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Beata i Michał Olszewscy
opera.info.pl - 11/05/2015

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Interview with Piotr Beczała - part one

Polish version Flaga polska


English translation of the interview with Piotr Beczała by Beata and Michał Olszewscy for opera.info.pl (Vienna, 3rd December 2012)

Why singers dream about a sword, about traps of "regie theater", about learning to sing - which never ends, about magic moments in opera, about throwing a ball and being a baker as well as Otello, about all o these and many more important issues Piotr Beczała told opera.info.pl 

Please pay attention this interview is divided into to separate part one and part two.

Katarzyna i Piotr Beczałowie - zdjęcie opublikowane dzięki uprzejmości Katarzyny i Piotra Beczałów

Click to magnify...

It is said that the men apparently differ from the women, as they always remain dreaming boys. In the past, you dreamed to be as Placido Domingo, to stand with a sword on stage and sing "Esultate." Now your image is on the cover of OperaNews magazine, and your singing duet with Anna Netrebko has been recognized by opera lovers around the world as a new "dream duet". You are at the top! So, what remains of the young Piotr?

Everything! I still dream to stand on stage and sing with a sword. But the implementation of this is problematic nowadays. Today, singers often do not have opportunities to fulfill their dreams, because sometimes we get instead of a sword ... a cup of coffee from McDonald's. We, the slightly older singers, probably always will cherish our dreams of the opera, but the younger generation of singers is probably deprived of illusions and ideas about the profession similar to ours. They cannot afford to dream, in a way I did in earlier years, to stand with a sword and sing on stage, "Esultate" or "Vincero, Vincero" or "Alarmi", because they see us today, "wallowing” in jeans and t-shirts, when we play kings in some abstract circumstances and they lose their hopes for normality. This situation requires from them a real strong faith to imagine this profession in a reasonable way, as we could do it more than twenty years ago.

So, what was your imagination of this profession?

For me, opera theater was a temple of art - Ponnelle, Zefirelli, Schenk, beautiful costumes and staging absolutely coherent with the music. For me, opera was also an escape from reality.

But the young man is usually running after the ball, after girls, drinking beer ...

So, what’s wrong in it..?

... but is rarely thinking of standing with a sword and...

But, when I was nineteen years old, I had already enough of playing the ball, chasing the girls and I knew it was high time to find a new professional path. Somehow, I did not dream to stand for the rest of my life for eight hours at the lathe, I was just not interested in this. These thoughts were behind me, and lathes, and milling machines, and things like that. I completely did not see myself as a welder...

So, does it mean that the major obstacle on the way to realize your dream of the opera is so called “Regie Theater", which is so fashionable today in the opera world? Indeed, nowadays so many contemporarily staged operas are so "remodeled", that sometimes we can hardly recognize them. Is there a hope for a retreat, or even normalization of this phenomenon?

Piotr Beczała jako Rodolfo z "Cyganerii" - zdjęcie opublikowane dzięki uprzejmości Katarzyny i Piotra Beczałów
Click to magnify...

It is, I'm still fighting for it, but sometimes I feel that I am the last bastion that protects normality on stage. It's not a case that I am opposed to contemporaneity, that I defend myself against the "modernization" of opera. The staging of "La Boheme" at the recent Salzburg Festival was very modern, but we all took part in it with great pleasure. It does not have to be immediately Zefirelli. But I defend myself against situation, when the art of opera is being desecrated, and we singers are brought to the role of puppets in the hands of a "madman” director. I do not want to mention names, but usually the audience knows who I mean ... In this context, in Poland there is the big problem, because the Polish directors working in opera houses, are mainly known for their controversial, provocative staging, and the proverbial "turning things upside down”, ...

How much freedom do you, singers, have to intervene, to say "stop", "I will not do this"?

I, myself, can just say, "Thank you, no." I am in the comfortable position as when I am offered the contract for a particular opera and I see who's directing it, I can always say "this person is on my black list".

But sometimes you sign a contract with five years in advance and you do not know who will be directing.

That's true, but in these situations I may always say to the director of the opera house, that I will sign particular contract but under condition, that the staging will be done according to certain rules and certain framework. I have done so for example in the case of "A Masked Ball", which will be played in Munich in 2015. I told the director of the Opera House - "You know my point of view, so I will take part in this production, provided that the stage director will not be in conflict with my look at the opera." I want to be understood correctly, it's not about modernization as such, but about some esthetic considerations and approach to the subject.

We have witnessed several times strange productions, which could be a good illustration for the problem discussed above. One of them could be the case of Natalie Dessay, who did not hide her negative feelings to the proposed interpretation of her role in “Manon” in January this year. However, she had not decided to withdraw from this production, maybe because she was singing at home, which means in Paris. It was a quite strange staging, to say this in soft way.

I saw this performance ... (Piotr Beczała after a moment of reflection) ... it's sad.

Does it mean that, because of already mentioned by you tendency of Polish stage directors to "showing off a controversial modernization", the chances that the Polish audience see you in the next few years, for example in Warsaw, are small?

No, let’s not exaggerate. There is always a chance that “this trend” will change. I have said this publicly many times, that I have nothing personally against Mariusz Treliński, but the style that he and his colleagues promote, does not suit me, and I have no special pleasure in wasting six weeks to senseless pseudo-artistic activity.

The position you have achieved, you owe yourself. Many times you have emphasized one thing, which is unusual for the average person. You say in different ways, that during your whole professional life, you are patiently studying, and gradually building your artistic position as a singer. And nowadays there is a completely different fashion - fast career, quick money, fast high position at work, fast cars ...

Piotr Beczała - zdjęcie opublikowane dzięki uprzejmości Katarzyny i Piotra Beczałów
Click to magnify...

Well ... I have nothing against fast cars ...

… of course, but your “professional way” denies this trend of fast career. You are building your character, your position gradually, learning all the time. In almost every interview you indicate also how much you owe particular people – your teachers. You mention Paweł Lisicjan, Sena Jurinac. All the time you emphasize the role of Dail Fundling ...

… not to forget about my Wife ...

Yes, but we will devote deserved attention to your Wife in a separate question ... In the meantime, could you tell us about the work with these people, what was their impact on you? And the second question, does it mean that if a young singer is not so lucky and does not meet the right people, like you met, she or he has no chances in the world of opera?

It is enough to meet just one such person. I was lucky, as I met three of them. Paweł Lisicjan, who already after my first year of study, set up a bit my "philosophy of life" – as he described it then. Paweł Lisicjan was the first, who told me that I have a potential, but I have to be smart. Secondly, Jurinac Sena, who turned my feelings "upside down" because I thought I have a strong voice, almost spinto, and here it appeared that I had to forget about Cavaradossi, and I should take Mozart’s roles. These were two very important moments in my life, because I was participating in her Master Classes during two consecutive years, in 1988 and 1989, for the first time in Lenk, in Switzerland, and the second time it was near Nicea, in Vilecrose. When I finished my study and I was employed in the Opera House in Linz, already during my first season, I met, completely by accident, Dale Fundling. He did not teach singing full time, as he worked mainly as an accompanist, but he also gave private lessons. It somehow happened that I started to take private lessons with him and till today I am still learning from him....

But is it true what he said for the September issue of the magazine Opera News, that in every word that you sing "he is there"? His statement surprised us a little bit ...

Maybe, he exaggerated a little, but in fact he built the instrument, which I am using on stage up today. This instrument means a special way, a special technique of voice treatment. And here I admit he is absolutely right. Dale completely changed my way of making a sound, and it does not mean the traditional recommendations such as "sing from the diaphragm and push in the mask". That's not the point, because the singing as such, is very intuitive. It is a work of imagination rather than a "physical" treatment of vocal cords as an instrument. And there is a big difference between Dale and the rest of the teachers, as he is working with imagination, not with standard advices, how to change something, or how to set the singing. Singing is ... metaphysics. Bringing singing just to a series of technical advices about "mask", "high palate", "tongue", "larynx", does not make sense ...

But all people, somehow connected with singing, are speaking mainly in this way...?

So, I'm am very sorry, ... but they all make mistakes.

But how looks like such a meeting with Dale?

Piotr Beczała na okładce OperaNews
Click to magnify...

We have with Dale our own language, formed over twenty years. He does not even need to speak, it is enough when he just look at me, and I already know what's going on. I, by myself, as a teacher, try to use the same, maybe slightly modified, method. I'm a singer, so I can show a little more patience to my students, and I am more compromise than Dale, who adhere to the principle "it one way or the other ", "or either you sing my way ... or go home" ...

So, he does not accept a different opinion ...

No, and I think similarly, that the young singer cannot have his own opinion, because she or he does not have a clue that he needs to build voice patiently, that the voice must be built from the scratch. Many people want to teach the young singer how to sing using the existing repertoire, Schubert, Brahms, as is common in Germany or in Austria. In my opinion it is a cardinal mistake, because before you build an instrument, you cannot immediately try to play on it. You cannot explain the violinist, what positions on violin neck to grasp, if he does not have a violin. To such a violinist, metaphorically speaking, you have to give first two kilos of wood, sheep and knife. And he has to carve the violin by himself, glue it, slaughter the sheep, dry bowels, twist them, catch a horse, cut off his tail and so on ...

But we cannot really understand how you can imagine music ...

It has nothing to do with music. I'm talking about the sound. It is a process that cannot be speeded up. For example, a student "X" wants to learn to sing. He has some sort of voice, ha has already song something, so the student comes to the teacher and starts to sing, he starts to "make phones" usually in a bad way. In other words, he constructs the sound, because he had heard that some other tenor sounds in this way, so he starts to copy this tenor... you may say he is borrowing his effect – so he learn to play on an instrument, which he does not have. And at the beginning, we need to determine at what level we are ... my first lesson with Dale looked in this way, that I sang one phrase for an hour.

It had to be a little embarrassing ...

Very ... but frankly speaking, when I came to Linz I knew that I still couldn’t sing. I went happily through auditions, I got a contract, I came, but I was aware how much I did not know. But I was lucky, because in Linz there was also an American tenor, a colleague of Dale, with whom I had to sing for change the same role in "Carmen". He said to me, "Piotr you know what, come with me to singing lesson, you'll see what it looks like." Well, I came with him to the lesson, and ... it stayed like that for the next twenty years.

Because studying how to sing is a process that never ends. For me, really, when I see young people with a beautiful voice and I can see how many elements are missing in this "puzzle", I will never say "how beautifully it sounds", but always "what a potential"!

Fine, but if Dale Fundling’s method is so effective, because it helped Piotr Beczała to enter the "summit of singing Olimp ", why we do not hear about other tenors, who would come from Dale Fundling’s "stable" ? You were and you are not his only student, do you?

Katarzyna i Piotr Beczałowie - zdjęcie opublikowane dzięki uprzejmości Państwa Beczałów
Click to amgnify...

No, Dale had many of them, but they probably did not have enough patience to accept his intransigence, which I always approved. Because you have to start from a difficult confession that "I do not know how to do this ". It's like the anti-alcohol treatment - you have to start with the most difficult confession, "I am drunkard" and now I have to start the fight that will surely last during my whole life. With a singer, is the same. First, I must understand that "I cannot sing", so then I start to fight, I'm starting to learn how to sing and I accept that there will be never the point at which I say "ok, now I know all." Because, what it would mean "I can sing." This would mean that I wake up in the morning every day and I immediately sing like Pavarotti. This is nonsense, because these situations do not happen. It is the constant improvement of skills, continuous striving to achieve the proper form, which escapes, permanently changes.

But now, your work with Fundling, is probably a lot easier, because you gentlemen, you know each other well as well as you trust each other.

When I started with Dale, I was already employed , and all what I have reworked with him, I could immediately try to "use" on stage. I sang the roles that were beyond my vocal abilities. I sang my first Werther during the second season, but really I was not able to sing this role well. But despite this, somewhere during these lessons with Dale, there were such moments that gave me hope that I'was on the right track and it started functioning pretty well, it started working.

How do you create a role today?

This is a whole process ...

That's right, but do you read books, listen to performers from the past, do you meet with Dale...? "

No, it is later. Of course, the process is much easier if this is, for example, "La Traviata" or "Rigoletto", it means the role which is very well known. The situation is different in case of "A Masked Ball" or "Werther". In such cases, I indeed start with reading, "rummaging" in history and the history of literature. For example, in case of "Werther," knowledge of Goethe is obligatory. Only later, I take a score and start hard work with it, maybe not with singing right away the whole role, but singing some excerpts of it and adjusting my voice to it. Then, indeed I start singing bigger parts of the role with the tutor, who is nearby at the place, where I work. Then Dale appears, and for two, three or four days we "squeeze the role ", looking for appropriate sound for this role, the right expression. After this, I am learning by heart the whole role and the proper rehearsals begin.

Is Dale coming specially for you to Europe?

Sometimes, though he often lives now in Europe, near Avignon, so it's not usually a big problem to arrange our meeting.

During preparation for the role, are you listening to performances of other singers?

Katarzyna Beczała, Anna Netrebko, Nino Machidze, Piotr Beczała - zdjęcie opublikowane dzięki uprzejmości Państwa Beczałów
Click to magnify...

Yes I do, but generally, to the very old ones and not well known. I try not to listen to these ordinary performances , and if so, I listen to many of them, as there is a risk of "catching" one interpretation that you can then unintentionally copy.

But this is not yet the end of the process of building role, as the opera is always based on interaction with others. Let’s say that you are coming to rehearsals and it appears that the interpretation proposed by your singing partner is completely not coherent with your view on it. What’s then? Do you start fighting for "the only proper" interpretation? Who decides, who of you is right ? The conductor?

No, there is no fight at all, because I'm building my role, my "sphere of sound" in a certain independence from others singers. Of course, my singing partner may try to sing something ... I do not know, for example, louder than me, but you can always correct this.

But, we have experience, that not always it is feasible to achieve such consensus. We have an example, being on "Tosca" performance, in which the main female character was somewhere "near" Cavarodissi, and actually seemed to be singing a bit different "Puccini" then he. The accuracy of our findings was later confirmed in the discussion with the conductor after the performance.

It is a great pity, but actually there are sometime situations of a mental "incompatibility" of singers. Then you need to talk to each other, because only by conversation a consensus may be achieved ...

And who can help in such communication between singers? The conductor? The director?

The director is not important at all... (laughs). Of course I'm joking, but in the matters of interpretation of the music, the director, has little to say.

Are there still stage directors for whom the content of the score is still important, or there is a dominant approach like “Nothing really matters, it’s all about my vision”?

Rarely, very rarely you meet stage directors who work in harmony with the score. In general, they rather ignore it, or even worse, they often do not even know what the score contains. Of course, there are also some directors who are able to listen and who are gifted for music.

Can you give us some examples?

For example, Guy Joosten, who directed "Romeo and Juliet" in the New York Metropolitan Opera. Very, very good director who knows his profession.   His productions are always in harmony with the music. Also, Johannes Schaaf, Marco Arturo Marelli and Sven-Eric Bechtolf are people in this profession whom I respect a lot. They hear the music that others simply ignore. These other guys ignore certain way of expression and the fact that it has been already written down in the score and that it must not be "raped" metaphorically speaking, because it is contrary to the intention of the true artist - the composer.

(Read more in second part of the interview by clicking on the link in the box below!)

Read the second part of the interview with Piotr Beczała




Interview for opera.info.pl Beata i Michał Olszewscy

All rights reserved © opera.info.pl


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