Bohemian Rhapsody

Martina Chylikova explores the sounds of her homeland to assist Balkan refugees

When college student and budding opera singer Martina Chylikova moved to Tucson in 1995, she left behind not only her native Czech Republic, but also the distinctive Slavic vocal style that had spread from Russia through Eastern Europe.

"When I started," she says, "my range was very small, because my voice was heavy; it was back in my throat, and I couldn't sing much." But now, after several years of work with the University of Arizona's Faye Robinson, Chylikova's voice has opened up remarkably. Not long ago, she returned to Czechia to sing the mezzo-coloratura role of Rosina in The Barber of Seville. Right now, she's in rehearsal for a UA production of Mark Adamo's recent operatic version of Little Women; Chylikova sings the lead role, the teenage Jo. In a few months, she'll look several decades older on the stage of Prague's National Theater, where she'll sing the important supporting role of the Old Woman in Leonard Bernstein's Candide.

Although she has adopted a more Italian style of singing and a lot of American repertory, Chylikova hasn't abandoned all things Czech. In fact, she's bringing the sounds of her homeland to the Unitarian Universalist Church this Valentine's Day. She's giving a concert and talk called "Romantic Bohemian Musical Traditions"; it's a fundraiser for the Tucson Balkan Peace Support group's "Balkan Scholar" Award for K-12 students of Balkan refugee backgrounds.

Chylikova herself is no Balkan, of course, and she's not a refugee, either. She came to Tucson with her husband, an arborist, when he got a job with an Arizona landscaping firm. "We came just for a couple of years to get experience and improve our English, but we sort of liked it here and stayed," she says.

She'd already attended a Czech teachers' college for two years, but by the time she got to Tucson, she realized she'd rather perform music than teach it. She had attended a music-oriented elementary school and sung in a prestigious children's choir. "And my mom and dad were both musical," she says. "When we went on trips, we didn't have a radio in the car, so we'd all sing, in harmony. So I was brought up in music."

She wasn't brought up to be an opera diva, though. "I thought opera singers were all fat ladies singing loud, with horns in their hats," she admits. She learned differently once she grew up, and in Tucson, she resolved to enroll in the UA music school and major in vocal performance.

First, she had to live here three years before the UA would recognize her as a local resident and not charge her high out-of-state tuition. Then, she realized she simply wasn't ready vocally to be a performance major. She contacted UA prof Robinson, a well-known soprano in her own right. "She gave me free lessons for almost a year to get me ready for the auditions for this school, and I've studied with her ever since," says Chylikova.

Lessons weren't easy in the beginning. "For the first year or two, it was very hard, because we didn't understand each other very much; I didn't know what she wanted from me," Chylikova admits. "After two years of fighting, it clicked, and it's amazing now. She's done a lot for me and all her students, pushing us to work hard and enter competitions."

Chylikova is working on her master's degree. It's been a slow process, partly because her husband's work visa expired in the middle of it all, and the couple had to wait out visa and immigration complications in her home town of Liberec, in the mountains about 80 miles north of Prague. During that year-and-a-half interlude, Chylikova got her first professional role, as Rosina in Rossini's Barber of Seville. She'd already developed a vocal style quite different from that employed by a lot of Czech singers who had Russian training.

"I'm a Rossini mezzo-soprano, a coloratura that can go to high C," she says. "My voice is lighter than before, but I can move it to make it heavier if necessary. Faye tries to get me to use my instrument so people can hear my own individual color. But back home, you listen to different singers, and sometimes you cannot even tell if it's a different person; it doesn't have the vibrance. With this technique I learned here, the sound is live; there, it sounds wooden. I don't have a big Wagnerian voice, but because of the technique, my projection of my sound is very good, so I never have the problem that people can't hear me over the orchestra."

Chylikova won't have to contend with an orchestra at her Valentine's Day concert. She'll perform art songs by 19th-century composer Antonin Dvorák and 20th-century composer Petr Eben, and folk songs arranged by Jan Masaryk, better known as the son of the first president of Czechoslovakia and the postwar anti-Communist foreign minister who apparently got tossed out a window by his opponents in 1948. Chylikova will talk about the music, and also discuss music education in the Czech Republic today.

"It's much more important than it is here," she says. "Here, all the money goes into sports, but there, it's important for everybody to learn music. We have a saying that is pretty much true: Every Czech is a musician."

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