Named the “Most Promising Singer of the Year” in 2005, Pavol Breslik is one of the most popular opera singers in the world today. He won the prestigious Antonín-Dvořák Competition in 2000 and took part in the 2017 opening ceremony of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. He has performed on the world’s greatest stages, from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival and the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.

Australian audiences will remember him as Nadir in Opera Australia’s 2016 production of Bizet’s The Pearlfishers at the Sydney Opera House, and for his 2018 performance as Romeo in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Breslik was scheduled to return to Hobart this October as Alfredo in La Traviata, however the concert was cancelled due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. After three months in lockdown, Breslik made a triumphant return to the Bayerishe Staatsoper in June performing Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared. Jansson J. Antmann caught up with the tenor during rehearsals for Die Csárdásfürstin, opening in September at the Zürich Opera House.

Pavol Breslik. Photograph © Pascal Albandopulos

Throughout his career, Pavol Breslik has performed leading roles in Mozart’s operas at theatres and festivals around the world. A firm advocate of the composer’s works, he has repeatedly stated that singing Mozart is the ultimate way to learn technique.

“Wolfgang taught me a lot and I’m so grateful I began my career singing his works. A singer must have perfect technique. Without it you’ll damage your voice. Mozart was such a complex composer and his vocal pieces are utter perfection. He is the best example of why a healthy voice is so important. There is a purity of sound; a legato that demands technical brilliance. In my opinion, every singer should sing Mozart. Even Wagnerian singers do,” he says.

True to his word, Breslik continues to return to Mozart’s operas and will perform the role of Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Bayerishe Staatsoper in June next year. Tamino in The Magic Flute is another role he has enjoyed performing again and again.

“Tamino was actually my second Mozart role. The first was Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni at the State Opera in Prague. I was 21 at the time. Three years later I sang Tamino at Glyndebourne. Now I’m 41 and the role is still in my repertoire. Singing Mozart is like taking your car to be serviced. With age you sing heavier roles, like Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Gennaro in Lucrezia Borgia, Nadir in The Pearlfishers or Faust. After singing these parts, I always like to go back and perform a role like Tamino, because it’s good for the voice. Another one is Belmonte with its coloratura passages, which keep the voice healthy and light.”

In 2017, Breslik performed the world premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Reminiszenz at the long-awaited grand opening of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. He sang before an audience that included German President Joachim Gauck, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mayor of Hamburg Olaf Scholz, and the architect Jacques Herzog, as well as countless other dignitaries from around the world. Breslik remembers it as a very special occasion.

Daniela Schadt, Pavol Breslik, Rita Schütz and former Bundespräsident Joachim Gauck at the opening of the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Photograph © Pavol Breslik

“It always makes me happy when people mention the Elbphilharmonie, and deep down in my heart I think how lucky I was to perform at the opening. Reminiszenz had been written for Jonas Kaufmann, but he fell ill and I had to learn it and stand in for him. I enjoyed it and have performed the piece since.”

In spite of the success of his performances of Reminiszenz at venues such as the Philharmonie de Paris in 2017 or the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam the following year, audiences should not expect to see Breslik singing works by other modern composers any time soon.

“When it comes to contemporary music, I’m not a huge fan,” he admits. “Nowadays composers don’t seem to be able to write especially well for the voice. It’s not the same as writing instrumental music, which has intervals that require you to jump huge scales, while you try to find the right note. I performed in Berg’s Lulu in Salzburg. It’s a beautiful piece, but it’s incredibly difficult. Of all the works I’ve performed, it took me the longest time to learn. I did it once, and that was enough. Never again! That’s not to say I’m a lazy tenor, who doesn’t want to learn new things. On the contrary. I’m very happy to, but composers need to learn more about how the human voice works. I would like to sing for many years to come, and I don’t want to pretend to be a prince and perform Tamino for the rest of my life. However, if I want to still be singing when I’m 65, I need pieces that are healthy for the voice.”

The operetta is generally considered a form that places less strain on a singer, and Breslik has enjoyed performing in various titles over the years. Is it escapism?

“I like operetta a lot. Although the vocal parts are not very demanding in terms of the range required, you still have high notes, but there’s more freedom of interpretation. If you have a great conductor with whom you can connect, you can have a lot of fun making music on stage.”

Even so, Breslik admits that it’s not as easy as it sounds. “Operetta is very easy to listen to, but not very easy to perform and sing. You need to dance and act, which is especially challenging for me, because I hate dialogue. People from the Slavic regions like me are very throaty. We don’t speak like people in Italy, where everything is positioned nice and high. Therefore, it’s difficult to find a balance between my speaking voice and singing voice. The dialogue needs to be clearly pronounced and projected and I don’t want to sound like Mickey Mouse when I talk. Nevertheless, the melodies by Lehar and Kálmán are so beautiful and make me happy,” he says.

Pavol Breslik performs at the 2018 Vienna Opera Ball. Photograph © Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn

In 2018, Breslik had to meet the challenge of combining song and dance, when he was invited to perform at the Vienna Opera Ball. Attended by over 5000 guests, and transforming the Wiener Staatsoper into a giant ballroom, the annual event is the highlight of the Austrian capital’s social calendar and watched by a television audience of approximately 2.5 million people.

“I was very pleased and honoured to be invited to open the Opera Ball in Vienna,” says Breslik. “It’s something that can only happen once or twice in a lifetime. After all, it is the most famous ball in the world. I have to admit it was quite stressful, because during the general rehearsal I realised I couldn’t hear the orchestra and the musicians couldn’t hear me. What’s more, the conductor couldn’t see me, even though he had to respond to what I was doing in the auditorium. I don’t like using a microphone, but in this case, there was no other way. I sang “Ah, lève toi soleil” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and “Lippen schweigen” from Lehár’s The Merry Widow with Valentina Nafornita. The dancefloor was extremely crowded, but I danced for 10 minutes and it was a wonderful, if somewhat crazy experience.”

Breslik is now rehearsing Kálmán’s Die Csárdásfürstin at the Zürich Opera House in a new production by German theatre and opera director Jan Philipp Gloger. The operetta had its premiere in Vienna in 1915 and the libretto reflects the political climate of the day. Ending with the protagonists’ declaration of love as the rest of the world descends into madness, the work would seem a timely inclusion in the repertoire.

“It’s such a great piece and I’m looking forward to performing the role of Edwin with Annette Dasch as Sylva. In 2014, I also performed the role of Boni in the same piece with Anna Netrebko in Dresden. It was the New Year’s Eve concert conducted by Christian Thielemann at the Semperoper, which was a lot of fun. This new production in Zürich was supposed to open at the end of April and run through May this year, but of course it was postponed because of the coronavirus. We are now scheduled to open on 25 September,” says Breslik.

Pavol Breslik as Edwin with Annette Dasch as Sylva during rehearsals for Die Csárdásfürstin at the Zürich Opera House. Photograph © T+T Fotografie/Toni Suter + Tanja Dorendorf

Breslik is in high demand, but achieving this level of success takes talent, determination, discipline and training. Vocal stamina is paramount and, as is the case for any performing artist, the physical and emotional demands are gruelling. Breslik’s routine reveals how an entire day leads up to the evening performance.

“It’s not an easy life, but I like it. Of course, I couldn’t do it without the support of my family, my friends, and my manager Rita Schütz. Without them, none of this would be possible,” he says.

“On a performance day, I wake up and go for a walk with my dog, Mia. I feed her and make sure she’s happy, because when my dog is happy, I’m happy. I have a beautiful Weimaraner. She is very intelligent and has such beautiful eyes, which can be difficult, because it means she often gets what she wants. After that, I warm up and find my voice. You never know if it’s there, especially if you’re a tenor.”

“Once I’ve warmed up, I’ll have something to eat and start preparing for the performance. I put on my make-up and my costume, at which point I start to feel nervous. I always get butterflies. The first minutes on stage are the most unpleasant, but once the orchestra starts and I’ve sung a few bars, the nerves are gone. From that point on, I’m caught up in the story. After the performance, the hardest thing is coming down and letting go of the character I’ve played. However, once I’ve closed the door of my apartment and I’m alone, I leave the role behind and I’m Pavol once again. And then there’s Mia, who needs to be fed and go for a walk. She helps me come down too.”

Listening to Breslik talk about the important role his dog plays in his life and daily routine, it is clear how down-to-earth he is. Friends and family are still of paramount importance to him, and he is as much at home in the garden in his native Slovakia as he is on stage. Indeed, at one point during the course of conducting this interview, I found him, chainsaw in hand, as he worked to clear a fallen tree that had come down in a storm. It is clear to see that, in spite of his international success in glittering opera houses around the world, he hasn’t lost touch with his roots and this might explain why he is such a great exponent of the Slavic repertoire.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Wenzel), Pavol Breslik (Hans), Selene Zanetti (Marie), Helena Zubanovich (Kathinka), Oliver Zwarg (Kruschina), and the choir of Bayerische Staatsoper in The Bartered Bride. Photograph © Wilfried Hösl

“I’m from Slovakia, so I grew up with Slavic music – Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Smetana, as well as Slovakia’s own Eugen Suchoň and Mikuláš Schneider-Trnavský, whose music I featured on my first solo CD. As I child I listened to Rusalka and I could even sing every part when I was at school,” he says.

“You will find the heart and soul of the Slavic people in every piece of Slavic art and music. It’s what takes the audience to another world – a world of sad dreams. It’s in the operas and the songs … those amazing, sad songs. That’s not to say we can’t be funny. There are a few humorous works too, but it would seem that people prefer sad stories.”

“The Slavic repertoire is a huge part of my life. It influences my interpretation of the songs I sing. When I perform, I always try to include something from my home country in the program, because I like introducing audiences to something they might not have had the opportunity to encounter before.”

Last year, Breslik performed the role of Hans in two different productions of Smetana’s quintessential Czech opera The Bartered Bride. Both transported the piece out of its quaint, bucolic setting. One was directed by David Bösch at the Bayerishe Staatsoper in Munich, and the other by Mariame Clément at the Semperoper in Dresden. Both were sung in German, however Breslik soon discovered that an unexpected obstacle awaited him.

“The funny thing is that Smetana was actually a German-speaking composer and he originally composed The Bartered Bride with a German libretto. It was subsequently translated into Czech, and that was how I first sang the opera in Bratislava. That was a very funny production. Then I performed in David Bösch’s production in Munich. I love working with David. He’s such an easy-going director and I really like his style. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to sound like I preferred David’s production over the one in Dresden, but it uses the original German libretto, whereas the production at the Semperoper uses a newer version,” he says.

Pavol Breslik (Hans), Tijl Faveyts (Kezal) in The Bartered Bride. Photograph © Semperoper Dresden/Ludwig Olah

“I performed in Dresden right after the season in Munich, and I therefore found it difficult to switch from one German version to another. I had sung the original many times before and it was almost like second nature to me. Suddenly, I was faced with a newer translation – the music was the same, but the words and phrasing were different. Sometimes I’d find myself unsure of what my next line was, or I’d even use words from the original libretto. I was on autopilot and poor Hrachuhí Bassénz, who played Marie, would open her eyes and look up at me as if to say, “that’s not the right version.” I’d need a computer instead of a brain to differentiate between those two libretti,” he says, chuckling.

Putting the challenges of juggling two different versions of the same opera aside, Breslik has no trouble reconciling the various acting and vocal demands of the roles he performs. This is just as well, with a repertoire that ranges from opera seria and buffa to bel canto, Lieder, and the Second Viennese School.

“Once upon a time, opera singers were able to stand on stage like a sack of potatoes. Fortunately, those days are over. Nowadays one needs to be the full package. Of course, first and foremost, we are opera singers, but you also need to give the audience something to look at. That’s not to say that you don’t need to take care of your voice. And you must always maintain an open dialogue with your directors, just in case they want you to do something that might threaten the musical integrity or compromise your vocal performance. Singers and directors generally need each other to achieve the finished product, although that can depend on the director. However, a director can’t do it without the singers.”

Breslik admits being a little apprehensive about the way some directors interpret certain operas. “I don’t want it to seem as though I always prefer traditional or classical productions, but I appreciate a staging that has an inner beauty, a reason and meaning. I like a production that tells a clear story. I’m not overly keen on directors who can’t see the wood for the trees. An opera needs to be considered in its entirety. If one stops to focus on just one mystical or philosophical element, one risks losing sight of the complex structure of the piece and what the composer originally intended.”

With such a broad repertoire, he seems unsure as to whether he prefers comedy or tragedy, however there’s no denying his penchant for darker subject matter.

“It’s nice to have a laugh on stage, but comedy is very difficult. Then again, it’s also difficult to make people cry, even though I think audiences enjoy tragedies more. Just look at how beautiful it is when Violetta dies in La Traviata. I also find that after I’ve done a lot of tragedies, like Lucrezia Borgia, I need something lighter for a change. That said, there’s nothing quite like the wow factor of the final scene in the cemetery in Lucia di Lammermoor. As the orchestra swells and I sing “Tombe degli avi miei” with the chorus behind me, I must admit that’s the kind of death I like.”

Pavol Breslik during the recording of The Diary of One Who Disappeared with Ester Pavlu, Dominika Hanko, Zuzana Marczelova and Mária Kovács. Photograph © Pavol Breslik

As 2020 rolled on, it became clear that tragedy would not be confined to the world of make-believe as the COVID-19 pandemic began to sweep the world, resulting in the closure of theatres everywhere. Cancellations and postponements followed, with no end in sight. In February however, before anybody could have predicted the calamity about to unfold, the Orfeo record label released Pavol Breslik’s recording of Leoš Janáček’s 1919 song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared. Breslik had previously said how important it was to draw upon one’s genuine emotions when singing the Slavic repertoire and this project gave him the unique opportunity to do just that.

“It’s a 38-minute journey that takes you from love at first sight to the realisation that you can’t live without that person. I love music and stories that examine the inner conflict between who you were before and after you saw that special someone. You can sense that Janáček composed this cycle in his more mature years, just as you can in his later operas featuring tragic characters like Káťa Kabanová, Jenufa or Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Affair. Through these works, Janáček wanted to show that women are stronger than men and how powerful their destiny can be. That’s why The Diary of One Who Disappeared is somewhat unique, in that it examines a man’s inner feelings and the male condition.”

Fortunately, Breslik’s interpretation would not be confined to a recording. In June, as restrictions were slowly eased, he became one of the first opera singers in the world to take to the stage since the lockdown had begun. It was a historic moment as he returned to the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich and sang Janáček’s song cycle before a live audience with Robert Pechanec on piano. With the worldwide pandemic still ongoing, Friederike Blum’s inventive staging found a unique solution to the challenges presented by the COVID-19 restrictions still in place.

“I was very happy to be back on stage. After three months of no singing, no opera and no theatre, I found the semi-staged production very powerful. The auditorium remained empty and the 57 audience members were seated onstage with us. They were so close that you could feel the energy emanating from them. It was an exhilarating and strange experience at the same time and I really hope we can return to a normal way of performing very soon,” he says.

Pavol Breslik in The Diary of One Who Disappeared at Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich © Wilfried Hösl

In October, Breslik will perform the song cycle again at the Janáček Brno Festival. This production will be based entirely on Janáček’s own directorial notes, which he made while composing the work. With a troubling resurgence of the pandemic dominating the headlines, it is heartening to see that the performance in Brno is virtually sold out. While the pandemic may have exposed the prejudice held by many governments towards the Arts, Breslik is quick to point out that it has also highlighted how vital artists are to humanity.

“It would be a grey and empty world without artists. After all, what do you do in quarantine? You read a book. And who wrote that book? An author. You listen to music, but first someone had to write it, sing it and perform it. Without artists, there’d be no paintings on our walls. Even the programs we watch on TV employ a whole range of creative skills. It’s all art.”

While the arts enrich our lives, it is physical contact with others that Breslik craves the most. “I miss hugging my mother and my friends. The hardest thing is not being with someone you love, or someone vulnerable, because you want to protect them. But it’s necessary,” he says.

As a performer, he admits that the first few weeks of the lockdown were the hardest. “I felt really down and useless. We all did. After so many years on stage, it was like falling into a black hole. When you think of birdsong, only happy birds sing beautifully and so it is for me. Therefore, I tried to avoid thinking about it and, as a result, I didn’t end up missing music that much. Instead, I spent time working in the garden, which was incredibly helpful. I love gardening and digging around in the earth, so it was very healthy for me.”

Pavol Breslik as featured in The Opera Cooks. Photograph © Johannes Ifkovits

Breslik is a keen gardener and when he isn’t performing, he’ll spend hours absorbed in the nature around him.

“There comes a special moment in the late afternoon, when you sit down in the garden to enjoy a glass of wine and look out at all the work you’ve done. You can see the plants growing and the flowers blooming. Even the birds fly down to sing for you. In that moment, you can see another world beyond yours and that’s what counts the most.”

He may enjoy wine-tasting, but what of the Burčiak – Slovakia’s young wine made from freshly pressed and fermented grapes and traditionally drunk at the annual harvest festival?

“I can’t drink Burčiak. It makes me ill. It may sound romantic to enjoy a drink in a nice cold wine cellar, but eventually you have to emerge into the sunlight … and then you pass out,” he says with a laugh.

A self-confessed foodie, Breslik does however love to indulge in the kitchen, especially when cooking for others. “That’s true. As a cook, the greatest reward is seeing your guests leave their plates empty,” he says.

His love of cooking is firmly rooted in his childhood. “In summer we would get together every weekend in my grandmother’s garden to make goulash. There’s something special about gathering as a family and cooking together. I loved spending time with my grandma in the fields, picking herbs for tea and spices like marjoram and cumin. For me, food always evokes such childhood memories.”

One of Breslik’s favourite dishes – beef cheeks with Slovak potato dumplings, known as Bryndzové halušky – will soon be featured in the forthcoming publication The Opera Cooks, alongside recipes from 70 fellow opera stars, including José Carreras, Jonas Kaufmann, Anna Netrebko, Nina Stemme and Australia’s own Danielle de Niese. Published by the Opera Rifko Verlag in Austria, it will be available at the Sydney Opera House Shop in time for Christmas. As they say in Slovak: “Dobrú chuť!”