The role of Pelleas was the outlet for my feelings
Conversation with Mariusz Godlewski
– „Trubadur”: Your debut in Teatr Wielki in Warsaw was very special. Firstly, you sang the main part. Secondly, it was the Polish premiere of Pelleas et Melisande. Thirdly, your debut took place on the stage of Teatr Wielki. And finally, the part of Pelleas is not typical for your voice. It is sung not only by baritones but also by tenors… Were you not afraid to accept such a difficult role at the very beginning of your career?
– Mariusz Godlewski: Of course, I had my doubts but if they had been greater I would not have accepted this part. I am already aware of my abilities and put my trust in them. Thus, I have decided to measure up to this role. Especially, that it is beautiful musically and interesting from psychological point of view.
– What was the greatest difficulty you had while preparing this role?
– I am not sure which act is more difficult – the third or the fourth one. At the beginning, when I had just started learning the part, I was convinced that the fourth act is the most difficult. I was a little afraid. Looking at the score and saying: yes, I can sing these sounds, I can perform such phrases is completely different to preparing the whole part, building complete phrases and interpreting, not just singing notes. I try to be a perfectionist so I am very critical of my own preparations and all the time dissatisfied with my singing. It is still not exactly what I wish but I think I am on the right track. Now, I am more uneasy about the third act than the fourth one.
– How is the part of Pelleas written in your opinion? Is it comfortable to sing? What type of voice is it aimed at?
– That is why I wonder which act is more difficult. Apart from many difficulties in act IV such as top sounds which must be sung forte, numeral pieces are very convenient. The third act, however, is more lyrical. This forces a singer to show different qualities and shades of his voice.
– Did you find the acting difficult? Was your vision of this character similar to the director’s?
– Well, I know it sounds like a platitude from a congratulatory letter but thanks to the director, Tomasz Konina, with whom I had pleasure to work, the acting was not difficult. For me it was the outlet of my feelings, looking for impressions in my heart and not just planning how many steps to do and in which direction. The director had already had his own vision of the opera but he tried to understand us. We talked a lot about our ideas and chose the best and the most realistic ones. This is how I remember it. Besides, in Maeterlinck’s play the relations between characters are also very complex, very symbolic and, moreover, presented indirectly. I look for my own truth in each work, of course, within a certain convention. I do identify with Pelleas in some way, it is a real drama and it is easy to understand Pelleas or Golaud. There is a real problem in this story, it is not a fairy tale. So far Debussy’s opera has been usually presented in a convention of a fairy tale with princess Melisande and prince Pelleas. Our director chose more modern convention and I am grateful for that. I am not sure whether we would be able to present true relations between characters if the opera was staged like a fairy tale. This opera is beautiful in itself but if there is no tension between the heroes, one may as well present it at the concert. I think that Tomasz Konina understood the crux of the story. Not only did he find the true, in my opinion, relations but he also transferred them to stage.
I was extremely stressed during the premiere. I realized that I could count on my colleagues, the pianist and, above all, on myself because I knew the part very well. Still, the fact that it was my debut and the feeling of responsibility were very stressful. The preparations lasted for a long time so I got used to the stage and the conditions in which we worked. Also the atmosphere was very positive – all the people were very nice. I was not stressed during rehearsals. On the contrary, I felt great comfort, which was very encouraging.
I am also very happy that I could sing with such wonderful artists like Olga Pasiecznik or Anna Karasińska with whom I used to sing at concerts in France. In the past I sang in a chorus and admired soloists and now we perform together. When I saw the performances in Opera Wrocławska where Andrzej Witlewski sang, I dreamed about singing on stage. Our older colleagues Mieczysław Milun, Elżbieta Pańko and Czesław Gałka, the soloists of Teatr Wielki, gave us a warm welcome. They were very kind and supportive. We also had a good relationship with the pianist Krzysztof Jabłoński – he is a great partner.
– I think there is one more thing that made your performance difficult – there was no conductor in front of you who would lead your singing. That was the original version of the opera and you sang with a piano accompaniment.
– So far, I have sung a lot of vocal lyric so I am used to singing with piano. I don’t have much experience with performing with orchestra. I sang only in Handel’s Acis and Galatea at Vratislavia Cantans, conducted by Robert Satanowski, Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater in Filharmony in Wrocław with the conductor Marek Pijarowski and I made several performances with the orchestra of the Academy of Music in Wrocław. Thus, I wasn’t afraid of the piano version, provided that a pianist could listen. The cooperation with a pianist is different to the one with a conductor, but still it must be a real cooperation.
– You graduated from the Academy of Music in Wrocław where you attended the class of Professor Bogdan Makal. You have decided to continue learning. How does your education look like now?
– At present I am on a scholarship at Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien where I am Professor Leopold Spitzer’s student. The system of education is completely different to the one in Poland but the basic assumption is the same – we learn to sing. It is easier there because students do what they need at a particular time, we can pass the obligatory exams when it is convenient to us, choose three or five subjects we are interested in and study them. I am on a nine-month students exchange organized by the Polish and Austrian governments. This period is of great importance to me, already after three months I realized the improvement I had made. I know I still must learn many things, that’s why I would like to participate in master classes. I have already taken part in a few vocal master classes held by Katherine Dagois, Roland Penerai, Zdzisław Krzywicki and Leopold Spitzer. I appreciate the lessons with Professor Spitzer very much, he is a wonderful teacher.
– You have won first prize at the Imrich Godin International Vocal Competition in Slovakia, first prize in the opera category at Adam Didur’s Competition in Duszniki. Do you want to take part in vocal competitions in the future?
– Competitions are very stimulating but I can’t say I like them. Their results do not always reflect singers' abilities. I don’t say that competitions are a necessary evil but they are only one of the ways which you may choose or not. If I receive a prize it helps, it is also a proof that I have learned and understood something. But if somebody is rejected, it is not a reason for breaking down. I didn’t qualify for two important Polish competitions, which wasn’t nice of course but this made me think. I am going to take part in vocal competitions in the future to confront the situation and stress. To put it briefly, simply to try myself.
– A singer is very rarely praised in all reviews after the performance as it happened to you and Andrzej Witlewski (Golaud). The vocal side of the opera was generally acclaimed by critics. What is your attitude to criticism?
– It is of importance because even if I do not agree with a critic he still may be right. In this sense a review may be helpful. If it is positive, I am glad. If it were negative, perhaps I would be worried. But the truth is I know myself what I can do and what I cannot. Only one review surprised me – the author wrote that I am a tenor.
– Probably he wanted to praise you for your top sounds. It is written in the libretto that the part of Pelleas is for a tenor.
– Yes, I agree. But it is written in my CV that I am a baritone. A reviewer should know who he is judging. I am glad that the performers were appreciated but it’s sad that most of the reviews criticized the staging. I talked to many of my peers and I think they understood the message. I know that reviewers also have different tastes but I cannot understand why they insult the audience (which during all six performances filled the auditorium and expressed their approval) calling it a set of Bears of Very Little Brains. Perhaps some critics look for the outlet for their complexes.
– So an older spectator is different to a younger one?
– No, I wouldn’t say so. It’s not the question of age but open-mindedness. But I think that young people are more open, maybe they understand modern convention better. Most of negative opinions about I’ve heard about the staging were from elderly people. Perhaps they were used to more traditional ways of staging. Maybe they would prefer to see an imaginary world rather than observe relations between characters.
– What parts do you dream of?
– Well, for sure I didn’t dream of making my debut in French because this language is very difficult for singing. From the beginning of my vocal education I’ve loved the music of Slavic composers, particularly Peter Tchaikovsky’s. But the beauty of the part of Pelleas captured my heart so that I was overcoming the difficulties of the French pronunciation with pleasure.
– The first part you sang was Onegin.
– Yes, I sang it at students' performance. I wanted to sing Onegin very much and my dream now is to perform this part in an opera house. I have heard various opinions about this character. He is believed to be both a romantic and a villain. For me he is a romantic and his problems are the result of his times and not bad personality. Of course, if I were to play a „bad” Onegin, I’d try to find a suitable emotional potential in myself, but I’d rather see and listen to more lyrical Onegin.
Coming back to my dreams. Every voice gets matured, which is the result of physiology, muscles and personal experiences. It is not so problematic for baritones as it is, for example, for tenors. Of course, I wouldn’t agree to sing great dramatic roles now, because I’m too young for it. Dramatic emotional tension of a part can be fatal to young singers. At present I consult Professor Spitzer. For some time I wish to develop my voice in bel canto, maybe I could sing light Verdi or Mozart parts. I would also like to perform in Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, these are wonderful masterpieces. But I don’t know how my voice will develop. I grew up singing songs and I love them. I learned a lot performing Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky’s songs. Music and art are unlimited, there can be great drama in a lyrical song.
– I thank you for the conversation and may your dreams come true.