Life is a journey; to travel well: remember that, “it is possible to seek perfection with humility and without tension.”

Sarah Udoh-Grossfurthner interviews Magdalena Renwart-Khary (Austrian). “I am a modern woman, a passionate musician, a caring teacher, a loving wife. I look for harmony and beauty in the world and try to bring it to others whenever I can.”

Magdalena Renwart-Khary at Oper in der Krypta, Vienna, Austria. Photo Credit, by Sarah Udoh-Grossfurthner

Sarah: Thank you for joining me today, Magdalena. And, may I say, a hearty congratulations? I attended your performance of several opera hits, including Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata at the #Krypta on Saturday the 22nd, 2022. As always, you were the undisputable Queen of that stage.

Magdalena: My pleasure. That’s so kind: thank you very much!

Sarah: The compliment s well earned, believe me — you were simply amazing. Before we begin, let me give you an overview of the origin of my interviews and what inspired them. It may seem rather long, so my apologies in advance. But in-depth knowledge and understanding of what I hope to accomplish with these interviews are always necessary.

Magdalena: Please go ahead.

Sarah: The truth of the matter is that most of us sincerely want to impact lives and make a difference. But the other truth is that we are rarely willing to start that journey from the position that matters most — self-knowing. The thing is, you can’t give what you don’t have. Meaning you can only impact the world around you and change lives if you know who YOU are.

Magdalena: From an abstract point of view, the question of who we are might look very scary, more so since we are also subject to continuous changes during our lifetime. Discovering who we are is a natural process that never really ends.

Sarah: Exactly! That’s one of the points I make in my upcoming book, From Fearful to Fierce. And with that, permit me to lead with my ever-present question. Who are you? Who is the entity Magdalena –Renwart-Khary?

Magdalena: Who are you is a big scary question. I’m sure you are right about the importance of it, dear Sarah. For me, the right way was to totally avoid it initially and concentrate on the practical things I felt I could do at that moment. My blossoming understanding of who I really am followed slowly to reflect on what I was already doing and the observation of what I could do better. There I began to understand which values were most important for me, and I think that only then I reach the point where I could start the journey you are talking about. To answer your original question, I would say that I’m a modern woman, a passionate musician, a caring teacher, a loving wife. I look for harmony and beauty in the world and try to bring them to others whenever I can

Sarah: Each person’s self-discovery journey is relative to their personality, Magdalena, is there? Still, there is no arguing that the journey is essential to achieving our dreams. And perhaps, even more to help others achieve theirs. You could say that is the ultimate purpose behind my interviews: the hope that the life lessons and tips from them will help someone out there understand that self-knowing is crucial to becoming the best version of ourselves; and that before deciding to make a difference and impact our world we must first begin with KNOWING the self at the centre of that decision.

Magdalena: That is good, Sarah. This is why we should be patient in our self-discovery journey and not hope to find a simple and definitive answer. I started to find answers only after I stopped my abstract investigation of the true self. In my experience, it shows itself best in the choices we make and the actions we take; for example, it was beneficial to ask myself: how am I improving the lives of the people around me? What values would I like to follow, and what is worth standing for? For whom or for what am I mostly spending my time and energy, and is this a good choice? What needs to be changed in the world, and what could my contribution be?

Sarah: Beautifully put. The idea for my interviews is based on the overall thesis of my upcoming book, From Fearful to Fierce — a memoir on how I overcame years of debilitating fears that began when I was eight years old and lasted till I was about fifteen. Ask almost anyone, and they will tell you that they would like to become the best version of themselves. The reality is many of us live an entire lifetime without KNOWING who that self really is. How can we become the best version of someone (or even something) we don’t know?

Magdalena: That’s a wonderful idea, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be part of your project, Sarah. I recently had a study session with the philosophy and therapy approach by Dr Viktor Frankl and was impressed to learn that part of what helped him survive and remain sane — when he came home and discovered nobody else in his family had survived the concentration camp — was the knowledge and insights he gained him into the human psychology. He wanted to write down those insights to help other people who were in the same (or similar) position that he was.

Sarah: Viktor K. Frankl! Magdalena is one of my most revered authors! I love his work: especially Man Searches for Meaning, where he posits that anyone is capable of surviving anything, however horrific if he feels there is an ultimate, logical purpose behind his suffering — that is, if he knows that his suffering is not random and therefore pointless. Oh, my goodness! Thank you for bringing him into the interview.

Magdalena: I mentioned him because I’ve got the feeling that he would be very impressed by what you are doing to help people with your interviews.

Sarah: I sure hope so. I was captivated by his book and the thought process behind it. Let's talk about your career as an opera singer. Have you always wanted to be an opera singer? If yes, why — what ignited your interest in classical music in the first?

Magdalena: Actually, first I wanted to become an actress because I liked so much the emotional moments in the movies when the music joins in. Then I learned that the movie actors don’t hear the music while they act, but that it is added later. So my new wish of becoming an opera singer where I would also be an actress but with the music always being live and present was a very natural choice.

Sarah: A natural choice, indeed. How old were you when you first developed an interest in opera?

Magdalena: That’s impossible to tell because I grew up with this kind of music from my earliest childhood. My mother’s husband was a wonderful Flutist who loved opera very much and so did my mother and my whole family actually; so that kind of music was always around me. When I prepared the role of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata that you mentioned before, I was amazed to find out that I already knew most of it without having studied it consciously. Of course, I still had to work on technical perfectioning since it is a challenging role, but the music was already there in my memory and mind.

Sarah: How long did it take for you to get the ‘technical perfectioning,’ right? And more to the point, how long does it usually take for a performer without the kind of prior grasping you had? On average, of course, since everyone grasps differently.

Magdalena: You are right; it depends on the performer, the role and sometimes also on pure necessity. In only three weeks, I learned one of the biggest and longest roles in opera history, CioCioSan in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Those were very intense weeks! On the other extreme, it took me around one year to prepare well Bellini’s Norma, another very impressive role in importance and extent, with the addition of the challenges of Belcanto. Belcanto requires the highest level of technical perfection and so I took my time. I always like to take as much time as possible with every new role, because I don’t only have to learn and perfect it from a musical point of view, I also want to get used to the feeling of the character I’m going for to impersonate on stage.

Sarah: What is the most significant opera role you have ever played?

Magdalena: That’s difficult to say because every role I sing is special and opens a whole new world to me. Every time I learn a new role, I spend a lot of time trying to understand her character — in all her reactions and decisions — until she becomes a part of me and I a part of her. When we eventually go on stage together, we share all our feelings and life experiences, and of course, everything that happens to her also happens to me during the opera. So actually, you are asking me to choose my favourite among different versions of myself that are all very dear to me. Still, maybe the closest to my ideal self would be Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Sarah: Why is that? Why do you consider Beethoven’s Fidelio the character that reflects your ideal self?

Magdalena: Leonore is the most idealistic character in a humanistic sense that I’ve ever had the honour and pleasure to impersonate. She holds on to her love, hope, and faith against all shreds of evidence. She is rightfully afraid but able to overcome all her fears to try and save her husband, who has been missing for two years. When she eventually finds him, half-dead in a hidden prison, she can’t even recognize him. Still, she decides anyway to try everything to save this unknown prisoner, because, whoever he is, no human being should suffer like that. At that moment, she makes her transition from a loving wife to a true humanist, who would fight for somebody she doesn’t even know just because it is right to do so: this is very special for an opera character and the reason why I consider Leonore my greatest role.

Sarah: Magdalena, that was so beautiful and charmingly put, it makes me want to see this opera piece. When will you be performing it next?

Magdalena: Unfortunately, by now there are no upcoming performances, but I already sang the role in many productions (Opera di Firenze, Bühne Baden, Oper Burg Gars, Stift Lilienfeld) and hope that more will follow: I will certainly let you know!

Sarah: Thank you. We know everything worth doing will always attract some kind of challenge or resistance. What are some of the challenges and resistance you’ve faced in your career as an opera singer?

Magdalena: Nowadays, the biggest challenge in the opera world is that it is handled like every other kind of business and subjected to the rules of offer and demand, with the problem that the market is overly full and there is always less money left for cultural promotion. At the beginning of the pandemic, artists in Austria were even told that culture was not “system-relevant”, but also before Corona singers from all over the world were ready to do everything and anything to get a job: which often resulted in their renouncing (all too readily) their dignity. And of course, those in charge are often happy to take advantage of the desperate situation, so many singers are in because of the overwhelming competition. You might think that this is all right, the best may prevail, but opera singing is a very complex form of art — and so who should judge over it? In the end, it is again the market with its advertising strategies that takes the decisions following criteria that often don’t have anything to do with our art. For someone like me, who has dedicated her whole life to this art, it is hard to see how the market does not understand it at all.

Sarah: So, the bottom line is always the dollar sign — or the euro, in this case.

Magdalena: Yes. And in addition to this, our problem is the spreading ignorance and the danger of loss of an art form with a great tradition because of it.

Sarah: How have you been able to deal with these challenges? Considering how much love you have for your trade, it must be hard to watch or tolerate.

Magdalena: My solution was not to take part in this crazy competition against my form of art. When I sing, I don’t do it for my career, but for the people who come to listen. I never work against my colleagues — or try to show that I’m better than them — but I work with them. We share our knowledge, our experiences and also our advice, in order to make better music together. In the ensemble of “Oper in der Krypta” in Vienna, I’ve found some wonderful artists who, like me refused to join a corrupted market and are working together to create a very high level of opera art following only its own art rules and not those of the big businesses.

Sarah: Impressive. What would it take to resolve the challenges and resistance to your satisfaction?

Magdalena: We must try to remember that art should not be a business because it is a present — a gift. Society should allow people like me to dedicate themselves to arts instead of some “system-relevant” activity. In turn, I give society something precious back when, after a long preparation time, I perform my art in front of people and do my very best to inspire them, let them enjoy themselves and feel better afterwards.

Sarah: Basically, a compromise. Society (in this case, big businesses) hands off your art and the way you perform it, and in return, you give them an experience of a lifetime. It sounds pretty uncomplicated, and reasonable to me. Do you see this compromise becoming a reality?

Magdalena: I dream that this becomes a reality. It is not too much to ask for,

Sarah: It is not too much to ask for, indeed. What can real opera lovers do to help make the compromise a reality? How can true opera lovers help you and performers like you achieve this reasonable and logical compromise?

Magdalena: If they are true opera lovers, it is enough for the audience to remember that we artists are there for them, that we dedicate our lives to art and its highly demanding skills to make their lives more rich and beautiful and complete. Then it would be very natural for them to give us the recognition and moral support we need. And maybe they would not tolerate the way many artists are treated and exploited anymore. Even if the audience — exactly like the artists — doesn’t have any grasp on the big business, they can support us, for example, trusting more their judgment and less the rules of advertising. In so doing, they would probably like to support with their small attendance theatres like the before mentioned Oper in der Krypta, where art and artists are treated with respect and the artistic level is very high, even if it’s not part of the big business’ machinery.

Sarah: Magdalena, hearing you speak so passionately about your passion — and it is a passion — makes me want to jump up and come to the aid of you and your fellow artists. Being an artist myself, I can relate to some of your challenges.

Magdalena: Oh, what a lovely thought! Of course, your help would be most appreciated!

Sarah: Actually, an idea suddenly popped into my mind. Since money is the reason some opera artists would suffer the indignity of accepting any and whatever offer, have you or your fellow performers ever thought of setting up permanent crowdfunding? The idea is a bit out-of-the-box, but why not? People raise funds these days for all manners of things — even to bury pets. Some queries on Gofundme, though considered ‘ridiculous,’ have been successfully raised — including funds to go on a ‘spiritual’ journey around the world, to prove that the earth is flat, to hang out with personal idols by purchasing their time. While I am not derogating any of these reasons, I am sure most people will agree they are nothing compared to funding to ensure true artists can perform their trade without worrying about how to eat or pay rents. What do you say?

Magdalena: You might be surprised to hear that Oper in der Krypta already successfully raised funds this way in the first year of the pandemic. It was wonderful to see how many people were ready to donate and didn’t forget their artists, even when the times were terrible for everybody. So I can confirm that your idea is very good. Still, a more permanent solution must be found in the system itself: the Republic of Austria, for example, is already supporting arts with a fair amount of public money, the problems are in the use and the distribution. So it is also a matter of awareness, and I think you could support us greatly in this field since you are an expert.

Sarah: Wow! Okay, so great minds do think alike (chuckle). Expert? Not sure; I am that.

Magdalena: Yes, you are, Sarah, you just don’t realize. Don’t you know the questions you are asking in this interview are helping to pinpoint these problems? When people read about it, hopefully, those who did not know will become aware and, if they can, donate towards maintaining the sanctity of our art. So, thank you for your wise questions.

Sarah: My pleasure, Magdalena. I am glad my interviews and the questions I ask are helpful. Anyway, watching you perform, your love for opera and classical music is undeniable. What is the one thing that could make you throw in the towel — that is, quit the field?

Magdalena: Opera singing is a high-performance sport: I would quit the field if I felt that I was not able to reach the highest standards I expect from myself. But I would never renounce music; I would just dedicate more time to teaching it instead of performing.

Sarah: You said I would just dedicate ‘more’ time to teaching it. Does this mean besides performing, you are also currently teaching music?

Magdalena: Together with my husband, Gerhard Kahry, I give masterclasses for opera singers and students all over the world, and I’m a university lecturer for the Italian Diction for opera singers as well.

Sarah: Ah, that explains your mastery opera. What is your biggest fear, if any, whenever you are about to step on the stage? Oh, before answering that, how long have you have been an opera singer?

Magdalena: I made my concert debut in 2011 at the Vienna Musikverein and performed my first opera role at the Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli in 2016.

Sarah: You are kidding, right? 2016 is just like…yesterday. Do you mean the fantastic things you can do on stage only started barely seven years ago?

Magdalena: (Chuckle). My biggest fear as a young singer was not being good enough. But after becoming a better artist, I understood that when I’m on stage, it is not about myself that I should care, but about the people who, after a long day of work, bought a ticket and came to hear me. With this shift of perspective, my fears simply disappeared and now, every time I go on stage, I only feel glad for the opportunity to donate the results of my hard work to the audience.

Sarah: Beautiful! I know your main stage right now is the Krypta at St. Peters church. Have you ever sang at the State Opera?

Magdalena: No, not yet. But I hope to have the chance one day because it is a wonderful theatre with one of the best orchestras in the world: I think that every singer would be pleased to perform there.

Sarah: Let’s go down the private lane. How long have you been married?

Magdalena: I’ve been married for only two years, but I’ve known and loved my husband for almost fourteen years now.

Sarah: Do you have children?

Magdalena: We have no children, so it’s only the two of us.

Sarah: I have heard that the opera career can be very demanding: a mandatory three hours practice most days is necessary to be good at it. And you are pretty amazing at it — I can see that, even from my standpoint as an amateur. How do you cope with such a demanding job and still have — a good marriage, from the sound of it?

Magdalena: Actually, the practice time is not the problem: the truly demanding part is that you are never done. It doesn’t matter how much time and love and focus you already invested, there is always more to do, and it is part of your job to constantly seek perfection, even knowing that you will never reach it. One of the beautiful aspects of my marriage is that my husband completely understands this challenge and ceaselessly helps me with his patience, advice, and sense of humour.

Sarah: Would you ever consider throwing in having children into the equation?

Magdalena: A child would change everything for me because I would give it priority over everything else, but I think I’m not going to have children, and I’m happy with my life as it is. I’m glad we live in a society where a woman does not need to have children to be considered a complete person. And, thanks to my teaching, I have very often the privilege to help young people find their way: I view them as my children even though they are not.

Sarah: Every career choice demands some sort of sacrifice from the person making it; what would you say is the greatest sacrifice you’ve ever had to make for the sake of opera?

Magdalena: The greatest sacrifice was to renounce the luxury of deluding myself. I had to learn to be absolutely honest with myself about my performance, and it is not easy to be brave enough to show everything you can without excuses, knowing that it might not be enough.

Sarah: What has this realization cost you?

Magdalena: I would say that I had to grow up and take full responsibility for my work and its results. Before, it was very comforting — even if childish — to think that others were to blame for my mistakes: probably that high note didn’t work well because the air was so dry or that tempo was wrong, and so I couldn’t show the phrasing I wanted. But I had to learn that the truth was that I was not prepared well enough: this process really is not pleasant. I had to acknowledge my imperfections and cope with them as the only way to improve my performance. Somehow it was a big disappointment to understand that, like every other human being also, I never was and never would be perfect, but knowing my faults also gave me the power to start improving, and this is a wonderful feeling.

Sarah: That was so beautifully answered, Magdalena; it almost felt like you were reading a section of From Fearful to Fierce.

I know you have sung almost every significant role there is in opera. Nonetheless, do you think you have reached the pinnacle of your career as an opera singer? If not, what role would it take for you to acknowledge that you have reached that pinnacle?

Magdalena: Preparing and performing all these roles brought my singing to a very high artistic level. The pinnacle I aspire to and that I might never fully reach hasn’t much to do with my career. I want to be the best artist I can be and make people’s lives better through my art: to reach this goal, it doesn’t matter very much what I sing or where, but I feel that I’m still on my way.

Sarah: That is a beautiful way of looking at your art, Magdalena. Bravo! Who is your greatest role model in and outside the opera world, and why?

Magdalena: It is Maria Callas because she dedicated her whole essence to our art and brought it to an astonishing level of perfection.

Sarah: That was within your opera world. And outside?

Magdalena: Outside the opera world, it certainly is my grandmother. This might not seem very spectacular, but she lived a very good life for 97 years: this is a long time with many, many choices made and I’m awed every time I think of her. After a very difficult childhood, she was a nurse during the second world war, then she married and raised five children, helped my grandfather as a secretary in his gilding and restoration workshop, took care of his mother, cooked for his employees, rented guestrooms, was a fabulous grandmother and so on. She was always there for everybody who needed her, and I never heard her complain about anything. She passed away last year, closely followed by my grandfather, and I miss them every day.

Sarah: My deepest condolences, Magdalena. My grandmother was one of the lights of my life so I can relate.

Now, I can’t help but ask this next question because he was my absolute opera idol. Did you ever meet Pavarotti or watch him live in action? If yes, please share what that was like and paint the picture very, very clearly, Magdalena. This is where I get to meet the great man, albeit vicariously (chuckle).

Magdalena: Unfortunately, I never met him in person, but I was so lucky to see some of his private videos. He was a wonderful person, friendly and humble in his great success. In one video, he was preparing his voice sitting on the plane on his way to a performance. He stopped many times, saying that the position was not quite right, and he did that always patiently and with a smile, trying again and again until he was satisfied. That was such an inspiration to me! Because, in that short minutes, he showed how it is possible to seek perfection with humility and without tension. Another video showed him before a performance: he was not thinking about himself but happily asking how many people were there and if they were looking forward to the recital. He laughed like a child at the answer he got and said: “Wow! So many!” He warmed up my heart, and I often think of this happy reaction before going on stage because it reminds me that we do the job for the people who come to listen, not for ourselves and our egos.

Sarah: Again, that was beautiful. You do the job for the people, not the ego. I believe that is the mark of a true artist…any kind of artist. No matter what they preach, if they are more about the money and their ego than the people, it says a lot about their person and character.

Magdalena: Of course, I agree with you, but I like to think that different approaches might be legitimate. You undoubtedly know the Queen’s song “We are the champions”: some lines of it come to my mind at this moment. Among other things, the song reminds us that “fame and fortune and everything that goes with it” has their price too. In my opinion, Freddie Mercury was an egomaniac but also an incredible artist who gave a lot to other people.

Sarah: Lol! Can we call him an egomaniac humanist then? (Chuckle). Funny thing about being talented and still being empathetic, my grandmother used to say that a true blessing is like a river — that until you’ve shared what you have with others (like a river receives from one and flows into another river), it can’t indeed be considered a blessing. Based on that idea, do you mentor other opera singers? If yes, tell us what that is like?

Magdalena: Teaching is a very important part of my life. When I teach other singers, of course, I do it by showing them something about my technical skills and sharing my experiences with them. But more than that, I help them remove their own obstacles: my goal is to show young/upcoming artists how to find the freedom to express themselves fully, removing technical issues that block the voice and the emotion on their way out from inside the body. This process sets free a lot of energy and is a wonderful experience also for me.

Sarah: What piece of advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to become an opera singer?

Magdalena: Be constantly aware of what you can and more than what you are not (yet) able to do. It is not a problem in itself not being able to do something, but we must always be aware of it when we go on stage. Otherwise, we risk giving a bad performance ourselves, and may also ruin our colleagues’ performances. Acknowledging our faults is the major requirement for getting better, and this is part of our job. If you don’t want to cope with it, you might be happier and more successful in another job.

Sarah: Epic! What piece of advice would you not give?

Magdalena: Just follow your dreams; if you genuinely believe in them, they will eventually come true. This advice might be true in other contexts and professions, but opera singing is not one of them. The profession needs a lot of work, sacrifice and honest judgments of one’s abilities; it is no place for dreamers, only for very dedicated artisans. And even if you become a fantastic opera singer, the market might not recognize it, so the reality check is mandatory at every point in time; randomly believing in dreams that might not come true could be very dangerous and frustrating.

Sarah: Magdalena, a quote I came across recently by an unknown author stated, “Never think that what you have to offer is insignificant. There will always be someone out there that needs what you have to give.”

“There will always be someone out there that needs what you have to give.” I found this part of the quote quite thought-provoking because we sometimes underestimate our giftings and skills even when others see something great in them. Tell my readers and me, what is the one gift/skill you have that people are always complimenting you about but which you don’t take that seriously?

Magdalena: Haha, that’s a nice question! And the answer is easy: it’s my acting skill. Everybody tells me it is so wonderful, and usually, nobody believes me when I tell them the truth about it, but I will gladly try again today with you. You know that I already wanted to be an actress as a child, but my idea was that genuine emotions were somewhere in the music. Until today I’m still following that idea when I’m on stage: I listen to the music, let it go through my body and bring out the emotions of my role. There is nothing I consciously do besides letting the audience watch me while I feel the combined emotions of music and character: I would not say that this is a skill of mine, but people never take me seriously on that!

Sarah: Magdalena, they say all good things eventually end. Unfortunately, that is about to be the case with our session. Thank you so much for sharing your life, art, and thoughts with us today. Before we wrap up, though, tell us about your next show, where it will take place and how to purchase the tickets.

Magdalena: Sarah, it’s been such a pleasure!! My next show — and I’m very much looking forward to it — will be Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore on the 3rd, 12th and 19th of March at Oper in der Krypta. It is possible to buy the tickets in the main Austrian online ticket offices, but I would recommend calling Ms Dorothee Stanglmayr directly. She is the director of the theatre. It is simply is a pleasure to talk to her: +43 680 3183311.

For more on Magdalena Magdalena Renwart-Khary, click this link

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