Opera means real emotions
Interview with Mariusz Kwiecień
– Trubadur: If you hadn’t gone abroad after finishing your studies, do you think we would be talking now about your successes? Would you be now after debuts in Met and La Scala? How would your career be like?
– Mariusz Kwiecień: I know what you mean. I have a feeling that it is very difficult to start a career in Poland. It’s not easy to make good contacts here and, besides, you are more likely to get a contract in a Polish opera house if you have already sung abroad in well-known theatres. I don’t really know what would have happened if I’d been hired by one of the opera houses here, but I must admit having a lot of luck in the past. It all started during my vocal studies in Cracow. I had very good relations with my professor, Helena Szubert-Słysz. She always praised me and gave me the highest notes, I was her favourite even though I did not sing well yet. I am a sensitive and soft man but I am also capable of taking a decisive action. I felt that a firm hand was lacking there. One day I heard the bass Daniel Borowski sing and I wanted to sing like him. He advised me to move to Warsaw and study with the Professor Włodzimierz Zalewski. For me, this was quite an unpleasant confrontation with reality. I found out that what I was doing resembled more cooing than singing. I remember my new teacher telling me to stop singing like a shepherd after his geese and try singing like people do in the opera.
– Were your abilities completely developed after graduating from the Academy of Music?
– Of course not! Finishing the studies means beginning a new education on the scene. It is worth performing even the smallest parts to see how the voice sounds in a theatre, where you need to sing legato and where you can save it a bit, and so on.
– Then you took a part in Belvedere competition and left for Met.
– It was like a fairy tale, it all seemed so unreal. Of course I immediately had the feeling that I would make a great career in the USA and set the world on fire. After this competition I received an offer to perform in Domenico Cimarosa’s Il Matrimonio Segreto in Kammeroper in Vienna and an agent from Columbia Artists Management heard me there. He persuaded me to go for an audition to Met. I went there and got hired. I think that if I hadn’t gone to Met then, I’d probably have been given a job in one of the opera houses in Poland, or maybe I’d have become an assistant in the Academy of Music. Anyway, I’m sure my life would definitely be different now.
– What did you learn in Met? If you hadn’t performed there, would you sing now as you do or worse?
– To be honest I cannot tell. But my work in Met taught me a few essential things such as respect for an operatic work and its performers, punctuality, persistence and a kind of fortitude. Now even when I don’t feel very well I can still sing. Without these qualities I wouldn’t have made such a career. And I’m afraid it’d have been impossible to gain these qualities in Poland. There is one more thing, mainly the very magic of the name 'Met'. It makes impression on people. Thus if I were Mariusz Kwiecień who sings as I do now but lives in Poland and hadn’t performed in Met, I wouldn’t have got so many offers from foreign theatres. It’s very sad but this is how the world of opera functions.
– How does it feel to come back to Poland after so many successful performances in the most famous opera houses?
– It may sound strange but I am not really well known in Poland. There is not much information about my performances and successes abroad. But I still got a really warm welcome in the National Opera in Warsaw, not only by the management but also by other singers. Thanks to it, it’s easier for me to sing here now.
– What is the role of an agent in a singer’s life? Does it happen that a worse artist sings more than a better one only because he has a good agent?
– In fact it doesn’t matter if your agency is big and famous or small. The most important is to have an active and creative agent who knows your abilities. I was lucky because I found an agent who likes me and my voice. He believed that it was possible to make me a famous artist and earn money on it. The more I sing and the more money I get for it, the greater is my agency’s profit. Of course, the fact that I am a client of a prestigious agency matters as well. The managers of opera houses have more trust in such agencies.
– In Poland, the theaters organize auditions to find new soloists and often hire full-time singers. Thus, the agencies in Poland deal only with inviting foreign singers. Do you think it’d be possible to adopt the foreign system here?
– First, we would have to reject the current Polish system. It’s impossible to change anything as long as there are singers employed permanently by opera houses. The agent is necessary for an artist to provide him with the best working conditions, good hotel, high honorarium etc. As our theatres don’t have enough money to pay guest soloists, agents are not needed. Most Polish opera houses give only a few performances a month so there isn’t much call for the singers from the outside.
– Artists performing in Polish opera houses are very happy when they’re permanently employed – they have social and medical insurance then. Abroad, artists don’t need a full-time job, I know that you’ve rejected such a proposal from Wiener Staatsoper.
– I got such an offer after the Belvedere competition. Perhaps I didn’t have great vocal abilities then but I was very ambitious. Permanent employment in such a theatre means singing especially insignificant parts. A few times a day there are rehearsals for various small parts and from time to time a performance in which you appear for a few minutes. When you are lucky you may sometimes get a bigger part in one or two operas. It’s not a job for me, I can’t be tamed this way. I went through the system of singing small parts in Met but I treated this as a part of my education. Besides, even insignificant parts in the most famous opera house, where you perform together with Pavarotti or Domingo, are invaluable experience and a great distinction for a young singer.
– In our magazine, Trubadur, we wrote about the vocal schools for young artists at La Scala and in Osimo. Can you tell us how the academy at Met functions?
– America means professionalism! Everything must be done in 150%, you cannot skip classes nor ignore duties. You always have to be prepared perfectly. Many young singers think that since they have good voices, they can come late and unprepared to classes. It’s impossible in Met. It happened to me only once: I didn’t learn the part of Marullo in Rigoletto and I was 15 minutes late because of the underground failure. I was issued with a reprimand and warned that the next time I’d be expelled. They informed me that I’d be given the second chance only because I was a student. To get to this academy you need to have an audition. The course lasts for two years for foreigners and three years for the Americans. Each student has a right to choose his professor; I worked with Bill Schumann who I’m still in touch with. Besides, you have to resign from all the contracts and during the first year cannot have an agent. The classes are run by such great singers as Scotto, Milnes, Soviero, Horne or Sutherland. There are also courses in acting.
– What was the difference between the classes in Met and in the ones at the Warsaw Academy of Music?
– As I said, it’s a different system of education. You have to be always prepared and do things in the shortest possible time. In Warsaw, people don’t do much and only study before exams. Maybe it is because young singers are treated like ordinary students at an average school. To make it short, in Met students work hard, whereas here they don’t. Also in western opera houses there is a greater discipline than in Poland: if there is a 15 minutes' interval, it lasts exactly 15 minutes. Everybody is nice and kind but during rehearsals jokes and relax are out of question.
– What’s the importance of competitions in a young singer’s career? Some people say it’s a good way to show yourself, get a good contract, make acquaintances, while according to others, competitions are of no importance and what counts is a good agent and luck.
– I hate competitions and I’m strongly against them. It’s almost impossible to give an example of a competition whose winner really deserved the award. The results of competitions are often agreed on in advance and singers win because they have good contacts with certain people. I assure you that my criticism doesn’t come from the fact that I’ve never won any important competition and got only special mentions and distinctions. The Belvedere competition helped me but I still consider competitions as unnecessary stressful situations for singers. Besides, there are many singers who are very good at competitions but have great difficulty performing on stage. Everything I’ve achieved is due to my performances on stage. For me, opera means a real life and emotions, which I cannot show standing in a tuxedo in front of a jury.
– Did these small roles performed in Met result in other engagements in America, Europe or Japan?
– Yes, after my Met debut in a small role in Katia Kabanova I got invited for an audition to Lyric Opera in Chicago and was offered a part of Silvio in Pagliacci.
– You made your stage debut in Poland.
– It was a mere accident. The singer who was offered the role of Figaro in Mozart’s opera couldn’t perform and proposed me as a substitute. Mr Pietras, the opera house director, invited me to Poznań where I sang an audition and got engaged. It was my very first operatic performance and I liked it a lot. Then I received a proposal from Bogusław Kaczyński who had heard me sing in Academy. I performed the part of Papageno more than 30 times in Roma theatre.
– Do you have a comfort of choosing roles out of many offers?
– Fortunately I do. My agent receives many different proposals for me with performances at the same date. For instance, there is Marquis Posa in Berlin, Count Almaviva in La Scala and Don Pasquale in Detroit. I reject the Count because I’m still a bit afraid of singing this part in Italy with Muti as a conductor. I don’t accept performances of Don Carlo yet because I’m too young for this part, so I choose Don Pasquale. My agent knows I don’t want to sing Il Barbiere, Valentin, I’ve also turned down the part of Macbeth. Together we make decisions which role I should sing and where.
– Which roles do you consider best for you now?
– All Mozart parts which are appropriate for my voice, Donizetti, Onegin and Marcello in La Boheme. This last part I’m singing in Met, San Francisco and Japan during next season.
– I understand that you don’t accept certain parts because you wait for your voice to get more mature.
– I’ve always dreamed of being a Verdian singer and I hope I will when the time comes. Maybe in 5-7 years. And I don’t mean only the physical maturity of voice and body but also the maturity of emotions and means of expression, so that you can create a character using the smallest possible emotional and physical effort.
– Recently you’ve sung the role of Onegin in Grazu. What is your Onegin in Warsaw going to be like?
– I would like it to be in compliance with my own nature. I trust Treliński who saw me and said, You’ll be a good Onegin. This Onegin is going to be full of pride, vanity, contempt and complexes, a man who seems to be hard but is quite weak. It’s like in paintings: each colour, each shade is the result of mixing of other colours. Here also, each character is the mixture of many different features and personal feelings. I always try to find in a role what a director has discovered in it. Treliński knows what he wants. He’s also searching for more, of course, but he already has a vision of this character. It exists and what we are doing together is adding features to it. We are discovering something I have inside the director may find interesting.
– Does the direction influence your vocal creation of the part?
– Different conceptions of the opera shouldn’t influence the way of singing. Thanks to my agent I’m able to break a contract if a director’s conception doesn’t suit me. It’s crucial that I feel comfortable, because then I can work creatively. So far I have never broken any of my contracts – I’m young and want to use every opportunity to learn. When I see that I create something together with a director and other singers, that we all inspire one another, then I’m happy. It works like dynamite that should explode during the premiere. Unfortunately, it often does not.
– What’s your attitude to reviews? Does criticism help you improve your performances?
– With time I’ve started to disregard reviews, they hurt me less and less. I remember working very hard in Glyndebourne and I think I did my best there. Some of the reviews I got were full of praise, others not that positive but none of them was definitely negative. Still some of them hurt me. For a long time now I haven’t received a bad review of my performances but reviews are various. They are often written by people who are experts in music but some of the critics have their favourite recordings and compare everything to them. The real opera is something different, even those great singers from 50s such as Tebaldi, Corelli, Bastianini had their great mistakes without which their performances would have been unreal. In fact, most of the recent opera recordings are so unreal that I hardly ever listen to them. Critics concentrate on the perfect recordings but it doesn’t mean that the voices recorded there are also perfect. Everything in opera has begun to be so professional, so rhythmic and so perfect that the real art has been lost. When we watch a paining in a gallery from a distance we see a great landscape, but when we approach it we see traces of a brush and lumps of paint, which are not perfect but that’s what I consider most interesting and beautiful. And I believe that if natural expression, and not the perfect performance of notes, becomes most important in art, the critics will change as well. I guess that most of the people who come to the opera can’t read notes so they don’t expert a perfect performance but emotions, truth, life. Certain artists record 20 CDs a year, but these recordings are just a perfect singing of notes and nothing more. Of course, not all stars are like that. There is also wonderful Bryn Terfel with whom I had a chance to perform, great Cecilia Bartoli whom I’ve seen in Le Nozze di Figaro, Renée Fleming.. And one more thing: the premiere evenings are usually spoiled by nerves. Unfortunately, these are the performances which critics write about.
– How do you picture your future? Would you like to settle down somewhere? Do you think about it in your free time?
– To be honest, I haven’t thought about that. I live in New York and Cracow. I love traveling, visiting new places. I feel good when I’m close to nature – desserts, seas, mountains. I want to have my own house, my place on the earth.
– What are your plans for the nearest future?
– During holidays I recorded a CD with London Philharmonic Orchestra – romantic arias and duets from I Puritani, Don Carlo, Les Pecheurs de Perles, Rigoletto etc. for Teldec. The record hasn’t been published yet. To tell you the truth I don’t consider recordings as something essential for my happiness as I fulfill my ambitions on stage. After Onegin in Warsaw I’m going to Japan where I’m singing my first Don Giovanni conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Then there is L’Elisir d’Amore in Amsterdam (Belcore), Pagliacci in Chicago (Silvio), Don Pasquale in Seattle and Detroit, La Boheme in Metropolitan (Marcello), Count in Le Nozze di Figaro in Glyndebourne and Florence (with Zubin Mehta), Manon Lescaut in Chicago and, finally, Marcello again and Ford in Falstaff in Japan. I wish my career to continue the way it has developed so far. I hope it will.
– Thank you very much for the conversation and I hope your dreams will come true.