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May 29, 2017
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Pavlína Matiová: I'm happy when I can sing in Romanes

19.5.2017 8:47
Pavlína Matiová. (PHOTO: Petr Zewlakk Vrabec)
Pavlína Matiová. (PHOTO: Petr Zewlakk Vrabec)

She's always smiling and in a good mood, and on top of that the Lord has given her an amazing voice. The 28-year-old native of Roudnice nad Labem always dreamed she would be a singer.

Her younger sister Jitka is following in her footsteps today as well. PAVLÍNA MATIOVÁ has found a way to make her dream come true.

Today she performs in musicals ("Rocky", "Sibyl", "Královna ze Sáby", "Antoinette, QUeen of France", etc.), teaches at the International Conservatory of Prague (ICP), and is active in several cultural projects. The pedagogical high school graduate focused on music education and piano, and also graduated from the ICP.

After completing her secondary education she also graduated from a vocational training college. At the ICP she teaches popular song, vocal training to future actors, and is in charge of the World Music Department.

Q: Not all Romani people know how to sing, or play violin, or dance, but the notion predominates that all Roma are musicians, singers and excellent dancers. What's it like for you, do you confirm or refute this stereotype that has lasted down the generations?

A: I am confirmation of that one. My grandpa played violin and my grandma played several musical instruments. When she was young and still living in Slovakia, she used to go play with her Dad at Romani parties and dances in villages. As a saxophonist she absolutely had no competition. She was the only woman in the band, and for that reason my great-granddad used to call her by a male name, Paľo, instead of her given name, Věra. My sister Jitka and I have probably inherited this from her. My Mom's dream was that I play the piano like she does and that I would play her something one day, but Granddad led me and my sister to the violin. I only lasted two years at it, though. However, I have to say that our parents and basically our entire family support us not just in our education, but also in our after-school activities. When my sister wanted to become a baton-twirler or go to a ceramics class, my parents fully supported her. As far as stereoypes go, many Czechs automatically believe all Romani people are musicians, even when the person is absolutely one-deaf and actually can't play a single chord. I think this anachronism is deeply rooted in the majority and it will take a long time for Romani people to get rid of it, just like all the other prejudicial ideas that Romani people don't want to work, or study, or live like the majority does.

Q: To me you seem like a chameleon - one day you're singing the French national anthem, the next day a mega hit in English, and then a Romani number... Have you ever thought you might attempt singing just in English so you could go even further?

A: As a girl I began singing in Czech and Romanes. Unfortunately, because we never spoke Romanes much at home, I did not sing those lyrics absolutely precisely, which was also because at that time I didn't even know what those songs were about. I recall how my Dad, when I was a child, taught me songs from the band Olympic or other Czech groups. However, when I can sing in Romanes, I feel really happy. In each language a great deal can be expressed, but in Romanes it's somehow easier. Recently I have begun to take an interest in French, Portuguese and Spanish works. Not only do I like to learn and listen to this music, but those languages are also melodic.

Q: How much does musical taste change with age?

A: I have the feeling that my taste changes daily. I am rather open when it comes to music, I have not defined myself through just one genre, so I will listen to jazz, and then opera, and then a mix of good old czardas music or high-quality funk. However, with age a person perceives song lyrics differently, seeks their deputh, combines music in different ways, discovers new styles. That's how it is with me and jazz. I never stop enjoying it, I am always finding something new and surprising, but even so it is difficult for me to decide to sing it, I have a lot of respect, for example, for so-called "scat" singing. Its' different for me with classical music, I never had to grow into that, it has attracted me all my life. As a child I just gobbled it up, and even today I experience the same feelings now that I did then when I listen to it.

Q: Do you get nervous before concerts?

A: The biggest stress I ever experienced was when I sang the solo soprano part in the "Requiem for Auschwitz" by the Sinti composer Roger "Moreno" Rathgeb at the Rudolfinum in Prague. An enormous audience was sitting both behind me and in front of me and next to me were award-winning opera singers like Martin Bárta, Martin Šrejma and Jana Wallingerová. I have to concentrate on my performance of such music and perfectly prepare because any error would be immediately recognized. Before such a concert I am replaying every note in my head. Those are the moments when I actually have the most stage fright. On the other hand I have always best learned the scores of classical music, and once you know them, you can apply yourself better in the business. It is not a condition, naturally, there are many speakers who don't know even half of the scores in the repertoire, but it saves me prep time when I am doing musicals, for example. I can also better lead my own students when I teach.

Q: Was it complicated for you to get into musicals?

A: When I was about 11 years old they showed the musical "Dracula" on Czech Television. I recorded it on VHS and played it non-stop. I knew all of the songs by heart. To this day it is my favorite musical and it is my dream to sing it onstage. When there was a singing competition at school and I won it, I got an offer from Professor Jana Balašová that her husband, the director Radek Balaš, was staging "How To Succeed In Business", and at the close of it there is a difficult gospel song. At that time they were unable to fid a singer with that kind of range. Naturally I agreed. I have to say that it was the biggest schooling for me as a singer as well. At the Vinohradské Theater I met Bára Poláková, who interoduced me to David Koller, and he suggested that I audition for the musical "Lucie". Then Radek Balaš suggested I try out for the musical "Antoinette, Queen of France". There, at the Hybernia Theater, I had the opportunity to sing the French national anthem, and that is one of my favorite memories. In the beginning I was aided by chance and some luck.

Q: Is it difficult to break through as a singer in musicals? Which one took the most effort?

A: The role of the Revolutionary in "Antoinette, Queen of France" was demanding for me. I had to learn the French national anthem as somebody who does not speak French and that was not easy. I have the feeling that in musicals there is something like a caste system. Lucie Bíla, Monika Absolonová or Daniel Hůlka will never play bit parts or supporting roles. Then we have the singers who do perform those roles, and the directors categorize them as such and after that they never get much of a chance. That's a shame. Sometimes, however, you do get a chance - one example is Petr Pecha, who performs supporting roles in several musicals but then plays the lead in "Rocky".

Q: If you are performing in two productions at once do you ever mix up the roles?

A: No. It's about preparation and I never underestimate that.

Q: Has it ever happened to you in a theater environment that somebody referred to your ethnicity?

A: Never directly to me, but sometimes I overheard people saying "those gypsies" ... Once it happened to me at the theater in Vinohrady that a famous actor, even though he know I was Romani, made rather tactless remarks about Romani people in the dressing room. It wasn't so much about the fact that he didn't like Romani people as that he wasn't being polite. I left the dressing room, but I don't think he reflected on his behavior.

Q: Which audiences are the most appreciative?

A: Czech ones. The Romani audiences spend a lot of time comparing you to others, and they even heckle you a bit. When I perform for a Czech audience I have the feeling that they are able to appreciate singers' performances.

Q: Have you discovered any exceptional talents during your work?

A: I am gradually discovering them among my students, otherwise I wouldn't be doing this work. I have the good fortune to have talented students with whom it is a joy to work both as groups and one-on-one. I like it when the coloration of people's voices in a group are diametrically opposed. However, I have also encountered students with poor intonation or students who sing off-key, etc. It's all a question of practice. The vocal cords are a muschle and when you exercise them daily and purposefully, then even a person who doesn't know how to sing can manage to do so after some time so that others can listen to him without suffering. I encounter this with actors who don't sing regularly but who sometimes need to sing for a role. They will never become professional singers, but they can handle one song tolerably as part of the role they are doing.

Q: Does it ever happen that somebody says to you "You're different now, you're no longer Romani"?

A: That has happened to me, but it was more when I was going to the pedagogical high school. I proudly espouse the fact that I am Romani, why should it be otherwise? From Romani people I sometimes hear that I have become more Czech, but I don't have any reason to do that. Besides all my other activities I am in the ARA ART group, which is involved in cultural events with Romani themes as well as LGBT ones, we just did International Roma Day here. How could one do that and not feel Romani?

First published in Czech in Romano vod'i magazine.

Rena Horvátová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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