Interview: Mary Matz

The American writer introduces Opus Osm, an online Czech classical music magazine

Over a long and varied career, American expat Mary Matz has worked in journalism, advertising, publishing and the recording industry, written several books and even provided the voice for Czech school-leaving exam practice test CDs.

For her latest project, the online magazine Opus Osm, however, she's focused on a particular passion: classical music, opera and ballet in the Czech Republic.

Sam Beckwith finds out more:

How, why and when did you come to Prague?

I came to Prague in 1995 to teach English at Charles University for "just one year." At the end of the semester, I was teaching the grammar construction for "By July, I will have been in Prague one year" ... and I added "And then I'll go home!" Well, Jan in the back row got this shocked look on his face. "No!" he said, "You can't go!" I thought, sure, OK, whatever. Then on his final exam he wrote, "We will give you many gifts to stay in the Czech Republic." And I thought, "Oh sure, final exam, I might write something like that too, in his place." But then I started thinking about it -- that earnest look on his face -- and I realized that I really didn't know enough about the Czech Republic. One year wasn't enough. So every year (especially around February) I start thinking it's time to go back to the Midwest US, but then spring comes. And I think, "OK, one more year." And by the way, Jan was right -- over the past fifteen-and-a-half years, the Czech Republic has given me many gifts.

What do you like and dislike about living here?

Ha! Ha! Please see my 1,500-page book on the topic (yet to be written).

What did you do prior to launching Opus Osm?

Briefly, around age 18 I decided I wanted to be a novelist. But all my plots for novels came out like old TV shows. I realized I was never going to be a writer of fine lit-ra-cha so I decided to try every other type of writing that I could, for my entire career. I've been fortunate: Over the past 35 years I've written for several newspapers and magazines, advertising (print, radio, video, a little TV); I wrote a radio play which I co-produced, I've edited books, I published a weekly newspaper for five years, and I worked in a recording studio. If awards impress you, well, I've earned several, but I'm probably best known here for the articles I write for Bridge Magazine (English-teaching magazine for Czech secondary school students), the books I've written on American stuff, and as a teacher trainer in workshops for Bridge, the British Council, and Oxford University Press. Oh, and the poor secondary school students may recognize my voice on Maturita (school leaving exam) practice test CDs -- I'm the one who says, "This is the end of Part 1. Part Two: You will hear..."

What is Opus Osm? Why did you decide to launch it? And when did it launch?

Opus Osm is a free, online publication about Czech classical music, opera, and ballet. It's a magazine -- not a blog, not a website, not a Tweet, not a Wall -- which I launched in October 2010. I looked around at the ever-dwindling English publishing possibilities and decided, "This time I'm gonna write about something I care about -- but something I don't know very much about, so that I won't get bored." At the same time I was becoming very concerned about the way society is pushing aside classical music, opera, and ballet, as if they don't matter. Only sports and business -- and maybe sex -- seem to get the funding, the publicity, the attention; they're positioned as the only things that matter when you're looking for something to do.

Why are classical music, opera and ballet important?

Man, if I could answer this question in 10 words or less I could die right now happy. The short answer: They are your human rights. The medium answer: They are your culture. Your history. The story of who you are, where you came from, your ancestors and their problems, joys, knowledge, and understanding of life that they had to struggle with, suffer with, before you were ever born. Classical music, opera, and ballet can help you feel better when you're down; can help ground you when you're too high; can be a companion when you're lonely; can express your joy when you fall in love. And when you get to be over 35 and your hearing changes, and you feel like you've finally paid your dues, and you want something to just make you feel a little less tired of living, well, classical music, opera, and ballet will be there for you. Unless you help destroy them now by thinking they don't matter.

Prague has historically been an international center of classical music. Is that still true today?

Absolutely. On Opus Osm we have an events calendar which is aiming to be your one source of all classical events. Would you believe there are generally way more than 100 classical events every month? And it's not even music festival season yet! Some of the finest performances are outside the venues you think of first (or maybe you think of only). This country is loaded with talented classical musicians, singers, and dancers. Everywhere. Unfortunately, virtually everyone working in the classics either has to have a day job or struggle along on minimum wage (or less).

What advice would you give to somebody who doesn’t know much about classical music but wants to give it a try? Where should they start?

The most important thing to know: classical music is not "fast." It takes time and patience. But the rewards last longer than a Tweet or a post -- they can last your entire life. So start by going to Opus Osm and reading a little bit. See what interests you. Google that topic for more information. When you've had enough, stop (even if it's only been two minutes -- that's OK). Then come back to it again later. Check YouTube for short performances. Decide what you like and what you don't like. Guess what? In classical music, there's no one right answer. Whatever you like, you're entitled to like, no apologies. Start noticing composers' names or the names of pieces. Then look for their performances locally. Take a friend or go alone -- no harm will come to you. If you go to a performance in a smaller venue, you will probably have a chance to speak to the performers afterwards. You might be surprised how friendly and appreciative they are that you made the effort to listen to them.

When did you first become interested in classical music?

Classical music was always just "there" when I was growing up. It was used in TV commercials, in kids' cartoons, in Disney movies. I never studied it, but I did take ballet lessons as a young child. (I wanted to be a princess but there were no job openings, so I settled for ballerina.) I sang in several choirs and learned to read music. One day I was really bored, so I made the musical scale by pouring water into eight glasses and tapping out a song. My mother was thrilled! She immediately sat me down at the piano and made me take lessons. That, of course, was the end of that!

What are your future plans for Opus Osm?

To let you have so much fun with classical music, opera, and ballet, you wouldn't believe it if I told you now. Just be aware: I'm always thinking, always planning, always dreaming (that can be dangerous). For the short term, we're going to offer a daily news format in addition to the monthly magazine format.

How long do you plan to stay in Prague?

One more year.

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