The state of our culture is the basis of our presence in Europe
Conversation with Waldemar Dabrowski
Waldemar Dąbrowski was general director of Teatr Wielki – Opera Narodowa in Warsaw (till 2002).
Trudadur – First of all I would like to congratulate you on behalf of our Club on the National Opera’s recent brilliant successes abroad. The theatre got enthusiastic reviews after its performances in China, Cyprus and Japan; the Warsaw production of Madame Butterfly scored a dazzling success in Washington; fragments of the Warsaw Swan Lake were very well received in London; every new premiere at Teatr Wielki receives extremely favourable reviews in the music press all over the world. But before we discuss those achievements, I would like to ask you about something else. Those successes did not appear out of the blue; they are a result of a few years work. What was your attitude when you began your 'reign' at Teatr Wielki?
Waldemar Dąbrowski – Over the last decade Poland has introduced revolutionary changes into banking, computer technologies, economy, industry and even environment protection. Unfortunately, the achievements in culture and the arts have not been as impressive as those in the sphere of economy. When Poland’s dreams are coming true and we are becoming, also formally, more and more a part of the western world, we must remember that the state of our culture is essential to our presence in Europe, that what matters is the openness of our culture to the world and, most importantly, its attractiveness for the world. It is just as banal to remind ourselves how important culture is for national identity. Therefore, it is vital that we formulate the objectives of all cultural institutions faced with new challenges posed by the new reality. It seem that the main objective of those institutions should be to stimulate cultural aspirations in the society and to make the values of high culture more popular (but without turning high culture into mass culture!). Obviously, every cultural institution works in a specific field and should do everything to achieve its aims. But I think that in order to work effectively we should translate into modern language the romantic idea of the correnspondance des arts. On the one hand, this idea can create a feeling of community among artists, and on the other, it can make the arts more 'attractive'. We should give people an opportunity to experience works from various fields of art in one place. This is a policy we have been following for a few years at Teatr Wielki – National Opera.
Opera means singing, music, dance, theatre and fine arts – it’s a true synthesis of all arts. We want the public to come to Corazzi’s beautiful building not only to see opera or ballet – our main activities of course – but also to see an interesting exhibition, to buy a CD or simply to have a cup of coffee. We want this building to be alive! That is why we opened Galeria przy Operze (’At the Opera' gallery), where we have presented works of such distinguished artists as Magdalena Abakanowicz, Alfons Karny and Adam Myjak, as well as exhibitions of Marc Chagall’s and Andy Warhol’s works. We want to be in touch with our audiences not only during performances. What is important to us is being in touch with them all the time – hence the establishment of the Centre for Promotion and Information at Teatr Wielki, where everyone can find information not only about our theatre but also about National Philharmonic Orchestra, Zachęta Gallery, National Theatre and opera houses in Poland.
– Teatr Wielki is a national institution but there’s no doubt that its strongest connection is with Warsaw.
– The building, with its complex history, is a value in itself. We want Plac Teatralny [where the opera house stands] to become the centre of Warsaw’s cultural life, we want it to became a place Warsaw could be prod of again. That is why we organise concerts in front of the theatre and have installed a lighting system which beautifully illuminates the theatre building, emphasising its wonderful architecture. We also want to place a quadriga on the theatre’s fronton, just as it was designed it the original plan. One cannot forget either that Teatr Wielki is one of the largest opera houses in the world, so a large part of our budget simply must be earmarked for the maintenance of the building, for the necessary conservation and renovation work.
We want to create a cultural institution whose structure will meet the highest standards; only a theatre with a modern management can join the world’s operatic elite. We do realize that there are years of hard work ahead of us, but we can achieve something only by setting ourselves such ambitious goals and by doing everything to reach those goals.
– What are the management’s priorities when choosing a repertoire?
– Just like in major opera houses in the world, our repertoire is based on four pillars. First of all, we want to present the classics of the genre, the so-called core repertoire: we have Carmen, Madame Butterfly, Turandot; we want to add Tristan und Isolde to Walkure. Together with the whole opera world, we have celebrated the Verdi Year-our repertoire includes Nabucco and Traviata; a new Don Carlo was premiered last year; the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Verdi’s death were marked by a new production of Otello directed by Mariusz Treliński. We are also planning revivals of a few more productions of Verdi operas: Rigoletto, Ballo in Maschera and Macbeth.
Each national theatre also pays particular attention to national repertoire. Unlike the Czechs or Russians, we do not have the luxury of a vast vernacular repertoire. There are not too many Polish operas, which does not mean that we do not have masterpieces. To the old productions of Krakowiacy i Górale and Halka we had added productions of King Roger and, recently, The Haunted Manor; we are also considering new production of The Countess and Eros and Psyche.
King Roger undoubtedly belongs to the masterpieces of the 20th century music, masterpieces that form the third pillar of Teatr Wielki’s repertoire. We have already staged Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and The Miraculous Mandarin. We are also planning a staging (by Harry Kupfer) of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Devils of Loudon, in co-production with the Dresden Opera.
The fourth pillar is modern works, specially commissioned by Teatr Wielki. We began this series of contemporary operas with the premiere of Roxanna Panufnik’s The Music Programme, last season we presented Paweł Mykietyn’s An Ignoramus and a Madman, and our future commissions include works by Paweł Szymański and Eugeniusz Knapik.
We would also like to see great stars on our stage. That is why we organized recitals of Kiri Te Kanawa and Kathleen Battle, and invited Eva Marton to take part in the premiere of Bluebeard’s Castle. One of our soloists is Ewa Podleś. If an opera house has such a great artist in its 'service', it mounts productions especially for this artist. So we mounted a production of Rossini’s Tancredi, in which Alberto Zedda, a world renowned conductor also took part. We also organize numerous guest performances in our theatre, inviting excellent ballet companies and distinguished orchestras such as the Orchestra of the 18th century, which has recently performed all Beethoven’s piano concertos under the baton of Frans Bruggen.
– But a repertoire is not everything, is it.
– True. Even the most ambitious repertoire plans are not a recipe for success. What an opera house needs is wonderful artists. The National Opera’s artistic director has worked miracles over the past few years. Our orchestra plays better and better, not only during premieres or gala performances, but also during 'ordinary' performances. And this was exactly our aim when we started our tenure as Teatr Wielki’s directors: to make those everyday performances just as enjoyable for the audience, to have equally high artistic standards during premieres and performances in later runs. Such an attitude to building a world-class opera company is not revolutionary; the work has to start from improving the standards of the orchestra and the chorus. All directors of opera houses realize that. In a very interesting interview, Bernard Foccroulle, the general manager of the Brussels Opera, has said recently that the orchestra and the chorus are the fundamentals of each opera company, and if both of them are not in a good form, an opera company cannot function properly. Teatr Wielki’s artistic director, Jacek Kaspszyk has said so many times in public. And he didn’t stop at that: he has worked very hard with our orchestra, while Bogdan Gola took care of our chorus. And I believe that we can already see the results of this hard work.
We are gradually introducing a system based on contracting artists for particular productions and performances, a system that enables us to invite many distinguished artists from Poland and other countries to work in our theatre. We also believe that it is our duty (as the National Opera) to support and promote young, talented artists. Therefore we organise regular auditions for singers and instrumentalists, masterclasses (most recently with Sylvia Geszty and Hanna Lisowska), and we also co-organise the Stanisław Moniuszko International Vocal Competition, whose winners take part in performances on our stage. We are introducing all these changes gradually but consistently. It will take a few years for Teatr Wielki to reach a level we dreamed it would reach when we started our tenure here. This depends not only on singers, orchestra, chorus and ballet, but also on artists who prepare our stagings. We have invited directors and set designers with significant achievements in film and theatre; sometimes their productions cause controversy, provoke discussions… We want, however, to move away from typically illustrative operatic stagings, we want to show our audiences that opera is also theatre, that a well-know work can be interpreted in a new way. The best example of what I have in mind is Mariusz Treliński’s production of Madame Butterfly.
– Let’s talk then about Teatr Wielki’s successes.
– Our fundamental principle is prima la musica! This is the right order of things on stage, only then can we think about a true opera theatre. Opera is theatre, the director 'organises' our imagination, but the effect of the director’s work can be interesting only when the music side of the performance is very good. The increasing excellence of our orchestra has been noted by both the reviewers and guest conductors, among them Alberto Zedda, who, when asked about working with our orchestra, said: It’s been wonderful to work with them. I found an orchestra of great sensitivity, a typically Mediterranean orchestra – with a feel for melody, with breath, with effortless accompaniment, an orchestra that can sing and participate at the same time, that is, play and listen at the same time. It happens very rarely. I once met such an orchestra in Vienna and now I’ve met it here in Warsaw. (Ruch Muzyczny, 5.3.2000) Such words, coming from the most respected Rossini expert, are an important confirmation for us that Jacek Kaspszyk’s work with the orchestra has brought important results after only a few seasons. Opera critics too notice the company’s metamorphosis, writing that under Jacek Kaspszyk the orchestra has reached the heights of perfection (S. Mosch in Opernwelt, June 2000). For the western critics, the music and artistic director of Teatr Wielki is simply an excellent music director (J. Allison in Opera, March 2001). Our performances in Japan’s most prestigious concert halls were received enthusiastically; there were extremely favourable reviews of a recent performance of The Haunted Manor broadcast to several European countries. Not so long ago, Jacek Kaspszyk was invited to Zurich to prepare The Nutcracker; his work won great acclaim from the Swiss critics.
Bernard Foccroulle, whom I mentioned earlier, considers the level the orchestra has reached to be his greatest success. La Monnaie’s director believes that the orchestra is excellent thanks to the work of the eminent conductor, Antonio Pappano. But this conductor has been working with the company since 1992… while Foccroule, who also took his post in 1992, has a contract valid until 2009. In all great theatres in the world everybody realizes that a revolution cannot be carried out in a few seasons, that building a repertoire and raising artistic standards must take longer.
– When it comes to international successes, last year must have been extremely happy for Teatr Wielki. On the other hand, there was plenty of information in the press about alleged financial irregularities in the theatre and about an investigation carried out by a special committee from the Ministry of Culture and a possible court case.
– Last year was indeed exceptional. It’s true that in the past Teatr Wielki performed on foreign stages, but very rarely on prestigious ones. Moreover, those foreign tours were usually financed by the government. This time there were no government subventions, with the exception of a small sum for our Chinese tour, for which I’m very grateful to the Prime Minister, Jerzy Buzek. I say to the Prime Minister, NOT to the Minister of Culture, who opposed what we were doing. But let’s begin from the autumn of 2000. First, we were invited to Moscow to take part in Maia Plisetzka’s jubilee celebrations. Our ballet company presented Carmen. Maia Plisetzka had asked Mats Ek where the best production of this ballet was. Ek said, in Warsaw. Another successful performance of our ballet company took place in Budapest where our artists presented Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin – again an enthusiastic reception and very favourable reviews. After the Warsaw premiere of The Swan Lake (in Irek Mukhamedov’s choreography) our company was for the first time invited to London to present act III of the work. Our soloists were very well received by London critics.
We began 2001 in Japan with our production of Traviata. Every foreign tour can be judged not only be reviews and audiences' reactions; another invitation is a measure of a real success. In 2003 we will go to Japan again, this time with Turandot and Otello (with Jose Cura in the title role).
At the Beijing Festival, we presented Nabucco in the first production of that opera in China’s history. The production was seen by members of Chinese government, each performance was greeted by a standing ovation, we scored a spectacular success. All important newspapers were full of lavish praise for Jacek Kaspszyk and our artists.
At the Aphrodite Festival in Cyprus we presented Nabucco and Zorba the Greek, and we were invited to perform there again next year. Our chorus took part in performances of King Roger in Strasbourg, a double pleasure for us – our company performed a masterpiece by a Polish composer.
I suspect that not everybody realizes that such foreign tours – and I’m not talking about performances in tents somewhere in Germany – have a political significance as well. Nobody will deny that culture plays a crucial role in shaping a country’s image. I will never forget the moment in Washington when several thousand people of the city’s social, cultural, business and political elite greeted our production of Madame Butterfly with a standing ovation. I was simply very proud at that moment. At a diner after the premiere, during which Poland’s Ambassador was present, the hosts thanked Poland, thanked Warsaw, thanked Polish artists.
– In an interview you were asked when Teatr Wielki would join Europe, because at the moment it was joining Asia…
– If Asia is something worse – according to a journalist from Gazeta Wyborcza – then why La Scala goes there so often, why does Placido Domingo like to perform there, why all countries, including the USA, fight for the Chinese market? In today’s world, cultural, business and political interests intermingle as never before. There’s no doubt that our tour had a great influence on Polish-Chinese relations; it’s a pity that not everybody can understand that. Another point, even more important for us: the Chinese saw that we could give them a performance of the highest quality, so next time we’ll be able to present there Moniuszko or Szymanowski – the organizers trust us. Coming back to your question, true, Washington is not in Europe, but London certainly is a European city, and Cyprus is well ahead of us in the negotiations with the European Union. Strasbourg and Luxembourg are in Europe as well. It’s not about driving our productions around Europe but getting people from other countries to come to Warsaw, to our theatre. And it’s already happening; all our productions are reviewed (extremely favourably, I must say) by music magazines from France, England, the USA and Italy. The recent concerts with the wonderful Alberto Zedda and our magnificent Ewa Podles attracted many spectators from abroad.
– We’ve been talking about the more pleasant aspects of the year, what about those less pleasant?
– I wouldn’t like to ponder over the whole affair once again. I will only say that the management of Teatr Wielki has been cleared of all allegations by both the court and the special committee headed by deputy Minister of Culture, Arkadiusz Rybicki. The sad thing is that all those scandals were given wide publicity by the media, but when it turned out that all the allegations were fabricated, the media weren’t eager anymore to inform the public. I hope that all this is already behind us and that we will be able to concentrate only on our work.
– The success of Madame Butterfly in Washington was really dazzling, but the very same production got some poor reviews when it was premiered in Warsaw; the reviewer from Rzeczpospolita warned you that Teatr Wielki would have problems in the USA, because Mariusz Treliński’s production is a plagiarism of Robert Wilson’s staging. Do Polish artists need a 'seal of approval' from abroad in order to achieve success in Poland?
– The American critics unanimously praised Treliński’s production for its originality! Famous opera houses are already talking with Treliński about a co-operation, and I don’t think they want him to make another plagiarism… Veronica Villarroel, who sang in both Wilson’s and Treliński’s Butterflies, was really enthusiastic about Treliński’s ideas. Yes, it is sad that Poles need foreign 'seals of approval' to appreciate something. This concerns not only art, but also other fields – a Polish scientist may be the best in the world, but we will listen more attentively to someone with a foreign sounding name. We’ve became used to the fact that our work in Teatr Wielki is highly praised by the foreign music press, while here in Poland the critical reception is often completely different.
– With the country current financial problems, the so-called high culture can only 'count' on more cuts…
– In the early 1990s, when Poland began introducing political and economic reforms, all opera houses in our country (as well as other cultural institutions) underwent a serious crisis. It was caused by both financial problems the theatres had and the fact that Poles were trying to find a place for themselves in the new political and economic reality. Fortunately, after a few years the audiences began to return to cinemas, galleries, theatres and opera houses. Despite an unstable financial position of many institutions, especially those financed by local governments, opera houses again became an important element of Poland’s cultural landscape. Moreover, the myth that opera is an art doomed to extinction is being dispelled. The Warsaw Chamber Opera organizes numerous festivals and presents works never staged in our country before. Opera festivals are organized also by opera houses in Cracow and Bydgoszcz; the Szczecin Opera broadcast its premiere of Der Zigeunerbaron on the internet; the homeless Wrocław Opera presents megaproductions of opera, productions that attract thousands of spectators. Because their house is undergoing renovation, the company performs in various places in Wrocław, often presenting works rarely seen in Poland, such as Verdi’s Falstaff. People from all over Poland come to Łódź to see Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites or Glass’s Akhnaten; Teatr Wielki in Poznań scored a considerable success with its stagings of Parsifal, La Juive and Landowski’s Galina. The Baltic Opera in Gdańsk presented their production of Tannhauser at the Opera Leśna (the Forrest Opera) in Sopot; perhaps thus the tradition of opera festivals in the Sopot amphitheatre will be revived. Opera is often discussed in the media, new productions often provoke heated debates, more and more theatre and film directors want to direct opera, young Polish singers win prizes at prestigious international vocal competitions and sing on important stages of the world. Opera as an art form is certainly not undergoing a crisis. At Teatr Wielki-National Opera we are trying to suggest opera’s place in the society. Whether or not it is a sound proposal, time will show. Anyway, the audiences in our theatre give us hope that our work is at least worth their consideration, The average attendance at the National Opera is over 90%, during many performances there are more spectators than seats we can offer.
– Thank you very much for the conversation.
– Thank you. We are always pleased to welcome all 'Trubadur' members to our performances.