Vaclav Čižek: Singing is like a top sport

A Chech origin vocalist, tenor Vaclav Čižek is known as a regular guest at prestigious festivals and concert stages in all over Europe, as a member of Collegium 1704 and Ensemble Inégal, working with such ensembles as the orchestras Musica Florea, Ensemble Inégal, Czech, Ensemble Baroque or Hof Musici and with conductors such as Václav Luks, Hans-Christoph Rademan, Vojtěch Spurný, Roman Válek, Adam Viktora, Marek Štryncl or Michal Klauza. And yet, asked about his career, the vocalist shows his human side, emphasizing the importance of sleep, youth spent in the Czech Republic, and his father’s duties. Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė talks to Vaclav Čižek about his daily routine, fascination with old music, and a career turn.

You have Czech origins and you identify yourself as a Czech composer. How would you describe the opera scene in Czech?

I was born in the Czech Republic in the Moravian-Silesian Region. The Czech Republic is now composed of 14 regions. Most of the regions differ in their historical musical tradition. When studying singing, I was always more interested in old music than the opera. Thanks to Collegium 1704 and conductor V. Luks, I sang many beautiful things in many beautiful places. Only this year, I have started focusing on opera. Old music in concert performance and opera production are very different from the singer’s point of view (direction, movement, singing by heart, costumes, time of preparation, physical exertion). In old music, I sing the most frequently work of J. D. Zelenka, from operas, Smetana, Dvorak, Janacek, which is for real opera voices. Zelenka’s songs inspire me very much, I enjoy them and I want to sing them as often as possible because they sit in my voice. And personally, for me, there is added value because it is Czech music.

Your profession requires to uphold your voice and body in general. Do you have special rituals to nourish your voice and mind before a performance?

Yes, certainly. For virus resistance, frequent hand washing, vitamins, sauna. It is an individual matter but the most important thing is sleeping, which is not easy to do with two small children or at the hotels. I don’t smoke and I like the sharp focus. Colleagues from the bass are smoking and they like coffee. That would be my end. The ritual before the concert is my secret.

What is productive practice in the opera solo career? How would you describe the healthy work ethic for a musician?

 I have been singing opera for only a year. For a long-lasting voice, it’s important to sing pieces based on your voice type, for me personally it is a lyric tenor. Rejoicing at work is motivation, have friends around you helping each other. Unfortunately, it is not always possible.

You studied in Czech Republics Opava Conservatory. Was your primary music education was tied to religion and the performance of religious, liturgical vocal music? What impact such experience had on your life and personal beliefs?

I am not religious but at the conservatory, I first encountered spiritual music and I was enchanted. I studied violin for a long time before the conservatory. I think that thanks to that I learned to listen during singing differently and to use my ears better, for nuance.

You first learned with Sylva Pivovarčíková, Alexandro Vovko, Karel Smolka, Zdeněk Šmukař, Alexandr Vovk. What impact these people have of you as a performer today?

I was not interested in singing for a long time. It was a period of tumultuous youth. When I was studying at university and returning to A. Vovk, I started to work again and harder on my voice. We started to build technique and scope in baby steps. In these days with my lovely kids it is a little difficult for me to come to lessons to him but any time I have time I go!

How could you define your profession as an opera singer?

Singing is like a top sport. You must know your body perfectly and concentrate on one best performance. You must forget about fatigue, stress, or illness. I love lower voices. I don’t like tenor singers. Just Master Pavarotti. His voice is perfect. I was never satisfied with my performance. The teacher once said to me: When you are satisfied, stop singing. I always work at 100% and focus on the meaning of the text – lyrics.

How do you form a new character that you have to embody in the staging of an opera? What is the struggle or the hardest part of working such a job?

The creating process of opera character is a long process. Translation, Story, Musical, Memory, Movement, Strength Distribution, Deeper Experience. As soon as the body fixes the whole role, it can work on inner experience and expression. I’m just learning that.

Do you agree with the metaphor that music is language? If so, what are you trying to tell your listener?

Yes, I agree. But I would say a common language. Often the singers in the choir and soloists are from many different countries and they sing in one similar language but the music makes them sing in one common language.

The listener wants to hear what the author wrote and a piece of the artist’s personality. That’s what we’re trying to do. When a listener laughs after a cheerful aria and vice versa after a sad scowl or even crying, I did a good job.

Your repertoire usually consists of the pieces of Jan Dismas Zelenka and J. S. Bach. What is special about performing their creative work? How does music interpretation process differ?

Zelenka and Bach are the best composers of their time. Their work is a masterpiece but very complicated to interpret. Maybe that’s why often their work is being asked for the festivals. Composers of ancient music composed mostly spiritual music and incorporate many codes and spiritual symbols into it. They worked with many details. Tempo and dynamics are sometimes often changed and borderline.  Modern music is composed for a larger cast, and therefore the musicians and singers are not capable of fine tempo and dynamic nations are not equally put together, so they are mostly more monotonous without any bigger changes. It would not be possible to performer it in this big cast. My favorite combination is performing Mass in the church. They belong together.

Now you are again living in  Czech. How did you make a decision to live back in your home country?

I was born as a second child and my family is my priority. I stopped traveling for a moment and now I try to be as much with the kids as possible. The only option was to perform a theater audition in Ostrava, which was successful. I am very happy because it was a good choice for the voice. In the second half of the summer, I will travel with my beloved Collegium 1704 and hope that everyone will be happy.

This year you are singing in Salzburger Festspiele. But you had performed here before.

Yes, I think twice.

What was your impression?

Salzburg concerts are also a great experience for performers. Beautiful spaces, wishing the gracious audience. Very pleasant. We present Zelenka’s ZWV 21 Missa Omnium Sanctorum Mass, in which I got one of the first solos seven years ago.

The theme of this year’s festival is Antique myths. How do you understand myths? Are they important for modern human?

 I’m not building a program, I’m just a little shard in the Collegium 1704 painting mosaic.

I understand myth as a story full of supernatural elements and magic. The hurried modern life certainly needs belief in something supernatural. Everyone has a hero and looks up to someone.

Perhaps once, in a thousand years, they will tell myths about us and our society and finally, we will become immortals.

Thank you for your time!

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