In the beginning there were dreams
Conversation with Stefan Sutkowski
The 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Chamber Opera is approaching. The jubilee is to be celebrated with the performance of Impresario in troubles. How, after so many years, do you assess the beginnings of the work at the WCO?
I have a very pleasant memories, because we started in a complete void. One has to be aware that 40 years ago everybody who heard the words „chamber opera”, was asking: what is it? Opera meant a big theatre, big orchestra, known – which meant 19th century – work, sometimes they reached back to Mozart, finally there had to be a choir, a ballet… – this was opera.. And suddenly there came a suggestion: one lady is singing, one man is singing, one man is a mime, six musicians in the orchestra: first and second violins, viola, cello, double-bass… During the concert there were seven musicians – there was a concert preceding the opera performance in which I played. So we really had nothing to start from.. And an additional problem: if there’s „nothing” then how to find money, and some money was necessary. We decided to persuade the TV to join because what we wanted to do was small and the TV screen at that time was small too, much smaller than today it is today. The names of the cast were good, I was trying to convince them that Pergolesi was good as well, it was supposed to be funny and cheap – the TV agreed. The performance was prepared in a way by two groups: Joanna and Jan Kulma, Zofia Wierchowicz, Andrzej Sadowski – a group of people who thought about how to present the performance on TV screen and the second group – me with the Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviensae orchestra, interested in the presentation of baroque music. It was something new for those times. In the beginning there were dreams to play the works on old instruments – originals and copies – but although we thought about it from the beginning we managed to achieve this aim only 10 years ago. The style of playing was also similar to what is done today, we wanted to make it more chamber-like, to have the conductor conducting from the harpsichord… It was an absolute novum. But the choice of the repertoire was somewhat accidental, though chance always has to be helped a little. I was in Vienna with the Philharmonic Orchestra where I worked at that time as an oboist. I went to the Wilinger bookstore, where 30 years later I bought a complete edition of Mozart’s works on which our Mozart programme is based. I asked whether they had any chamber opera. They searched for a while and brought me this little book [director Sutkowski takes out from the drawer a copy of La Serva padrona]. I became interested in it, looked through it, asked how much it cost, paid, put the book into the pocket and brought it to Warsaw. All the material for the cast were prepared from it and this is how our first performance La Serva padrona was created. This is how the Warsaw Chamber Opera was created.
You said that the beginnings of the WCO were connected with the TV. Now the TV happily comes back to this tradition showing Tetide in Sciro recorded during the Baroque Opera Festival this year. At the beginning of the WCO TV showed also other performances, didn’t it?
Yes, there were several, for instance very important for us Karol Szymanowski’s Mandragora. When I saw the manuscript of Mandragora, we started to think what could we add to it. We added Szymanowski’s music to Prince Potiomkin and the Songs of the fairy-tale princess. The evening consisted of two parts – first was the concert with unknown or very little known works by Szymanowski – let us remember it was the year 1963 – and the second part was filled by Mandragora. Mandragora was quite unique because the performance lasted 18 minutes and the applause 20 minutes – when Pokora, Gołas, Pluciński and others who played in it came out to take their bows they were, in a way, continuing the performance and the audience had great fun. That was the beginning: different works – Pergolesi, Haydn’s Chemist, then Telemann’s Pimpione, Karol Kurpiński’s Charlatan and Polish Amfitryjon. That was something we still lack today: an attempt to present Polish 17th century opera. Polish music of 17th and 18th centuries was joined with Joanna Kulmowa’s text – it was such a beautiful mystification, with the stylised old-Polish text and original music. I still hope that we will find one of 10 operas, because there were at least that many of them, which were performed during the times of prince and later king Władysław IV. This was great, wonderful European theatre. After Florence, Rome, Naples, Mantua and before Venice, the fifth important theatre. The first north from the Alps. This opera house played a very important part. It was financed generously by the king from the regained so-called Naples money – borrowed by Naples noblemen from Queen Bona. She died soon after that, the money was never returned but finally the king managed to regain at least interests and those sums were used to finance the theatre and the king’s musicians. The money was spent on a good cause.
We could do with a king nowadays, couldn’t we?
This kind of interest in arts would be very useful indeed. I will quote an example from history, today it would be impossible but… We know that the foreign envoys often waited very long to be granted an audience with the king, and they could get it only after an opera performance at the king’s theatre. Tsar’s envoys, for instance, had to wait three months. They the performance and wrote to the tsar that Poland had to be a great power if such a performance could have taken place Only after the performance did the audience take place. Passing on to our times – in the sphere of art., not only of opera, theatre and music – in the sphere of art sums rather insignificant in comparison with expenditures in other fields could show Poland in the world in a much better light than our other „achievements”. This is the best way of presenting our country. We are doing this but it would be possible to do more. We work first of all for our faithful audience but also for guests who come especially to see our programmes, premieres, festivals. We also presented them abroad. We’ve counted that since 1972, so for almost 30 years, we have showed our productions abroad to more than a million people. And the Polish state paid nothing, it even made some money because we too pay our taxes. That what happened with culture during the times of king Władysław is a part of our tradition and we cannot say it is not important. If it were unimportant then everything that was created in Italy during the Renaissance and later in France would not be important either. Opera appeared in Italy in 1600, in Poland in 1628 and in some countries as late as 19th century. Part of the repertoire is of course lost but the tradition of performing remains. Polish opera began during the times of king Stanisław August with Poverty made happy in 1778. We staged it in 1979 on its 200th anniversary and now we are showing its third version. We present Polish works, including the earliest ones. There are Cracoviens and mountaineers, there is the Vilnius version of Halka, which was the first music drama in the world. This was the beginning. Later, Poland did not exist but Polish opera did. Moniuszko came with his wonderful works; he was followed by others, and, during the II Republic, Szymanowski. As we can see, art does not depend on the existence of the state, it is stronger than the state. When the state doesn’t exist art plays an even more important part than usual
You have made an unusual, for Poland, number of recordings. What are the future recording plans of the WCO?
We will record Tetide we have already discussed. This is a live recording from the final rehearsal and three performances. I think it is very good – the performance is alive in this recording. Recently we have made it the same way with The Cracoviens and Mountaineers. We have a recording that just needs some finishing touches. I think there will be more such recordings, we will try to continue this. Of course everything depends on money. I have to look for sponsors „little by little”. A sponsor usually takes a certain number of recordings to be distributed as the company gifts, which obviously are differently edited, with the logo of the firm on the cover etc. For the sponsor it is a relatively small sum and for us it is a possibility to record a performance under the patronage of the Pro Musica Camerata Foundation. This Foundation does a lot of things that the WCO could not do because they are outside the scope of the opera’s activity – publishing of the recordings and scores, for instance. Those things are created at the opera or for the opera but what happens with them later depends on the Foundation. It’s wonderful that there are people who devote their time to make this happen.
Warsaw Chamber Opera is also famous for its documentary and research work. Where do you look for the lost works, how do you manage to find such pearls?
I am interested in it professionally, the subject was very close to my heart when I was studying musicology. Around that time the research was started, prompted by the 1000th anniversary of the Polish state, but it quickly „died out”. Later, at the Warsaw Chamber Opera, we founded the Centre for Documentation and Research with Tadeusz Maciejewski as its head. The research is being carried out in various other places, by different musicologists working on their own, with whom I am in touch. Now we are working on a new project – the publication of the history of Polish music. Initially, I wanted to publish it only in English but since it is written in Polish, we will start with the publication in Polish. Besides, at the beginning we had no proper translator, now we have one. I think that such publication is necessary not only abroad but also here in Poland because we have only scraps of information spread over different lexicons etc. It is to be the whole history of Polish music and the history of music in Poland. The idea came up almost ten years ago. I knew from my fellow musicologists that people dealing with various periods of music history wrote treatises, analyses but nobody would publish them. Now they have gone through their works again, written some things anew because time brings not only new insight but also new materials and verifies theories, even those concerning the authorship of particular works. The first volume – Middle Ages comprises the period from the beginnings of music in Poland till the year 1320 (part I – written by Mr Jerzy Morawski) and from 1320 till 1500 (part II – written by Mrs Katarzyna Morawska), 1500-1600 is Renaissance – also prepared by Mrs Morawska. Then Baroque – 1600-1700, this book is being finished by Mrs Barbara Przybyszewska-Jakubowska. Mrs Żórawska-Witkowska is writing part II of Baroque – I am afraid she isn’t approaching the end yet but I will try to make sure she finishes it soon. Classicism has already been published, it was written by Mrs Nowak-Romanowicz. The book was ready to be published but nobody was interested in it. I bought it from the family and after some necessary additions it was published. Then there will be part I of Romanticism by Mrs Zofia Chechlińska, part II is being written by Mrs Rena Poniatowska. After that we will have a book dealing with the period between Romanticism and our times by Mrs Zofia Herman. Part I of Modern Times has been written by Mr Krzysztof Baculewski, now he is writing part II. There will be eleven volumes in total – the whole history of Polish music. The volumes have 300-500 pages each so there will be quite a lot of it. There are also some books that have been written in connection with this project, for instance The Polish piano.
While looking for the materials on baroque music Mrs Przybyszewska found a manuscript or rather a collection of manuscripts from the 17th century that were thought to have been destroyed. Before the war it was housed in the library of the Wrocław University and the Ancient Music Publishing House published Jarzębski’s works using this collection as a source.. When German libraries were opened to foreign visitors after the unification of Germany, Mrs Przybyszewska found the original manuscript in Berlin.
It turned out that there were many pieces signed M. M. which suggested Marcin Mielczewski. Mrs Przybyszewska proved that those were indeed his works copied in the 17th century. A series entitled Mielczewski known and unknown was created, all scores were published by the Pro Musica Camerata Foundation. The works have also been recorded on 6 discs. I could give you more such examples, for instance the discovery of Józef Elsner’s greatest work, Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, which, by the way, has survived in Berlin in most remarkable circumstances. Elsner wanted to receive the Elsnerowo estate in Praga district so he dedicated the Passion, already performed in Warsaw with great success, to the tsar. When he completed copying this great work and went to the court, it turned out that the tsar had already left. Elsner left the work to the minister responsible at that time for the Polish territories and that was it. The composer did not receive the estate but during the revolution somebody took the Passion from the tsar’s library, brought it to Berlin and sold it in an antique shop. From the antique shop the work was bought by the Prussian Library, where it has been preserved till the present day. We were helped by Mr Krzysztof Rottermund, a Polish musicologist working in Berlin, who found the Passion. Before it was found, we had only suspected that it might have been there. Mr. Rottermund had a microfilm made for us, from which we could produce scores for our performers and after 160 Józef Elsner’s Passion was performed again. As you can see, this kind of research leads to wonderful discoveries sometimes. We presented Passion a few days ago in Berlin. A large audience arrived at Berlin Cathedral and at the end thanked the performers with a long standing ovation. This truly magnificent performance under the direction of Jacek Kaspszyk with our soloists and joined orchestras and the chorus was a great triumph of Elsner and all artists.
The WCO has in its repertoire works, such as Don Pasquale, which have not been presented recently. Will they come back to the stage in the near future?
Yes, Don Pasquale will come back for sure, we have just made some changes in the cast. Please remember that this production had its premiere in 1977, if I remember correctly. Now, for instance, we will have many new artists in Mozart’s operas, some singers will switch the parts. All those productions were mounted in the same period, in 1991 and earlier, later on some artists joined the casts. Now we have a lot of work to do. I went to see a rehearsal at the theatre today… Many things have to be done when one or two new singers join the cast. And in Die Zauberflote, for instance, there will be great changes – you will see yourselves. There will be the same productions but not the same performances. Everybody brings something new, both singers and the director. This is a constant work which cannot be stopped even for a moment.
You are planning a new series, The Most Beautiful Operas of the World, for the next season. Which operas will we see?
The series will begin next season. At the moment I can only tell you about one production – towards the end of May we will stage Eugene Onegin. Why? Because this is an opera Tchaikovsky wrote for the Moscow Academy of Music, for a small house, for young singers, for a small orchestra. The proposal to stage at our theatre came from Russia. We have soloists. This will the first thing I’m inviting you to now. I will not come into more details now because I want to finish first the great project of celebrating the 400th anniversary of opera. Now we are half way through, but there is still a lot of work ahead. We must realize that the revival of Bernadetta Matuszczak’s Quo Vadis is a big enterprise in itself, and the staging of two operas that are now being written is a great challenge. I was present during a rehearsal and had an opportunity to listen to the instrumental music of Antygona. We have already received the full score, we are now preparing vocal scores and making a recording for the director. And there is also Baltazar, we should have the piano score next week. So far we have been lucky because no performance was cancelled and it could easily have happened, especially in autumn and winter when we were plagued by illnesses. Now the company is in Spain, they are coming back on 27th May and we are going back to work again!
At the WCO we can often see interesting debuts of artists who go on to make great careers. In the final of the 4th International Stanisław Moniuszko Vocal Competition there were two singers who have recently joined your company – Jarosław Bręk and Tomasz Krzysica. How do you find those young, talented singers?
Sometimes they just come to us but more often I am told about them by their teachers. They say that there is somebody interesting and ask whether I would like to listen to him or her. Nowadays we usually do not have big auditions, sometimes it’s one or two singers. I listen to them and if the person wants to be with us and I see that it would make sense, I give him or her a part to prepare. Of course there are problems because we should limit, not increase the number of people working at the theatre, but interesting voices keep coming. Fortunately, we manage to come to an understanding with our authorities. They understand that what we are doing has a lot of sense and we understand that there isn’t more money for us.
In your opinion – is the size of the stage and auditorium of the theatre in Solidarności Avenue a difficulty, a challenge or an advantage?
I will answer at once – it is an advantage. You can devote 100% of your energy to interpretation here, which means that you do not have to put too much effort into trying to be heard at all. Everything will be heard, every nuance. Of course it makes tremendous demands on singers: the sound must be beautiful, diction must be crystal-clear clearly because everything is heard. Of course we will not present works that are too big for this stage but it should be remembered that many of them were created for smaller companies, they were performed on a smaller scale. This inflating of performing forces, which became a common practice towards the end of the 19th century distorts our perception of some works – Bach as well as Mozart were sung then by choruses of hundred singers. But what is good for Mahler does not have to be good for Mozart. I saw it myself own during our travels – for instance, the house where the first performance of Gullielmo Tell had taken place there was hardly room even for our 40-person orchestra. Besides, at the WCO you can perfectly see every gesture, every blink of an eye. Singers have to be able to take advantage of this and pay in a different way.
Frequent visitors to the WCO know well that this is a „standees friendly” theatre. Why are standing-room ticket holders treated so nicely there?
I went to the theatre for the first time in 1947 and I had to sit in the last row of the uppermost balcony because I had no money for a better seat. I am happy that standees at our theatre have better places I appreciate them just much as I appreciate other spectators who have enough money to buy tickets for any seat at any performance. This is a matter of our feelings, mood and admiration of art and not money.
Thank you for the conversation
Katarzyna K. Gardzina, Katarzyna Walkowska