I arrived in Poland on the 7th January 2000. Since then, experience has taught me that there is only one month worse in Warsaw than February and that is January. These are dead months of short, black, snow blighted days. Varsovians know how to deal with them. January is taken up with the post Christmas repose. In February the schools close so that everyone can go to the mountains. This is very sensible. Warsaw in January and February should be avoided like the plague.
My first weeks were a grim anticlimax. Everyone I knew was away and those I managed to contact expressed surprise that I was in Warsaw at all. No one had warned me when I said I was coming in February. Later, I learnt that this is a Polish trait. You are supposed to know what is happening without being told, though how you are supposed to know is something I have not yet understood. Now, I am at the stage of not showing anger or feeling resentment when things I should know about I don’t know about, because nobody has told me, or I haven’t thought sufficiently in advance to ask the right question. I bear the consequences in silence. This is the way it is.
That first February I spent a lot of time sitting and feeling sorry for myself in Miedzynami, the only westernised café where English was used and there were no net curtains, heavy tablecloths or surly staff. It was very basic: wooden floors, heavy metal tables and chairs but the staff greeted you and other people engaged in conversation and were willing to let you buy them drinks. It was never crowded but there was always something going on, usually to do with an art happening. It was run by a pleasant German and his Polish girlfriend. There seemed to be two distinct crowds; day time and evening. The day time crowd were young business types trying to look progressive and upwardly mobile. The evening was mainly gay.
I had two weeks to kill before my week of workshops at the Chopin Music Academy. Looking back on it I only have memories of this café, pavements made impassable by the depth of pothole-covering slush and loneliness. I had no idea how I was going to make a living but at least I had a week of teaching to look forward to, followed by a month of rehearsals at the Opera Kameralna.
I had been invited to hold a week of workshops on Baroque singing for the Early Music Department of the Chopin Academy. Actually, I hadn’t taught much Baroque singing so I hoped my years of teaching musical theatre in London and my own experience as a counter-tenor were enough to get me through. I had no idea what to expect from the students, though Polish singers I’d worked with abroad, like Christine Ciesinski and Andrzej Snarski, were very good. Anyway, even though my career as a Baroque singer was sporadic at best, the Poles seemed to think I had something to offer. The organisers were very enthusiastic and treated me importantly. Quite why, I am not sure. Looking up biographies on the internet was still unusual and they certainly wouldn’t have found me. Maybe it was just that I was English.
The Early Music Department was preparing for a performance of Sesarme, Handel’s little known opera. There is a general rule that if a work by Handel is little known then there is a good reason for it. Even the greatest composers have off days. Even Shakespeare wrote a few non-starters.
Looking at the score it seemed to me Sesarme had nothing to recommend it especially for young singers whose first experience of Handel this was to be. Why not try something famous which the students might even get to sing professionally later on?
But no, it had to be Sesarme because the Dean of Singing or someone in authority had chosen it. It came off the top of his head. He had sung it once a long time before and didn’t know any other Handel titles. How can you be in authority in a music academy vocal department in the 21st century and know only one Handel opera?
To get an idea of how shocking this is, imagine being a contemporary music theatre performer who has never heard of Andrew Lloyd-Webber. You may not want to have heard of Lloyd-Webber, that is a different question, but you would certainly know the titles of the shows and perhaps sing some of the songs. More than likely, to keep the wolf from the door, you would have even performed in some of the shows. Handel was the music theatre composer of the Baroque. He wrote some of the most sublime music ever written for the stage. He was Bel Canto. I simply can’t imagine a professor in a music academy only being able to name one obscure opera and then, to make matters worse, impose his ignorance on the long suffering students. What about Ariodante, Giulio Cesare or Rinaldo for starters? Mind boggling.
The first thing that impressed me about the students was the quality of the voices. The second was the paucity of their musical experience. The third was their desire to graduate, leave Poland and find recognition, fame and fortune in the west.
When I say the quality of the voices I mean the basic instruments. They all had fantastic natural instruments but few knew anything about breathing, which is pretty basic. This is like having a car with a Ferrari engine but the fuel pump of a Mini. They involved an enormous amount of unnecessary physical effort in the process of making the sound come out. Of course, breathing is a big problem worldwide, something the great mezzo Marilyn Horne commented on when she retired and turned to teaching. However, unless you breathe properly you can never have the flexibility you need to sing anything before Wagner. Well, actually, you cant do anything unless you can breathe, but to sing bel canto you need bel canto breathing and Handel certainly falls into that category. So, my first problem was breathing.
When I say the paucity of their musical experience I mean that few of the students could read music. Few, if any, had sung in vocal ensembles or choirs. Few knew anything about being a singer apart from the fact that the voice is precious and opera is the only possible career path. The voice is precious, this is true, but singers should not feel precious. Nor is opera for everyone. Its like saying everyone should wear size 10 shoes. This fact few of the teachers had impressed on their students nor, probably, were willing to admit to themselves.
A singer’s job is to tell a story through extended speech, something we call singing. The process starts with the words. No words, no story. Too many singers become obsessed with vocal technique and forget to develop their imaginations or their story telling abilities. Let me illustrate this.
Some time ago I directed a performance of Rigoletto in a partly restored palace just outside Warsaw. I met the soprano, a star of the National Opera, to discuss the part of Gilda. I asked her how she did her first entry. “I just sing it”, which, as an answer, is fair enough. But it beggars the question. How do you, a hefty 36 year old mother, put your mind into that of a 17 year old virgin, who doesn’t know who her mother is and who is so over protected by her father, that she is not allowed to meet new people nor leave home unaccompanied. Add the fact that in church that very morning she saw a young man, who saw her, whom she can’t get out of her mind, and I think you have a very complex situation. Gilda has been trying to deal with this all day hoping that when Rigoletto comes home he’ll be able to provide some quick-fire answers.
Rigoletto, meanwhile, is having the worst day of his life. This includes being cursed by a man on his way to unjust execution while he, Rigoletto, was only doing his job of court jester and baiting him. The last thing he needs when he gets home is have to deal with is a disturbed adolescent daughter who requires some straight answers. I don’t think that either parties can just sing, can they?
As it happened in our production that is exactly what happened. I hope the audience got the gist.
I tried to impress on the academy students that their credentials would not make them desirable in the west. Apart from the ludicrous approach of the singing teachers towards ensemble singing, they themselves had to understand that unless you are Joan Sutherland (a name only one of the 20 or students recognised) or Luciano Pavarotti and possess a voice that electrifies an audience simply by its quality, you are not going to get anywhere without musical skills, an open mind and single-minded determination. This news was not well received.