Meeting in Warsaw with Janina Anna Pawluk
The Warsaw meeting took place this time in the conference room of the hotel „Metalowcy”. After a short discussion of the most urgent club issues we had a pleasure to have as our guest Mrs Anna Pawluk, the distinguished pianist-coach of opera singers, who co-operates with the Grand Theatre in Warsaw.
At the beginning of the meeting Mrs Pawluk said:
– I would like to thank you for the invitation. I think that you mainly expect singers, people who are always in the limelight. I think my job is important – otherwise I would not do it – but it always remains in the shadow, it is a backstage work and that is why I am so moved by your interest in it.
Mrs Pawluk told us about the work of an opera singers coach, and answered numerous questions:
– Working with opera singers as their coach means many things. First of all, the coach has to be very well prepared for every opera he or she is supposed to teach. In every aspect: a coach has to play the score perfectly, has to know all parts, has to know the text inside out. If an opera is in a foreign language, the coach has to understand every word in order to be able to check whether the singers perform what is written in the text. He or she has to know tempos so as not to teach something which departs considerably form standards. Tempo is always different with every conductor, but the basics have to be prepared earlier. And what is the coach’s task? To put it generally: it is to help the singer to learn a part as quickly as possible and as efficiently as possible, and to enable him or her to perform it in a proper style, with no mistakes and with full expression.
The first stage is to study music. Those are the basic things that every teacher knows. You cannot allow any mistakes here, because, as one of the great singers with whom I had an opportunity to work, Mrs Leonie Rysanek said, a singer will always remember the coach who taught him or her a particular part in a proper way because then he or she sings it with pleasure, whereas if the slightest mistake is not corrected, it will haunt the singer for the rest of his or her life. The accuracy is never too great, although it might seem too tiring to singers. You also have to stick the proper style.
The language is very important and not only as far as the pronunciation is concerned. I would like to turn your attention to one aspect: the knowledge of languages in which operas are written, at least a working knowledge, is essential for a coach. First of all, a coach must know Italian; it is not enough that the singers study it at school. German is also important, especially in great German operas where the delivery of the text is crucial. It is impossible to work on French operas with no knowledge of French. Once I had a proposal to work on Peleas and Melisande in Essen but at that time I did not know French well enough. I refused because this is an opera based almost exclusively on recitatives. The German conductor said, Anna, do not exaggerate, I also do not know this language well enough, after all we are going to make music, aren’t we, but I answered In this kind of opera it is impossible to make music without the profound knowledge of the text. Later, I spent two years working on French; after those two years it would have been possible for me to accept the proposal. These are the three languages in which most operas are written. We also have operas in English. I speak it well enough, but I always say, Look at it with somebody who has an excellent accent, because it is a very difficult language to sing, and especially for Slavonic singers. The most „comfortable” languages for us are Italian, French, not to mention Russian which we had to study obligatory at school and which is now very useful. I prepared Russian works most often in Salzburg, they made use of my knowledge of this language there.
Sometimes we notice that even experienced singers sing with no understanding of the text and then we have to react. It often happens that an artist, occupied with vocal problems will miss something, will change a foreign word or will not think about the meaning of the text. Then we have to say, Listen, here you must show anger or jealousy, this phrase is full of lyricism, here this word is the most important, you must emphasize this and do not emphasize that at all – it is watching over the interpretation, a kind of vocal directing. The singer cannot discover the meaning of the text only after coming on stage, he or she must show the drama with the voice. This is also a task of the coach. We are talking about the preparation from the very beginning, from the first reading of the part to the rehearsal with the musical director of the performance. Then the singer must be almost ready, he or she must know the part perfectly and be flexible enough to adapt to all nuances and tempos of the conductor.
An experienced coach usually hears all vocal mistakes and can help a lot saying, this tone is wrong, this is taken back, here you must make it more round because you go up, and here do not make it too dark because the sound will not project well. I do not claim a right to be called a pedagogue but if you have worked a lot with singers and especially with singers who conduct master classes, you listen to what they say and show and you know different tricks of the trade, then you can lead a singer to a proper path. You have to pay attention to it because the mistakes always occur, even very experienced singers need this „second pair of ears”. Sometimes they are very grateful, It is good you tell me that because I can’t hear it; I thought it was too sharp while it wasn’t. But you need experience to give this kind of advice, because if you know little about the subject, then it is better to say nothing.
The interpretation is a controversial thing. You have to prompt a singer if you see that he has not noticed something that he should have expressed but you cannot influence him saying, here you must do it this way and there that way. First, you have to listen to what the singer proposes and then, if still you think it is wrong, you should have a friendly discussion through which you will both arrive at the same conclusion. You cannot „train” somebody; it can only be done with very young singers fresh from school, because they are helpless, they often take notes, sing them, and struggle to make it sound right somehow; you have to put them on the right musical track. With experienced singers you rarely discuss the interpretation.
But the preparation of a singer for a performance does not end there. There is also the final stage when the singer goes on stage. During the rehearsals with orchestra we sit in the auditorium and then note down a whole gamut of mistakes which are seen only on stage – here you sing too slowly, here you draw the conductor, here you run away, here you sing to the wings, here piano is not heard, you have to sing more intensely, and there I have no word, and here too much forte, and there you’d better tone down a bit. The soloists appreciate it greatly because they know that then everything is in perfect trim. We are relentless controllers, but also very friendly „musical nannies”, we help them till the end, till the curtain goes up. Then there is a kind of a small end of the world for us. It feels like that during every opening night.
Asked about the co-operation between a coach and a director during rehearsals, Mrs Pawluk said,
– Often, if, during rehearsals, we see that something disturbs the singer very much we try to help them and we discuss it with the stage director although they do not like it. We often fight to prevent the singer having to, for instance, sing with his back to the audience, although it often suits directors. The stage of the Grand Theatre is very difficult. When it is open and there is no construction at the back, the voice tends to run away there. Sometimes the director asks if this or that is feasible and we sit down to think about it. For instance, sometimes it is very good for singers to sing lying down – although it looks very difficult – and they usually do not fight with that. But sometimes there are real fights with stage directors when they want running around while there is a very precise ensemble going on and then everything goes into pieces. They also usually want the singers not to look at the conductor. Opera is something many people are involved in and everybody has their artistic views.
As for how much a singer can practise depends on what he or she sings. A new part tires very much so if you have a new, big role to learn you cannot sing for five hours. But, for instance, Mrs Teresa Żylis-Gara, who invited me to Monaco in 1995 to work with her for three weeks on a repertoire of German, French and lesser known Polish songs, was able to work for five hours a day. It was a very hot July, we wiped ourselves with tissues every few moments and worked on. I admire her – she is a demon for work. But usually, if somebody sings for three hours it is enough, a voice is not a violin or piano.
On the day of the performance a singer usually warms up for half an hour – twenty minutes at two o’clock and then later, before the performance, for about half an hour. On the day of the performance they are very careful with themselves. Usually, if somebody has a performance in the evening then he or she is very careful in the morning and some singers even whisper, and they are right because talking tires very much.
During rehearsals with the coach, singers usually do not sing in full voice, they mark during first readings. But a moment comes when you should sing the part several times with a „normal” voice because you have to test your vocal stamina. If you mark all the time, you could be in trouble. Once I had a tenor who marked all the time because he was very sure of his technique and kept saying that he would sing in full voice only at the dress rehearsal. He did and he cracked. He came to me in panic; worked with me (singing in full voice) for two or three weeks and only after that was he able to sing the part wonderfully. The opera was Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte . The tenor went on to sing at the New York MET.
Singing is a hard job, but it is also very beautiful. Today, with such fierce competition, when culture is thrown into deep waters and with the lack state patronage, it is a profession, especially in Poland, for very tough, very good individuals, for great talents.
Since you are opera lovers, I would like to say that I also started as an opera fan therefore I understand your feelings. When I saw opera for the first time – Eugene Onegin – I did not go to school the next day. I was so excited that I could not come back to the real life although I was a very diligent pupil. So I understand what the love for opera means!
I spent several years in the German-speaking countries and cities – Switzerland, Salzburg, Essen, Bonn – and after I came back I was labelled as a specialist in German music, in those great German operas – by Wagner and Richard Strauss. I do not deny this because I have learned German language very well and I have studied it paying a special attention to the stage pronunciation. Studying a Wagner opera with a singer means, first of all, working on this very difficult text. It seems that there is nothing in German except the umlauts while there are a lot of other things: particularly the difference between short and long vowels, where to make the vowel longer and where to shorten it, and where to emphasize the consonant. If you have worked on the pronunciation properly, then 80% of the part is ready. Of course, there must be added the knowledge of music, but this professional text gives a proper expression to Wagner works. After the return to Warsaw, I worked with Polish singers, who sometimes, as was the case with the first Ring in 1987-88, did not know the language at all, which made the work very hard indeed. Parsifal was staged only with our singers under the direction of Antoni Wicherek. For Der Rosenkavalier I prepared two casts virtually on my own and then I had a pleasure to work for the first time for Jacek Kaspszyk who conducted it so wonderfully. I was greatly impressed by his artistic personality. Both Polish and foreign soloists took part in the revival of Die Walkűre. So as you can see, after the return to Poland I worked a lot on German operas, but while I was in Germany, I worked mainly on Italian and Mozart operas. But coming back to Wagner. He is a musical institution on his own. You cannot like him just a little. You either do not understand him at all and reject him because he is too difficult, too heavy, or, once you get to know his music very well, you not only like it but you became a real fan, who cannot sleep after a performance. After the Die Gőtterdämmerung you cannot sleep till the morning. I am a fan not only of Wagner but also of Richard Strauss. They are incomparable opera geniuses. I would like to say a few words here about my co-operation with Mrs Hanna Lisowska who created wonderful portrayals, at the Grand Theatre, of German heroines: Kundry in Parsifal, Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and Brunhilde in Die Walkure. Before that I had prepared Sieglinde with her for the MET. I am happy I could add my work to her portrayals because we did it indeed from the beginning to the end together. We worked on many roles together, but those four are special.
Alban Berg is a separate chapter. I did both his great operas. Wozzeck is easier than Lulu which is probably the most difficult opera I have worked on. I played it in Germany and in Portugal, in Lisbon because there nobody could play it. Sometimes you might get an invitation for a „guest performance” in such opera houses because all pianists from the area have fallen ill – they have gone down with „score illness” [laughs]. It is a fantastic, symphonic work. Wozzeck has more recitatives, it is much shorter and simpler, while Lulu is an imposing work, there are some roles in it not easier than those in Die Meistersinger von Nűrnberg. It means working for at least half a year. I practised it for five months. I also had to know every word in German because there are rehearsals when only some singers are present and then you have to sing instead of the absent ones (and I have no voice, I only dream sometimes that I sing and those dreams are the worst. In such a dream I know that I have agreed to sing and suddenly I feel I cannot do it – these are professional nightmares). Lulu is a wonderful work, this is a continuation of Wagner going further in chromatics, in the development, in complicated rhythms. It is also arguably the greatest, the last achievement of the expressionism in opera, already in the 12-tone scale, as a matter of fact – further on, we already have Penderecki’s operas.
Coming back to the Italian music, at the moment I am co-operating with the Grand Theatre on the preparation of Verdi’s Otello to be conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk, and directed by Mariusz Treliński. In 1969 I worked on Otello with Jan Krenz, with whom I worked a lot. He brought me to Germany, to Bonn, to take part in the preparations of The Haunted Manor. There we performed The Haunted Manor in German with Polish and German singers under his direction. Stefan was brilliantly sung by Wiesław Ochman. Soon after that, because Jan Krenz was a musical director there for a few years, his second or third premiere was Otello, also wonderfully performed. Maria Chiara and Piero Cappuccilli as Jago were in the cast. Margaret Price sang Desdemona in subsequent performances. We did not have Domingo as Otello, but there were Carlo Cossuta and Gianfranco Ceccele, two very good singers. It was a very, very distinguished cast.
The first opera ever I worked on was … Szymanowski’s King Roger. My relations with Roger are long-standing and very warm. I was lucky to have been involved in the preparations of King Roger for the opening of the Warsaw Grand Theatre in 1965 under the direction of the great conductor Mieczysław Mierzejewski. My God, how much one has learned from those great masters! Sometimes when I work with singers I quote the masters and then there is no more discussion, everybody is convinced. So for the opening of the Theatre there was Roger with Andrzej Hiolski, Kazimierz Pustelak, Hanna Rumowska and also Halina Słonicka. I had also worked on the recording made before that in Cracow by Jerzy Gert. It was the first post-war recording and my first job. Andrzej Hiolski and Kazimierz Pustelak came there. I was to play this score just after graduating from the Academy of Music in Cracow and I had two weeks to prepare myself. I had been employed full time by that time and the first thing I did was to hand in my resignation citing some family problems. It is a very difficult score, especially for somebody barely out of the school, but when I started to work on it, when I knew that my resignation was on the manager’s desk, somehow it was easier to study it. And I did prepare it. Mr Hiolski arrived and said, Ania, (it was then that we had met for the first time, he – the great singer and me – the frightened beginner), I also know nothing, I only studied this piece on the train. He was a real musical genius, he needed us – coaches – very rarely because he learned everything so easily, with no great problems whatsoever. And he never needed any advice on interpretation, it was us who could learn from him. But then, with Roger, he needed some help so we started to work together, act after act. I withdrew my resignation. Afterwards, I talked with Mr Pustelak who said that he had also wanted to resign, (and his Shepherd, also recorded, is a bench-mark performance). Not so long ago, I had a very nice proposal connected with Roger – I was invited to Amsterdam where on 2 October 2000 the Dutch premiere of the work, with international cast, took place. Both the conductor and the director were German – both in love with this work, in love with Szymanowski. James Johnson, a very good bass-baritone sang there, as well as a German singer, Birgit Hahn, and two Poles. One of them was Piotr Beczala, Polish tenor who is not known here yet. Beautiful voice and a very nice man. The reception was very nice, very warm, and it is not an easy work. Its philosophical meaning is very controversial, ambiguous, everybody explains the third act in a different way. The third act is the most difficult one. One does not know whether Roger has found the solution or not, whether he has found the sense of living or not. In Amsterdam they did it in a different way, Roger kills himself and through death he finds peace and the salvation from this ineffective search for the sense of living. The opera was very well received, the reviews were excellent, especially for the music. Even Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote about a sensation in Amsterdam. I am happy I had a possibility to do something else, to practice with singers in Polish. It was a problem I was afraid of because there are phrases I found it difficult to come to terms with, for instance I ledwie gałęzie drzew w ciemnościach drżą („And the branches barely shiver in darkness”), and the other one: Ktoś mglisty przeszedł między strażą („Someone misty passed among the sentries”). I cannot say it quickly myself and there is such a tempo there! So they had to „slide” over it a little but usually they fought with the text to the very end. At the beginning I said God, why you don’t do it in German!; there is an equally valid German text because Szymanowski was also publishing in Germany, but they were ambitious and wanted to do it in Polish. And they did it well. It was a fantastic visit, the atmosphere was wonderful.
As for your question about my work with famous artists I must say that at the beginning I was afraid and later it turned out that they were really fantastic people. It is often so that the more famous they become, the more modest and more natural at work they are, always thanking for remarks one somewhat anxiously makes. It was like that with Agnes Baltsa, Hildegard Behrens, Ruggiero Raimondi. I knew he had sung Mefisto many times. However, he had learned too many of those ha, ha, ha which are to be sung a specific number of times. He would make this mistake (adding one ha to many) again and again. I kept saying Maestro, everything is beautiful, but it is not right here, because the orchestra enters at that moment. He tried to remember but during the opening night he forgot, made the mistake and later, when he saw me, he only smiled in a special way, wondering whether I would complain. But I did not want to, he sung so wonderfully. Famous foreign singers are grateful, modest but also very dutiful and punctual. They appreciate the work of the coach very much. It often happened that if one of them was to be late for the lesson, he would ring from Paris saying he would be 15 minutes late the following day. I was moved that he would call to let me know about it, me, an ordinary and still very young coach (at that time there were no cellular phones). They often asked me to come to the performance, for instance Katia Ricciarelli liked to go through the part of Donna Anna during the interval. It is not that famous singers have no problems, they too experience stage fright, dramas and anxieties.
I have learned from many, many famous masters, I have already mentioned here Jan Krens, Mieczysław Mierzejewski, abroad, I worked with Nello Santi, Gianfranco Massini, Waldemar Nelson, Gustav Sanderling. You also learn a lot from those lesser known but very good musicians whose names you would not know. But the meeting with Maestro Yehudi Menuhin was very special indeed. I worked with him mainly on Mozart. How precise he was in it, how well he was able to show all nuances both in singing and in the orchestral accompaniment. It seems that it is such a classical „thread”, whereas there was so much expression, so much invention and everything was so stylish at the same time! He passed everything to me and then I passed it on to the singers. He was so warm-hearted, a great man of great, evangelical kindness. I am still under his impression. I am proud that he appreciated my work, this is probably the greatest success I have had in my work – his appreciation and friendship. I have his letters and those kind words are almost sacred to me. He came to Bonn in 1985 and there he worked with us. Later, there were various other projects, not all of them materialized, but we were in touch till the very end, the last letter is from 1997. I invited him here for Der Rosenkavalier and he liked it very much. He was the most modest of the conductors, the greatest musical genius combined with the greatest modesty.
I have been co-operating with the Grand Theatre in Warsaw for about 40 years, although with some big breaks for the foreign engagements in Switzerland, Germany and Austria (Salzburg) but I always came back to my mother theatre (I started there during the times of the legendary Wodiczko) where I worked with wonderful artists. For instance with Mrs Hanna Rumowska, the prima donna of those times, great Tosca and Electra. She was very hard-working, she prepared herself for every performance as if it had been the first one. She was always demanding critiques. When she trusted the pianist, then after the rehearsal with orchestra you had to give a report to her on everything. If sometimes I did not come to the dressing room, she called at once, made scenes, Where is Ania?!, What happened that you did not tell me how it was? I also worked a lot with Mrs Krystyna Jamroz, Barbara Nieman, Halina Słonicka, Urszula Trawińska-Moroz, Anna Malewicz-Madey. I am still friends with Zdzisław Klimek, a wonderful baritone, with Kazimierz Pustelak, and many others. Singers are my great friends. I also accompanied many of them at international vocal competitions. I must mention my recent close co-operation with Izabella Kłosińska on some of her roles, for instance in Faust, Der Rosenkavalier or Don Carlos. At present we are working on the part of Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, I think it is an ideal role for this excellent singer.
Nowadays, master classes for young singers constitute a large pat of my working schedule. I often work with Mr Ryszard Karczykowski in Radziejowice, in Cracow and in many other places. I often worked in Salzburg with professor Dietger Jacob, who has unfortunately passed away. I have also had some classes with Mrs Teresa Żylis-Gara, though fewer than with others because of conflicting schedules.
The work of a coach can be very nerve-racking because singers are extremely sensitive people, some of them are even oversensitive. You can make 150 remarks to an American, he or she will thank you and get down to work, while a Pole will get very nervous and you have to make those remarks in small doses. You cannot criticise too much in general, especially Poles, because it is easy to discourage. He or she will start saying, Oh, everything is wrong then? Then I say, No, it will be OK, but you only have to change this and that…. My colleagues sometimes joke, Ania says you sang excellently, except that the rhythm, melody and expression were wrong… I think that a positive atmosphere is very important. You can and you have to criticise but you cannot discourage. You need a lot of diplomacy and intuition to know how much and in what way you can say at a certain moment. Not everything at once, little by little, and with a smile. Singing is a very hard profession and the pianist cannot be discouraging even if he or she is right. Well, I may not have been a good diplomat in spite of my efforts; some singers may have been tired of my excessive accuracy, of this fault – virtue perhaps?
At the end, I would like to say that, first of all, you have to like the job, you have to be patient and passionate about it. I think that these features are just as much important as playing the piano well and having all the necessary knowledge.