Mezzo-soprano Katarina Bradić has returned to Oslo for the third time to transform into Georges Bizet and Calixto Bieito`s Carmen. Bieito actually ended up discovering his Carmen close to the border of Morocco. His story is raw and real, and set at the end of the 1970s in post-Franco Spain. Not a spanish cliché in sight. This Carmen holds a very special place in my heart. It was my first opera and my first mezzolove. Which has led me to other firsts and such beautiful discoveries with composers, singers, musicians, instruments and stories. So ofcourse I reached out to Katarina and asked for this interview and she answered: «Let`s do it!». So we did. And now the circle is close to completion.
It`s Sunday evening, it`s cold, it`s dark, but the streets are covered with a thin layer of snow wich makes everything lighter. We meet at a wonderful bistro called Le Benjamin. It`s located alongside Akerselven, a river running quietly through Oslo. Candlelight, deepcoloured oak, amazing food and a vibrant atmosphere makes for a killer combo between two strangers with similar hearts. We are seated by the window. While the waiter gets us water and menues, the snow starts to fall again. She admires the snow. I admire her face. It is completely ridiculous to look this good. Whatever you might imagine Carmen to look like, Katarina does. Stunning. But her looks soon becomes secondary to her spirit. Not only is she a highly educated musician, she is also relentless in endeavouring to make herself and everyone around her the best they can be. In the very best sense. She is also a woman who loves jazz, the colour green, conducting and she always choose the right windowseat when she flies home to Barcelona. because she can see her apartment from above.
«Vibrant, fucking loud, and gorgeous!»
Katarina lives in Barcelona with her love – under the sun & the orangetrees. I ask her to describe her city in three words: «Vibrant, fucking loud, and gorgeous!» . She volunteers as my local guide if I ever come to visit. But truth to be told, there isn`t much down time in Katarinas life. She travels often and her calendar is usually packed. She orders a rhubarb juice, and I order a Belgian beer. Živeli!
The life of a freelance opera singer is a mixture of great fun, adventure, high tempo, brief relationships , growth, limitations, hotel beds and home sickness. To work for hire colours the air you breathe, and makes your ambitions stronger. Although she sometimes forgets how off the grid this life can be and how much it differs from most people`s. How does one keep friends and family at ease when so often on the road, I wonder? «With love, stability and good communication.» She strikes me as very loyal, grounded and real. Her pack knows. We agree that her spirit animal might actually be a lioness.
«It is important to mention that each dish up till now has been served by a different male chef. I get it. I too feel the urge to bring her food».
Katarina is born and raised in the small town of Prokuplje, Serbia with her parents and her big sister. She experienced war, inflation and separation from her family, all of these before the age of 15. Her parents noticed early that their children had a love for music and fought for them to get a quality education. In Serbia you can choose to go to music primary school, then music high school which is at university standard. For this to be possible, she needed to move her daughters to Niš where that kind of education was offered. In the midst of hyper inflation and uncertainty, I can only imagine how tough that decision must have been for the parents. Katarinas older sister was 17 and she herself only 15 when they moved to an old run down house passed on by a family friend. Her mom worked for the state, making dentures, while her dad was a sales man for a Slovenian fruit-juice company. He immediately lost his job when the war started and was forced to relocate to find work. «It was a Godsent to be given this house for free». For two years Katarina and her sister lived alone in the house, but their mother always made sure they had food on the table. Even if she only made 1 Euro per month, she always managed to make water into wine. And had their meals sent with the local train between the two citites. She timed the preparing of the food so it would still be warm and fresh when reaching them. A huge comfort for the girls trying to make the best out of a bad situation. «I had to make a fire in a shitty, smoke spitting oven every day», Katarina recalls. Her sister still lives in Serbia and works as a piano teacher. Katarina mastered the piano herself when young, but were always more interested in being outdoors and playing sports. «I had talent.But I was lazy».
– If you could master an instrument really well, which one would it be? «The trumpet».
During the first six months of Music High School she started taking singing lessons and it was a painful experience. The teacher didn`t give her the right techniques so she developed a really bad habit, and singing became a very negative thing. She still struggles with some of it. But luckily she has met great teachers since then. «The same teacher who taught me the bad habits was actually the same person who first said I would be Carmen one day. With hind sight that was the only smart thing she ever said to me. Luckily I was not one of those kids who indulged in such unsupported advice. I wanted to learn, study and understand the art of singing before deciding» . Because of this experience Katarina felt that she had no talent, and that singing was not for her.
«…when she looks you in the eyes it feels as if she sees right through you. I have nothing to hide. Do you?»
Katarina went on to study music theory and music pedagogy at The University of Novi Sad. Singing came later during her seven years at this school. The music academy`s main building is located on a hill surrounded by a beautiful fortress from the 18th century (1776), but during the bombings all three bridges over the river Danube were destroyed. Katarina had to take a military ship every day back and forth. «The ride was okay, but standing in long lines waiting for it was not. Especially in June when it became hot. People were fainting in those lines. It was surreal. I can hardly believe that this once was my reality».
Luckily Katarina was introduced to the The World Youth Choir (WYC), an educational and social experience aimed at talented young singers from all over the world. The Nato bombings in 1999 ripped her country to shreds so she applied, got accepted and toured the world working under the direction of renowned conductors. During her break from solo-singing she lived for a bit in the United States, but then moved to Vienna and enrolled at the Konservatorium Wien where she studied with the Israeli soprano Silvia Greenberg for two years. This was before getting invited by Carolyn Hague to study Lied- and Oratorium master program. Katarina first came to international attention in the 2009/2010 season as a member of the ensemble of the Vlaamse Opera. In 2010 she gave a highly successful role debut as Carmen at the Klosterneuburg Festival in Austria and the rest is history. And now she sits across from me at this table in Oslo. I who grew up sheltered and lucky – and only my darkest nightmares contained what she had to endure.
What advice would you give to your 20 year old self? «If two souls doesn`t sing and dance to the same music, and you feel it in your heart and gut, don’t let your reasoning be the boss by putting your soul in a cage. And that «good enough» is also acceptable. If you always seek perfection, it will kill the joy and always leave you dissatisfied».
And now, more food. She has the lamb. I have the fish. We have also devoured amazing grilled squid while talking about sustainability, animal rights, and balance. It is important to mention that each dish up till now has been served by a different male chef. I get it. I too feel the urge to bring her food. This is one of the many reasons she makes such a great Carmen.
All the world`s a stage – espescially for an operasinger, but what led you to Norway? «Per Boye Hansen (chief of opera at The Norwegian Opera & Ballet) saw me as Carmen in Berlin. Based on that I was invited to Oslo and Calixto Bieito`s Carmen. This is my third time in Oslo, and my forth in this production». The first time Katarina worked in Norway was in 2012 at Festspillene in Bergen in a guest performance, playing Amastris in Stefan Herheim`s Xerxes. A role she debuted first at Komische Oper in Berlin. Katarina loves spending time in Norway and she could absolutely see herself spending more time here. Let`s hope she gets a new invitation very soon.
How is working with Stefan Herheim? «It is amazing. He is one of a kind with a very unique creative capacity».
In her immediate future there`s five concerts in Europe as Penelope in Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Carmen in Oslo and Alcina in Switzerland, as Bradamante. All of them before July. May the force be with you, fierce one!
In Oslo she`s got 4 performances down, and two to go. Her Carmen is seductive, without being vulgar and in a switch of a moment she goes from hard to vulnerable, and from mature to almost girlish. She tops everything off with this sneeky integrity. And when she sings in the card scene, everything just stops, and I forget to breathe. Its not only her deep, strong and warm voice but her profound stage presence. It feels effortless and genuine. You really believe in her Carmen, and you feel for her. As one should.
I ask her to tell me who Carmen is for her: «Carmen is a fearless, strong, capricious, sexy woman who’s ideal and motto in life is freedom. Freedom to be who she wants , which is hard in a man driven world. She becomes the victim of not wanting to sacrifice her own freedom for love that she no longer feels. I like playing her because partly I identify with her and partly because I want to be like her. Her character and Bizet’s brilliant music are my perpetual inspiration. It is incredibly fun to play a seductive woman who at the same time is mocking men. To be infatuated with love, then furious, then passionate again. Eventually cold and emotionally empty towards Don José accepting him to kill her rather than having to succumb to his will. That takes guts».
Women have throughout history sacrifised their life, their love and their freedom for the greater good. In opera women have been dying and getting killed for centuries. Madama Butterfly, Violetta, Isolde, and Mélisande, to mention a few. Carmen is no exception. She knows what she wants, and she takes it. She fights to be a woman on her own terms. For Carmen, freedom is everything – the freedom to love whatever, whoever and whenever she wishes. And this is what makes her so fierce. Her character inspires me to be true to myself and to live true to my heart. But of course she also deals with a bit more drama than I would wish to have in my life. I guess you do not get smoke without fire.
«Goosebumps. Anger. Sorrow. Applause!»
In the last act all of this gets to be too much for the loyal soldier Don Josè. He looses his mind in this love affair and ends up killing her because the sheer thought of her with another man totally destroys him. The final scene is so well designed and directed. Its minimalistic, but dramatic. They discuss, they sing, he empties her purse, they fight, he rips her right shoe off leaving her looking very vulnarable. She accepts her fate. He cuts her throat – blood – she falls to her death. Shock. And as he drags her over the floor the stage goes black and the music stops. Goosebumps. Anger. Sorrow. Applause!
Your last chance to see Carmen in Oslo is on the 23rd of April. But approach carefully, when she looks you in the eyes it feels as if she sees right through you. I have nothing to hide. Do you?
Our evening has come to an end. The food and the company was absolutely lovely. We top everything off with coffee and a new friendship. Note to self; never judge a book by it`s cover.
Last but not least, a chunk of random questions:
What role would you love to do? Violetta in Traviata, but it will never happen because I am on the other end of the female voice.