My greatest dream was to play
A conversation with Izabella Klosinska
-Trubadur: You have been recently awarded the Andrzej Hiolski Prize for the best operatic role of the season.
– Izabella Kłosińska: I was greatly surprised when I heard that I was to receive the prize established in honour of such a great artist. I was extremely happy and moved, I was happy that the results of my work in this production of Madame Butterfly had been noticed and appreciated by both professionals and opera lovers. And the work on the role of Cio-Cio-San was indeed very hard and strenuous. This production departs from a certain cliche, Mariusz Treliński, wanted a truly authentic experience of the role. It wasn’t easy for me to adopt this kind of acting, I had to overcome my feelings, to „open up”, which I found very embarrassing at the beginning. It is a more symbolic acting, completely different from what is usually shown on stage. Of course intuition is essential but sometimes we cannot judge ourselves whether the way we act is true or not. Mariusz Treliński analyzed everything – every look, every move had to be thought over. The director simply did not give in to our stage habits and did things his own way.
– There is a view that acting interferes with singing, that one can either sing or act.
– Conflicts with directors do happen – sometimes a complicated acting assignment can make singing difficult, sometimes, when you have to sing a difficult phrase, you may have problems performing what the director intended. Treliński was able to combine the two. Sometimes he may have looked at everything from a film-maker’s point of view. But there had to be truth in it, singers behaviour could not be mechanical, it had to be a consequence of a particular situation. Music had to be synchronized with emotions, with psychology. After all, an opera singer performing on stage is also an actor.
– Butterfly is one of the longest operatic parts, the heroine is on stage almost all the time. What was the most difficult thing when you were preparing the role?
– I had a big problem in the finale of act I. When the emotions grow stronger and stronger the subconscious urge is to move forward whereas the direction in this case is such that I am supposed to walk back. I did not think that this subconscious urge would be so strong – when something is full of emotions and energy you just want to open up, to move forward. Here, in this simple ascetic scheme the move is backward. It was difficult for me to overcome this forward urge. But the hardest moment was probably the finale. I remember one of the first rehearsals – the mimes gave me a knife and I began to walk, in a very theatrical manner, towards the back of the stage. We were always taught that movement on a big stage could not be small because nobody would notice it. Mariusz changed that completely. At the moment of committing sepuku, when Pinkerton cries: Butterfly! Butterfly! she comes back to reality. She is still in a kind of a dream; she loves so much that she cannot live any longer. So she decides to go. The worst thing is that we know the story, we know what will happen next. So I simply could not prepare myself to commit suicide just like that, raise the hand with the knife and wait because all that would be seen from the auditorium. I told Treliński again and again I was trying, and he told me not to. He told me that I should just vanish – and that’s it. A move of the hand, stop, turn. I thought that with such a distance it would not matter for the audience. But the audience sees everything. It was a great and unique experience for me. The situation was similar with King Roger. Mariusz made this performance into something quite amazing, a „bridge” into a different era. We live at an enormous speed, man is a slave of modern technology. The final scene can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The ending is very sad, there isn’t really any hope for us, because we are left alone. Roger is alone too. I was scared of that. But in fact it is so in real life – you are in the crowd but you are lonely. You have friends and nice people around but in those most important moments you are left alone with your tragedy.
– You will soon sing another unhappy heroine – Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello.
– Desdemona is another very „psychological” role. Her love for Otello is immense, at the beginning she does not understand his obsessive jealousy. Only in act III does she begin to realize that Otello is insane about her. Her death scene, her simple prayer are extremely moving. I do hope that for all of us it will be a big challenge. It is very easy to make kitsch out of it and very difficult to show the truth of it.
– Elisabetta in Don Carlo is another dramatic Verdi role in your repertoire, after Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, Maria/Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, Elvira in Ernani or Traviata. Do you prefer to sing tragic heroines?
– Elisabetta is a very complex character – full of emotions, lyricism, love, tragedy. At first, she seemed to me a little dull, but when I got to know her better, I really fell in love with her. My favourite fragment is Elisabetta’s final aria. Only then do I finally get a chance to „show off”. I like emotional roles in general, roles which carry a load of emotions and which give me a chance to present something. Sopranos are usually very unhappy. I think that, from the roles I’ve sung, only Pamina was happy. Sophie and Octavian’s love story from Der Rosenkavalier does have a happy ending but it is a sad love and we cannot stop thinking about Marshallin’s unhappiness.
– Elisabetta, Amelia, Butterfly or Aldona from Ponchielli’s Lituani are all dramatic parts. But you started with lighter roles – Pamina in The Magic Flute, Romilda in Xerxes, Oriana in Amadigi di Gaula…
– At the beginning I sang mostly Handel and Mozart. I thank God I grew gradually into heavier roles. It was a natural development of my personality, my voice, my soul. I was developing emotionally as well as technically. I’m happy that this development was gradual. Sometimes directors give a singer all kinds of roles. But you cannot do that, everything must be well thought over. In my opinion, singing more and more difficult and heavy parts makes you psychologically and technically more secure. The process of physiological development is also extremely important. A girl is a girl, and a woman is a woman. On my way I met people who gave me right roles at the right time, I think.
– Your voice is very characteristic and universal. Your repertoire also includes oratorios, lieder, sometimes you even venture upon pop music. A few years ago, for instance, you sang a Moniuszko song in a jazz arrangement. How did it happen that you took up operatic singing?
– Before I came to the Academy of Music I had never learned singing. I always had a voice that projected well. I dreamed about becoming an actress and not a singer. In high school I sang in a big-beat band, I sang a lot of jazz too. I remember that our band played at several school balls during the season, I was happy I had opportunities to sing and, on top of that, I was let off some classes and tests. I remember a certain turning point on my artistic road (I don’t like the word „career”), when I was wondering whether I really wanted to sing this kind of music. I still like listening to jazz, I find it very relaxing. For instance, I can „take off” Anna German with my voice very well. And my music teacher (who also taught at the music high school), a wonderful person, Mrs Danuta Janke, persuaded me to sing Karłowicz song, I remember quiet, bright days during some celebration at school. I said to her, 'But they will boo me.' 'Let them boo, but you must sing it just once.' I remember that when I finished everybody was totally silent. And then those teenagers brought up on pop music started to shout: Bravo! and I was surprised they liked it so much. And Mrs Janke spent a lot of time trying to persuade me. Iza, she said, jazz is jazz but you are born to sing opera. Try it. You have go for the entrance exams to the Academy of Music. She gave me private lessons without taking a penny from me.
– Had you been in an opera house before?
– I went once with my class, but unfortunately I do not remember much from it. I went because we were taken there. As I have said, I liked imitating various artists, sometimes I even imitated opera singers. But I kept thinking it was not for me. I went to the exams to the Academy of Music almost with no preparation. I got very high marks and nobody could believe that I had not really studied singing.
– You made your debut at the Grand Theatre in Warsaw while you were still a student.
– I was in Professor Kazimiera Górska’s class. In my second year we prepared Handel’s Xerxes. My greatest dream had always been to be on stage, to play. The production, which was presented here, at the opera house, was very well received and, as a result, a decision was made to create Opera Studio at the theatre for students from the Academy of Music. During a season we were supposed to prepare several roles; I got Kate in Madame Butterfly, Zofia in Halka and Micaela in Carmen (Micaela was just in case). In my second year I sang Zofia in Halka, in the third year – Micaela, and later – Nedda in Pagliacci. We often came to the theatre and it was then that I became enchanted with this place. I liked its climate, its smell, I had to come to the theatre every day, it was like a drug-addiction. You entered the place as if you were entering a temple. It was a pantheon of stars, with all those great artists. I must say that there was more magic, more respect for the artists in those days.
– Is there a role of which you are dreaming and which you have never sung?
– It is hard to say. I am really not a dramatic soprano. In my singing, there is dramatic emotion rather than dramatic voice in the strict sense of the word. I am a lyric soprano, maybe lirico spinto. I like dramatic roles, but not all of them are for my voice. I am very cautious and it always tales some time to persuade me. I was offered Butterfly during my third or fourth season in the theatre. I refused because I did not feel ready for it yet. I always have to be convinced that I am able to do something. I cannot be ruthless and fight for roles.
– In our opinion, Tosca would be a great role for you.
– During a jubilee concert of Paulos Raptis I sang Vissi d’arte and I thought I had sung it very well. But the whole part is different from this aria, it is very dramatic and gives wonderful opportunities for an actress as well. I once thought I would never sing Traviata.. I knew I would not sing Traviata lyrically and gently, I knew I would make the part more dramatic. Act I was the greatest problem, I am not a coloratura singer. And I sang Sempre libera very emotionally, with more weight to it than it is usually done. But when I started to sing other roles, it was difficult for me to go back and practise those coloraturas from act I. That is why I stopped singing Violetta, besides, my voice had hardened a bit too.
– You often sing abroad. How did you get on to international stages?
– In 1989 our television sent me to an opera concert organized by the BBC in Cardiff. The event promoted young singers; it was broadcast live all over Europe. I sang a Wolf’s song, Gioconda’s aria, and Leonora’s aria from La forza del destino. When I was preparing Suicido! for that occasion, I noticed for the first time that I had a strong breast register. I had arranged my programme not very wisely because I had placed Gioconda before Leonora. Nothing could be done about it – everything had already been printed, announced etc. I was afraid because I was not sure whether I would be able to sing piano in Leonora’a aria after those almost tenor notes in Suicido! It haunted me in my dreams. And you can see it on the video – my tension, my fear. But at the end I got a huge ovation, so long that I could not begin Leonora’s aria. The organisers were urging me on because the broadcast time was limited. It was my success, I felt it sounded well. I remember an article published after the concert, in which my voice was compared to Montserrat Caballe’s. It was a great compliment for me. Admittedly, I was little interested in her singing at that time, but now Caballe is one of my favourite singers. My performance at that concert resulted in many contracts; a lot of important people heard me then.
– Apart from Desdemona, what are your plans for the nearest future?
– Apart from Desdemona, which is a new operatic role for me, I also have, among others, a few oratorio concerts scheduled for this year – in July I will sing in Ludwigsburg, in October in Brussels, in November in Hamburg, and in December in Athens.
– Are you affected by the reactions of the audience, or do you try not to notice them?
– I am greatly affected by the audience’s reactions. I cannot look at somebody being very moved because I become moved myself. I am happy that I cannot see people’s faces while standing on stage. I can imagine something then. It may sound silly but I like performances when I am „on a high”, when I feel as if I were singing in a trance. Such moments are the most beautiful.
– Thank you for the conversation.
Olga Deszko, Tomasz Pasternak