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I love oratorio music
Conversation with Piotr Nowacki
– „Trubadur”: How did you become an opera singer?
– Piotr Nowacki: It was a pure coincidence. After graduating from high school, I took admission exams to the Department of Law and Administration at the university in Łódź. Fortunately, I failed to pass the history exam. And, as I started school a year earlier than my peers, I did not have to join the army. I worked in many different places, including building sites and courts. One day my mother read in a local newspaper that Vocal and Acting Faculty of the Academy of Music in Łódź would organize auditions. No previous music education was demanded, you just had to sing two songs or arias and recite a poem. It all seemed very easy. But, in fact, the exams turned out to be very tough – long and stressful. However, when the results were announced I was among seven lucky people admitted to the faculty. At that time I was not interested in singing opera, this kind of music didn’t awake any positive emotions in me. On the contrary, I found it all a bit ridiculous – the behaviour of singers, a certain aura of infantilism that surrounded opera. Only later did I understand that there are reasons for it. Our strange and infantile behaviour is the result of constant stress. You can never be sure if the particular note will sound well or not and whether you will be able to learn the whole part in time. At the beginning of my studies, I attended the class of Professor Pietraszkiewicz but later I changed my teacher. It also happened by accident. One day Włodzimierz Zalewski, who was then 30 years old, came to my school and the dean asked all professors to choose one talented person from each class for Mr. Zalewski to teach. Thus I started attending Mr. Zalewski’s class. At primary school I used to play the piano and later I continued playing jazz with Adam Manijak. We were doing quite well and, in fact, I don’t think there is a youth club in Poland in which we did not perform. But Włodzimierz Zalewski’s love for opera soon started to infect me. He claimed I was too good for jazz. Besides, I realized we wouldn’t play with Adam forever. He was a very good pianist, he succeeded in performing chamber music and started to compose film music as well. It was obvious he would go his way. When I was a third-year student, Włodzimierz Zalewski signed a contract for performances in Germany and was leaving the opera theatre in Łódź, where he was a principal bass. He gave the manager of the theatre, Mr. Sławomir Pietras, the names of two students to take over his parts: Marek Markicz, who was at the fifth or sixth year of studies, and me. And, can you imagine, Mr. Pietras offered me a job! As a twenty-year-old guy, I became an opera soloist. This year I’m celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the beginning of my artistic career. Exactly twenty years ago, on the 18th of October, I made my debut as Bonzo in Madama Butterfly conducted by Aleksander Tracz.
– At the beginning of your career you participated in many vocal competitions and won several prizes. Which of those contests was the most important for you and your career?
– The most important was the Moniuszko’s Songs and Ballads Competition in 1984. Every Polish school of music sent its three or four most talented students there. The fact that I was in this group was already a great success. The competition took place in the Academy of Music in Warsaw. The chairman of the jury was Ms Stefania Woytowicz. I won the first prize and the prize for the best performance of a ballad, which was a great distinction. Thanks to this competition, I was invited for a recital in Łazienki in Warsaw supervised by Jan Weber. Later I took part in other competitions and had bigger and smaller successes. After the competition in Krynica, where I was a finalist, I participated in a concert at the festival in Łańcut. Among the people invited was Dottore Cesare Matzonis, a manager of La Scala. He was coming from Russia where he’d been looking for a bass to sing the main part in The Tale of Tsar Saltan. His friend, Janusz Pietkiewicz, talked him into coming to Łańcut to listen to young singers. I remember that I sang Basilio’s aria from Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and a Russian aria. After the concert, Cesare Matzonis came up to me and said that he liked my performance very much. He asked me to sing the main part in The Tale of Tsar Saltan in La Scala. I agreed and wrote my address on the cover of the programme propping against his back. This is how it all started. I also won a prize in the Luciano Pavarotti Competition in Philadelphia and had an honour of singing with him in America. We worked together mornings and evenings, attended rehearsals and banquets, called each other by first names. Now when I watch Three Tenors on TV, I always think that I know this man personally. I worked with him, sang with him and I know that what people write about him is not true. I’m very happy that I met him.
– What are your recollections of the performances of The Tale of Tsar Saltan in La Scala?
– I remember being very stressed at the beginning. The rehearsals took place in Reggio Emilia. We worked for four weeks and then had seven performances in La Scala. I sang five of those and the other two were performed by a Bulgarian bass who was about 15 years my senior (I was 27 then). I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to match the singers. I thought 'I’ll come to the rehearsals, they’ll start singing and send me back. ’ But it wasn’t like that. Everywhere I sang, and I sang in many places and with many different people, there were better and worse singers. And La Scala is no exception.
– And your memories of Luisa Miller with Luciano Pavarotti?
– They are very pleasant. I met Paata Burchuladze, a number one bass in the world at the time. He sang the part of Walter. In this opera there is a duet of Wurm and Walter after which the orchestra gave us applause with their bows. Recently, I have sung and recorded it in Gdańsk. I haven’t listened to the whole performance yet but I’ve heard it’s very good.
– You sing in all parts of Poland.
– That’s true. For many years now I’ve been performing with Krzysztof Penderecki. I sing almost all his bass parts e. g. in Polish Requiem, Passion, Te Deum. This last title is a real masterpiece. In his Requiem there are brilliant moments as well. I’ve also performed in Dvorzak’s Requiem and Stabat Mater and Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, all conducted by Professor Penderecki, and now in his own opera Ubu Rex in Cracow, which is to be released on a CD. In Munich I sang in a concert performance of Penderecki’s The Black Mask (there were four concerts, all with the full house) and in Vienna I performed in his Passion. Recently, I’ve added to my repertoire a bass part in Wojciech Kilar’s Missa pro pace – I’ll have a lot of performances in numerous places including Kielce, Warsaw and Wrocław. My first contact with modern music was during my studies. The composer Barbara Puchalska, who graduated from the Academy of Music the same year I started my studies, composed a piece for a bass and four sets of percussion instruments. It was a very difficult piece of music. I remember that I started my studies in October and already at the end of November I performed this part. Apart from modern music I love oratorios. Unfortunately, I don’t sing many parts in oratorios now. I regret that I don’t sing Bach more often. I perform Magnificat in its both versions, where, in a different key, there is a very difficult duet for a soprano and bass. We sang it with Olga Pasiecznik two years ago. Some time ago I was to sing St. Matthew’s Passion in Gdańsk. I learned the part – I already knew some of the arias I’d sung during my studies – but, unfortunately, the concert was cancelled due to financial problems. The same happened to the planned performance of St. John’s Passion. I’d love to sing more Bach’s parts. Perhaps I am not invited to sing his works because people think my voice is too strong. But in my opinion Bach should be performed by operatic voices.
– So you are waiting for the proposals?
– Yes. Impatiently.
– You sang in stage productions of Handel’s Messiah. Do you like this way of performing oratorios?
– I think that oratorio is more interesting when staged. The performance of Messiah in Bydgoszcz was directed by Ryszard Peryt, probably the only opera director in Poland who works with the score in hand. Thanks to it, he doesn’t accept any cuts in the original composition. For him, what the composer wrote is sacred. So in Bydgoszcz you can hear the whole Messiah, all the notes in all three parts. I think that only one small piece for chorus was left out. I sang in many stage productions of Messiah and I remember the conversation I had with a great Israeli conductor in Messina. I asked him what vide he planned and he took a piano score and said, ’Not this one because it’s boring, your second aria is too sad, I don’t’ like this one and neither that one.. ’ At the end of Messiah there is a bass aria with trumpets. Can you imagine that I sang only the first part of it? I didn’t sing it more slowly, I didn’t even repeat it. This performance lasted 70 minutes, while the one in Bydgoszcz lasts for more than three hours.
– You mentioned Ryszard Peryt as one of the best directors. How do you assess the role of directors in opera?
– Ryszard Peryt is one of top opera directors in Poland because he analyses the piece of music with the score in hand. I like him and respect him. I think he is one of the most intelligent people I know. We met in 1986 while preparing Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Łódź. Since then, we’ve been meeting from time to time, for example, we did Mazepa in the Polish National Opera. Peryt is my favourite director, although I don’t really like opera directors. Why do people go to the opera? If they want to see people act, they should go to the theatre; if they want to enjoy the story and see interesting events, they should go to the cinema. In my opinion, those who come to the opera, come to listen to music and voices, maybe also to look at the scenery. If there is wonderful Mefisto, Faust and Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust, they really don’t have to do anything on stage. Everything is in music. But when the singers are bad, then even if they were naked, painted gold and did somersaults, the performance would be a flop. This is my opinion about the opera direction.
– Do you mean that operas can as well be performed like concerts?
– No, I didn’t mean that, although it may have sounded like that. Above all, the staging cannot disturb the singers. Let the directors have lights and beautiful costumes, let them introduce something surprising but the audience must be able to hear the music and voices. Whatever prevents it, even the most insignificant thing, is bad.
– We don’t have much chance to listen to you singing songs. Why?
– My lieder repertoire is very extensive. I used to sing the whole Schubert’s Schwanengesang, I also sing Moniuszko’s songs and ballads. But I get very few proposals for recitals and the ones I receive very often coincide with other engagements. It’s not easy to prepare a recital. You must work with a pianist for a few months and devote all your time to it. Preparing a good recital of songs is a great responsibility.
– Once you performed in Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria. Was this the only occasion on which you sang the music from that period?
– Yes, that was the first and last time I sang such music. It was in Flanders Opera in Antwerp. I sang the part of Antinoe, one of the suitors, with the Flemish baroque orchestra playing the original instruments. I consider it a very interesting experience because I remember having great difficulty with learning recitatives. It took me a long time to learn the part, although it’s not really big.
– Not many people know, and probably even fewer remember, that you sang Uberto in La Serva Padrona in Warsaw Chamber Opera and had wonderful reviews.
– That was my debut in Warsaw. I hadn’t sung in the philharmonic yet and only had a few concerts while participating in competitions. I sang Uberto in the staging directed by Jitka Stokalska. I enjoyed working with her. For me it was a terribly complicated part to sing. First of all, it’s technically difficult but you must make it sound easy. My second problem was playing an old man when I was in my twenties. That was a great experience. Later I sang there Bartolo in Le Nozze di Figaro and went for a number of tournées with the company. I cooperated with Warsaw Chamber Opera for many years and perhaps I’ll sing there again in Luiza Miller. I really count on it.
– You took a part in movie versions of Rossini´s operas.
– That was dreadful. The only high point of it was recording music. The conductor and most of the singers were from Italy. From Poland they engaged me and Roma Owsińska. We made two movies: La Cambiale di Matrimonio and Ernestina. Recording it was a useful experience – we sang unknown operas with difficult music. Then there was filming and it was a nightmare. We had to be ready at 7 o’clock and had to wait long hours with the make-up on as the first shot was often no earlier than at 1 p.m. After these two films, I don’t feel like playing in another one. Although, if I got a really interesting offer. There was an idea of shooting The Haunted Manor which seemed quite tempting. Last season we recorded this opera and it will be released by EMI soon. Besides, Maria Fołtyn asked me to sing in Moniuszko’s opera The Countess. The performance will be recorded by the Polish Radio in September.
– What are your plans for the future?
– There are a few concerts of Kilar’s Missa pro pace. In the Polish National Opera in Warsaw there is a huge enterprise to prepare – Penderecki’s opera The Devils of Loudun directed by Harry Kupfer from Komische Oper. I am to sing the part of Father Barre. Moreover, a few years ago I sang Mefisto in Faust at Salzburg Festival and now the opera theatre from Ljubljana has bought this production. It’ll be performed there in January.
– Do you regret becoming an opera singer?
– Not at all! The first time I set my foot on stage and sang in Madama Butterfly I understood what it means to be an opera singer.
– Thank you very much for the conversation.
Katarzyna K. Gardzina, Katarzyna Walkowska