KA: I've heard your vocalization sessions before and how you evolve during the session, from a very narrow range to a three-octave tessitura.
MH: One of the wisest things my teacher, Georgia Georgilopoulou ingrained in me, was for the low to sound good, expand the top, for the top to sound good, expand the low, and for the middle to sound good always work both extremes intelligently. I do that faithfully. Now it is common that I will expand the voice during a session from a 'D' below middle 'C' to a 'Queen of the Night' high 'F.'
KA: I hope you don't mind me asking this, Markella, but you spent some portion of your career with your weight fluctuating quite a bit. I recall how much you had slimmed down working with Robert Wilson in Salzburg, but also recall you being a bit heavier in an Aida I saw in Berlin. You are thinner now than I've ever seen you, except maybe at Cardiff Singer of the World. Do you feel you've finally conquered that element?
MH: Again, humility. I've had a very good period for around 3 years now, as the front of my website attests. Ha!
KA: How do you feel about repertoire these days? I know you have a vast repertoire of opera, concert and recital work. What is it you really want to do?
MH: As you know, I had a very unusual childhood entering the National Conservatory of Greece…
KA: The college level…
MH: Yes, when I was thirteen. By the time I graduated when I was 18, I fully had absorbed every note of Amneris, Eboli, Azucena, Santuzza, and, of course, Dalila. Every nuance of these roles is so ingrained in my long-term memory. That is the core of what I wish to do now, with of course Didon joining that group. I could step in to any production of those operas on a moment's notice. Of course, that has happened, many times, for instance in Madrid with Eboli.
KA: You are toying with Lady Macbeth as well?
MH: I haven't fully decided, but I have spent a lot of time absorbed in the role. How many people over the years have told me that one day I will feel ready for Lady Macbeth - Helga Schmidt, Alan Sievewright, my teacher, Gobbi. I didn't necessary believe them until the last several years after I fully learned the role.
KA: I can't wait. What do you think is different about the opera world now, from the world Gobbi exposed you to as a teenager.
MH: Some people say there is a knowledge deficit among those making decisions. I have sensed a bit of that, certainly among agents. I met the great manager Gorlinsky through Tito Gobbi when I was just a teenager and was in awe of the knowledge. I have encountered a few similar individuals over the years, notably Miguel Lerin from Barcelona, who with his extreme artistic literacy always seems like a bit of an anachronism.
KA: People may not understand voices?
MH: Well, yes. Just several days ago there was an article in the Economist called "Who will sing Aida?" lamenting the practice of agents and casting directors pushing singers into roles that either they are not ready for, or for which they will never be ready. There is much folly in the world.
KA: That's why you are cautious with Lady Macbeth?
MH: Yes, and would like to sing the main arias in several concert performances before I try on stage. I remain a true dramatic mezzo, as Gobbi liked to tell me, in the tradition of Simionato. Yes, I thrill to sing the occasional high E-flat, but I wish to remain true to my calling.
KA: What about concert repertoire?
MH: Well, I think I've done eighty-some Verdi Requiems. I know well all the Mahler, and will focus on my core loves of Chausson's Poeme de l’amour et de la mer, Ravel's Sheherazade, Berlioz's Cléopâtre and Les nuits d’éte and believe it or not, Ah! Perfido of Beethoven.
KA: I've never heard you do that!
MH: My husband is a Beethoven scholar and insisted on teaching me when we were first married. It's a great sing.
KA: You have worked extensively with many great conductors. Which collaborations might hold a special place in your heart?
MH: That's hard because there are so many under so many circumstances. Some that stand out might be Jacque Delacote, Alexander Sander, Zubin Mehta, Bernard Haitink, Semyon Bychkov, Lukas Karytinos, Myron Michalaidis, Seiji Ozawa, and certainly Mariss Jansons.
KA: What about singer colleagues?
MH: I've usually had quite wonderful experiences with colleagues. Of course, around an opera house, there is always an abundance of paranoia, festering jealousies, and intrigue, but I usually separate myself from that game.
KA: Although you live and breathe opera, never straying from the discipline even in your years of respite from the profession, you dabble in some other forms of music. How does this fit into the larger conceptual picture of who Markella Hatziano is?
MH: Well many singers do things for fun, so I guess I'm no different. Renee Fleming records cover songs, other singers sing show tunes, famous tenors sing at soccer matches. I think the main difference between me and some of the well-known cases, is that I prefer collaboration and creating original work.
KA: And, of course, you had a history with singing the music of Vangelis from the outset of your career, in concert and recordings such as his direct album.
MH: The Vangelis music worked I think, because I managed to use the full power and beauty of the voice, without necessarily sounding operatic, without cliched sounds and mannerisms. I think that it is the case with Glorianna, and some other pieces done live with Vangelis.
KA: Do you feel the same affinity for other genres of music that you do just for fun, as you do your operatic and classical repertoire.
MH: Well, no, but it can be exhilarating, especially when I'm part of the creative process, or when the music is written exclusively for me. I think there is great societal profit in bridging the tension gap between classical and pop music. I enjoy being part of that movement.
KA: But still, your very essence is being an opera singer. I saw that quote on your personal representative's Twitter page from Richard Dyer writing in the Boston Globe, "The qualities of voice and spirit no one can learn the Creator has lavished on her in abundant plenty." A lot to live up to, maybe, however the true 'voice and spirit' of Markella Hatziano is opera. Is it not?
MH: Of course, Katerina. But ask some of the agents I've tangled with in the past. I always refused to negotiate exclusivity! Don't forget - I'm a mommy, too.