voice - soprano
She began her musical career in 1952 in the choir of the Hungarian Trade Union Council ensemble, and was subsequently a member of the Hungarian Radio Chorus before becoming a soloist with the Hungarian Army Ensemble. In 1955 she made her first guest appearance with the Hungarian State Opera, when she took the part of the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte. In 1957 she became a permanent member of the company, and was before long one of its leading artists. Even at her debut, it was already apparent that she was determined to conquer one of the most notoriously difficult and demanding operatic spheres: that of the coloratura soprano. To succeed in this particular area, it is essential that the singer should not experience any problems in the upper register, and that she should be able to produce the very highest notes with complete ease. Karola Ágai has never had any difficulties in this regard, and there is a radio recording in which she can be heard singing a fantastically high note - an A flat nearly three octaves above middle C. As the term coloratura soprano itself indicates, a fluent singing style and a virtuoso technique aria needed to tackle parts of this type. Ágai is also celebrated for excelling in the spectacular execution of brillant scales, embellishments and trills. Later in her career, as her art reached its peak, she extended her range beyond the typical coloratura soprano repertoire, and successfully performed lyrical and dramatic soprano roles as well.
Her repertoire has concentrated mainly on eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century operas, as her particular type of voice was especially popular during these periods, and she won recognition in this field from the very outset. She began her exploration of the operas of Mozart with one of the most difficult roles, that of the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte, and went on to tackle the parts of Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serial and Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte � parts which are not in fact much easier, as they are more extensive and involve substantially more singing. She also appeared in another type of Mozart role, as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro: here it is not so much virtuosity which is important, but the unfolding of the lyrical beauties of the part, and Karola Ágai did full justice to this requirement.
In Il barbiere di Siviglia she was a wonderfully fiery Rosina; her vivacity and sense of humor were put to good effect in Rossini's magnificent comic opera. Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is one of the most rewarding and effective coloratura soprano roles. The famous mad scene is not only a test of the performer's vocal capabilities, but is also a serious acting challenge. Karola Ágai gave a wonderfully sensitive account, in terms of both singing and acting, of the unhappy, deranged Lucia, as she exchanges words of love with the imagined phantom of her fiancé, Edgardo, while singing a duet with the solo flute. In another of her interpretations, the title-role of Flotow's Martha, she gave the part a more lyrical and playful character, with an entertaining portrayal of the adventures of the aristocratic lady and her hapless experiments in what is to her the dreadfully alien world of physical work.
Few singers would attempt to perform all three soprano roles in Offenbach's opera Les contes d'Hoffmann, for each of these roles has a quite different character (the part of Olympia is written for a coloratura soprano voice, that of Antonia for a lyric soprano, and that of Giulietta for a dramatic soporano) - yet Karola Ágai succeeded in projecting all three convincingly.
Her appearances in the operas of Erkel were important landmarks in her career. She has sung both the female roles in Hunyadi László: Mária Gara and Erzsébet Szilágyi. These two figures - the young girl in love and the mother concerned for her sons - were brought to life with the same unforgettable talent for characterisation. Her virtuoso technique ensured that her performance of the so-called La Grange aria was always a great success. Ágai's interpretation of the role of Melinda in Bánk bán touched the audience's heart with its delicate femininity and sincerely felt tragedy. Of the two versions of the scene on the banks of the Tisza, she always sang the most difficult, most virtuoso version.
The Verdi role she performed most often on stage was Gilda in Rigoletto; her two arias, the duets with the Duke of Mantua and Rigoletto, and the death scene were always warmly received. In the role of Alice in Falstaff she moved furthest away from the coloratura soprano type, while Violetta in La traviata was probably her most dramatic interpretation.
Of the lyrical operatic heroines, Karola Ágai gave a sympathetic account of Marguerite, the seduced heroine of Gounod's Faust. In Rimsky Korsakov's opera The Golden Cockerel, she sang the part of the Queen of Shemakha. In her hands, Pushkin's mysterious fairy-tale character underwent a dramatic transformation from seductive beauty to terrible siren, who destroys the infatuated Tsar Dodon and his kingdom.
One of the greatest successes of her career was as Zerbinetta in the 1967 revival of Richard Strauss's opera Ariadne auf Naxos. Zerbinetta is a cheerful commedia dell'arte figure who attempts to console Ariadne, who has been abandoned by Theseus. Her aria is the most spectacular, most rewarding solo number in the opera, and at the same time poses an exceptional challenge for the performer. The critics could not praise Ágai's performance highly enough, especially as Zerbinetta's aria is every bit as difficult as early nineteenth-century bravura arias; in fact, the chromatic nature of the coloratura makes it harder still to sing in tune.
Karola Ágai has taken roles which show her to be moving towards different styles and genres. These include parts such as Titania, the queen of the fairies in Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the flighty Rosalinda in Johann Strauss's operetta Die Fledermaus.
She has given many performances outside Hungary, and has appeared (among other venues) at the Hamburg Opera, the Bolshoi in Moscow, and (in 1969) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
She retired from the Hungarian State Opera in 1982, but continued to perform on the concert stage, especially in partnership with her husband, the guitarist László Szendrey-Karper (who died in 1991), with whom she made numerous radio and commercial recordings.
1958 Liszt Award
1970 Artist of Merit
1977 Artist of Distinction
2009 Kossuth Prize
In 1992 she was made an honorary life member of the Hungarian State Opera.
|Erkel Ferenc: Bánk bán
|400 Years of the Opera Vol.1
|Bizet, Georges: Carmen (részletek)
|Great Hungarian Voices Series
Mozart, W. A.: A Varázsfuvola (részletek)
(Mozart, W. A.: Die Zauberflöte / The Magic Flute (excerpts))
50 éves a Hungaroton - Énekművészek (1951-2001)
(Fifty Years of Hungaroton - Singers)
Mozart, W. A.: A varázsfuvola (Zenés mesék - Mesés zenék)
(Mozart, W. A.: Die Zauberflöte / The Magic Flute)
|The Masters Collection: János Ferencsik