Bel canto is a balm to a voice
Conversation with Marcin Bronikowski
– „Trubadur”: You sing especially outside Poland. On our stages you appear quite rarely. What is the reason for this? Is your calendar so full of proposals that it leaves you no time for performing in Poland? Can Polish theatres not afford to engage you? Or perhaps it is due to the lack of proposals from our country?
– Marcin Bronikowski: I simply do not receive proposals. It is true that I sing in London, Munich, Berlin, Hamburg or Bilbao but Poland has always been the most important for me. Thus, I have accepted the part of Eugene Onegin in Teatr Wielki or, last season, Kostryn in Żeleński’s Goplana. I simply do not have other proposals from Poland. A few years ago I sang in Faust and La Traviata at the opera festival in Cracow but since the last performance of Don Carlo in Warsaw, which was almost eighteen months ago, I have not had any other offers. If there is a position in repertoire in which I am interested, I always attempt to contact the management of a given theatre or philharmonia.
– You perform where you are invited so you do not have the comfort of being permanently employed, receiving regular wages etc. Do you not feel that such a system is less secure than holding a regular post in the theatre?
– I have never been a member of any opera house’s staff and I do not intend to. Theatres that employ full-time singers are only in some German, Austrian and Swiss cities. But mainly in Germany where an artist is engaged for 1-2 seasons. Suppose I accepted a regular post as a main baritone in a small, second-rate theatre. Then I would have to sing everything, also those parts that are unsuitable for my voice. And if I got engaged by one of the best opera houses, like those in Munich, Hamburg or Berlin, where mainly guest soloists with well-known names perform, I would either sing minor roles or substitute for guest stars. I am not interested in such a career.
– How did you become a singer? Was it an accident or did you always know that you wanted to be an artist?
– I graduated from the Karol Szymanowski Music School in Warsaw where I attended the class of trumpet and piano. Until I was 15-16 it had never occurred to me that I would become a professional singer. I was then devoted to symphonic and chamber music. However, I have always liked going to the opera. I went there for the first time when I was six.
– Did you like it?
– Like it? No, it was love at first sight. I saw Lucia di Lammermoor, I remember well that production. I went to see it twice, first with my mother and then alone. In April 2001 I made my debut in Teatro Escalduna in Bilbao as Lord Ashton, which was of special importance to me. When I was still at high school, the man who used to tune my piano and who also sang in a chorus of Teatr Wielki, heard me doing my sol-fa exercises for school. He decided that I had a voice worth training and put me in contact with professor Jadwiga Dzikówna. She started teaching me to sing. I have very nice memories of our lessons and we still keep in touch. Whenever I am able I come to her for the control of my voice. After a year of lessons with her I decided to start vocal studies. Prof. Dzikówna persuaded me to study abroad. There were the Ministry of Art and Culture scholarships to Bulgaria then. I was very sceptical about it but she told me that there is a good Conservatory with a vocal department in Sofia. So I spent five years studying in Sofia. I was in the class of prof. Rusko Ruskov, who is a very famous singer and highly esteemed teacher there. We became friends and are in good relations until now.
– But you wanted to continue your education…
– Yes, I wanted to improve my voice, take part in special courses. In 1992 I succeeded in qualifying to Accademia Rossiniana in Pesaro, whose director was Alberto Zedda. After a brief audition I was chosen, as one of eight singers, to participate in his course. It dealt mostly with Rossini’s music. I benefited a lot from this course, it opened my eyes to the ways of performing coloratura and interpreting Rossini’s music. Later one of my agents informed me that Carlo Bergonzi’s was planning to organize a course about interpretation of operatic music in La Scala. He was looking for young singers just after studies. I was one of ten singers chosen to participate in the two-months course in 1994. It ended with our concert in La Scala, which was my debut in this famous opera house. That was my vocal education, since then I have been gaining experience on stage.
– How does a singer learn the art of interpretation?
-The intuition how to interpret music comes with singing new parts, performing on stage and gaining experience. I think that humility is a virtue in this profession and the opportunity of studying with such masters as Carlo Bergonzi or Alberto Zedda is a real distinction. They gave me the general idea of interpretation, taught me the ways of artistic expression and secrets of vocal technique. Learning from great masters should be an inspiration for young singers but it must not result in imitation. Everyone must find his own ways of expression. I profited a lot from these studies. Of course, with time, I am trying to reach my own conclusions, new possibilities open before me. It is a difficult profession but now I know more than I used to. Speaking honestly, I believe that interpretation is something you cannot learn. You must be sensitive to music, feel the part you are performing, know what you are singing about. And such courses as I attended develop your vocal consciousness.
– In the case of basses or baritones the voice sometimes changes. What kind of repertoire, do you think, you will sing in the future?
– Naturally, the voice changes and develops with time. I think that the top of your vocal abilities comes when you are about 40. For the time being I feel well in lyrical parts, mainly bel canto – Donizetti, Mozart, Rossini, Bellini. From Verdi’s roles I have sung only Germont and Posa and I do not wish to sing more of his parts now. The role of Onegin is also dramatic and difficult to interpret but it suits my voice. Someone said that it is good to sing the music of old masters. This repertoire is a balm to a voice and if I manage to sing it correctly now, I will certainly be able to sing Un Ballo in Maschera, Macbeth or Il Trovatore in 5-10 years time. I suppose it will not seem as difficult to me then as it is now. Verdi is wonderfully composed for singing but still too heavy, too dramatic for me. But if my voice keeps developing, and I hope it will, I will sing his music as well. I am not really attracted to modern music. At present I am devoted to bel canto.
– How do you prepare yourself to sing a new part? Do you search for information about the époque or the particular work or do you rather concentrate on the score?
– Obviously, the interpretational inspiration comes from what is called the spirit of the époque. For example, in the case of Eugene Onegin I have read Pushkin and Lermontov many times. However, Tchaikovsky did not simply duplicate Pushkin’s poem. Whenever a libretto has its literary equivalent, I read it carefully and also try to find some details about the historic events. This is how I was preparing myself for Don Carlo although not everything is historically true there. Besides, the music, score and composer’s clues are of great importance as well.
– Do you listen to other singers' recordings while preparing a new part?
– It depends. I never use recordings in order to copy somebody else’s interpretation. I listen to them only when I do not know the part at all. Then I want to see how it is played, conducted and sung. But what interests me is only the vocal side of it not interpretation. I cannot imagine imitating other singers, even the best ones. They are individualities and I also try to be myself. If I listen to records while learning a new part, I do it only to hear the tempo and the music as the whole. Of course, singers who have a good musical intuition may listen twice to, let’s say, Bastianini and repeat exactly his way of singing. But what for?
– Do you have your favourite singers?
– For me the paragon of voice, technique and vocal interpretation is Ettore Bastianini.
– You have participated in many competitions and won a lot of prizes (e.g. I prize in Bilbao in 1992, I prize in Pampeluna in 1992, I prize in Miriam Helin Competition in Helsinki in 1999, III prize in Stanisław Moniuszko International Vocal Competition in Warsaw in 1992, III prize in Verviers, a special mention in Cardiff and others). What influence did the competitions have on your career? Do you like competitions?
– I do not like them but I admit that they helped me a lot. But any kind of competing is stressful. On one hand I like rivalry and the feeling of creative emotion, on the other hand all competitions are stressful exams and I will never forget the time of waiting for results after each stage or listening to a great baritone singing before or after me and thinking what I was doing there. A few top prizes helped me a lot, for example the competition in Pampeluna opened for me the doors of many theatres in Spain, first agents contacted me. Every young singer should participate in competitions, if only to test himself. But you must tell yourself that even if you do not win, it is fine. Many of my friends were rejected already after the first stage and they still received offers from people who liked that particular type of voice or interpretation. You do not need to win a competition to start a career. But every young artist should see what a competition is like.
– How did you cooperation with artistic agencies begin?
– Agents always come to competitions. But after studies I simply wrote to a few agencies, went to auditions and they liked me. So, in fact, it depends on how lucky you are. A young singer ought to either participate in competitions or go for auditions to agencies to get himself noticed. In my opinion, you should not start your career in a chorus. Agents are people of great importance because they are responsible for all negotiations, even those concerning insignificant matters. No artist is in direct contact with opera houses.
– Does your agent advise you, suggest something?
– Yes, he makes suggestions but no one can decide for me. It is me who signs contracts. From time to time I do expect a piece of advice from my agent when, for instance, I need to choose between two proposals, which happens quite often. But I do not allow him to impose the role or interpretation on me. I think that also in Poland only agents should negotiate. Unfortunately, my agent has never arranged anything here for me. In Poland only actors and models have agents, while opera singers make arrangements themselves. This situation ought to change. An artist should not deal with certain matters himself because it is not his profession. In my view all the artists should have their agents or personal managers, who would negotiate with theatres and philharmonias. Obviously, it would result in the increase of honoraries because in western countries an agent is entitled to at least 10% of profit. Personally, I do not like negotiating for myself and I am not good at it.
– Do the words of criticism worry you? Do you read reviews?
– It would be hypocrisy to say that I do not care about critics and reviews. I try not to be bothered by reviews but I suppose it is not possible. When you are a singer you would like to find out what others think of your performances. I do read reviews. Those which are positive and accurate please me. The negative ones that are substantiated grieve me but I know that I deserved them. There are, however, critics who write total nonsense and then I smile. For instance, once in Spain I sang Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This part is not really difficult and without top sounds. Later, in one of reviews, I read that my performance was fine apart from the top F-sharp in the air. But there is no F-sharp in this role!
– Do you like recording? Two of the operas in which you sang, Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (with Edita Gruberova) and Il Paria, published recently, were recorded during live performances.
– I do not have much experience with recording in studio but I know it is very satisfying. It does not have the special atmosphere of live singing but you can work on each note, which is a big advantage. I try to be a perfectionist and many things in my performances do not please me. When I record in studio I can always repeat certain pieces, improve them. Live recording is much more stressful, you cannot lose concentration even for a moment. Because if something goes wrong it is irretrievable.
– Do you feel different then when the performance is recorded? Do you put more effort into it?
– Every single performance should be treated as the most important. I always endeavour to do my best. But of course during recording the responsibility and stress are greater.
– What kind of staging do you prefer – sumptuous and colourful decorations or more modern approach to opera?
– I like working on the personality of the character I sing, especially when it is psychologically complex, like Onegin. I prefer classic kind of staging and some modern ideas annoy me if they do not show relations between characters properly. If a director has an appealing vision I accept it. But what is the most important is the text itself. We sing for people who listen to it and then everybody, even if he does not know the language, should understand the story just watching it. If you do not start with the text then it is pointless to stage a given work.
– The staging of La Cenerentola in Covent Garden, in which you sang, was modern. The story was set in a different time.
– Of course there were modern elements in it – instead of a carriage there was Rolls-Royce, the chimney place was substituted with central heating and journalists-paparazzi sang in the chorus – but these are insignificant details. Nothing really weird. From the beginning to the very end the staging was based on the message of the text.
– But opera is also a theatre.
– Of course, opera cannot be treated like something „anti-theatrical”. For me music, singing and staging are all of equal importance. It is an opera house and you cannot just enter the stage and sing an aria like during a concert. You must show the personality of your hero. However, as it is a singing theatre, there are certain additional difficulties. Thus, sometimes it is worth rejecting the director’s idea if it can hinder your singing. You not only sing but also play and you should be credible. I expect the director to tell me how he imagines my character, to present a clear conception. If I do not agree with him, I try to discuss. But I also endavour to do what he expects from me because I am only one of the elements of the whole enterprise. In my opinion, all opera directors ought to have some musical education. They do not have to read notes, of course, but they should be musically prepared. You cannot treat opera like a dramatic theatre with the accompaniment of music and singing.
– Does your singing differ with every staging?
– The vocal interpretation is independent of staging. Therefore, both the director and conductor should not impose their version and vision of the piece.
– We have mentioned your recordings – Donizetti’s Il Paria and Maria Stuarda. Can we expect more records?
– ll Paria is the first recording ever. This opera was performed during Donizetti’s life and then forgotten. Daniele Rubboli, a well-known Italian critic, found the manuscript and on its basis the score was reconstructed. I perform the leading part in this opera and I am glad that it is a historic recording. I would like to record a CD with songs. I love singing them because this allows for the close contact with the audience and demands clever interpretation. I also wish to record the most famous baritone arias.
– What are your plans for the nearest future?
– After Onegin I am singing La Boheme at the festival in Majorca and then, in August, the part of Count Nevers in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (I have just received the score) at the festival in Martina Franca in Italy. It is an original version hardly ever performed, thus it will probably be recorded and published. And later there are more performances of La Boheme in Hong Kong, Macau and Frankfurt and Lucia di Lammermoor and Manon Lescaut in Spain.
– What is your Onegin like? Do you like this character?
– Very much. Everyone says it is not a positive character, but, in my opinion, he is simply an unhappy man, a typical romantic hero. You cannot condemn him. There is nothing blameworthy in his air from the first act . He tells Tatiana he cannot love her or marry her because he does not want to have a family. If he wanted, she would be his choice. But then there would be no Pushkin’s poem and no opera. Later, Onegin becomes really miserable. He kills his friend. Many years later, when he meets Tatiana he realizes his mistake. His is a very complex and deep personality, perhaps that is why I love singing this part. Besides, the music is miraculous. The present staging is directed by Mariusz Treliński and I like his vision. This is a great challenge for me as it demands good acting skills.
– Thank you for the conversation.