Johannes Vermeer Award Singer Tania Kross (47) is the winner of the Johannes Vermeer Prize, the largest and most important state award for the arts. “Why should I only perform in front of an audience that thinks classical music is exclusively theirs? That's extremely weird, when you think about it.”

Bird sounds, the sound of sea breeze. Even before Tania Kross mentions her name on the phone, you are in Curaçao. During the corona pandemic, she went there with her husband and two sons. First with hand luggage only; at home in Gouda, everything was closed, in Curaçao everything was open. What was left of a normal school and work life took place online anyway, so why not?

But after three months, no one wanted to go back. For example, Tania Kross's coronavirus vacation became her return home to the island where she grew up and developed her singing ambitions — including while performing on cruise boats and winning karaoke competitions with songs by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. At the age of 17, she left for the Netherlands to study singing at the Utrecht Conservatory.

The phone rang with big news in Curaçao this summer: mezzo-soprano Tania Kross has won the Johannes Vermeer Prize, the largest and most important state award for the arts, issued by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. “Happy and thankful,” she says, recalling the first response. “For the honor of the award, but also for the impact. I am the first of the islands to receive the Vermeer Prize. And measured by what you can do with it, one hundred thousand euros in the Netherlands is 10 million in Curaçao. There is still a world to win and build here culturally, and that is exactly what I plan to do.”

Tania Kross has always stood out. Because of her deep, low mezzo-soprano, her great energy. In 2000, she finished her singing studies with a score of 95, won the NPS Prize and the Deutekom Competition and, after a performance at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, garnered a “raw cry of admiration” from the audience, according to NRC. Followed: solo CDs for Universal Classics, engagements with Dutch Opera, Carmen at the prestigious opera festival in Glyndebourne.

About fifteen years ago, her career took a different turn. Few more regular opera, fewer classical engagements, more own musical theater tours and television. She won (dressed as a stuffed robot) TV show The Masked Singer (2019) and has appeared in shows like Zing!, Secret Duets, Best Singers and DNA Singers.

Why did you decide to pursue your career differently?

“In 2007, I sang Bizet's Carmen, my favorite role, directed by Sebastian Nübling at the Stuttgart Opera. I made it through seventeen shows, but that production broke my soul. I looked like Marilyn Monroe, the choir members were horror clowns. Don José kicked me to death four times, after which I was brought to life by a frog with an IKEA lamp. Seriously, just look up!

“I want to be part of this, I thought? In cow letters: NO. That's when I started my own production company.”

Was it only out of dissatisfaction with modern directorial theatre? Surely every production offers a new opportunity?

“It was also the case that I didn't get the life I wanted. I've worked with great directors and conductors, but I also wanted a family. For a while, I combined that. Keep working, fly the nanny to Austria. But a year and a half after the birth of my youngest son, I was done.

“Some classical colleagues saw me go with a laugh: ah, he's going to be popular! Yes, so what? Since then, I've had a great life — as a singer and beyond. And everything else, the prestige, that's their narrative, not mine. I want this. And I'm still myself. That is why I find it so special that I am now receiving this award.”

Because the Vermeer Award is classic and prestigious?

She laughs. “Well, my very first thought when I got the call was: Isn't that the award that Arnon Grunberg won last year!?

“It struck me that the jury has followed me in everything I do — not just singing. I am committed to culture in Curaçao and music education, because I am a product of it myself. And I like to encourage young professional musicians to be practically entrepreneurial. You can still sing or play the violin so beautifully, if you don't sell yourself as the product you are, the Concertgebouw is really not going to call you. Are you sitting there with your violin on the couch.”

How did it work out for yourself?

“Very good, but I'm also lucky that I can sing a diverse repertoire, from Bach to Beyoncé, so to say, and that I feel at home on stage and that exudes that. Commercial TV channels noticed that what I do works. Thanks to The Masked Singer and Best Singers, I sang in venues like Ahoy and the Ziggo Dome. terrific! Why should I only perform in front of an audience that thinks classical music is exclusively theirs? That's extremely weird, when you think about it. Opera arias are also just ancient songs, intended for the general public that I now sing them to. Nothing unworthy about it.”

What does it mean for you to live in Curaçao again?

“It was wonderful that I was able to spend another good year and a half with my mother. She has Alzheimer's disease and is now living in a special home. I can visit her now, support my father. after 28 years away from home, that feels good. And my children have been able to see that I too can be very sad. I'm really into not talking but cleaning, but your mother The impotence and sadness that I couldn't fix this were enormous. My parents had a penniless childhood, they did everything to give me and my brother opportunities and support them.

“I was visiting her the other day. She thought she was fourteen and that her hair had to be braided before school. So I thought: okay, that Vermeer Prize is officially still a secret, but I can tell her. “Mom, you know what, I won the highest state award for culture!“And she looked at me and screamed furiously at all the other Alzheimer's patients: “See! Do you see she's really good! What do you think!”

She laughs and blows her nose. “It still makes me feel really emotional. But this reaction marks her. Fight like a lioness for her kids.”

Why do you think that gap between so-called 'elitist' classical music and the general public exists at all?

“Do you know The Gilded Age, an HBO series about New York around 1875? In short, it's about old versus new money. Old money attaches to tradition, to distinguish itself from new money, which is distrusted. This is also how it works in classical music.

“In itself, classical music is not so much elitist as it is particularly interesting when you are a little older. Then you become receptive to the feelings about the passing of time that are so beautifully expressed in classical music. But once you go to the Concertgebouw, you'll find an audience that has usurped that world and radiates something wary of, let's say, 'the new people'. I'm trying to build a bridge to them. At my musical theater shows, old, young and diverse are all mixed up — simply because they know me from TV and like my songs. The elite love it, I think it's a privilege to introduce all those people to classical music.”

The jury report explicitly states this. Your breadth, audience reach and social engagement. Do you already have a concrete plan for the prize money?

“I'd love to drive that barrel to the hardware store now and start building the theater tomorrow that Curaçao hasn't had for decades and needs. We had one, I still danced there when I was seven years old. But in 2001, the curtain fell due to mismanagement, later the orchestra pit filled up due to a hurricane and then there was another fire in 2016.

“I understand that culture must wait its turn. Especially in Curaçao, where, unlike in the Netherlands, much is still really unfinished. Education and health care come first. But now an entire generation has grown up without a stage experience. While earlier the Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jaap van Zweden, played the Bolshoi Ballet here.”

Is it an attainable dream? A theater costs 80 million — or more. And then there is the operating budget.

“It's a start, good to help mobilize sponsors. The added value of a theater also works both ways. My parents worked for Shell. Curaçao is not the future in a new oil refinery, but in more tourism. A theater makes the island more attractive. It is also an economic boost.”

Have you already found partners?

“Yes, I had already started recruiting. Hopefully, something can come out soon about the construction. But an infrastructure must also be built, electricity. For a theater, you also need the government. But why not? If Den Helder deserves a beautiful hall like De Kampanje with 52 thousand people, why shouldn't there be a theater on Curaçao, with its 150 thousand inhabitants?”

You have taken root again in Curaçao.

“Yes, personal and professional — and it also goes hand in hand. I also want to work to preserve my own culture. In 2013, I produced and performed the first opera in Papiamentu with composer Randal Corsen: Katibu di Shon (Slave and Master), libretto by Carel de Haseth. It will be released later this fall. My grandma's grandfather was a garden slave on the plantation where the opera takes place. That's such a strange realization, it suddenly brings history very close. I too will later be the grandmother of someone who will also have grandchildren again. What I do now to preserve our stories and music counts. I feel responsible for that.

“With the Learning Orchestra, for which I am an ambassador, we also started in Curaçao four years ago — first at my own primary school. And it was just like in the Netherlands: Leerorkest children score better at and outside school. For the first time in history, the entire group 8 had HAVO advice this year. Four hundred children now play in a symphony orchestra here. And we dream of even more.”

Where does the dream end?

“Haha, the ultimate dream is selfish! When I'm 65, I want to be able to perform with the Curaçao Philharmonic Orchestra. That doesn't exist, it was disbanded at the beginning of the last century. But who knows, soon, with all those Leerorkester talents?”

The Johannes Vermeer Prize will be presented on November 20 by Gunay Uslu, outgoing Secretary of State for Culture and Media.

Johannes Vermeer Award for singer Tania Kross: 'I dream of a theater in Curaçao'