Tomaš Kral: A dialog between text and melody is what I am trying to grasp

The Czech-born vocalist Tomaš Kral has a virtuoso baritone with a warm timbre of that he chooses to remind the modern man of the charm of early music, the purity of the spirit and the peace he feels. The singer’s career was full of upscale triumph – studies with Professor Adriana Hlsova, participation in ensembles such as Collegium 1704, Collegium Marianum and Musica Florea, concerts in Prague Spring, Dresdner Festspiele, and Festival de La Chaise-Dieu festivals. Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė interviewed the vocalist about the music scene in the Czech Republic, his love for early music and the interpretative nuances of baroque music.

What do you think is the current situation of the performance of Baroque music?

Baroque is becoming so popular now and the large spectrum of the audience is interested in listening to it. It is presented even in big festivals like Salzburger Festspiele – it is getting more and more mainstream. The same situation is in Prague. It is like a new trending wave to go listen to Baroque music concerts. Sometimes it feels less profound like it has used to be before when we as musicians really had to fight for it to be heard. Now it is a bit trendy and so it’s hard to see the quality in between trendy.

How does it feel for You to perform such type of music in the period when it is getting more popular?

I am from the Brno region and now for fourteen years, I perform Baroque music. So fourteen years ago in Czech, it was still not so popular, we still had to fight for it. And so we were one of the beginners of vocal Baroque music there. I remember the feeling of being a creator of something that in the future will become trendy. I don’t feel like I just joined the club because it’s popular. I really feel for Baroque music.

Maybe you could describe the Czech music scene and what part vocal music has in there?

We can start with education. In Czech, we have two universities with classical singing programs – those in Prague and in Brno, where I come from. So still in these universities the teachers are from old traditions and for them, music starts from Mozart, they are more focusing on the romantic repertoire for opera singers. Early music used to be for singers that had no voice. You are bad at singing – okay, go to perform Baroque repertoire or go to sing in the choir. This was the approach and it is still a little bit present here, we are not so advanced in early music performance as in Holland for example. But it’s changing slowly. For four-five years now, we have a department for early music – vocal, instrumental, also chamber music. Also slowly it is becoming trendy in the school system. So it is getting there.

How did you come in touch with early music?

Through Vaclav Luks. I started with opera singing studies. Studying in Czech, there is only a study program for an opera singer, who can also teach. So I was part of this program and one day I heard my colleague singing in the university hall. He was a tenor, and also he was playing the harpsichord, which was very unusual at that time. And it was Vaclav Luks. He was giving a masterclass in our school – it was in the year 2004. So then we spoke, I sang, and he invited me to Prague in 2005. Since then everything happened like a snowball – more and more projects developed in Prague since I was still studying in Brno, and then, after the studies in 2008 I moved to Prague and I lived there for seven years. Now I moved to Berlin. But since that meeting, I am performing mostly Baroque repertoire. Very rarely – like once a year – I do perform opera and sometimes I enjoy singing contemporary music. But not as much as Baroque. I do like contemporary music, I like the challenge it creates for the performer. Also, there are a lot of parallels between the performance of early and contemporary music, because in Baroque repertoire the voice has to be very specific, really structured with refined ornaments. And while singing in an ensemble, you have to open your ears and be a part of the group process. These tools are very handy for performing modern music as well. There is always parallel between early music singers and contemporary music singers.

How do you create an interpretation of early music piece?

It depends on the context of a music piece. But as a soloist you start with a text, then you visualize and try to understand why are you saying the text or singing the melody. You see how the composer handled this opportunity of taking a text and letting the music speak and thus there goes a dialog with text and music that you are trying to grasp. That’s why I like contemporary music – the composer is still alive and you can communicate in order to understand the piece better. You can give him questions and he can give you answers, remarks, you can find the joint compromise. You can’t always meet the composer, but in every case, I approach the music like the creator would still be alive. He communication goes in my head then. I ask myself – if I would be him – why would I write it like that and what do I expect from a person that is going to sing this. These are the basic principles for creating an interpretation.

Do you think about what do you how do you want to impact your listener?

I mean, we, as vocalists, are the luckiest musicians, because we have the text and the message is more clear then for others. Instrumentalists are always jealous of that. The composer really delivers the idea through the words. And also there is Baroque forms, principles, rhetoric of music that also has a quite clear meaning. It is connected to the harmony as well – you have questions, answers and conclusions. But in general I try to deliver to the listener the feelings that are behind the words, and so I try to make it personal. Mostly I sing church music, but I still have to personalize, even if the texts says  “Kyrie Eleison” a thousand times. Still, it has to be personal and there has to be a reason why I am singing it. I have to see the personalized picture, so other people can see the picture, or to imagine their own picture – but based on the same shared human experience and the emotions that it holds.

And what is the process of creating the opera character – is it similar?

Usually, the character is formed by the libretto and other performances and the historical context. Also then the director has his own concept that can completely ruin the libretto. He takes advantage of it. The director takes you as a character and adds his own intentions to it. Opera staging is more of a routine then early music performing. You rehearse longer for opera, usually, it takes up to five weeks to really find the character and to define it to make it really pure. Then it is clear for you and the others for the scene and the audience. And it becomes your costume that you don’t change every time. You put a costume, you go on a stage and you stay within a character. There are still place for little change between the performances, but you still have to be in a character that creative crew agreed on. I like to be more spontaneous that’s why I prefer to sing in concerts.

Is there something special about the repertoire for a baritone singer of the Baroque music?

We know the names of the singers that some early composers wrote the music pieces for. Like Handel wrote music for a famous bass-baritone and in the score, you can see his vocal range and somehow hear his character, how his performance could have sounded. And there are some compositions that I feel are really written exactly for my voice. These moments are beautiful, and I feel at home with such music. And there are pieces that I know I shouldn’t be singing, because they are too low, etc. So when I feel at home, it is beautiful, and my voice meets the ideas of the composer.

Talking about your education, what do you think are the base of values that were shaped in you by the  conservatoire and your professors?

In my case, I don’t know how much I keep the same values throughout my life. But my professional approach to music was built through the years of experience working with voice teachers, couches,  conductors, colleagues, composers of contemporary music, etc. I don’t have one guru teacher that I would follow blindly. I prefer to have the pallet, stay open and just pick up what suits me the most. Last week my wife and I were teaching for eleven students in a class for Baroque music. This was the first time when we were properly teaching and had one student after the other. We didn’t know what to expect, but it was great. We ourselves were on a journey there, because we learned so much about ourselves, about our teaching, our technique, our routines, and music values.

What is your impression from the three performances of the last years in Salzburger Festspiele?

As a soloist and a part of the group, it is a third time that I perform in Salzburger Festspiele. It is an extremely well-organized festival, with a long history. It is the best for the audience and also for us because we get international audiences. The exciting thing is to perform the music of Czech composer here – J. D. Zelenka. I think we, as a Collegium 1704, feel like ambassadors of his music. I appreciate being here, of course. 

Is there something that you are excited about your performance in the Salzburger Festspiele?

I will tell you that tomorrow after the concert.

Thank you for your time!

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