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Scores written by geniuses are always contemporary
Conversation with Tomasz Konina
– „Trubadur”: You wrote theatre reviews and then you started directing. Why?
Tomasz Konina: During my studies at the Academy of Theatre I received an offer to work for the Teatr magazine. I was doing theatre studies but I treated this only as a transitory stage; I simply wanted to deepen my knowledge about the theatre. But I always thought about becoming a director.
I was learning a lot but it was only theory. I missed practice, the contact with the living theatre, and so during my second year I started to attend classes at the Academy’s department of acting. At some point it turned out that I devoted as much time to them as I did to those at my own department. I became assistant to Maja Komorowska, Zofia Kucówna and then Anna Seniuk, and after graduating I immediately received an offer of becoming assistant lecturer at the department of acting. I also received an offer from Władysław Śmigasiewicz, thanks to whom I entered the theatre as an assistant director. At that point I stopped writing theatre reviews because I had come to a conclusion that if one seriously thought of directing oneself, writing about others would not be appropriate. I treated writing reviews as a good school of both writing in general and looking at the theatre from the point of view of the spectator. After working as an assistant with a few directors, I then ventured a very impudent move – I went to Professor Gustaw Holoubek, the director of Ateneum Theatre, and asked him if I could direct there Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. I am extremely grateful to him that he agreed.
– What is the difference between direction, scenery and staging?
– The ideal, unfortunately very rarely achieved, is to have such a close co-operation between the director and the set designer that the border between what each of them does becomes blurred. Direction means establishing my own interpretation of what is in the score, which consequently leads to building a particular vision of the world, defining what interests me in a given work. A director can do very little without a set designer and, at the same time, a set designer may design the scenery but it is the director who has to fill it with life. I demand absolute commitment, partnership and thinking from a set designer. It is not easy to find a set designer for whom a production would be also a personal experience. Staging, direction, scenery – yes, a clear distinction is often made between the three. I think that there are moments when the director realises that there has been no partnership he hoped for and that he created a particular world and the set designer only represented it in the scenery. The director does not want to give all the credit to the set designer and this is when the word „staging” appears.
– How do you prepare yourself for a new production?
– I start with the music, then I leave it for a while to concentrate on the libretto, and then again I come back the music because it is the essence of opera. I listen to various recordings, trying to get to know as many different interpretations as possible. At the beginning I watch various productions on video as well but later on they interfere with my work, so I stop. I look at the score and, after a thorough study of the libretto, I think about what is most important for me in this work, which relations, which characters. It is a very egoistic look, but I have to find out something in the work that concerns me personally. Each production is focused on a particular character, who is the most important one for me. It is always a character which resembles me to some extent, so I try to endow it with my own sensitivity. Then I try to see how the work relates to the present day reality. I want my productions to be modern in terms of thinking, so that the spectators could understand the protagonists, look at them as at normal people, identify with some character. If I do not give the characters sensitivity and modern way of thinking, they would be far away from the spectators. I think that scores written by geniuses are always contemporary because they talk about people, about the world.
– If you had an influence over casting, would you choose a better voice or a better looking singer?
– Definitely the voice. Opera’s strength, what opera begins and ends with is music. When I work in the spoken theatre, I think of acting abilities, of people’s looks. When I am at the opera I choose a better voice, because everything is written in the notes and a better voice has better chances of expressing drama and the character’s emotions. But the voice itself, without the culture of singing, the stage culture, is not all.
– You want to present your vision, the conductor wants his and so we may have a conflict. The conductor may want, for instance, to have a static version of the work, you – a dynamic one. The conductor wants a gloomy Ballo in maschera, and you want to emphasise the mixture of tragedy and comedy…
– The ideal is to have the director and the conductor really co-operating from the very beginning, to have them sit down over the score and discuss what interests them in the work. Unfortunately, conductors have a lot of work to do and we often meet too late. What should a director remember about? First of all, that singers must always be heard. Of course, in my work I am forced sometimes to accept compromises, but it is never easy for me. I am rather stubborn in my work and if I know what I want and if I know that it makes sense, I always try to persuade people to my point of view.
– How do you work with singers? Do you have a special method?
– Singers are not always open to the method I am most interested in, that is not copying schemata, but trying to read the score anew, without resorting to notes from previous productions. I am talking here first of all about singers who have already sung a particular role in three, four, five different productions, and have a right to think that they know how it should be done. I meet them and, of course, I do not say that what they do is wrong, but I do try to think about what would happen if we read the score in a completely different way. And if we have a lot of time, then I can persuade a singer to try something new. If there is little time for rehearsals – which often happens – various problems may start to arise, because, for instance, some artists are used to a particular theatrical convention, which does not suit me at all. But I have been lucky with singers. I have met wonderful people, working with whom was extremely inspiring for me and, at the same time, brought me a lot of joy and satisfaction. Those singers include Andrzej Witlewski, an exceptional young baritone, soloist of the Wrocław Opera, Jacek Greszta, a bass from Opera Nova in Bydgoszcz, my beloved Margeritas from the Bydgoszcz production of Boito’s Mefistofele – Halina Fulara-Duda, Ewa Godlewska, Małgosia Grela and Ola Zielińska. These are just a few names from a long list of artists whom I would like to meet again. There are others I have had the pleasure to work with – Agnieszka Wolska, Małgosia and Janusz Rataajczak, Kasia Suska, Dorota Dutkowska, Igor Loseyev, Jacek Ryś. They are wonderful people and I really miss them. I am sorry I have been talking about them so much, but it is probably because I get very attached to people I work with. And finally, a special person, one of the greatest singers I know and undoubtedly the greatest singer I had the honour to work with – Ewa Podleś.
– Speaking of Ewa Podleś, how did you manage to persuade her to try out your ideas for Tancredi?
– I thought that if I was lucky to be working with such great artists as Ewa Podleś and Albrto Zedda, then I had to make the best of it, even with only one and a half weeks of rehearsals. I wanted to persuade them to introduce the tragic ending. Maestro Zedda insisted on the happy ending and so did Professor Marchwiński, thinking that we would not be able to present the tragic ending convincingly in such a short time. But Ms Podleś was tempted to go for the tragic ending. Obviously, if I had kept thinking, while working with those artists, whom I was talking to, I would have become completely paralysed; our theatrical experiences cannot even be compared. I think that it all has to do with the fact that I believe in myself, that I am sure of what I want to do, and that positive energy somehow always affects others. I even managed to convince Professor Marchiński, who finally admitted that we had made the right choice. And working with Ewa Podleś… She is a wonderful person, full of incredible energy, strength and sense of humour. She really knows what Tancredi is about infinitely better than I do, she has sung in numerous productions of this work. It is never my aim to create something that will be different from my great predecessors’ work just for the sake of being different. But I did have a vision of Tancredi and wanted to persuade Ewa Podleś to introduce some new ideas. Of course it was not simply that I presented an idea and Ewa Podles said yes straight away. But working with truly great artists means that they understand that rehearsals are to try out different versions. Ms Podles had doubts about Tancredi’s final entrance, when he comes back to Amenaida, having been wounded in the battle. She suggested that she be brought in, just like she had been in previous productions, by soldiers in a big funeral cortege, as befitting a great hero. But I was not interested in the great hero anymore, he was too far away from my sensibility. I wanted a man who fought and won as a national hero, but died alone, coming back from the battle supported only by a faithful servant. Not a hero but a human being. And this is how we presented it. I want to give this situation as an example of my thinking about the interpretation of operatic characters. I want to strip them of patina and pomposity. Opera often makes generalisations. After all, a ruler is also a human being. I would like to reach his emotions, his sensibility… Human being above everything else – this is what the music says, for in each great score there are people of flesh and blood.
– Do you think that in the Warsaw production of Tancredi Ewa Podleś sang differently than in previous stagings?
– I do not see any special differences.
– So a different interpretation of a character manifests itself only in the visual aspect of the performance? The voice says the same all the time?
– Not entirely, because the director may either help or make things more difficult. And directors often do make things more difficult. If I read the score carefully, if I feel I am coming close to the composer’s idea, then I can strengthen this idea while building the stage world. If a scene in which an aria is sung is directed appropriately then this aria has the right meaning, the right strength. But if I place this aria in a wrong context, then it will become only a more or less impressive vocal display. I think that opera is something more that just a series of vocal displays interspersed with recitatives or ensemble scenes; it is a whole, which has a sense and a construction, which tells about something. Of course, there have been various absurdities in the history of opera, but there are many great works, in which no aria, duet or ensemble are just art for art’s sake; they tell a story, they reflect the protagonists’ emotions.
– Regardless of your ambition to tell what is important to you, you always speak to the audience. Do you ever wonder who those people are, what sort of experiences they have had, what their knowledge is, what allusions they can understand? Are they familiar with opera or are they just beginning to get to know it?
– Who is in the audience? Obviously, people are different. I would like the performance to be understood by both young people and experienced theatre-goers. We have to be aware of the times we live in, surrounded by more and more sophisticated forms of communication. We have tv, internet… I wonder how to make young people, who quickly get bored, watch MTV with its fast moving images, interested in opera. First, I have to care about a work. Then, if I am sure about something, I try it out on my collaborators, on singers. If I convince them that what I want to achieve makes sense, then together we try to present our emotions, our sensitivity to the audience. When I watch other productions and observe my colleagues who have nothing to do with the operatic theatre, I wonder what kind of theatrical language they expect. It does not mean that everything has to be turned upside-down and the tempo has to be frantic. The tempo is imposed by the music, while the language of the theatre should be modern in its thinking. So that nothing would be pretended, so that everything would be as pure and as simple as possible. I do not like to deceive the audience. Admittedly, theatre is a deception, but I do my best to make all of it real.
– I believe that some reflections connected with a work are understandable only for people who know this work well.
– Of course.
– But then a problem arises for those who come into contact with the work for the first time and are helpless when faced with a particular performance.
– I think it is like that: either I care about something or I do not. Either I am moved, touched, amused by a performance or left indifferent. If a thousand people come to see the performance every night, and if five or ten persons out of that thousand care about what I have done, then my work does make sense. If I am committed to what I do, if my work is a deeply-felt personal experience, then it will reach at least some people. I realise that what I am saying now must sound terribly high-flown…
– It certainly means granting a crucial role to the director.
– Yes, that is true.
– Do you think that one of the director’s objectives should be to make the contact with the work easier for the audience?
– Undoubtedly. Regardless of whether the spectator knows the work or not, the performance must be understandable. I cannot multiply theatrical signs and symbols which only I can interpret. Several people asked me about particular scenes in Tancredi. I do not intend to explain anything here because that is not the point. A performance should stands on its own. If something is absolutely illegible, then this is my failure. But I think that a theatrical sign does not have to be unequivocal. As long as there are no great disparities in its interpretation, everything is fine. I do not want to shock, I simply interpret a work in a particular way and I want to present this honestly. Some will be convinced, others will not.
– You have said that you do not want to deceive the audience. But what you are saying means precisely deceiving people who come to the opera house and to whom you suggest that opera is not that much different from television, cinema, means of communication they are used to. Opera is a theatre, that is it is based on a relationship between the live actor and the spectator. If a new-comer is to stay at the opera, then he or she must accept this and give up certain attractions.
– Opera must be based on a relationship between the actor and the spectator. If that relationship is established, nothing more is necessary. What I look for is how to establish this relationship. If I am a music lover interested in opera in the best possible rendition, then I may go to a shop and buy a recording, sit down in an arm-chair, drink coffee, play an aria over and over again and be happy. When I go to the opera, I want something more besides excellent singing.
– Film projection?
– I do not know. I expect not only to be listening to something but also to be watching a certain world, the reality of a particular work. Operas were written for the stage, in order to combine music, libretto, visual images. This is what the attraction of the director’s work is all about – to draw a world out of the music and build it on stage according to one’s imagination. I can do it using more or less traditional means. You have mentioned film projection… A strange thing happened to me when I was preparing Mefistofele in Bydgoszcz. For quite some time I worked with my Margheritas on the prison scene. It was like working in a laboratory – analysing gesture after gesture within the confinement of a small room. I could see that the singers knew exactly what I wanted to achieve, they filtered it through themselves and started to add some things. And then we went onto the big stage and everything disappeared. This is quite natural that a big stage means a big distance between the performers and the audience. The idea of film projection came up all of a sudden, I wanted to see what would have happened if we had concentrated the audience’s attention on one character, treating Mefistofele and Faust instrumentally.
– But this is not a theatrical means anymore. I watch the performance through the camera, through someone else’s eye. From someone else’s point of view. In such a case there is no difference for me between going to the theatre and sitting at home watching a video. Besides, if you have to use the camera to bring a character closer, to overcome the problem of the auditorium’s size and to direct the audience’s attention, then it means that the theatre has failed, because it cannot achieve its goal using purely theatrical means.
– But it is a visual means. Do tell me, is it objectionable, does it interfere with the reception of music?
– I can tell you only my opinion. It does interfere for me. I have a dilemma, whether to look at the singer or at her close-up. Similarly, many people are, perhaps surprisingly, not comfortable with surtitles.
– Film projection is just one of the means I have used in my productions…
– I asked about it, because directors tend to use it quite often these days.
– That it true. It „broadens the world”. But I would love to do a performance on an empty stage, without elaborate costumes, sets, with a minimum use of props. Only music, the singers and the relationships between them. Nothing else.
– But that would require exceptional performers. How often do you come across singers who can fill the stage just with their presence?
– I believe that if there is enough time and good will, one can build a character working with any singer.
– But you have said yourself that usually there is not enough time.
– True. But, important as time is, everything depends on working with particular singers. I always want the ideas I propose to the singers to be theirs as well in the end. I do not want to impose anything because that would look artificial. When I was preparing Mefistofele, I had four singers for each part. I worked with each singer individually, especially on the role of Margherita. Each of those ladies was different – I do not mean looks, this is not important, but their emotions, sensibility, character. The greatest stupidity would have been to create just one Margherita and then to try to adjust each of the singers to it. I love working with singers; I think that there is something fascinating in every one of them. It does not always agree with my view of particular characters, but this is what rehearsals are for – to try and find a compromise between their dreams and mine. Obviously, an empty stage would be a tremendous challenge to the performers. They would not have anything to hide behind; there would be only their voices and acting.
– Is an empty stage suggested by the score or the libretto? I believe that when we listen to operatic music, we imagine a particular scenery and we would like to see it on stage. Even during a concert performance singers can use gestures, can show emotions. What is the difference then between a concert or an oratorio and an opera?
– A concert performance and what I am talking about here are completely different things. I generalise, speaking of „an empty stage”. What I am concerned with is the right proportions. Human beings are at the beginning and at the end of everything. I can create a beautiful space without them but this space will be dead. If we, as a group of people preparing a production, do read the score carefully and if we do have something to say, then we do not need anything except singers and music.
– Is it possible to present Traviata on „an empty stage”? Enters Germont and starts speaking about luxury…
– Everything is possible but it does not always make sense. I would like to direct three works in this convention: Cosi fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, all three as parts of a certain whole, three parts of one performance. But it is difficult to discuss this before it has actually happened.
– What tendencies can be distinguished in today’s operatic productions?
– One tendency, popular particularly in German theatres, is to modernise for the sake of modernising, to create a production that will be different from all the others, to have as many original, clever ideas as possible. The performance is completely dominated by the director, with the conductor treated only as an accompanist and the balance between the staging and the score considerably upset. In my opinion, this is form outgrowing the content. In the first few minutes it may be interesting, but later on it gets boring. The tendency that does fascinate me combines modern thinking with the respect for the music and understanding of the work’s meaning. One can see human beings on stage and not puppets. My favourite directors – Graham Vick, Robert Carsen, Christoph Marthaler, David Alden – may have better or worse stagings, but I know that they are not concerned only with originality, I can see that they do think. I remember performances during which I felt like a little boy, excited, with flushed cheeks and tears in his eyes although he was watching Don Giovanni or Marriage of Figaro for the umpteenth time. Suddenly, something magical happens, I give in to what is going on on stage and in the orchestral pit. I wish that one day at least a few people would say this about my productions.
– Which performances made particularly strong impression on you?
– When I am at the opera, I often behave like a lunatic. Not only do I applaud but I also sometimes shout and stamp my feet. This happened during Carsen’s Alcina in Paris with Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, Natalie Dessay under William Christie, during Wilson’s Alceste with Anne Sophie von Otter under John Eliot Gardiner, during Vick’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Met with Caterine Malfitano or, quite recently, during Marthaler’s Marriage of Figaro in Salzburg and Trojans with Waltraud Maier and Deborah Polaski in Munich. I will never forget Heiner Muller’s production of Tristan and Isolde in Bayrueth with Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem. I cried during Isolde’s death scene. I was wonderful – a union of music, singing, space and invisible directing. Invisible, because Isolde just stood and sang but, in fact, the whole performance contributed to that scene. One can say that all of this is already in Wagner. True, but the number of awful Tristans I have seen is another matter.
– The question is, whether this could have been done without Waltraud Meier.
– Yes… But a few years later I went to Salzburg to see a performance of Tristan again with Waltraud Meier but in a different production, whcih was a failure as far as I was concerned. When I was watching her and listening to her singing, my mind kept coming back to that Bayreuth performance.
Last year I saw Graham Vick’s production of Don Giovanni in Glyndebourne. For a few weeks I had an opportunity to watch this production being prepared. A small-scale performance, precise in emotions expressed on stage, in relations between the characters. The most thrilling and aggressive Don Giovanni I have ever seen. Other productions I think highly of include Peter Sellars’ modern Mozart stagings.
– They do not seem convincing to me. We have ostentatiously shown modern furniture and a plot based on the feudal droit du seigneur. Both elements contradict each other. In such situation we have to stop treating seriously either what we see or what we hear, or we have to treat everything ironically.
– Theatre is a convention.
– But in this case conventions contradict each other. I must pretend that I do not see the washing machine or the tv set in order to save a convention which, through a story taking place in the 18th century, tells about a problem which I consider to be contemporary.
– If the director places a washing machine on stage, then he must have a reason to do so. Rather than seeing another, exactly the same Marriage of Figaro, which does not mean anything, I would be more interested in a risky, perhaps not entirely successful Figaro, which does communicate something.
– Is it impossible to present Marriage of Figaro with traditional sets, which are more neutral, more invisible than an empty stage, and directing the singers in such a way that the audience will see the relationships between the singers in a new light? Modern furnishings mean only a superficial updating, they do not guarantee that the characters will be close to our hearts. Instead of looking for contemporary relevancy in protagonists, directors look for it in sets.
– Undoubtedly, such tendency can be observed. But I must admit I try to find some sense in every performance I see. Often I fail to find it. On the one hand, I demand serious thinking from directors, but on the other I know, form my own experience, that it is not always possible to find the right form to present what one has to say. After each premiere I wonder for a long time to what extent my work is just beautiful theory, meaningless talk about ideals, dreams, and to what extent I have managed to establish a contact between the stage and the audience. Fortunately, each new production is another step, another challenge. I suspect I will never be satisfied with what I do.
– What is the production of your dreams? You can choose the work, conductor, cast, set designer…
– Falstaff. May I get extravagant? So I take Bryn Terfel, Ewa Podleś, Barbara Frittoli and Thomas Hampson. Set designer – Jean Kalman or Ian McNeil. And the conductor? Jacek Kaspszyk, of course. I am very interested in Tannhauser, because of the private nature of the main problem. Rosenkavalier – if I could go back in time 40 years and work with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, I would be in seventh heaven. I have been obsessed with baroque operas for some time, especially with Handel’s works. Rinaldo, Alcina, Xerxes, Giulio Cesare – these are on my wish-list. What else – Eugene Onegin, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and many, many more…
– Is there an opera you would not like to direct?
– I do not think there are works I would never like to direct. But I often think of interpretations which would be quite contrary to all expectations. Even if I did The Merry Widow, I would present it as a story about the loneliness of an ageing woman faced with the exuberance and joyfulness of Lehar’s world. I am waiting for somebody to let me direct a comic opera, one of Donizetti’s works perhaps. Though I did have an offer of L’Elisir d’amore and things started to get sad straight away – this Adina makes a fool of Nemorino, he is so sad, so unhappy – I immediately started to look for some problems in the work. Obviously, this is not a tragedy of great heroes, but a tragedy one looks at with a benevolent smile. I think that comic operas should be treated seriously. There is nothing worse than a production of a comic opera with nothing else but gags, when everything is so funny that one becomes embarrassed. For the characters on stage everything is very serious, is it not. It is in a specific context that things become funny, but even Falstaff has his tragedy, and so does Don Pasquale… There are very serious moments in comic operas and the greatest tragedies have moments of lightness. It is often said that Marriage of Figaro is funny – Let us listen to the Countess’ two arias… I think that one has to trust the composers, because they really wrote very wisely. What is beautiful in Verdi, Mozart, Handel or other great composers is that they talked very beautifully about human beings. And if I have the honour of working with such a text, then I only have to show this beauty and not stamp it out, not destroy it.
– Thank you for the conversation and may all your dreams come true.