Judith Mok (Bergen, Holland) is soprano, author and poet. She studied at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. After winning prizes and obtaining grants, she went on to sing a vast soprano repertoire and travelled the world, performing opera, chamber and contemporary music. She has been working for years on her extended vocal techniques. This has led to her deepening interest in sephardic music. Her desire to combine music with literature culminated in the creation of her one woman show Molly says no, about Molly Bloom, the heroine of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Her books of poetry, novels and short stories have been published in both Dutch and English .
Sergio Angulo: —Judith, you are a poet, a novelist, an actress and a classical singer. Could you tell us about all of these aspects of your art?
Judith Mok: —Well, I have been singing since I was fourteen years old. I went to the conservatory in Holland and I studied music there. I started singing professionally when I was 21. I took on my first roles in the opera and made recordings in France. I moved to Paris and started working there as a lyric soprano, and I’m still working as a lyric soprano, more or less, all over the world. I’ve been touring America for the last two years. I made my debut on Broadway in June. I had my own show at the Lincoln Centre, a literary show.
I published my first book of short stories in Dutch, when I was 19., Because my father was the leading poet in Holland, there was a connection there. I was always surrounded by literature, and my father’s Spanish was perfect. Lorca was one of his great loves. I mean, he had a great love for Spanish language, so I was very familiar with Spanish and Spanish literature. I come from more of a literary background than a musical one, but I’ve always been singing and I’m still singing now.
Sergio Angulo: —How do you define yourself?
Judith Mok: —I’m both of those things, I don’t separate them. What I channel and express in my work, I express in both my writing and singing, but not as a different person.I keep both things going. I published my fourth book of poetry less than a year ago. I keep writing and singing, and I keep reading. That’s just me, I just happen to do both things.
Sergio Angulo: How many languages do you speak?
Judith Mok: —Six.
Sergio Angulo: —Which ones?
Judith Mok: —Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Russian, German, and pretty good Italian.
Sergio Angulo: —That’s impressive. And do you write in Dutch and English as well?
Judith Mok: —I don’t write in Dutch anymore. I have written five books in Dutch – three books of poetry and two novels. I married an Irish poet and writer, so I’ve been speaking English at home for the last 27 years. When we moved to Ireland fifteen years ago, I was actually asked by the radio to write pieces about music in English and I said, “Oh, I don’t write in English”. And they said, “Why not?” So I started to write in English and I have a very good editor at home. That’s, of course, my husband.
I just slipped into it and found that I could actually express myself better in English. I was more concise. Maybe I focussed more, because it was a foreign language. Now it’s not a foreign language for me anymore. I never think that I’m speaking English and I haven’t written anything in Dutch for twelve years.
Sergio Angulo: —With regard to Spanish, you said your father spoke it very well.
Judith Mok: —Yes, he did.
Sergio Angulo: —Do you have any other connection with the Spanish language or Spanish culture?
Judith Mok: —Well, I worked in Barcelona for a year. I met my husband in Barcelona. That’s a very big connection. I also sang in Madrid and Granada, Lorca’s place. I’ve always been a great reader of Spanish literature and was always very interested in the world of Jiménez and Machado, and Lorca, of course.
Sergio Angulo: —And I think there is a nice anecdote about the connection between Lorca and your poetry.
Judith Mok: —There is, yes. I read a lot of Lorca and I’m pretty sure he influenced me. I love the language. I love what he stood for, I love his personality, I love his strength, his free spirit. So as a very young woman, I boldly decided to write a poem about his death. I know it’s a very big subject for a young poet, but you do these things when you’re very young. I don’t think I would do it now.
So I wrote a poem about García Lorca and it was the first poem I ever published. Then my first book of poetry came out and the first poem in the book is the poem about the death of Lorca. It was written in Dutch, but it’s translated into English.
Sergio Angulo: —Today, you are going to sing Lorca’s poems in Spanish.
Judith Mok: —I am, yes. Well, he arranged the music himself for his poems.
Sergio Angulo: —How do you feel when singing in Spanish?
Judith Mok: —I don’t sing in a language I don´t understand. I need to really grasp what I’m singing about, and Spanish is a great language for poetry. Spanish is a fantastic, undulating language, so singing in Spanish isn´t difficult. Well, nothing is easy, but it’s relatively easy to sing. It lends itself to music, unlike Dutch, which is a very guttural and throaty language. Spanish is a melodic language.
What I like about his songs is that they’re folk songs. He obviously had a great love for folk culture and music, and that’s why I’m singing a few of these type of songs as well. One is by Manuel de Falla. He and Lorca worked together a lot on El amor brujo. They were both very interested in gypsy culture and so on. I find it very interesting to sing. It’s a different style of singing, it’s less operatic and more focussed. It’s got a different kind of intimacy, a different kind of message. Lorca arranged it very well. He obviously had a very good ear. He was naturally a good composer.
Sergio Angulo: —And just to finish, could you say some words to our audience in Spanish?
Judith Mok: —¿Algo? Que me encanta la poesía de García Lorca, que estoy muy feliz de estar en el Instituto Cervantes. Que espero que le va a gustar a la gente lo que canto: las composiciones de García Lorca, la música y los poemas del gran poeta García Lorca.
Say something? Well, I love the poetry of García Lorca and I´m really happy to be here today at the Cervantes Institute. I hope that everyone likes what I sing – compositions by García Lorca, music and poetry by this great poet.
About Federico García Lorca