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About The Host of the Artists on the Verge Podcast

My name is Ema Katrovas and I’m an opera-singer-turned-experimental-performer. You can learn more about my “professional” profile as a performer here, though it leaves out many aspects of my background. I don’t much enjoy telling the personal version of my life story, but if I were a person exploring the Artists on the Verge podcast, I would want to know more about its creator. So, here is one way I might tell the story of my life so far:

I grew up moving between Prague, Czech Republic, and New Orleans, Louisiana. My father is an American writer and my mother a Czech interpreter and translator. For the unlikely story of my parents’ meeting, and my accidental conception during the so-called Velvet Revolution in then-Czechoslovakia, I’ll refer you to Alan Levi’s 1993 portrait of my father in the Prague Post.  

I grew up around the Prague Summer Program for Writers, which my parents founded in order for me, and later my two sisters, to be able to grow up in both the Czech Republic and the United States. Being bicultural led to a lot of trouble when I was a child, especially in Czech schools where students and teachers alike thought of being half-American as a character flaw. When I was 14, my parents made the decision to have me start college early so as to escape the Czech school system. Though I did enjoy studying college-level literature from a young age, this gave me a kind of whimsical education which makes me a bit quirky to this day.

Because so-called creative writing was the main kind of art I knew growing up, I wrote things since I was very young. When I was 12, I won two Czech poetry competitions, one of which was judged by the dissident writer Josef Škvorecký who gave me the first prize and special mention. When I was 18, a book of my translations into English of the works of Czech poet Pavel Šrut came out under the title Paper Shoes with Carnegie Mellon University Press (2008). I also published translations of two short stories by Bohumil Hrabal in literary journals (Hayden’s Ferry Review, 2010, and the now defunct Calque, 2009) soon after the book of Pavel Šrut translations came out. My only other publication, after a long hiatus, was my own short story in 2019 in Redivider Journal.

My lack of publications for most of my adult life has to do with the fact that, in my early teens, I started to want to work with music rather than language. I loved the math of music, its physics – math and physics being the kinds of subjects I was undereducated in, given my early exit from standard education. I thought music held some kind of key to the universe. Since my parents didn’t really push for me to get a “proper” music education from a young age, the only way I could study music seriously in college was by becoming a singer. Luckily, singing seemed to be a talent – the only time I seemed to be accepted by my peers was when I sang (mostly jazz standards.)

After I cobbled together a fake high school education by piecing together various college classes and a semester here and there in American public schools, my father insisted I get a college degree in the US and that I study at the university where he taught, now in Michigan, where he transferred from New Orleans when I was 13. I was miserable living in the Midwest. My only stroke of luck was that Western Michigan University happened to have a good music school. I got to study composition for a year, and took extra theory classes and, to this day, some of the best music-making I have been a part of was as a member of the university choirs.

After finishing my Bachelor’s, I wanted to go home to the Czech Republic, mainly because I was terrified of losing touch with Czech, my other native language. Part of the reason I was so miserable in the Midwest may have been because it is such a linguistic monoculture. I got into the voice department of the music school of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and, from there, sung small roles in regional Czech theaters in my mid-twenties. I won’t get into my singing career – you can read the official version on my “professional” website.

Parallel to my music studies, I translated movie scripts, treatments, pitches, since I was 19. This has been my main, lucrative, job for most of my adult life and continues to be a source of income to this day. However, for the second half of my twenties, there was a sharp falloff in translation work because it is one of the disciplines being devoured by software, which is to say AI. In my mid-twenties, I became the coordinator (against my will, to be honest) of the aforementioned Prague Summer Program for Writers, which had gone from being university-affiliated to being a family business. Managing this summer workshop allowed me to cut my teeth on organisational work which has come in handy when organizing my own “indie” performance projects, though I am still at the beginning of the process of being a serious independent artist.

In fact, most of my creative projects “in the real world” have been learning experiences but not successes. From 2020 to 2023, I worked on producing a short musical film. My peek into scriptwriting, albeit as a mere translator, helped me conceptualize the project creatively, but I went through lots of grief, practically. Now, the film is in limbo but I have gained some wonderful collaborators thanks to it (you can listen to my 2023 conversation with the director and producer of this seed of a film on the Artists on the Verge YouTube channel, here.)

In 2019, I started to experiment with online content. I started with a blog, the idea of which was to document the harsh reality of being an aspiring classical singer, the reality I didn’t feel was being talked about enough. I named the blog Soprano on the Verge because I wanted a “snappy” title and remembered soprano Julia Migenes’ opera-stand-up-one-woman-show Diva on the Verge. And then it simply stuck through to Artists on the Verge, the final format being mostly a podcast. I do think the phrase “on the verge” portrays that spirit of exploration and “indie” art that I want to convey. For a more thorough look at the development of the online platform, you can listen to one of my shorter podcast episodes on the origins and branding the blog through to the podcast on my personal website.

Besides developing a career as an artist-creator, my aim is to document the world of artmaking and the position of the artist in 21st culture from the inside, as a working artist myself and with an emphasis on artists who are not institution-affiliated (i.e. indie). I feel very lucky to be able to interview artists and edit their portraits out of those interviews – cumulatively, I want their voices to tell the story of how people find beauty and purpose in a world which seems to have less and less of those things. Besides being a kind of journalist (in a very New Journalism sense), I’m conceiving of various projects as a singer and performer which align with what I think the value of independent artmaking is and plan to document the creative and practical process behind those projects in both written and audiovisual form. It is an uncertain path which doesn’t hold the promise of upward mobility, or even eventual stability, but feels like the only meaningful way forward.

Here’s to being on the verge!