The Water Sprite, a mythical, unearthly creature steps on stage at Prague National Theatre. His face is wrinkled, his long hair is grey and an ocean-blue robe slithers behind him while his deep bass voice echoes grief-filled words, “Oh poor, pale Rusalka! Alas!” When Dvořák’s opera is over not the mournful Water Sprite, but smiling Štefan Kocán, a Slovak opera singer, comes out for a final bow and the auditorium vibrates with applause.
Kocán is an operatic bass singer who regularly appears on major stages all over the world. Playing the enchanting roles of Mefistofele in Boito’s “Mefistofele” and the Water Sprite in Dvořák’s “Rusalka” in Prague, in everyday life he wears jeans and loves ice cream.
Born and raised in Dolne Dubove, a small village of 500 people in western Slovakia, where he still lives between his many international tours, Kocán has always been attracted to music. As a ten-year-old boy, he was the oldest person in the village to master a musical instrument – a piano – when an organist who played at the local church services died. Kocán’s parents were asked if their first-born would take the man’s place. Honoured, they gladly agreed. “I was scared, as any person would be,” Kocán says, recalling the first time he played organ for church services. “But I had a strong will.”
“I was scared, as any person would be. But I had a strong will.” Štefan Kocán
At 14 Kocán entered Bratislava State Conservatory to study singing, though he had never been to a live opera. For the first time seeing “Don Giovanni” and “Magic Flute” performed in poorly translated Slovak instead of their original languages, he secondguessed his career choice. “I wasn’t like many singers who, accepted to the conservatory, could not imagine their lives without opera,” Kocán says.
As a student of conservatory and later Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava, Kocán was marked as a lyric baritone by his teachers, despite having the low notes of a bass. “Singing all kinds of baritone arias felt absolutely wrong, but I was obedient and thought my teacher must know better than I do,” he says.
Yevgeny Nesterenko, famous Russian bass singer, was a savior of Kocán’s voice. After graduation from the Academy, Kocán sang for the maestro at his summer master class in Slovakia. This encounter changed his life. Kocán was 25 and his voice was finally accepted as a true bass.
Determined to continue his studies under Nesterenko’s tutelage at the Vienna Conservatory, Kocán moved to Austria. Yet, more difficulties were to come. Kocán didn’t speak any other languages but Slovak and could hardly finance his schooling; the money his grandmother has been saving for her entire life was enough to pay a five month rental only. He didn’t shy away from all kinds of hard labor jobs. “I allowed myself a special treat once a year for my birthday: I had a waffle from Rosenberger for 3 Euros and 50 cents,” wrote Kocán in a public letter on his official website.
His professional career began in Linz, a city in Upper Austria. In 2002, Kocán was accepted to Linz State Theatre under fixed contract, singing various leading roles for the company. Soon, his talent was recognised internationally.
Throughout his career Kocán has performed on many stages all around the world: Switzerland, Germany, Japan and even Chile. His varied roles include Mephisto in “Faust,” the Grand Inquisitor and Filippo in “Don Carlos,” and Attila in Verdi’s opera of the same name.
Kocán never dreamed of singing at La Scala, Milan, and the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Yet, in 2011, he debuted at La Scala as Masetto in the production of Don Giovanni, featuring Anna Netrebko. Kocán is most excited to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, where he has been performing in a number of productions every season since 2009. Ramfis in “Aida,” Sparafucile in “Rigoletto,” and Khan Konchak in “Prince Igor” are some of the roles he sang there. “It doesn’t matter if you get a small part,” he says. “Singing there is very hard, since you realize that the place has a long tradition, and something great is always expected of you.”
Kocán values the quality of work. “The names of the conductor or theatre mean nothing to me, if I feel a personal connection with the production,” he says, referring to an open-air Revolving Theatre in Český Krumlov – a minor opera venue compared to the Metropolitan Opera or La Scala – where in August he will sing the role of Water Sprite in the production of “Rusalka,” one of his favourite operas.
“You always feel an adrenaline rush,” he says, describing his feelings before going on stage. “When I was younger, it came from fear and anxiety, now it comes from the sense of responsibility.” He points out that as a person gets older, this constant rush of adrenaline can threaten his health.
However, Kocán is in love with music, seeing it as a natural way of making the deepest human feelings tangible.
When faced with the question of what the most important part of the opera is – acting or singing – he takes a moment to approach the issue philosophically. His gaze then falls on a cup of coffee sitting on the table. “Opera is like cappuccino,” Kocán says, immediately explaining that coffee and milk, only when mixed together, make the final product.
Kocán loves to sing in Prague. Besides playing in the National Theatre’s production of “Rusalka,” he sings the title role in Arrigo Boito’s “Mefistofele” at the State Opera every season.
Martin Buchta, Chorus master at the National Theatre Opera, who worked with Kocán on both productions, describes him as a friendly person with a big voice and charisma. “At the same time, there was something mysterious and, even, demonic about Štefan, that made him respectable,” Buchta recalls his first meeting with Kocán.
Although, 2015/2016 season at the National Theatre of Prague is over for Kocán, he makes his debut as the Watcher in George Enescu’s “Oedipe” at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, in May 2016.
Kocán doesn’t make big plans for the future; his only dream is to sing the title role in Modest Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” He often mentions the opera – casually referring to it as Boris – and then admits that he’s hoping to get the role in 2017, although, not revealing where. Dreams do come true, after all.
Story by Karina Verigina & Photos from Štefan Kocán’s Archive