My family, friends, and readers have known me as someone who runs the other way when the word Opera is mentioned. However, what they might not know is that I actually love the sound of beautiful authentic voices, whether it be medieval chants by Hildegard von Bingen, men’s choirs such as Chanticleer, folk singers, The Wailin’ Jennys, 70s American singer/songwriter Carole King, a capella gospel group Take 6 or jazz scatting ala Ella Fitzgerald.
Recently, my musical friendships on Facebook and Instagram have begun to expand. I was delighted to find random posts by classical singers (friends of friends) who perform not only operas but also chamber music ensembles and duets with piano. As a pianist who collaborates with cellists, violinists, flutists, as well as a good friend who plays upright bass, I realized I knew nothing about classical singing and committed to start researching this classical music genre.
As if the universe heard me, the very next day I came across a video posted on Instagram by mezzo-soprano Katarzyna Sądej. Something about it made me stop and listen. I was fortunate I did. Her exquisite voice and thoughtful words resonated with me. Reading her bio on her website, I felt a connection with this lovely musician. It was a no-brainer to invite her to be interviewed for our blog. I’m grateful she graciously accepted my invitation. I’m pleased to introduce you to Mezzo-Soprano, Katarzyna Sądej and to have her give us a glimpse into her musical world.
Q1. For my readers, would you kindly clarify what is a Mezzo-Soprano? Is one born with a particular vocal range or can one exercise the voice to master any range?
A1. “Mezzo-soprano” is my voice type. Everyone can train the voice to master their full voice’s range and potential. Everyone has vocal cords that are unique, and people’s vocal cords vary in length and thickness, and that does come from one’s genes.
Male vocal cords are thicker, and thus produce a deeper sound than female cords. Of course, within the genders, cords vary in thickness as well. Some women have a deeper voice, and some women have a higher-pitched voice, and that depends on the thickness of the cords. So, people have classified different-sounding voices into different vocal groups.
Women, from lowest to highest, are generally classified as contraltos, mezzo-sopranos or sopranos (with various sub-classifications within those main ones). Men, from lowest to highest, are generally classified as basses, baritones or tenors (again, with subclassifications as well). Though range does play a part in determining a “voice type”, timber of voice is also a huge determinant, especially for voices that have an extensive range.
Many singers have very broad ranges and can sing very low notes and very high notes, so that’s when the quality of sound comes into consideration. Mezzo-sopranos generally sing lower than sopranos, but the quality of sound is also often described as deeper and creamier when compared to the more crystal-like quality of a soprano.
Q2. Fascinating! I had wondered about the classification and ranges. Thanks so much for clarifying in a manner easy to understand. I noticed your large repertoire includes an ample number of classical vocal styles including opera, chamber music, oratorio and solo recital performed at a number of diverse venues. Do you have a few styles, pieces, composers and venues that are closest to your heart? What about them inspires you to choose them as your top picks?
A2. Well… that is a good question because it’s so hard to answer! I’ve even strayed from purely classical singing styles, so my repertoire also includes cross-over and pop singing, and well as voice over. I’ve also done lots of experimental new music and contemporary classical music. I do love the romantic operatic and art song repertoire, and it does seem to suit my lyric voice very well. Massenet has always been a great love of mine. I also love singing Mahler songs and Berlioz’ song cycle “Les Nuits d’été” – the melodies and poetry are just divine…
One of my favorite song cycles to perform is Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder” because the music is just incredible – beautiful, emotive textures from the piano, and gorgeous vocal lines – composed alongside poetry that is epic and so, so profound. I just love that piece. Russian songs by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky are also great for me and I’ve been exploring them more and more.
In my thirties, my voice has become a lot more suitable for romantic and lyric repertoire, so I always love performing arias as Carmen (always, always, always a good party choice!!), Charlotte, and Adalgisa (all popular mezzo roles). I’ve even begun singing arias of Dalila (Saint-Saëns) because this will probably be my golden repertoire in a few years.
Now, that being said…I also love singing Handel, and it also suits my voice. And that’s so different from Wagner song cycles and Massenet opera! I’ve always believed in exercise though, and keeping the voice agile in all those styles is definitely a plus…
When it comes to venues, that’s another hard one because I’ve performed in so many countries now, not just in opera, but also doing recital tours, which often brings a singer and pianist to really cool, lesser-known places. I suppose one of the most spectacular experiences I’ve had was for the Cartagena International Music Festival. That was already a few years ago now, but I remember it like yesterday, just because of the way this festival was presented in old-town Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast. The entire old town was lit up in gorgeous colors, creating a plethora of fluorescent color along the streets and stages, which themselves were build up next to the 19th-century buildings. Many of the concerts were outdoors and thousands of people gathered to listen, and the entire festival was televised throughout South America. It was incredible. I remember a lit-up colorful old city echoing with live classical music concerts. The icing on that cake was the legendary author Gabriel Garcia Marquez attending our Mozart Requiem performance and coming backstage to meet us. His infamous novel “100 Years of Solitude” was one of the first books I read that struck me at my core…
Q3. Your enthusiasm for these works has my interest piqued. I will have to search for them on YouTube. That Cartagena Festival sounds divine. How lucky to have met such a renowned author in person, too! Thank you for sharing your story. You made me feel as if I were there. Speaking of Europe, I’m not sure I mentioned that I share Polish ancestry through my father’s mother’s side of the family. I’m delighted to learn you are an ambassador for Polish music. My readers and I would be interested in knowing more about rare-heard Polish music. Would you kindly list a few of them who you are championing and possibly a link where we can hear their works performed?
A3. Throughout my career, I’ve made it a point to propagate Polish classical song repertoire. It was always close to my heart. My family escaped Poland when it was still communist when I was a child. When I began training classically, the songs of Chopin very quickly made their way into my repertoire, and before I knew it, Moniuszko, Karlowicz, Szymanowski, Petersburski, and others joined as well! The song repertoire of those composers I mentioned are certainly not heard enough by non-Polish people, and there are so many wonderful pieces by them, which deserve better exposure. My Youtube profile has many Polish song examples. Here is an example of a classic Chopin song.
I am now at the tail-end of producing a recording of songs by Witold Lutosławski. These are 33 songs that are very different from the usual avant-garde style of Lutosławski. In fact, he used the pen name “Derwid” to compose them, because they were meant for Polish radio (waltzes, tangos, and foxtrots) and were very different from his usual output. This is a personal project done with pianist Barbara Bochenek, and we’re hoping to get these songs released very soon. To keep track of the CD release, please stay tuned via my social media.
Q4. We share being children of refugees, but that’s a story for another time. I’m also a huge supporter of having lesser-known composers heard. I encourage my readers and students to explore these Polish composers that you champion. I’m excited about your upcoming CD, too. On to my next question, my students are interested in the latest rehearsal trends, tips, and techniques. For example, how do you prefer to mentally and physically prepare for a rehearsal? Do you have a set routine (best days/times)? How long do you usually rehearse to prepare repertoire? How do you prepare before a concert?
A4. Regular practice is most definitely a routine, otherwise, it’s impossible to keep the voice in shape to sing the most difficult repertoire (for example, arias with lots of difficult coloratura or arias that are demanding range-wise). I practice singing out usually an hour per day, sometimes a bit more. Besides that physical practice, singers have to spend hours memorizing text and internalizing repertoire silently, since the human voice can only go for so long. You can’t strain the voice for hours on end once it’s tired, so there is a lot of quiet internalizing that goes on. When it comes to preparing for a rehearsal, the most important thing is to stay present and focused. Keep your mind on the music and how you want to interpret it in collaboration with the other musicians, conductor, singers, etc. Once you begin rehearsing with other musicians, it’s all about collaboration, and that’s a very fun process.
Preparing for each individual performance is quite varied, and that’s because it depends on the length of the work, how many songs, etc. Full operatic roles require months of preparation (ideally!), in order to inhabit the character and memorize so many words and so many arias and ensemble numbers. A full hour-long recital also requires weeks, if not months, of preparation. Smaller gigs, to sing two or three songs from my current repertoire, are, of course, much less time-consuming with regards to preparation, but you still have to maintain the voice in good condition. No matter what I am singing, there are certain things I am careful about the day before and the day of my performance. I don’t drink alcohol, I stay away from loud environments, I avoid speaking too much, and especially over the phone or in the car, where we tend to strain our voices more. I also am careful about what I eat, avoiding phlegm-producing foods (ew – sorry! But you gotta do what you gotta do!).
In general, I work to maintain core strength and I stay fit by exercising regularly. My father was a professional athlete, so I definitely had that instilled in me from a young age. Core strength is so important for the best possible singing. The engagement of those muscles is imperative for proper support during singing, from the intake of breath until the last moment of sustaining a phrase.
Q5. Your personal discipline for healthy habits and mental focus is duly noted and admired. When it comes to correct diet and core exercise, you’re preaching to my choir. That’s so interesting about your dad being a pro athlete! I also appreciate the reality check on the time involved for rehearsals and concert prep. I hope my students will take notice. Speaking of students, my youngest piano student is 7 years old. May I ask, at what age did you realize you were a musical spirit?
A5. I loved singing and performing since I can remember. My sister and I would create shows for my parents and neighbors. I had a good ear and first taught myself some piano before I received any instruction. We didn’t have a musical family, so it wasn’t my parents’ first inclination to get me piano lessons, nor did we have the money for that as immigrants. They were actually impressed enough that I was able to figure out and play any melody I heard on the keyboard. But man did I find out that that wasn’t enough when I got to learning actual music theory!! Learning to read music and learning music theory were whole new challenges for me in my late teens and into my undergraduate degree. I had to work really hard to catch up with everything.
Q6. How lovely. Indeed! I’m curious. Did anyone try to talk you out of fulfilling your dream as a musician? If so, how did you handle it?
A6. There are loads of people that, as a student, you get into conversations with, who will talk about how musicians make no money, that it’s not worth it, that it’s better to keep as a hobby, etc. Once you are a little more established, people do take you seriously. There were a couple of instances in my life where someone very close to me, whose opinion of me mattered, was not supportive of my career choice. And that can be
a very difficult situation for an artist. But… I was lucky in the sense that I was also surrounded by teachers, friends, and family who believed in me. My parents were actually always very supportive. They really believed that I would make it. We learned later as a family how hard this career choice is. It’s no bed of roses, even if everyone around you is excited about your talent. You really have to sacrifice a lot, work extremely hard, and most people don’t understand how much you have to be careful with your voice and body so that they stay in good performance condition. They lived through disappointments and successes along with me. And though for much of the time an artist has to live through so much alone, having some sturdy rocks that you can count on to keep on going is profound, especially if you are as emotional as I am.
Q7. I admire your courage and hope it inspires my readers and students to keep steady with their goals and show gratitude to those who support them. May I ask, how old were you when you performed your first professional concert? How did you get the gig? Was it through teacher connections or a professional manager?
A7. You know, it’s very strange, but I actually can’t pinpoint my first paid gig. There were a few national anthems, or one-song gigs that I did, in high school and during my undergraduate, but I guess the most important first gigs I had were through the Opera Lyra Ottawa Young Artist Program. I was a member of that program while I was still in my undergraduate, and those were outreach performances for kids and adults, helping to raise awareness for opera and classical music. They were very important gigs for me because they taught me how important it is to reach out to people, to do small intimate performances so that they have a chance to hear a live un-amplified operatic voice. Some people think they hate opera until they hear it live, or until they hear a voice that they actually like listening to. Children are especially fascinated by opera… if you just expose them to it. I got into the young artist program in Ottawa by simply auditioning, and then the program engaged us as young artists to perform on behalf of the opera company.
Q8. I’m glad to learn about this. What a great opportunity. Early exposure to great music I feel is vital for children if just to keep it alive in our culture. Have you had thoughts about teaching? If so, was there a particular person or event that inspired your decision?
A8. I am a coach for Polish diction, and I specialize in teaching English speakers how to pronounce sung Polish. This is something I came into after specializing in Polish song repertoire over the years, and I’ve been hired as an official Polish diction coach for festivals and to help with Polish operatic productions in the USA.
I also love being a general vocal coach. I have a few clients that I keep – not too many – as I have an active performance career. But I just love imparting things that I learned through my years of training and performing and discovering. It’s so rewarding to see my students improve and work to change how they approach a certain vocal issue. As one of my voice teachers once told me, “There’s a huge difference between knowing what you have to do to change something, and actually implementing it.” That’s a great point about a lot in life!! It’s really, really difficult to re-pattern our brains, and that’s what complex learning is – re-patterning of the brain. Most people avoid that like the plague! Our brains are naturally lazy, so it takes hard work to excel in anything.
I was extremely lucky with the voice teachers and coaches I had during my university years and beyond. Joanne Kolomyjec, Ingemar Korjus, Darryl Edwards, Lorraine Nubar, Jennifer Ringo-Conlon, Dawn Upshaw and Kayo Iwama were my regular teachers, but there were also several coaches I worked with who also helped shape me tremendously. I say that I’ve been extremely lucky because my teachers were all very good vocal pedagogues and knew what they were talking about. It’s very easy to be put off the right track with the wrong voice teacher.
Q9. How rewarding to have been taught by such luminaries and share your knowledge with students as time permits. Good karma. Have you composed works of your own? If so, what style are they in? Will you be recording any of them?
A9. When I was in high school and in my undergraduate I did compose a few popular songs, some even with a cross-over bend to them. I loved coming up with melodies. But composition is so very time-consuming, and I have so many projects all at once that’s it’s impossible right now to devote enough time to record some of my old songs. Maybe in the future for fun! Though I will say that I’m perfectly happy recording talented living composers’ songs, as well as songs from earlier centuries! In my free time, I actually like to meditate doing visual art – photography, painting, and drawing – and I feel that opens up another dimension for me, which in turn inspires my performances!
Q10. Me, too! That reminded of my high school days when I had composed a duet set to the words of Ecclesiastes and performed it for a World Literature class with a friend who had an extraordinary voice. As an art and music teacher, I find that art and music inform each other. Music and art can also touch people’s lives, bringing happiness and hope. For example, my school partners with CoachArt.org to provide free piano lessons or art classes for families impacted by childhood chronic illness. Is there a charity you are fond of or support, that you might like my readers to learn more about?
A10. I have performed for numerous charities and benefits throughout my career, but perhaps the most important to my heart is a charity for great apes. The Bonobo Conservation Initiative. Please click the link to find out more about bonobos and about their plight. I believe that right now, preserving our earth, environment and critically endangered species is the most important thing human beings can do. I’m a fan of having an earth to perform on!
I lived in San Diego for a couple of years and got to know the bonobos at the San Diego Zoo, and then I was invited to sing for them as enrichment for the apes. Later I also sang for bonobos in Germany, at a different zoo. These apes share 98.7% of our DNA, so I became absolutely fascinated with them. Just like humans, they enjoy a serenade; and they are a remarkable great ape species that doesn’t kill members of its own species (unlike humans, gorillas, and chimpanzees). I try to raise awareness for these apes through my photography and by sharing clips of my singing for them. There are very few of these amazing apes left in the wild, so preserving them is of utmost importance. Many people automatically criticize great apes being held in captivity, and though I’m not a fan of keeping such intelligent sentient beings in zoos, if humans do not stop encroaching on the apes’ natural habitat, zoos will be the only homes these species have left in the world.
That is so amazing! I love that you sang for them. My heart is melting at the thought. I’m glad to learn about this amazing organization and encourage my readers and students to check it out and possibly support it.
Q11. In closing, do you have a favorite quote, mantra or process that you find inspiring or helpful when faced with a creative block, that you would like to share with my readers?
A11. I think it’s really important to stay in the present moment and to practice gratitude. I’ve had some difficult challenges in my life that I had to conquer through gratitude and presence; and by remaining present, I was able to use the energy from even negative situations to empower music and performance.
To quote Brené Brown: “No vulnerability, no creativity. No tolerance for failure, no innovation. It is that simple. If you’re not willing to fail you can’t innovate.”
So, take risks, have something to say, and don’t be afraid to steer just a little off the beaten path.
Thank you for your inspiring words and riveting interview, Katarzyna. You are a kind music spirit and I hope we stay in touch. Best wishes for much success with your projects and for filling our culture with your beautiful voice.
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To learn more about this visionary vocalist, visit her website. Click this link to enjoy listening to her live performances. Peruse and purchase her CDs online, too. Her calendar lists upcoming concerts and interviews. You may follow her on Facebook and Instagram and view performances on her YouTube channel.
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