Of a great work, artists create a work that is even greater
Conversation with Ewa Podles
– „Trubadur” You have a lot of devoted fans, you are called the best contralto of the world or the best Rossini singer but sometimes you are considered to be a controversial singer.
– Ewa Podleś: I do not care to be liked by everybody, I do not know whether anything else can be said about that. I usually have very good reviews but there are also opinions that the style in which I perform baroque music is terrible, unacceptable. When I recorded a disc with Handel arias for Delos, I wrote in the booklet what the baroque music was for me. I do not regard myself as a baroque singer and I do not stake any claims to that title, I do not study baroque and I do not intend to do that. I just sing as I feel it. I think that people in those times loved in the same way, hated in the same way and had the same emotions as we have now. And I do not see why we should sing with a plain, „castrated” voice, with no vibrato and expression. Today we need different means of expression. I interpret baroque works in my way and I am glad if somebody likes that and I am grateful for words of praise. But if somebody does not like this, he or she does not have to listen to me. Let him or her take classical – in his opinion – baroque singers and enjoy them.
In January I sang a concert of baroque arias at the Carnegie Hall, which was enthusiastically received by the audience. Carnegie Hall regulars told me they had not witnessed such an applause there for years. My baroque style didn’t bother anyone. People want to hear a message, to experience something, to be moved. But sometimes you may sing very well and yet the listener will remain completely indifferent. Recently, there has been an interview with me in the American magazine, Classical Singer, which was entitled Love me or leave me. I know from my experience that all those who fell in love once still love me. And those, who did not like me will not change their mind no matter what. Some time ago my agents were trying to make some directors of opera houses like me. No success. After a while I understood what the problem was and I told them: Leave them, concentrate on those who like me and who want to engage me. Do not try to convince people who do not accept me. So I do not fight for those who do not like me. If somebody does not like me, he does not have to listen to me. No one is under an obligation to listen and like me. I am almost certain I will not win the approval of such people.
– The „controversy” does not concern only the interpretation of the baroque music, the way of singing. It is probably also a matter of the type of voice, its beauty. Your voice is very characteristic, a few seconds are enough to know that this is Ewa Podleś singing and nobody else… Some people may like your voice very much, others may prefer, for instance, countertenors in some parts.
– They may also prefer other mezzo-sopranos. Everybody has their own individual taste. I am not angry with people who do not like me. For instance, I do not like Yo Yo Ma, undoubtedly an excellent cellist. He does play perfectly but he does not move me. If art does not move me, I do not like it. I do not like Picasso but does it mean that he is a bad painter? Of course not. If an audience does not like a particular artist, it denigrates neither the audience nor the artist. We must leave ourselves some margin, some space. Everybody has their own likes and dislikes and is entitled to their own opinions. This has to be respected.
– You speak about taste, which is a very subjective thing. But on the other hand, there are also such objective things as technique and breath control.
– My technique has never been questioned. But I think I make such a strong impression on people that they cannot pass me by indifferently. I am either adored or strongly disliked. I think it is also a sign of uniqueness. Ordinary, though very good singers, who fit in the so-called norms, are received „normally”. No one gets furious, no one is strongly „against” or „for”. The way I sing does not fit those norms, it is different Similarly, the reaction to my performances is different. People are very strongly „for” or „against”. There are critics who do not like me. But I do not remember very negative reactions of the audience. Of course, there are people who do not like me, but the majority supports me. So I do not care if somebody writes that my concert was unacceptable in terms of style. How does that person know for sure how the baroque music should be sung? Did he sleep with Handel? The most important thing is that the audience liked what they heard and that I find no fault with my performance. Of course, sometimes something may go wrong, sometimes I am not in good form, everybody has a different constitution.
Emotions must be revealed on stage. Obviously, I cannot cry at the piano, but I have to direct my acting and narration consciously in such a way that the audience will cry or laugh. When I study a part, I sing with no emotions, because I am only learning it at that moment, I am programming myself, preparing. I put that music into myself, it must settle inside myself.
– You mentioned critics. What do you expect from a review?
Of course I read the reviews. And of course I would like the reviewers to write well about me. But first of all I would like them to write professionally. The critics will not deceive me because I am a professional while they seldom are. Some of them even lack appropriate vocabulary that should be used in a professional review. By a professional review I mean a review in professional periodicals such as Opera, Opera News etc, periodicals which are usually not read by ordinary people but by specialists and music lovers. This is where I would like to read something specific. If a reviewer did or did not like something, I would like to know why. I am not satisfied with the sentence Ewa Podleś sang very well What does it mean, sang well? It is not enough. Similarly, when a reviewer has any critical remarks, he or she should write what was wrong, doing it in a professional way, explaining his or her opinion. It must be something that will convince me, as a professional. The reviewer should turn my attention to something I did not realise, did not notice, and now, after reading the review, I come to a conclusion that he my be right. That kind of review may be very helpful in correcting myself. We, just like our family and friends, get used to ourselves, to our ways of doing things, to our voices and even to our mistakes, which, at certain point, we do not notice anymore. If the charges are explained in a professional way, with reference to specific points, they may only help the singer. But such reviews are unfortunately very rare. I will not even mention reviews in daily newspapers…
– Does the audience change you somehow? Do you feel the mood of the audience, the way people receive you?
– The audience mobilises me. When the reception is warm from the very first piece, it allows me to spread my wings, I open out. On the other hand, if I do my best and the audience remains unmoved, then everything closes inside me. And there is no way I can establish a close contact. And I feel I am baring my soul in front of inappropriate people. That is why the contact with the audience is so important.
– Do you listen to the recordings of other singers when you prepare new parts? Are there voices that inspire you?
– I do not listen to various voices for pleasure. I use recordings as a kind of educational tool because thanks to them I learn faster. A recording helps me to learn the part, to get to know it, to find out what tempos, what difficulties etc lie ahead. But when I do listen to recordings while preparing new roles, I always try to listen to Russian operas sung by Russians, Italian operas sung by Italians, in order to learn the melody of the language as well. I cannot say that I will not listen so as not to have other interpretation „imprinted” on me. Nobody can „imprint” anything on me because I have to do everything my way. I have a strong personality, and even if I would like to repeat, I rebel against that. There is something in me that makes me sing, that pushes me into singing in that way and not the other. Sometimes I am not able to sing a piece in the way which that „something” in me suggests. I keep trying then, I look for a sound, colour, way of telling something. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to sing the way that inner voice does.
– You sing in various theatres in the world, which function in a different way than those in Poland. How, in your opinion, should an opera house function?
– I think that the stagione system is the best for an opera house. Usually, when I perform in a theatre where there is no stagione but a system with singers as members of the house’s staff (in a recent Falstaff in Berlin, for instance, only Raimondi, Pieczonka and I were from outside) I see a mess. I see exhausted singers, who ran from one rehearsal to another, who often have fits of hysterics, who work like slaves. They are on the verge of a breakdown and do not respect each other. The atmosphere in a theatre where singers are full-time employees is not very healthy, there are envies, resentments, nerves among the house’s singers because of, for instance, the casting. Often singers are on the books but do not sing because they should not sing at all. The atmosphere is much healthier when soloists are engaged for particular roles, including the small ones. La Scala, for instance, contracts with specific singers even for lines such as The dinner is served. Of course, you do not bring a singer from New York for just this one line. It is a local singer who has an appropriately smaller salary than the stars. But everything perfectly clear. And the artist is paid for a particular performance and is not given a fixed salary. It is much nicer to work in a stagione theatre, no one bears any grudges against anyone, because from the very beginning everyone knows who sings what. It also very seldom happens that singer cancel performances. When there is just one cast, illnesses, postponements are much less frequent. The feeling of responsibility is greater. People try to keep together and help each other. There is no need of any trade unions. Artists should defend themselves only with their art, without relying on trade unions. You cannot force the audience to listen to artists who want to sing because they are on the books and think that this is their due.
– You said once in an interview that your career would probably be different if your surname were, for instance, Podlessini…
– The fact that I am from Poland, that I live in Poland is still received with disbelief. I often see that Russian, Bulgarian or Italian singers are fawned on not because they are the best but because they come from Russia, Bulgaria and Italy. An artist can be mediocre, but when it turns out that it is a Russia alto or bass, everyone starts saying that the singer in question is the best in the world. On the whole, it is difficult to convince the decision-makers to engage a Pole if Russians or Italians are available. Maybe if I were Italian I would be the greatest singer in the world. The fact of being Italian gives you a great advantage – you can sing poorly, but people think that it should be like that. Italians are always right!
– So the final result that reaches us – casts in the greatest theatres, recordings etc. – is sometimes the effect of the workings of mechanisms which have little to do with art?
– Oh yes. Very few artists are engaged solely because of their artistic merits, because of the beauty of their voices. Many engagements are the result of non-artistic deals – for instance, somebody has a better agent. The agent is very important because if you have a bad agent, you will not perform anywhere. Agent is like a matchmaker and he has to arrange a match between me and the director of the theatre. It is the agent who fights for a contract. Of course, the artist’s fame is also important, and so are audiences' reactions and reviews. But not all theatres engage specific artists they initially intended. If an artist does not agree to the proposed conditions, they have fifty others to choose from, and it doesn’t really matter that those are often worse. Some time ago I had an American agent. He was my agent for 5 years and I think it was a wasted time. For 5 years he did not get a single contract for me in the USA, although he loved me and for him I was the best singer in the world. Since I came to my present agent I have had so many offers that I could settle in the USA and sing only there. I have so many contracts that I have no time to sing in Europe. I have no time to accept all offers.
– You not only perform in the USA but you also make recordings there. Your two latest recordings, baroque arias with the Chamber Orchestra of Moscow and Chopin’s songs with Garrick Ohlsson were released by American companies.
– Yes, and the next ones are on their way. I have no time for making recordings recently, I think that I have made enough records and, to tell the truth, I do not want to make more. It takes a lot of time. It is not always possible to stand in front of the microphone and just record everything from beginning to end. The voice needs a rest. And I have no time. Since the recording with Handel arias had a great success in the USA, I was asked to record more baroque arias. But now I want to record something else – something from the Russian repertoire this time. In December I will record, among other things, Mussorgsky’s Songs and dances of death, Tchaikovsky’s cantata Moscow, Konchakovna’s, Paulina’s, Jocasta’s and Joanne d’Arc’s arias and also Varvara’s aria from Shchedrin’s opera, Not only love, with the Chamber Orchestra of Moscow under the direction of Konstantin Orbelian.
– There are many unofficial, pirate recordings of your performances circulating around the world. Do you have anything against your pirate fans, who record your performances „unofficially”?
– I am not against pirate recordings. If it gives people pleasure, then why forbid that. Of course this makes life even more difficult for the performers. We are not proud of all our performances and we would not like some of them to be recorded and, what is more, distributed. But I personally prefer recordings of live performances (even with some defects) to the „processed” studio recordings. I think that music lovers have had and will have a lot of joy and fun listening to those pirate recordings.
– You have been regarded as the greatest Rossini singer for many years. But you have been always absent from the only Rossini festival in the world. Why haven’t you sung in Pesaro before?
– Probably because the previous management of the Festival did not consider me worthy of performing in Pesaro and to sing Rossini there, although everybody sings there… It was strange for me but I said to myself that probably someone out there did not like me and did not think me worthy of an invitation. I was eventually invited to Pesaro by Alberto Zedda, who became the artistic director of the Rossini Opera Festival.
– You sang there in a very seldom performed work, Le nozze di Teti, e di Peleo. In original score the part of Giunone, which you performed, is small but two fragments were added to it especially for you: cantata Giunone and the final rondo from La Cenerentola.
– Zedda said that he had invited me not to let me sing only a little duet, merely fifteen bars long, but to let me show off. Apart from the fragments you have just mentioned, he also added a few fragments from other Rossini’s works, including the ballet from Armida and Lindoro’s cavatina from L’Italiana.
– In Non piu mesta you sang very original embellishments we had never heard before.
– They were Alberto Zedda’s embellishments. On my Naxos recording of Rossini arias I sing without embellishments. I had no time to prepare them at the time and, besides, I have sung Cenerentola relatively rarely in my career. Zedda said that there were three version of the rondo to be performed, each with different ornamenti, each with different text, different ending. Zeddda’s ornaments were very interesting but I „corrected” them even further, adding, for instance, leaps into the lower register. I wanted to adapt them more to my voice.
– You also sang a recital in Pesaro with a very rare repertoire. There were no spectacular Rossini arias.
– All four recitals presented during the Festival were to be short – about 45 minutes of music. Zedda told me that they should consist only of Rossini’s works. Until then I had had no Rossini recital with piano in my repertoire so I had to learn a lot of new things. I sang the aria C’est bien lui!, the authorship of which is sometimes doubted. But nobody so far has managed to convince me that it was not Rossini for sure. Some people wanted me to drop that aria from the programme but I did not agree. Even if it had turned out that it was not Rossini, nothing wrong would have happened, especially given the fact that other artists sang works not only by the master from Pesaro.
– You said some time ago that you preferred singing tragic parts to comic ones.
– People tell me I am funny and I have a talent for comedy. I remember that once during La fille du regiment at La Scala I was supposed to accompany Mariella Devia on harpsichord, while giving her a singing lesson. The instrument was very delicate, an antique to boot, and its owner kept telling me: Please, do not bang so hard on the keys, and I replied: When I play gently it does not respond... And during the opening night I mixed things up, I was looking at the score and did not see anything, I had a complete blackout. Devia sings and I… nothing. The recitatives in that opera were spoken so I said in full voice: Oh, pardon, ma petite, ancore une fois…, which, of course, was not there in the libretto. And I started to play that fragment again from the beginning. During another performance of that series I sprained my ankle and roared Uuu!! – and the audience burst into laughter. It was very painful and people were laughing. So apparently I am funny… But generally, I feel much better in dramatic roles, where I can show emotions, inner life, where the voice is used to express drama, threat, fear and not only for technical fireworks. But even with the most „technical” of works I always try to show that there is more to them than just a display of vocal pyrotechnics.
Not in all operas have situational humour. In this work of genius, Il barbiere di Siviglia, for instance, the music is funny in itself, everything is funny. In Le nozze di Teti, e di Peleo, on the other hand, there is nothing funny. The director was trying very hard but we still had to look for opportunities to play tricks.
– Why are there so many embellishments in baroque and bel canto operas?
– Baroque arias are extremely difficult already in their original versions. There are enough traps, ornaments and not everybody is able to sing all of them. Those who are able to do it, start to play and add new embellishments. There is nothing wrong in this, we do not betray thus the composer’s idea. When I began to sing baroque arias, I was often inspired by the cadenzas and ornaments of Marylin Horne, because they were „appropriately difficult” for me then and I did not know how to compose them myself. Later on I learned to compose my own cadenzas. I write them with my husband. I am often helped by the harpsichordist, Jory Vinikour, who studied the writing of ornamentation (to learn how to write stylish embellishments). Jory Vinikour is the author of the cadenzas I sing on the recording of arias from Rinaldo and Orlando.
– But there are conductors who think that all additions are unnecessary…
– These are doctrinaire attitudes, which, in my opinion, are sick. In certain repertoire the audience does expect a display of virtuosity at some points. If there is a fermata or „at will” (a piacere) marked in the score, why shouldn’t we show off? When I sang Tancredi at La Scala, the conductor, Daniele Gatti, cut all embellishments and, in effect, really butchered that Tankred – everybody sang beautifully but it was expressionless and lacked the Rossinian charm, and so Gatti was booed at the end. He took the pleasure away from us, the artists, and the audience. The part of Tancredi was written within one octave – there are no spectacular high or low notes, or coloraturas, if they are not added. We discussed and almost fought with Gatti, we tried to convince him that there were certain performing traditions. There is no b written originally in Rosina’s aria, but if dared not sing that b… It is not an argument for me that something is not there in the score. Of a great work the artists create an even greater work and this is what people like. The more special effects, the crazier people get.
– Your voice is described as contralto, you sing not only Rossini but also Verdi, and recently Wagner. However, this is not an evolution of the voice because you still come back to Rossini, the flexibility and mobility of your voice have not disappeared.
– In a way, this is a small evolution because I have started to sing Verdi or Wagner only recently. The choice of the repertoire depends on very individual assets, qualities and inclinations of the voice. Not everyone can combine coloratura parts with dramatic ones. I too am still experimenting to see to what extent I can combine the two. I try not to have them both two close together – I could not, for instance, sing Erda today and Il Barbiere di Seviglia tomorrow. You can try but the voice needs time to adapt itself. I did not decide to sing Erda straight away, I had to listen, to look into the score. And it turned out that Erda’s register is very comfortable for me, I am also an alto and Erda is an alto part.
– What are your plans for the nearest future? Where and in what will we be able to listen to you?
– This season I will be singing mostly in the North America. I will have recitals in Kansas, Philadelphia, Berkeley and Vancouver. Later on I will sing Gluck’s L’Orfeo in Detroit, then again recitals – Chicago and New York, at the Lincoln Centre. At the beginning of December I will perform at the Moscow Conservatory and then the recording I have mentioned earlier, the New Year’s Eve concert in Warsaw with Alberto Zedda, then again recitals (Madrid, Toronto, Cleveland, Ottawa, Montreal). In March I will sing Julius Caesar with Toronto Opera, in June Mahler’s III Symphony in Paris at the Salle Peyel and in La Coruna – L’Italiana in Algeri and Il Viaggio a Remis.
– Is there a part you are dreaming of, a part you would like to sing?
– To be honest – I do not know. I always dreamt of Tosca but, of course, I will never sing that. I think I have no such dreams. I had one dream in my life – a silly dream to go abroad and sing there at least once. And now I dream of not going abroad…
– Some artists say that singing is their life, others that it is their work and that at home they cut themselves off from it. What is your attitude towards singing?
– I treat singing very professionally – this is just my profession. I can live without singing. I am very happy when I do not have to sing or learn new things. Taking Gluck’s L’Orfeo as an example – I have to sing on one occasion in Italian, on another in French and at that moment I have a great mess in my head -I sing half of a phrase in Italian, half in French. But this is my profession and I practice it with a great devotion and with the full awareness that I have to do it as best as I can. Besides I demand that from everybody. Sometimes you can’t buy a good bread roll; or we can have 70 kinds of sausages, all of them bad, and nobody wants to use old, tried and tested recipes. Simply a lack of professionalism. I am very demanding towards myself and others. And the most beautiful holidays for me are when I am at home. People are surprised when, in reply to their question about where I go for my holidays, I say: home. I am very happy at home, I do not have to pack my things, I do not have to fly, which I hate. I have 100% of rest, I am with my family, with my dogs.
– It must be a great comfort for you to be working work with your husband, Professor Jerzy Marchwiński.
– Artistic and technical matters (the preparation of the repertoire etc) apart, you really need somebody you trust, somebody who will tell you frankly whether something is good or bad. There are also non-artistic matters which are very important – faxes, correspondence with agents. And I do not even know how to turn on the computer… But the most important thing is that we are together in good and bad moments, that we share not only work but also life. You do not know but I was born with a caul, which is a cap-like membrane on the head of a new-born child [Polish To be born in a cap is the equivalent of the English saying To be born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth] My mother told me that when the midwife saw me, she exclaimed: Oh! She will be a lucky girl! So I am very lucky to be able to live and work with the person who is the closest to my heart. I also often perform with my husband’s daughter Ania… A complete happiness. That part of my life is a bed of roses.
– Thank you very much for the conversation.
Tomasz Pasternak, Krzysztof Skwierczyński