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Small Talk with… Köpeczi Sándor-Attila

Just returned less than a week ago from the Tenor Viñas International Competition, where he successfully represented Romania, bringing home the Award for The Best Verdian Interpretation, the bass Köpeczi Sándor from Cluj tells us about his experience in this contest, but also his previous and future artistic path, in an interview given for the collection Small Talk with… by Jurnal de Soprană. I am very proud of this interview, first of all because it is done with a colleague whom I have always looked up to with admiration, who is more than a singer, he is an exceptional man and musician, and then, because we have in front of us an exponent of the next generation of top international opera singers, without any doubt.

Köpeczi Sándor graduated  Piano and Canto classical specializations at “Gheorghe Dima” National Music Academy, in Cluj-Napoca, being currently a student in the 2nd year of a Master’s degree in Canto specialization at the same institution. He debuted on the international stage as a vocal soloist in 2014, at the world premiere of the contemporary opera Bizánc (Kalil) by Selmeczi György, a show that was part of the Miskolc Opera Festival, Hungary. Since then, his lyrical repertoire has been enriched with roles such as Sparafucile (Rigoletto), Old Jew (Samson and Dalila), Commander (Don Giovanni), Sacristan (Tosca), Bartolo (The Marriage of Figaro), Ferrando (Il Trovatore), Colline (La bohème), José Castro and Billy Jackrabbit (La Fanciulla del West), Lodovico (Otello). Speaking of the vocal-symphonic repertoire, Sándor performed Requiem by Mozart, Requiem by Dvořak, Requiem Parastas by Marțian Negrea, Faust’s Damnation by Berlioz. In October 2019, he was invited to perform in the Kálmándy30 Gala, which took place in Budapest, a concert conducted by János Kovács, winner of the Liszt Ferenc Award.

He is currently a soloist at the Hungarian State Opera in Cluj-Napoca. During the 2019-2020 season, he will play the role of Il Re in Aida by Giuseppe Verdi and Osmin in Die Entführung aus dem Serail by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the Budapest Opera House.

Dear Sanyi, congratulations again to you and thank you for deciding to keep us updated with your evolution during the 57th edition of the Tenor Viñas Contest, from which you returned today with the Award for The Best Verdian Interpretation. What thoughts and expectations did you have before the contest and which of them proved revelatory?

When I signed up, I realized that I was taking a path that could go very well or not, because in any contest there is, to some extent, the sense of a lottery. Immediately afterwards, I realized that a very important factor was the way I built my repertoire. For registration, the competition rules provided that each participant’s repertoire should be made up of 6 arias, in 3 different languages and 3 styles. One of them was interpreted in the preliminary phase, and the rest of five, in the three stages in Barcelona. From my point of view, looking at regulations and performance, the contest looks to reward a balanced singer, who has the opportunity to punctuate each requirement, both in terms of the text and languages, vocal technique and  stylistically speaking, scenic appearance, and, last but not least, the vocal stamp. Most of the participants eliminated during the semi-finals, even though they had confirmed their potential in the previous stages, were inconsistent in execution, either had difficulties in terms of language and diction, or approached a repertoire that the jury considered inappropriate for their voice, for the respective moment of the contest.

I chose the Osmin aria from Die Entführung aus dem Serail by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for the first round. I knew that in this aria everything is based on attitude, vocality, ambitus and, above all, the grave D. Like the high notes for tenors, if this sound is convincing, success is guaranteed. For the second step, I opted for an aria that would give me the confidence that I would pass to the next stage, along with a completely opposite aria from a character’s stand. In this case, A te l´estremo addio… Il lacerato spirito from Simon Boccanegra by Giuseppe Verdi and Pif, Paf, Pouf from Les Huguenots by Giacomo Meyerbeer. I really wanted to reach the final, and for this moment I chose La Calunnia from Il Barbiere di Siviglia by Gioacchino Rossini and Come dal ciel precipita from Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi.

The judging was undoubtedly characterized by professionalism. In a contest of this type, everything matters: professional conduct, appearance, what answers you give, attitude, energy, diction, musicality, musical, artistic and theatrical intelligence. It even counts the way you enter the room while the jury goes out. The jury looks at you as a product and sees you in one of their theatrical productions. In conclusion, my opinion is that Tenor Viñas is a serious contest, with an exceptional jury, a very good organization, except for the walls of the hotel where, for 48 hours in the first two days of the first stage, 100 singers were heard performing vocals simultaneously. I needed ear plugs and a special grip on my nerves. I could not understand why, because they were all under psychological pressure because of the competition, they were still studying for ten minutes or even hours. I believe that under these conditions, any slight mental or vocal discomfort can easily get you over your head.  

So, you can say that the professional achievements that you returned from the competition with are mostly psychological.

Yes, definitely. In fact, our entire field of activity is closely related to this control of thoughts and emotions, about the ability to induce your state of mind with which you can reach your full potential. The most important relationship you have during a contest is with yourself. The singing contest is about self-knowledge.

What were the factors that surprised you during this experience? The fact that you had  in front of you 11 brand names from the world lyrics industry or the awareness that your performance was broadcast on the internet all over the world?

What impressed me was the concert hall and the public. It is a very beautiful theatre, surely one of the most beautiful ones in the whole world, with very good acoustics… From the stage, the hall looks like in a movie. It surprises you aesthetically, and because of the lighting system that is active during the performances and the concerts, you can see the shadow of each person in the audience. We didn’t have access to the stage at all, but we all played there for the first time directly at the final.

Did you perceive your family’s support as constructive or as a factor of pressure?

This pressure is continuous for each one of us, more and more as you progress in your career or during a competition. I tried to detach myself from these details. I was not active on social networks and I did not talk much on the phone. I consider that a contest is managed in the internal kitchen. I am convinced that all those who won through hard work, on the merits of great competitions, did not intend to make public their future performance in the contest or to keep the followers up to date hourly with its course; you probably need a separate PR department to have everything as expected. Anyway, those who afford this…

Was the decision to participate entirely yours or was it influenced in any way? How did those around you react to this piece of news?

The decision to participate was entirely mine. I cannot say that I received any feedback in this regard, apart from the one from the two determining entities in my study and development as a singer, tenor and teacher Marius Vlad Budoiu and Mrs. Headteacher Iulia Suciu, who have always supported me and still do.

You’re part of a family of musicians. How did this factor influence your decision to take this road?

You realize that you are part of a family of musicians only when you contact those outside the family or the extended family and discover that your daily activities are different from theirs, that you are, in a way, the exception to the rule. Not everyone makes music. Both my parents were singers. As an adult, I remember the feelings I experienced at the age of 3, when I listened to my mother play on stage Tosca, Abigail, Lady Macbeth… I don’t remember anything from the auditory point of view, it is just a sensory and affective memory. I had goose bumps, I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Probably, slowly and slowly, from that moment, my passion for classical music was born instinctively,… for opera.

How did your first meeting with the piano take place, an instrument that I know you had studied until you graduated with a bachelor’s degree, and how did the pianist turn into the singer Köpeczi Sándor?

I was very shy. For this reason, my parents decided to guide me into studying the piano. I really liked the piano, but not enough that I could project it as a passion for a lifetime, as a way to earn my living. My piano teacher, professor dr. Csíky Boldizsár, has always supported me very much. He is a perfect professional, an artist in the purest sense of the word. He has some extraordinary knowledge. During his choir class, I realized that, in terms of pianism, you either want very hard and you are very passionate, or you realize that it is, in fact, your way. I think pianists lead some of the toughest lives as artists. For a minimum of 12/16 years, and then, depending on how long you stay in the guild, you lead a life parallel to the life in society, a life between four walls and an instrument with which you relate. The pianists are always considered a special kind, as I myself was considered and I did not understand why. Compared to the bohemian, colorful life that the singers lead, except the professional ones, the pianists do not allow themselves to celebrate after the concerts, but they return to the study room, because the passage from Rachmaninov did not come out right, the atmosphere from Chopin was not the desired one because of the emotions and stress, Beethoven was too rigid, although it had to be just firm and so on… Probably, this was what made the difference for me. The life of a pianist is a very internalized one, built for a character wishing to work alone. As a pianist, everything your experiences takes place within you, you communicate your art through an instrument, and this requires a very harmonious interior world. As a singer, you give the audience emotion directly through your voice.

My parents never suggested I started singing. At the very beginning, before my admission to the Classic Canto specialization, my father told me that he was not convinced that I was aware of what I was doing. Indeed, I realized that this was my path. It is one of those moments in our life when we realize that something very decisive has happened to us. In my case, the piano exams, when, because of the emotions, the muscles, the wrist and the breath were blocked, the lightness of going on would disappear and a vicious circle would  manifest, in which I could hardly wait to finish the piece of work. All pianists go through this stage. In addition to talent and work, the determining factor in building a pianist’s career is the personality structure, the call to assume that one third of your life you study between four walls to enjoy the audience for an hour. I have always greatly admired  pianists.

In short, after the license exam, my teacher told me: “Sanyi, you were great! The board was impressed. If only you studied a little, you would be exceptional! ”. These words were sweet and bitter to me at the same time. It was the most beautiful compliment I received from a professional pianist, with an undeniable artistic, musical background, which made me realize, however, that for me, from the standpoint  I refer to the piano, it is not enough. After the license exam, I let people know that I would not go for a Master’s degree.

It is a good thing that I started later, because my voice is a little rarer and harder to control. It is known that the bass voice develops at the latest. I think the most important moment in a young person’s life is that of making the transition from unconsciousness about what we do professionally or at a university level, and whether we admit it or not, we have been pushed or influenced by parents, family or friends, to awareness of what we really like and the possibility of sustaining what we like through work in order for it to become a career. For me, this happened in 2014. I still play the piano, especially during the individual voice study hours. 

To what extent do you consider important your training as a professional instrumentalist in the career of singer?

Certainly, the preparation as an instrumentalist helped me during singing, because the pianists think about many sides of the score, while the singers usually think only of a melodic line and maybe the text related to it. Besides the horizontal line of the musical discourse, you have to know what happens in the score from a harmonic point of view, you have to consider the form, the character, the style of the musical period, its specific vocalization, the poetry / libretto, the premises of the compositional period, details without which it is impossible to reproduce the composer’s conception. It is imperative! Adela Zaharia is an example of an extraordinary musical intelligence and I consider that this was one of the determining factors for her in winning the Grand Operalia Prize, along with the exceptional vocal technique, stage appearance and a thorough preparation from all points of view. If you do not possess this quality, you cannot bring something new and personal to the interpretation and you will never become a reference artist for a certain piece of work, because you will remain in the niche.

In short, who are the people who have trained you professionally?

In chronological order: My parents, my piano teachers, Papp Tibor † (Music High School) and prof. Csíky Boldizsár, and, the most influential one, my singing teacher, tenor and prof. dr. Marius Vlad Budoiu and associate professor dr. Iulia Suciu, dean of the Faculty of Interpretation of the National Academy of Music „Gheorghe Dima”, Cluj-Napoca.

What are the next steps in your career in the near future? Do you consider participating in other competitions like this?

Yes, but not in the near future. I need to allow what I learned on this occasion to settle down. I will definitely be more prepared next time. As for the shows, there are 6 Aida performances at the Budapest Opera, then Don Giovanni, Samson and Dalila and La bohème with Ștefan Pop, a special guest at the Hungarian Opera in Cluj, an institution that has an increasingly valuable collective, with an even better ensemble. Towards the end of the 2019-2020 season, I will play Osmin’s role in the opera Rapture from Serai to the Budapest Opera during 6 shows. Along with the collective of the Hungarian Opera in Cluj-Napoca, I will participate in a tour of several shows in Secuime, including Rigoletto. Also, in March, I will take part in the Master’s Course in Interpretation and Vocal Technique supported by bass Riccardo Zanellato, an invaluable opportunity to receive the advice of a personality who has worked so many years with the greatest conductors in the world, especially with Riccardo Muti, and, at the same time, a former student of the late Bonaldo Giaiotti.


Small talk with… Iain Bell

One of the most acclaimed British contemporary composers, Iain Bell, is for the second time in the program of the Enescu Festival. At this edition, Bell will present The Hidden Place, a cycle of songs for soprano and orchestra, which will be performed on September 3rd, on the stage of the Palace Hall by the famous soprano Diana Damrau, alongside the London Symphony Orchestra.

Iain Bell’s music is one that captivates you, it invades your senses and it makes you wonder. Questions that bring you other questions and answers you can’t go without. Iain’s music was the one that, just like a business card, awoke my curiosity of knowing the one behind it. Moll’s a’cold, the ​​madness scene from his first opera A Harlot’s Progress, 15 minutes of music that made my eyes question and wonder. Another kind of “mad scene”, which stands now, two years later, at the basis of my Musicology final paper. I can’t wait to relive the feeling described above, this time in the interpretation of Diana Damrau. Until then, here is the English version of our interview, published on the official website of the George Enescu Festival, which you can read below.

Dear Iain, I would want to tell you that we are happy to have you back in Romania, at this year’s George Enescu Festival edition. Your visit in 2017 was your first time here and that time Adela Zaharia performed the mad scene of your first opera, A Harlot’s Progress. How did you receive the invitation then and how do you feel about coming back with a new piece, performed this time by the famous soprano Diana Damrau?

The performance at Enescu happened via the conductor of the concert Maestro Sitkovestsky. He had heard my music and wanted to include it in his programme, which was an honour and a thrill. Adela’s performance was majestic. She completely understood the musical, the dramatic and linguistic requirements of this long scene, and I was amazed. She deserves all the success she has. It is always a joy to hear new, different interpretations. They all bring their own flavour.

What about these last two years since your last performance at the Enescu Festival? What did they bring new to your creation?

I have been very busy since my last performance at the Enescu Festival. I had another wonderful collaboration with Adela Zaharia who gave the world premiere of Aurora my Concerto for Coloratura Soprano at the Proms in 2018. I also had my fourth opera Jack the Ripper: the Women of Whitechapel premiere at English National Opera in March 2018 and I am now looking forward to the first performance of my fifth opera Stonewall at New York City Opera, commemorating the 50th  anniversary of the Stonewall riots. I feel very fortunate indeed.

When did your musical studies start and why did you start studying music? Is the passion for music something that started in your family? Do you have relatives that are musicians, singers, composers or it is just you?

From a very young age, it was clear to my parents I had a musical ear, for instance I could sing melodies of pop songs back to them having just heard them once from a very young age. I am not from a musical family, but from one that is very supportive of all our talents (I have four brothers, and we are all very different). I have no relatives who are professional musicians in the traditional sense, but my maternal grandfather was a Bag Pipe player in the army in the 1940s. My musical studies started at school where everyone in class was taught the recorder. That is where I began to read music.

Could you please tell me about the moment you knew you are going to become a composer and what or who inspired you to start walking on this path? Are there any composers that could be mentioned as an influence for you, as you developed your own musical language (and why)?

As soon as I started playing the recorder, I began composing melodies on it, from maybe the age of 4 or 5? I didn’t know it was ‘composing’ – I guess it was just another form of expression for me. At that age, a child only does what comes naturally. As I grew older, the pieces I wrote were of greater complexity, and people around me were very encouraging, so I continued. I knew even as a teenager that composing music would be a lifelong passion at the very least. I had no idea of being able to earn a living as a composer till much later. Composers that have influenced me include Britten (his dramatic instincts and setting of English text), Berg for his emotional palette in his music and his skill in orchestration, Strauss for his writing for female voices, Ravel, Ligeti and Penderrecki for their orchestral colouring. Harmonically, I like music that surprises me, that takes me to a place I didn’t expect. I sometimes get the greatest thrill and inspiration from listening to composers of the medieval period including Leonin, Perotin, Machaut, Dunstable. This was at a time before harmony and tonality were established; the rules didn’t exist, therefore the music could lead to the most unexpected places.

My writing style is in constant development, without me even realizing it, or even trying. I imagine that the more one writes, the more refined ones’ style and taste become. I wrote a small solo piece for the recorder when I was five years old, and now I am writing my fourth opera! I am a lyrical composer essentially, and I greatly appreciate that aesthetic, but I love chromaticism and atonal harmonies, and really consider them to be a tool for dramatic expression. That was particularly true of A Harlot’s Progress. The harmonic world is in constant fluctuation as it responds to the emotions of the time.

How do you choose the subjects for your operas and the lyrics for your song cycles? What are the social subjects, the artistic currents that inspire you to create?

It varies. With my operas A Harlot’s Progress, A Christmas Carol and Jack the Ripper, it was my idea as I always wanted to create a trilogy of London operas. With my opera In Parenthesis, I was approached by the Intendant of the Welsh National Opera. Song cycles is different, too. Often, I will speak to the singer who will be premiering the commission and ask them what poetry or themes interest them. I am very interested in exploring the perpetual link between sex and death in my work. I also like to shine a light on the way women have historically been mistreated by men in society. Unfortunately, through this we see that such things are still happening.

What does your first opera, A Harlot’s Progress, mean for you? What made you choose such an actual and controversial subject? Tell me about the composing history of this work, about its structure and orchestration, please. Did you take the composing processes from a music theme, from the libretto or from certain leitmotivs?

This is my first baby so it is very special for me. Diana Damrau asked me to write an opera for her, and I spent a great deal of timing considering which subject it should be. I saw the pictures in a Hogarth exhibition in central London and realised that was the story I wanted to tell. It took me around 18 months to complete. I wrote a short vocal score from the libretto, chronologically and then orchestrated it. In terms of structure, it is in 6 scenes, corresponding to the 6 pictures. The orchestra is a standard early romantic orchestra of around 40 strings, double winds, harp and percussion.

This kind of description or analysis is always better coming from someone with more perspective than I have. I am far too involved in the piece to be able to view it, or my music as a whole, like that. As I said before, the music constantly fluctuates in harmony and tonal centre in reflection of the dramatic moment. It is essentially lyrical, but with some ‘acid’ in the harmony and tonality, which means one is always never 100% settled, one is always aware of something in the shadows. Maybe it is truer to verismo?

What about the piece that is going to be performed this year, the song cycle for soprano and orchestra, The Hidden Place? What is its story? Was it also composed for Diana Damrau, who is going to perform it? 

This was an orchestral song cycle I wrote for Diana Damrau around ten years ago. It was at a point when I had already written several song cycles for piano and voice for her, and it seemed that an orchestral work would be a step forward in our working relationship. I am great friends with her Aunt, the retired mezzo-soprano Christa Palmer, and Christa one day showed me some poems she had written in the 1970s and 80s about precious moments with a loved-one during the four seasons. They were such great texts that I knew these would make wonderful orchestral songs; Christa’s texts really evoke the atmosphere and colour of the seasons, so to have the chance to respond to these musically was a joy. So, in this piece, we hear the orchestra journeying from the gentle mists of Spring, through the sultry excitement of Summer, the melancholy of Autumn and the joy and wonder of the falling snow at Winter.

Vocally-speaking, being the first orchestral piece I wrote for Diana (before my opera A Harlot’s Progress), it meant for the first time that I had the scale to really explore the enormous coloristic, dynamic and virtuosic elements of Diana’s voice, which would have been inappropriate in the chamber-setting in which we had previously worked. This meant I could truly explore her vocal potential, whilst striving to reflect the intimacy and beauty of Christa’s poetry.