Hala Ludowa is like Walhalla
Interview with Ewa Michnik, General and Artistic Director of the Wroclaw Opera
The interview took place at the „Impart” Arts Centre, when the homeless Wrocław Opera has its offices. Obviously, the company’s difficult situation was one of the main topics of the conversation.
Ewa Michnik – We wouldn’t be able to present new productions without our sponsors. We don’t receive enough funds from the state; what we do get is merely enough to cover salaries and non-artistic expenses. We have to pay the rent for rehearsal rooms, stores and offices because we don’t have our own building. The opera house has been undergoing renovation for almost five years now and the work requires an enormous amount of money.
This year we have managed to raise almost 3 million zlotys with which we have and will finance new productions. What we do lack, however, is the funds for our every-day work. As an opera company, we should give 20-24 performances a month. A symphony orchestra works differently – Friday and Saturday concerts plus additional Thursday concerts, say for young people. This means 12 big concerts a month plus chamber performances. The goal of an opera company is to give performances every day. Obviously, when we do not have our own stage, we perform much less frequently. I am afraid, however, that even if we did have our house, giving 24 performances a month would be impossible. As we all know, performances require money, and this financial obstacle is at the moment insurmountable.
State funds for all artistic institutions are getting smaller and smaller. The best example here is the National Philharmonic Orchestra, which, during its 100th anniversary season, had to cancel 15 scheduled concerts. Our own 160th anniversary went virtually unnoticed.
The artistic activity of our company depends at the moment entirely on sponsors. By the end of 2001 we have to raise further 700-800 thousand, if we want to stage The Haunted Manor.
Trudadur – Since we are talking about particular titles – despite enormous difficulties, you constantly surprise opera lovers with new projects. What are the company’s plans for the nearest future?
– There are three projects. First, we want to continue with grand scale presentations of opera. People have got used to this and I must say that such a way of presenting opera works very well, especially with young people – we have received many phone calls from people from various parts of Poland coming to see those performances. Young people like them for a variety of reasons. First, watching and listening to opera together with so many people makes the experience similar to pop or rock concerts for mass audiences. Secondly, they feel „safe” because they don’t have to dress up. Many young people are paralysed by an extremely elegant outfit – I’m talking here about 15- 19-year-olds. A young woman of, say, 26, is not so reluctant anymore to be dressed elegantly, with jewellery, furs, etc. Young people want to feel comfortable and don’t like the distance they feel when they come to the opera wearing casual clothes and see women in long evening dresses. But I have to say that those who came to the first performances in Hala Ludowa in sweaters, now try to dress up a bit. An opera performance in Hala Ludowa has become something special for them. And I can see that they also behave differently – no chewing gum or eating popcorn during the performance. The silence, concentration is perfect. During those first performances I was afraid that we would have to face shouting, scuffles, perhaps devastation – after all, this is a place where sports matches are held. But nothing of the sort happened. Everyone behaved properly.
We know one thing – those who came to those first performances [of Aida] in Hala Ludowa in 1997, have remained our faithful supporters. This year we decided to risk an experiment and present the same production of Nabucco that was premiered in Hala Ludowa two years ago. I was extremely nervous because I wasn’t sure if we would be able to draw the same big crowds again. The attendance exceeded our expectations – three days before the first performance there were no good seats left. We had to sell standing room tickets; their owners sat in those seats we could not sell tickets to because they had very restricted view, or they sat on the stairs opposite the stage, in order to have a good view of everything. I think that opera productions at Hala Ludowa have really taken on. We have people coming to see them not only from all over Poland, but also from abroad.
This time we have decided to chose a work closely connected with he New Year period. Moniuszko’s Haunted Manor fits the bill perfectly; besides, this year we are celebrating the 130th anniversary of the composer’s death. Therefore we have decided to present a wild Haunted Manor.
– In other words, to go for a bit of extravaganza…
– That’s right. We do not know yet whether we will have favourable weather conditions, whether we will have snow. We are playing from 30th December to 6th January, so we should have winter then. But we cannot be sure. Fortunately, we are prepared for anything, thanks to a sponsor…
– If there is no snow, we will make it. A special machine is already waiting. We want to put lots of Christmas trees around Hala Ludowa and have children, dressed as animals, playing among them.
When the spectators enter the auditorium, they will see a manor destroyed after numerous wars that have raged throughout the country. The young masters come home from the latest war and the house is rebuilt in no time before the audience’s eyes. I don’t want to give away too many details; suffice it to say that in the prologue we will show a bit of the history of our country. It’ll be useful especially for young people.
We are working together with the Academy of Music, the Academy of Physical Education and the Song and Dance Company „Mazowsze”. We are planning to have a real sleigh drawn by horses inside Hala Ludowa, on artificial snow, of course. We have to have a sleigh ride – the libretto demands it. We also want to show some traditional Polish Christmas and New Year ceremonies. We hope that approximately twenty-five thousand people will see the six performances we want to present.
– I suspect that many people will start to plan a trip to Wrocław after reading this…
– I will be delighted. Our second project is also a bit mad. We are still looking for a place to perform in Wrocław. It is easier in the summer – we can do open-air performances. During the winter it becomes more problematic. The hall we use most often has terrible acoustics; the sound of both the singers and the orchestra is hopelessly muffled. And the cost of hiring the place is enormous.
A wonderful hotel has been opened recently in Wrocław. When I walked into its main lobby, I was stunned. A huge, empty hall that can house about 500 seats. Immediately I went to the general manager, a German, and asked him if we could present an opera performance in his hotel. He said he had never seen anything like that in his life but he was willing to try. And so we are going to present there or four performances of Carmen this January, in a production specially designed by Teresa Kujawa. We’ll see how it’ll go. I would also like to present there German opera: Mozart’s Magic Flute and Marriage of Figaro, as well as Bach’s Cantatas.
– Since we are talking about German opera, the rumour has it that you are planning a production of the entire Wagner’s Ring…
– That’s right. We have received a wonderful gift – set to the entire Ring. The Hannover Opera have given it to us for free. We also managed to arrange free transport, exemption from tariffs and free storage here in Wrocław.
So one thing is ready. Professor Hans Peter Lehmann will direct the production. We start in October 2003 with Rheingold and Walküre.
– So we are in for a great musical feast.
– We have to prepare ourselves very well; it will take time, but it is certainly worth doing. It will be the first staging of the entire Ring in Wrocław since WWII. I believe one has to go for such big projects as well. It’s been quite a while since the Ring was staged in Warsaw and I think it would be good to give people, especially young people, an opportunity to get to know Wagner. There are various opinions about his music, usually negative – that it is long, loud, boring, heavy etc. I believe we can create a thrilling spectacle at Hala Ludowa. When Professor Lehmann saw Hala Ludowa for the first time, he said that it was simply Walhalla, built just like Wagner had imagined it, and that nothing more was necessary.
– We are eagerly waiting for October 2003.
– The announcements will be issued well in advance. Many of our friends will surely come but some people may be afraid. That’s why we have to give them time to get used to the idea.
– But if we are talking about Wagner and the Ring, the question that immediately springs to mind is, what about the singers?
– Professor Lehmann has promised to help us. There are some excellent singers at the Dresden Opera with which we will co-operate. I will certainly try to create one entirely Polish cast. I think that our Ring will be a great opportunity to confront styles, interpretations etc. We will to everything to give our singers, our musicians a chance to benefit as much as possible from this experience.
– Apart from those big projects, another of your successes has been recordings. Two complete opera recordings within less than a year is quite an achievement, especially in the Polish mediocre recording market…
– We have made much more recordings but not all of them have been released yet. Tomasz Szreder has recorded Tosca and Bach’s Cantatas, Tadeusz Zathey – Carmina Burana, and I – Boheme, Traviata and Paderewski’s Manru. All those are live recordings which considerably reduces costs. It would be different if we had a lot of money and could record in the studio. Though I must confess I prefer live recordings, even if not everything is perfect.
– Is there a difference for you between conducting in the studio and conducting live?
– There is a huge difference. In the studio, we have 150 versions which are then pieced together, and so we can’t really speak of one, uniform conception of the work. This conception is created not only by artists working together. Emotions generated by applause or a lack of it influence everyone, the singers and he conductor. We don’t have it during studio sessions.
In our case we take just two versions: from the rehearsal and the performance. The latter is the basis of the recording; only very serious mistakes are replaced with fragments from the rehearsal.
Yes, I do prefer live recordings, even with mistakes. Why? When I go to the Metropolitan Opera or La Scala, I listen to living human beings, and even the best singer or player can have a bad night, a momentary lapse of concentration. These perfect studio recordings is not what I expect. I can understand, accept a different tempo in a live performance, because a singer slows down or quickens the pace, and the conductor has to follow him or her.
The situation is completely different in the symphonic music.
– This is my next question…
– In working with a symphony orchestra, it is the conductor who sets the tempo, the whole conception of the work. Obviously, a wonderful oboe player who will „sing” his solo beautifully, will influence the whole performance differently than a player who will merely play the notes.
In opera, the conductor has to pay particular attention to the soloists. There are conductors who demand absolute obedience from the singers, even great conductors do that. But in such cases performances lack a spiritual dimension, everything is more mechanical.
– When preparing an opera production, you work not only with singers and orchestras, but also with stage directors. Does it ever happen that, when you look at what is going on on stage, you think, my God, what does this director want from the singers?
– It does happen. I consider myself lucky, because the first stage director I worked with was Lia Rotbaum, an extremely musical person. She told me one important thing: Remember, if you are a musical director of a production, you are responsible for everything from the first to the last note, but not only that – you are also responsible for everything from the singers' shoelaces to the lighting.
This was the beginning of my conflict with stage directors. They would prefer the conductor just to conduct and not to interfere with what is going on on stage. But I have met directors with whom I love to work because, apart from being distinguished artists in their field, they can also co-operate with the conductor. Often a conductor may notice something that does not work. I’m not talking here about situations when the stage action challenges the singers or the chorus. I always say that opera should be a musical theatre, and not just a stand-and-deliver kind of performance.
– Productions that can be called „unconventional” (to put it mildly) are becoming more and more fashionable. Often they generate fierce controversies – just like this year’s Fledermaus production in Salzburg did. Do you think that this radical departure from period-costume productions is a positive phenomenon, a chance to „refresh” opera?
– Occasionally, there are phenomenal productions among the unconventional ones, such as Mariusz Treliński’s Butterfly, which is also a popular success. But these are just exceptions. I don’t think that traditional productions must mean a meticulous re-creation of period costumes. But we have to preserve the climate of the work; we can achieve that thanks to the use of costume, scenery, lighting. We should try out new solutions, especially in contemporary opera. I believe that productions of Don Giovanni situated in a brothel are behind us. Such experiments may have interesting artistic results, but audiences generally don’t like them. Of course we have to avoid the other extreme and present an umpteenth production of Rigoletto that resembles all the previous ones. The most important thing is to find a balance between the two approaches.
I think that all experiments should explore themes that still strike a chord with today’s audiences. And many operas still do, for instance Nabucco, a very relevant subject today, in a time of bitter conflicts between the Christian and the Muslim values. People asked us whether we were not afraid to present this opera now.
– Some opera lovers believe that the age of great voices is long gone, and that nowadays recording companies promote singers with mediocre voices but with good looks. Do you agree with those pessimistic opinions?
– Well, it is true that good voices are rare. In East European countries this may be a result of the economic situation – many young people simply opt for more profitable professions. But there are many voice students in the USA, Korea, Japan and Western Europe and the competition is fierce. Some agents do promote mediocre singers with great looks, because opera is a great show nowadays. A good voice is not enough, the singers have to be handsome, move well on stage and be able to intrigue the audience. And that is a problem indeed.
– Unfortunately… But let’s talk about dreams now. Is there a work or works you dream of presenting?
– I would like to introduce Richard Strauss, Wagner, Berg and a lot of 20th century music to the repertoire of the Wrocław Opera. I would like to be able to present contemporary works without worrying whether or not the audience will come to see them. I believe such works can become close to people’s hearts. I think it’s simply a matter of giving the audience a chance to get to know them by putting on an interesting production. There is a lot of phenomenal music we never play because of inadequate casts or financial reasons. We don’t have to organize an advertising campaign for Carmen – people know what it is and will come to the performance. But if I say Fiery Angel or Wozzek, then the situation is completely different.
– They are afraid of such works…
– Exactly. It’s so sad that we have to present the same works over and over again. The ideal situation would be if we could play 20 plus performances a month. Then we could devote twenty evenings to the well-known favourites and five or four to much lesser known works. And during the next season we would devote less time to the old favourites, so that the audience would miss start to Traviata but at the same time begin to love Schönberg or Berg. If we had 4-5 properly financed opera companies in Poland, those companies should and would promote a very ambitious repertoire. An opera company left to its own devices and dependent on sponsors will not present an ambitious repertoire because it cannot afford to do so.
– Let’s say you can have any cast you want. Are there singers you would particularly like to have in your productions?
– We would certainly invite Cecilia Bartoli. Jose Cura – to sing in Samson and Dalila. I would also like to work with Roberto Alagna and Francisco Araiza, because they still sing beautifully. I would choose fairly young artists, not yet very famous, but with good voices, musicality and stage presence.
– You are a very busy person. Apart from being the general director of the Wroclaw Opera, you are also the artistic director of the Wratislavia Cantans festival, a lecturer at the Academy of Music in Cracow, and, on top of that, you have to find sponsors. Do you still find time for listening to, watching and going to the opera for pleasure?
– When I’m in a big city, I always try to visit its opera house. I can listen to or watch opera only late at night. Another way is impossible in Poland. A conductor who says: I will only conduct, I don’t care about finances, will not be able to carry out his or her projects – the person who raises funds will make decisions. If I raise the funds myself, I can make decisions about the repertoire. Of course, I can only choose from among, say, ten works, but the final choice is mine. Nowhere in the world do the artistic directors deal solely with artistic matters. Even at La Scala or the Met they have to talk with businessmen, have contacts with banks and show up at banquets, while they would often prefer to sit at home with a score or a good recording. But even the rich and famous cannot sometimes do that…
– Well, let’s hope we’ll be seeing more and more of those rich and famous, and that we’ll be seeing lots of interesting performances and concerts in Wrocław. You’ve whetted the audience’s appetite and they will certainly be expecting more surprises from the Wrocław Opera.
– There will certainly be more surprises. Trovatore was set in a fairy-tale land, the production of Carmina Burana was very modern, of Haunted Manor – very traditional. We are planning a production of Fiddler on the Roof for June. I won’t be just a joyful musical; we want to treat the story very seriously, though without discarding the humour. The Ring will be very modern. So it won’t be only about fairy-tales in Hala Ludowa.
– We wish you every success with all your projects. Thank you very much for the conversation.