Album detail
Catalogue number: SU 4206-2

A singer who at the age of 84 performs, alongside the Czech Philharmonic, the Forester’s aria at the end of The Cunning Little Vixen in a jaw-dropping way surely knows his stuff. And a good deal about life too. Richard Novák was lucky to have had great teachers, he is focused, and has never ceased to hone his skills. He was not afraid to put his career on hold when it had seemingly reached its peak, feeling that his voice was losing its inner support, and start from scratch. In 1961, he received second prize at Toulouse (the competition was won by José van Dame); in 1962, he became a laureate at Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. Dvořák, Verdi and Janáček – these are the three pillars of his repertoire, his three great musical loves. He has performed at the Teatro Colón; at the Salzburger Festspiele, under the baton of Claudio Abbado; in Paris, Madrid, Venice … He has sung oratorio roles, conducted by Karel Ančerl and Václav Neumann, and recorded the Glagolitic Mass with Sir Charles Mackerras and Ricardo Chailly. And he has been a distinguished performer of his beloved songs – by Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Křička – and, in particular, Dvořák’s Biblical Songs. The 2-CD album, titled Portrait (SU 4206–2), that'll be released on 21st October by Supraphon, presents a selection of Novák’s very finest recordings and pays tribute to the admirable man and singer, commemorating his upcoming 65th birthday. But it would seem that it’s still too soon to congratulate him on a lifetime of work, as he has yet to take his final bow.

Every person receives a gift, the Biblical talents, which he or she should tend to and later on bring to bear. The talent you were given is your voice. Who pushed you towards singing? You could have become a teacher/writer, like your brother, or you could have chosen to pursue a career in medicine, as your son has done…
Initially, my voice did not play the major role; it was rather my relationship to music in general. My parents and older siblings said that when I was a child I was singing with quite a zest, yet at the age of five I so longed for a violin that I got one as a Christmas present. And not surprisingly. My dad, a village teacher, played the violin, and everywhere around I could hear singing – at home, at the church, in the fields. At the time, singing was a strong need. So I received my love of music in the cradle.

You were then born into the right family…
Absolutely. My parents were quite ordinary, they weren’t rich, and they loved each other. I simply cannot imagine a more ideal background. The Nováks from Rozseč, near Nová Říše, had a rather impressive history, with its chronicle dating back to 1589. My grandpa had seven sons and three daughters, and all of them had a wonderful relationship with one another, throughout their lives. My grandpa was a mayor and he initiated the building of a church in Rozseč. This September, one hundred years have passed since the church’s conse­cration, so we have agreed to commemorate it at a family gathering. Fifty years ago, my father and my younger brother Ludvík, who had continued to work the land, organised a similar reunion, which was attended by 80 Nováks. This year, we can expect about 150 people to turn up.

Did you have to choose between singing and playing the violin? How did it happen that you ultimately became a solo singer?
I really wished to play the violin well enough to be able to study the instrument and subsequently perform with an orchestra, yet there wasn’t any teacher around who would have been able to provide me with the solid technical rudiments. So I just wasn’t good enough to enrol at a conservatory. I also longed to study theology – yet, after a year, the seminary I attended was dissolved. And when I wanted to escape the military bullying in the infamous Auxiliary Technical Battalions for politically unreliable persons, all I had left was my voice, and so I began studying singing at the Brno Conservatory. Regrettably, two years later my teacher Jiří Wooth was forced to leave the school, because the government committee had branded his educational method as wrong and duly banned it. But I didn’t want to change anything, and my professor of harmony suggested that I join a composition class, which was just being opened. It suited me down to the ground, as I could continue to improve my vocal skills privately, to keep singing in the manner my out-of-favour teacher and I wanted.

Did you start in Ostrava?
That was again by chance. One day, my teacher in Ostrava, from whom I occasionally took lessons, mentioned that the local opera company urgently needed a bass. He suggested that I apply for the post. So I did, and it worked out well, and ever since, that is, 1954, I have been a professional singer.

Let us sum it up. You started to sing because you didn’t play the violin well enough, then, after your teacher’s method had been banned, you began learning composition, and you entered the opera stage without having had to make any great effort … Imagine that you had been born a few decades later and at the moment you were looking around for an engagement. Do the young singers today have it easier or more difficult?
Yes and no. Today, young singers can freely travel, make use of the services of foreign agencies and work anywhere in the world, yet just a few, the very best, of them actually succeed in this respect. So I would say that my generation did indeed have it easier. When I was young, the bricks-and-mortar theatres were stable, every one of them had its own ensemble. Hence, fledgling singers could start out somewhere and serve their apprenticeship years. At the present time, all the opera companies in the Czech Republic invite guests to perform the lead roles. It is common that good singers cover the needs of three to four theatres and nothing is left for the beginners. Opera is experiencing a great rebirth, with the old no longer valid and the new yet to come into its own. Theatres would have to be able to quadruple their budgets so as to sustain stable companies and guest artists alike.