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I write for a wide public
Conversation with Jacek Marczynski
Is the profession of opera critic difficult?
It is very difficult, first of all because we write about an extremely subjective domain of art, which cannot be measured. My feelings do not have to be the same as other people’s, everyone reacts to music in a different way.
But this concerns the interpretation of a performed work. However, there are objective truths in music: you sing in tune or you have problems with intonation; the voice is well projected and supported or not; the sound is resonant or throaty, etc.
In my opinion there is a fixed and unchangeable canon of performance and interpretation of an operatic work. If we evaluate a performance at the MET or in Bytom – I am not making any value judgements here – this cannon is the same: the understanding of the essence of the work, of particular performance technique, style of interpretation. The beauty of art lies in the fact that each artist adds something new to those fixed values and he or she will either make us interested in it, will thrill us or not!
But I would like to come back to the essence my question. To give one example, during a performance a singer sings totally out of tune, later on we read five reviews, in some of them the singer is accused of having bad intonation, other critic writes of only slight intonation problems and finally the rest of reviewers praise her to the skies.
Perhaps not all of them can hear that she is singing out of tune? That is the problem – not every reviewer has an equally sensitive ear. Besides the reviewer may like the singer and does not want to see her mistakes. It often happens that we remember our fascinations from the past and they are so strong that we tend to be more lenient with our favourites.
But professional critics should get rid of their private fascinations, sometimes friendships, sometimes antipathies before the performance, shouldn’t they.
Of course they should. But the critics, just like the audience, have always had their favourites. They praised them to the skies while at the same time unjustly bashing other artists. The problem is as old as art itself. One should leave one’s private fascinations in the cloak-room, which sometimes is not easy to do. I can understand when someone still finds the splendour, which was once so thrilling, in the voice of a distinguished artist. It is worse if private friendships or antipathies between the critic and the artist influence the artistic assessment, which sometimes happens. We can only comfort ourselves with the fact that the situation must have been worse in the past. It is enough to look into the history of 19th century opera houses.
Why did you decide to join this difficult profession?
It is such a wonderful profession! It took me a very long time to make this decision. I did not say to myself in my youth that I would be a music critic. But at one point I realised that, perhaps, I did have something to say, that, perhaps, I was ready to express my opinions in public.
Recently, there has been a – to use a euphemism – discussion in the Polish press about opera directors and their lack of a proper musical education that would give them the right to work in opera theatre. What kind of musical education should a critic have? What attributes should a member of this profession have?
I am not a purist with regards to both my colleagues writing on music and the artists working in the opera theatre. I do not think that opera directors should have degrees in music, just like people writing on music do not have to be musicians or musicologists. But both of them must have sensitivity and thorough musical knowledge – acquired in different ways. They should also know what they are dealing with, which means understanding the specifics of this art.
Don’t you see anything wrong in the fact that some reviewers are at the same time composers, singers or pianists (sometimes even active ones), they evaluate their colleagues, aren’t they.
It is really a difficult problem. It is not good if a music critic is an unfulfilled artist. There might arise some suspicions that he transfers his artistic failures to others. In theory a composer-critic is an expert in composition so it is easier for him to evaluate new works, but on the other hand, if he is such an expert then why are his works not performed? A pianist-critic can point out all technical errors in another pianist’s performance but then why is he not receiving offers of recitals?
For whom and what for are reviews written? I am not thinking here of those published in music magazines, which are almost non-existent in Poland, but of those in daily newspapers?
A review should evaluate an artistic event in an accessible but at the same time competent way. Such text must be understandable for opera fans as well as for people who are interested in high art in general and are only a potential audience of opera houses. I know from my own experience how difficult it is to balance the proportions between the accessibility of the text to the reader and the amount of specialised knowledge it should contain.
Are the artists the addressees of your reviews too?
I never write thinking that the singer or the conductor will read my review. I think of my „basic” reader.
But shouldn’t a singer be inspired to work on his or her technique after reading a thoroughly professional review – in which the critic writes not only that something was wrong but also explains why?
I understand very well what you mean but it is difficult to contain in one sentence all mistakes in a singer’s performance the reviewer has spotted and, on top of that, to explain everything in detail. I also have to be careful not to discourage readers by giving them far too specialised a text. There are over 200 000 potential readers of my reviews published in Rzeczpospolita so I cannot go too far into technical details that will be understood only by a group of specialists. Sometimes even one apt sentence might be a precious hint for the artist. The main difficulty is to know how to formulate such a sentence
But if you raise very serious objections to the performances of the singers, orchestra, conductor shouldn’t your opinion be explained?
Of course it should be explained. One just cannot simply say that somebody is very good or very bad. The praises or objections should be specified even if there isn’t much space for them.
I would like to come back to your previous statement. Do you really believe that number of copies of a newspaper reflects the number people who actually read the articles devoted to opera? In my opinion there are no more than a few thousand of such readers. Isn’t it worth writing first of all for them, for music fans who look for comments and analyses written by experts?
A music review in Rzeczpospolita is only a small part of a multi-page newspaper in which you find every day news from different fields: from politics to science, from economics to sport, from juridical problems to culture. Taking your assumption, many of those texts should have headings: only for sport fans, only for lawyers, only for music fans. I know that music fans will read my text as the first one but I also have to think about the others. Maybe a review will encourage them to go to the opera where they usually don’t go or to by a disc I recommend. Recently I have heard from a few people that they learned from my texts who Cecilia Bartoli was in the music world, which made them buy tickets to her concerts in Poland. Isn’t it a greater satisfaction for a writer than preaching to the already converted opera lovers?
What do you think of Polish operatic criticism today?
I think it’s virtually non-existent. One of the reasons is certainly the lack of specialised periodicals in which professional music criticism could develop. Music scene in our country is dominated by all-rounders, people who write on music in general, while there is no doubt that different preparation, different sensitivity is needed to write on chamber music and different to write about a large-scale opera performance. Opera does not belong exclusively to the musical or vocal art. So if there are no specialised periodicals, opera and music reviews appear almost exclusively in daily newspapers, rarely in weekly magazines. The specific conditions of writing for a daily newspaper require the writer to be versatile and – I do not hide it – sometimes very superficial. We do not only review but also inform – popularise all arts including opera.
What is your opinion of the quality of reviews appearing in Polish daily newspaper?
The thing that irritates me most is the fact that people writing on opera are not open to what is happening outside Poland. You know very well that opera, barely 25 years ago predicted to end very quickly, is thriving today: new works are being written, they are interesting, innovative productions, there are many new, exciting artists. In comparison with other European countries, operatic life in Poland is, unfortunately, not so interesting and rich, so I am irritated that our reviewers do not follow this development and often use in their reviews aesthetic criteria which are not valid anymore.
What should the ideal reviewer be like?
There are no ideal reviewers. You can like one critic for his or her very subjective but very distinct opinions, somebody else will win you favour because of his or her very objective and balance views.
Let’s put it differently, what postulates would you have for Polish critics?
First of all, I would advise them to be independent and objective, not be influenced by their private contacts with artists and directors of opera houses. This is the most important thing. In addition, they should be open to what is new and be able to promote these new trends. Polish critics are still very conservative.
You consider independence to be the most important of your postulates. Are reviewers independent?
I wouldn’t like to judge my colleagues. I am independent in my opinions.
A few years ago there were situations (and probably they still happen) when theatres took the journalists with them when they went on tour; I understand that they expected positive reviews in return.
Of course this is a sin against independence. But there is another danger for a reviewer who wants to be objective. We should try to be kind to the artists, meet them and talk to them outside the theatre, such conversations are important for both sides. But there is a thin line that cannot be crossed. If we like somebody privately very much, it is difficult to write unfavourably about such artist. There are situations when artist X doesn’t have a very successful concert and then the reviewers-friends simply omit his name in the review. And this is not fair. Words of criticism cannot be treated as a personal attack on the artist. And as for reviewers travelling with the companies – during the communist regime it was difficult to travel abroad so I could understand the reviewers who travelled with the theatres in those times. But now it is enough to want and one can see performances on important stages, go to opera festivals. It irritates me a lot that the people who write on music are so seldom willing to get on the train and go to Berlin, Vienna or Paris. One has to get out of our little operatic world.
You have been not only an opera critic but also for some time you were de facto the artistic director of the Grand Theatre in Warsaw. Are you not afraid, after this episode when you were in the opposite camp and had a big influence on the direction of the artistic development of the Warsaw Opera House, that you might be suspected of depreciating the work of your successors in your reviews?
Working in the theatre was a very important period for me. I gained experience and knowledge that cannot be gained in the auditorium. I learned the backstage mechanisms of the theatre, I learned how an opera performance is born. I accepted that job because I thought that my knowledge and experience could be useful to the theatre. I resigned when the Warsaw opera was left without a general director and everything suggested that this state would last for many months, which did turn out to be a fact. When I left the theatre, the names of the current directors were not even on the so-called short-list of candidates so I think my conscience is clear and I can look on the actions of the present management objectively. Besides, my idea of the functioning the National Opera is similar to what the present management wants to do. So, for instance, the necessity to open ourselves to the European music life and – first of all – making our mark in it. I too looked for young theatre directors and tried to organise auditions for particular parts. I am also happy that there are attempts to introduced at last the contract system of employment. There is no other way for a modern opera house. The greatest problem of Polish opera houses, including the National Opera, is the fact that they were not totally reorganised after 1989, they still function as state theatres which, first of all, provide social security for their employees. The theatre is the „production” institution, so it should have a possibility to choose artists for specific aims and purposes.
Do you see the contradiction in the name „The Trade Union of the Singers Soloists”? It seems to me that a soloist is somebody who works on his or her own, somewhat differently than a chorister or a member of the orchestra.
I will answer shortly: the most distinguished Polish singers are not members of the Trade Unions.
Should the soloists trade unions have an influence on the choice of the repertoire, the casting, the artistic profile etc?
Absolutely not. The artistic director of an opera house is the only person to be responsible for the artistic profile of the theatre.
Let us come back to you. After reading your texts and reviews we have a picture of an uninformed, ignorant Polish audience; you like to repeat the expression that artist X is totally (or almost totally) unknown. But none of those names is mysterious to me or other Club members.
Since I am interested in the music market also from the organisational side, I know what difficulties agents have when they want to „sell” in Poland many artists whose concerts elsewhere draw huge audiences. The latest example was the Warsaw recital of Denyce Graves, whose name was unknown to some of my colleagues – music journalists. Even for the concert of Cecilia Bartoli who – irrespective of how we assess her art. – is a great star, there was no difficulty with getting tickets shortly before the performance.
Perhaps tickets for the concerts of great stars are relatively cheaper elsewhere in the world?
Not at all. But let’s come back to the main idea of the question. Everything depends on how we understand the world „audience”. For you it’s a few hundreds of club members all over Poland. For me it is several thousands of people who will fill a big hall. We will always be able to gather a group of opera fans to fill a small room, fans who know who is that „almost unknown artist”. But I think that there are no thousands of people who know who is who in the opera world today. The general opinion is that the group of great opera stars today includes such masters from the past as: Pavarotti, Carreras, Te Kanawa, Caballe, the names that Bogusław Kaczyński quotes again and again in his TV programmes. I write for the public at large that does not read western opera magazines nor looks for new recordings and I want to bring to them the artists of the new generation.
What does a reviewer need the audience for? In Trubadur we have quoted several times fragments of reviews in which the audience was highly praised for its good taste when the reviewer liked the performance. And often, when the audience and the reviewers have different opinions, the audience is described as accidental, too indulging etc. Do reviewers have to write about us in their reviews?
Of course they don’t. But I think that the Polish audience is very lenient and think that when they come to concert they have to thank the artists with an ovation, regardless of the level of the performance. I think there is no other country where standing ovations would happen so frequently. There are people in the auditorium who come to the opera because they love and know it but often – especially during so-called „events” – the theatre is filled with the guests of the sponsor. As well-educated people or people wanting to be regarded as such, they think that they must like the performance
You have said what the Polish audience is like, in your opinion, but could you tell us what is, in your opinion, the ideal audience?
I like the audience that react emotionally when they show their appreciation or disapproval. I also like situations when the public is divided, some people shout „bravo” and others boo.
Is a standing ovation not this kind of an emotional reaction? Who is to judge whether the public reacts properly or not?
For me, a standing ovation is an expression of special appreciation, even a kind of homage we want to pay to the artist. And it should be paid only to the greatest masters. Let’s face it: as the audience we have several different ways of expressing our opinion: warm or cold applause, shouts louder or quieter, demands of encores, in some countries stamping is regarded as a sign of approval. And the highest level: a standing ovation. Let’s learn to differentiate our emotions as an audience, also those negative ones, and as a result our musical life will become more interesting.
Should the reviewer influence the audience, try to guide its emotions, which, in the case of the accidental – as you put it – Polish audience is not difficult? Or should the reviewer rather listen, observe and then write, or maybe he or she should be part of the ordinary audience? You sometimes shout bravo (as it happened recently at the National Philharmonics), sometimes you boo loudly (recently at the Grand Theatre).
I do not deny that there are moments when I do not feel like a reviewer but like an ordinary spectator. And in my opinion I have a right to express my emotions just like any other person sitting in the auditorium. I react spontaneously and sincerely, both here, in Poland, and abroad. Sometimes, when somebody next to me is very enthusiastic towards an artist who, in my opinion, was evidently poor or even terrible I express my disapproval just for the sake of balance. I do not want to control the audience and affect its reactions. Besides I do not think that one person can control the emotions of all spectators.
Rzeczpospolita was the media patron of the Moniuszko Vocal Competition but published no report from the prize-winners concert. At the same time there was a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic. Could such a big newspaper as Rzeczpospolita not find the journalists who would review two important events?
The editors treated this competition very seriously but your question touches upon another important problem – what is the place of music in Polish newspapers and how many pages can be devoted to it. Rzeczpospolita, in comparison with other Polish newspapers, devotes quite a lot of space to music and I think it would be difficult to get more.
Rzeczpospolita is one of the most important Polish newspapers, it gives awards for journalistic honesty, publishes a special social and cultural supplement. Why this supplement includes texts, for instance by Jan S. Witkiewicz, which, because of certain phrases and arguments not backed up by facts, belong to tabloid press rather than to an important and respected newspaper?
This is your point of view I cannot agree with. And this is not about my subjective feeling. I have many signals from people who are avid readers of the texts of this author who – as one of few opera reviewers in Poland does not avoid distinct and firm opinions. Maybe this is why he is not liked by everybody.
A music critic acquires vast knowledge and experience through his work but sometimes he has to check things. Do you use the recently published Opera lexicon by Jan S. Witkiewicz?
I have many foreign lexicons at home and I always try to check information in many sources because there are sometimes quite significant differences between them. It is difficult to write a good opera lexicon or an opera guide. You have expressed your critical opinion of the Opera lexicon by Jan Stanisław Witkiewicz several times, but one has to say that it is really a work first of its kind in Poland. It has mistakes, faults and gaps, which author himself does not deny, but one has to start from somewhere. I have been working on my opera guide for several years and I know how difficult a task this is. I want it to be different, more modern than the similar books published in Poland so far. I would like to publish it one day and subject it to the judgement of you and your fellow club members.
We send you our club magazine. What do you think on it?
I like all initiatives like the existence and activity of an opera club. I am very fond of people who are a little crazy and I regard the members of Trubadur as such, people who can nowadays devote their time and effort to a disinterested idea and fascination. I cannot say that I find a lot of unfamiliar information in your magazine, though there are very interesting texts devoted to recordings or artists from which I may learn something too. I like your meetings and conversations with artists, the willingness to learn more about the operatic life in Poland and abroad. When it comes to reviews you publish, I have somewhat mixed feelings. Sometimes there is too much enthusiasm but, as we have said, art is very subjective. But sometimes their quality is by no means lesser than the quality of those published in the supposedly professional Ruch Muzyczny.
Thank you for the conversation.