Returning to our roots - Interview with Katalin Benedekffy

2023. January. 16.

In September, Katalin Benedekffy is looking forward to welcoming operetta fans again with a Lehár gala evening. The one-and-a-half-hour production organized by the opera singer will be available in German and Hungarian, but in addition, from September 15, the general public can meet her in the performance of Jekyll & Hyde at the Operettszínház, and on September 25, she will sing the title role of Countess Marica again at the Hungarian Opera in Cluj. Born in Nagygalambfalva, Székelyföld=Transylvania, the Prima prize-winning artist gives charity concerts and helps young people in Hungary. Your professional career was very strongly determined by the spirit you bring from home, Transylvania. How do you see the presence of these values ​​in cultural life now?

I am delighted that in recent times we have started to return to our own values, to our own culture, both in handicrafts and folk art, in the discovery of the fairytale world that gives us our roots.  I always say that the crown of a tree can only be beautiful if the roots are fine. It's no use trying to move up if we have no idea about our origins, where we come from and what our values ​​are. We have reached a point where it is necessary to give voice to who we are, what we do in the world, what values ​​we have and to be able to represent them. I also tried to add my part to the Transylvanian cultural treasury: my book A pinch of Transylvania was born, which presents the world of legends, ballads, tales and flavours. 

What should we know about this publication?

Its appearance was a big milestone for me, and of course it was a huge honour to be able to use the works of my uncle, Sándor Kányádi, with the family's contribution. In addition, it contains numerous poems, legends, collections of ethnographic material, ballads, fairy tales, folk songs, children's nursery rhymes, folk games, and it also includes a 70-minute CD on which you can find archaic collections, folk music materials along with recitations of Kányádi poems. In addition, I sing folk music materials I sing, which served the basis of being able to submit my MMA scholarship later on - the three-year material of my entire scholarship work plan is based on this, it is the starting point.

You won the MMA Art Scholarship in 2021, which was the first easier period for artists and performers after the pandemic. How did you experience being locked up, and later being able to step in front of the audience again? 

--ddThe period of the pandemic was very hard for everyone, and it affected us artists even harder. At the time, I was just preparing for a 9-stop Australian tour.  I had travelled to Transylvania for a big concert, and when I got to the border, I realized that my whole year had been cancelled. Before that, I was thinking, “Oh my God! I won't even have time to get air!", and when I arrived at the Nagylaki border crossing, it turned out that I would have a lot of free time, because my performances in Italy and Moscow and my trip to Australia, my performances, everything were cancelled. At first, you couldn't believe it. Then came the hope that: "Well! Everything will start again within two weeks!" We had never seen anything like that before. Then 1-2 weeks or a month passed, and we started to worry because we were prepared for certain things, but not for living from reserves for up to a year and a half. If my family had not helped, I would have been in a lot of trouble. At least I could try my luck in other fields thanks to MA degree and my degree in Economics. It was a very good period to think about my true values, what and who honestly matter in my life, where I could reach out even in such a challenging period. Getting back on stage was very difficult, I remember the first event I was invited to: my hands and feet were shaking, I didn't even know which part of the world I was in. You practice and sing at home, trying to preserve this kind of lifestyle and routine, but it was difficult to go on stage again and bring that all back. It was trying and tough, but I think a lot of us got stronger during this period. Furthermore, it turned me into a slightly different person.

As you mentioned, in addition to acting and singing, you also studied philosophy and art, so writing is not far from your acquired skills. With the publication of your first book, the audience got to know your name from a new perspective. What are your future plans regarding this? 

I would be really pleased if I could go a little further along this line. Since I come from Székelyföld, Transylvania, I grew up in this classic fairytale world. Both my grandmother and my mother used to tell stories every night, something they had just invented or brought from the folk world, folk traditions, which greatly determined my life. At the time when I started the book, I had about 500 pages of material without images - then I knew that I would be able to publish a total of 200 pages, including pictures. This was the material I collected archaically from local uncles and aunties. There are several beautiful treasures among them. In the scholarship program, with the title Coming from pure sources, I would like to show children living beyond borders  a world that is built on traditions. However, in the second year we are already going further towards the world of Kodály and Bartók, which is also connected to folk music. Then later we could move on into the world of opera and operetta in an interactive, playful way. Of course, I will gather a lot of material, as the reactions and how the children or even the adults get involved are extremely fascinating to see, and this can also provide the topic of an interesting study, which I would like to put on paper after a while. 

So the main mission of your three-year scholarship program is to introduce the world where you grew up to as many children and young people as it is possible. Please tell me about this, where is this process now? 

I planned seven places a year, at the beginning of the year many tasks were postponed due to illness, so I was able to complete the first round towards the end of spring. There are other projects where I can go to several locations in scattered areas. However, it would be nice to return to the children several times. So now I have taken on more: I go back eight times, so I can build stronger bonds both with the educators and children. I also go to families, I regularly return to Csaba Böjte's children; I visit children in minority and disadvantaged situation in Szalonta, Déva and Magyarcsanád. In Makó, I do not work with disadvantaged children, but this is also a strong feedback on the measure of the differences between working with children from secure backgrounds and working with children growing up in difficult circumstances if two different worlds can be measured in the same way at all. Now there is a school holiday, so the next three performances remain for September, four venues twice, so eight in total.

Your Transylvania project is an initiative that can teach many things to the participants who are open and curious about it. How does working together with the children and the team affect you?

I often meet the audience from a different perspective, as a prima donna I fly all over the world. The situation is completely different when I drive thousand kilometers, go to the children and hug them, talk to them, dance with them, tell them a story or ask them something. It requires a completely different person, a different attitude, which makes it much more personal and purer, because it is a more fragile bond based on deeper foundations. When 7,000 people applaud you, it's a kind of world, but when you look into a child's eyes and he tells you that "You know, my mom died, but you've been here with me since...", when everything once he had is broken and falls apart around him beyond any imagination and you hold his hand, hug him, gently caress his head, give him a kiss on his cheek... It feels like a family, an intimate environment that you never have the chance to experience on a public stage. There is so much love in them, it makes you feel that what you are doing is not in vain.

Do you think that as an outcome of your mission to introduce traditions, strong communities will evolve in other regions of the country too?

Absolutely, in fact, this is my large-scale plan deep in my soul. Although I may not be able to fully accomplish it in the near future. Basically, I think in terms of community, because we have a lot of values ​​that need to be brought together somehow. I trust I will have the opportunity to contact several locations based on the lectures and the program. I was already in several places, including in the diaspora, with the Egy cipetnyi Erdély (A pinch of Transylvania) program. In Hungary, there was a workshop at Judit Józsa's Gallery, where I held lectures and sessions for children and families, and I hope I will have the opportunity to meet more and more people. It would be fantastic to create workshops where we can get to know each other: the one from the highlands goes to the one from the south, or the one from the south goes to Székelyföld. I believe that this can be connected, because unity means strength, that's the only way to create great things.

The  goal of the scholarship program is no secret to set up a high-quality professional team among supported artists helped by the personal meetings at the Hild Villa. The first such event has taken place recently. What is your experience, how can your fellow creators connect with what you represent?

At the inaugural event, we met as new scholarship recipients in Vigado, and already then a story began for us: a lady came to us. It turned out I had known her for a long time. Her name is Enikő Senkovics, who is also a scholarship recipient, but in a completely different section. After we had spoken to each other a bit, she became the proofreader of my book. We have already planned tenders together with Zenóbia Zorkóczy for example and we are still thinking about one or two things together. She even published a newspaper article about me. I am planning a festival next year, which we also discussed, and I am confident that I will be able to find this kind of community thinking with even more of my section colleagues. I have visions of creating a joint story-performance by the end of the third scholarship year, which everyone could individually contribute. I would love to see this happen because there are so many talented people perceiving things in a great way. We had the opportunity to meet fantastic people within the framework of the MMA scholarship program. Everyone is very open to my values and although everyone is busy, the company we keep in touch regularly is active and eager to create. I believe in the sustaining power of the community so really great things can be built with cooperation, mutual attention and love.

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