Sofia. Please see foot note.

I am in Sofia and last night I went to the opera. The taxi driver took me to a side door: I don’t think she knew where the front door was. Anyway, I went in the door she insisted was the entrance and came to an underground restaurant which was clearly not the box office. Actually, nothing about the building looked remotely like an opera house and I was sure I was in the wrong place until I’d walked round the block, which was not as easy as it sounds, and found the main entrance, a modest in size but imposing facade.

 

 

I think I got the last seat, an aisle seat in the front stalls. It only cost me 50 of whatever it is they use around here for money. I thought that was cheap, and the dinner I had before the performance and the two cds I bought, one of Purcell’s King Arthur and the other of Von Karajan’s Der Rosenkavalier which I’ve been dying to find to replace the vinyl set I so stupidly threw away when I left England. Yes, I thought it was a cheap night out until I checked the exchange rate this morning. Its two zloty to the whatever, not the other way round as I had been calculating. Still, nothing was unduly expensive though I am feeling slightly less smug about it.

 

The Sofia opera-going-public is unlike any other I have seen. They seem to be there for the opera. Certainly, no effort is made to doll up, at least, I think it isn’t.  And every face is unique, a character. Great beauties, striking men, none of them. No, really.  None. But faces, some quite remarkable in a brutish sort of way. To give you an idea. There was  one man in a white suit with shoes to match, (may be he had made an effort), with  two heavily made up birds of a certain age  in leather and with matching hair colour either side of him, sitting in front of me. Never have I seen shoulders hang as his did. He could have worn a jacket half the size and still made it look too big. Who on earth had sold it to him?

 

Despite the opening bars from the orchestra, horribly out of tune and not together brass, the performance was memorable, not only because I thought I’d only paid a fraction of what I would have paid in Warsaw, but because the singing was sometimes really good. Oh, I forgot to say, Verdi’s Don Carlo. Though the acting was invariably hammy (the chorus worst of all), and  King Philip had a most irritating habit of rolling his eyes when he wanted to look particularly evil, (I think his costume led him to believe he was playing Ivan the Terrible or Boris), he sang magnificently and had enormous presence, except when he did the thing with his eyes. “O don fatale” was as good as I have ever heard it. Posa`s death scene was beautifully sung.  In fact, everyone sang their arias very well except for Rodrigo. A great tenor voice in an awful body and probably not much brain. I won’t say more.

 

Despite the weakness of the ensemble playing, the conductor was extremely sensitive and was always with the singers. Most unusually, uniquely given the conditions since he is obviously a fine musician, he had an excellent rapport with the orchestra and really seemed to like them. He must have been hearing them through his imagination.

 

However, the most memorable event of the evening was the scuffle that broke out during the interval (yes, they only had one interval… which shows it can be done). At first, I though a young man was making a political statement. But no, he then physically attacked a middle aged man, who seemed to be taking it rather lightly. The young man tried to grapple the older man’s mobile phone from him. Another man, middle aged, dived in to help the younger.  Others watched. I have no idea what it was about but later I saw the two parties apart and phoning madly.

 

My neighbours in the over-iced theatre, two women, were inclined to chat but applauded like crazy when given the chance.

 

All in all, an evening not to have been missed. 

 

PS. Since I am in Sofia this week, no blog till next Monday.

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Warsaw Years: a meeting with Roman Giertych

 

Roman Giertych was a controversial minister of education and certainly one of the tallest people I have ever met. Why he was controversial probably had more to do with The League of Polish Families, the nasty little political party which he led, which was a member of the centre right coalition and which was why he was a minister, rather  than his own beliefs or behaviour. He seemed pretty enlightened to me when we spoke.

I was introduced to him by the successful lobbyist Marek Matrasek at the American Embassy`s  4th of July garden party.  Until this year I have always found this event most enjoyable and probably the one at which one ought to be seen. The American hotels used to vie with each other to put on the best spread. And they excelled. However, two things may have contributed to the damp squid of this year’s party. Firstly, most of the big hotels in Warsaw now seem to be run by the same company, Starwoods. Perhaps they have no need to compete and show off their skills. Secondly, Lee Feinstein, the sensitive and intellectual new Democrat appointed ambassador, though charming, perhaps lacks his predecessor’s political nouce. Diplomacy, as with politics, is about people. Victor Ashe was a politician, a local politician, the longest serving mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee. Through his efforts Knoxville is twinned with the Polish city of Chelm.

 

Victor understood the value of pushing out the boat even in times of financial hardship and, I suspect, even if this meant digging into his own pocket. I imagine he has a fairly deep pocket. In pride of place in his drawing room was a childhood photograph of himself with the Duke of Windsor. I can’t remember if it was taken on a golf course or by a fishing lake. Did the Duke fish? I suppose he did. Certainly he was a golfer. Whether  golf or fishing, I dont think anyone got near the Windsors without a few dollars in the bank.

 

I met him in church. Though a southern Baptist, he found himself more at home with our middling sort of Anglicanism than the alternatives on offer in Warsaw. Being Church Warden, he regarded me as someone of value in the community and hence my regular invitations to his Residence at Christmas and on the 4th July. The same cannot be said of British Ambassador Ric Todd’s hospitality. Since he has been here I have not been invited to one Queen’s Birthday and now he has sold the Residence that era is over: never again to see a British military band marching on British grass in the heart of Poland’s capital.  But I can see his point of view. Last year he complained to the vicar that I have written 21 letters of complaint about his embassy to him and the Foreign Secretary. I may have done, though I thought there were more. Nor does he use our church much so he has not really seen me in action. But, Mr. Todd must try to understand that I am only trying to get him and his people to represent Britain as I think it should best be represented. We are more than a nation of managers and businessmen.

 

Giertych spoke excellent English and was immediately enthusiastic about my ideas for music education. He gave me his phone number which I put straight into my phone. He told me to ring the following day. I did. And the next. And I kept trying until about a week later a woman answered the phone.

 

 

He doesn’t use this phone often!

Really?

So why did he give it to me? But I didn’t say that.

 

The woman who answered was most helpful and gave me another number which was answered immediately. My call had been expected.

“Oh, I wonder why he gave you that number, he never uses it. We need to meet”.

 

A few days later we met at the Ministry. A formidable young woman, multi lingual and mega qualified. She studied at the Sorbonne, LSE, La Sapienza and Warsaw University. I have to say I was impressed.

 

She gave me the address of a department director to whom I should write with a project immediately. I did. I waited. I waited some weeks, then we rang:

 

She is on holiday. She’s not at her desk. She’s unavailable. Please send the letter again (though please may be an inaccuracy.) She is going to reply. She has written. She is on sick leave.

 

No doubt you have understood.

 

An answer arrived some four months after my first letter was written. The director was highly critical of my project to introduce my musical based on The Emperor’s New Clothes to a class in an ordinary school.

 

Elitist! 

Elitist?  Surely not! What are the music schools if not elitist?

 

A pointless expense.

 

I sent the letter to the Minister, protested and waited maybe a month.  Then a call came inviting me to a meeting with the director.

 

I agreed to meet Chris, a young member of our board, outside the massive pre-War building which during the Occupation served as the HQ of the SS and certainly looks the part. He was wearing a casual shirt and jeans. I was not pleased.

 

“Are you going to the ministry dressed like that?”

“I know what they expect. They’ll be dressed like this.”

“I am sorry, but when you are with me you dress properly.”

“You don’t understand Polish dress codes. You should dress because you are the boss. Not me. I should not dress up.”

“Not even a jacket and tie?”

 

 

A plumpish, pale faced young man in a cheap, ill-fitting, local suit shook my hand. “From the party?” I asked Chris.

“Maybe, but he is the new director.”

Pani Elitist had been removed by the minister.  

 

We sat down at a table. Two women, both in casual dress though not really suited to it, sat opposite Chris and me. The young man sat at the end.

 

“Your ideas are absolutely right, affirmed the older of the two denims, as the soft, be-suited director detached his attention to gaze out of the window. The problem is we are broke. There is no money for this kind of project. Yes, we should but we can’t.”

 

“Does it need to cost money?”

 

“We are sorry.”

 

So was I.

 

Poland’s schools need music and drama to build the team spirit and develop the imaginations and self-confidence of the young. This all took place in 2006. We are still no further forward.

Warsaw Years: Resign from Pegaz.

The soprano Izabela Klosinska had been given an award for her services to the opera. Dabrowski thought it would be appropriate to interview her. I agreed. However, during the interview, Dabrowski said “If I may suggest….” At which point I cut him off. “No, you may not.” He was only trying to be helpful and my rudeness was entirely out of order.

Unfortunately, the pressure I was getting from the production team and my discomfort with reporting rather than doing, being on the wrong side of the camera so to speak, was taking its toll on me. Also, my problem with the Polish language did not help. However, I should not have been so rude to Dabrowski, apart from anything because at a stroke I think I lost his genuine goodwill.

 

We never knew what was going to be included in the broadcast before broadcasting. When I discovered that my report about the organ and Klosinska had not been included I rang Robert. I found his reasons unacceptable and, with some relief, resigned.  It was all too stressful to be fun.

 

Part of the stress was caused by the lack of much positive to say. My frequent visits to the Opera Kameralna merely depressed me. How often can you say, Isn`t it wonderful that this institution exists but what a pity the singers don’t seem to act, that few sing well and that the orchestra plays badly?  If this wasn’t the case there would never be an empty seat. This place would be the jewel in the crown of Polish culture. The queues of foreign opera fanatics would reach the river” And so on. But, it only seemed to get worse.

 

Of course, one of the problems is the lack of competent criticism and the lack of interest amongst newspaper editors. Why should they be interested in music if the public isn’t? And the public isn’t: only 3% of the Polish population goes to classical concerts. Who is to blame? The school system. But also the music managers who seem to have no concept at all about the role of the performing Arts in a modern society.  None of the Warsaw operas has an education programme. The National Philharmonic only seems have a few concerts dedicated to children. What does Polski Radio do? Nothing!  It only pays the salaries of its employees. Its just not good enough.

 

The other problems with newspaper critics are their competence and their general interest in music. Rarely do you see a critic outside the main state institutions. It almost seems as if you have to send a limo and leave a fat brown envelope on the back seat to get them to go anywhere else.

There is far too much complacency and sucking up to the old music bosses, so often their bosses anyway. Without this perhaps there would be a better standard of performance everywhere, more people going to concerts and perhaps even a billion Euro music industry in Poland.

 

Historic Houses: a time to act!! A letter from Adam Zamoyski.

    You don`t need me to tell you that so many houses in Poland are in grave danger of disappearing. Thus, I am trying to get the Ministry of Culture to help me with a Roy Strong inspired  “Destruction of the Country House” exhibition. This small but hugely influential exhibition at the V&A in 1975 was vital is stopping the destruction of English houses through deliberate acts of vandalism, neglect or abandonment: between 1900 and 1975 more than 2000 disappeared!  And I dont mean cottages.

I think that such an exhibition could be essential in raising awareness of the problem here in Poland, the problem of vanishing period houses and all they represented and represent for the nation.

As a start, I am making a series of shorts. This is the teaser:
 Please tell me if you`d like to see some more.

Below is a letter from Adam Zamoyski who expresses these thoughts more eloquently.

 

Dear Mr Berkeley,

 

Yes, I do remember the exhibition on the destruction of the country house and think it would be great if one could be organised here, which should be possible since it does not really involve a huge amount of expense. I agree that it would have tremendous impact and might provide the breakthrough needed.

I have been going on about the need to create a Polish national Trust for nearly twenty years to anyone who cared to listen, but while everyone vaguely agreed, nobody could be bothered to do anything about it. Such an exhibition might help galvanise people.

You have my full (mostly moral, I’m afraid, as I’m horribly busy) support.

 

Yours

 

Adam Zamoyski

We need to make a concerted effort to marshal forces.  We need to raise funds for collecting material. We need a space for the exhibition and we need  to advertise. We need to make a web page. Can you help with money, space, skills or influence?

Time is against us. We need to act now!!

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours,
Richard

Warsaw years

 

 “You don’t know Mazi?” asked Pegaz producer Robert Kowalski in amazement.

I had to admit I didn’t.  I felt this undermined my credibility with Robert.  “He is going to be your assistant!”

 

 For a short time Mazi had been lead singer in a successful rock band. I knew nothing about rock music in general, even less about the Polish variety. Was I expected to report on pop music? Surely not? I wondered why an ex-rock singer would want to work with me reporting classical music.

 

However, Mazi turned out to be a Godsend. Southern Italianate in looks, eloquent in his South African accented English, fluent in Italian, conservative and sensible, yes, he had been a rock star. With a hugely cheerful and positive character, respectful, charming and realistic,  he opened doors I didn’t even know were there, thus enabling me to meet ministers and celebrities with the greatest of ease. I often found myself asking myself, who am I compared to Mazi?  But, where I scored was in classical music of which he knew very little. For this, he respected me.

There was a reverse side to the coin. Mazi was for ever falling in love. More than once he asked me to deliver presents or flowers to hairdressers or waitresses whom he’d met the day before and was besotted with. Once, I found myself hiding in the bushes in front of the television centre waiting for a girl to arrive whom he was afraid to approach. What I was supposed to do when she arrived I can’t remember. In the event, the cold got to us. After an hour or so we gave up.

 

Not only did Mazi arrange all my meeting but he also translated everything: my questions in interviews, some of the answers, and he did the voiceovers on my reports.  I’m not at all convinced that he was always accurate but since we always seemed to be editing with only minutes to spare before our reports had to be ready for final editing, I was usually just glad to get it finished. 

 

A kindlier and more gentle rock star you could never hope to meet.

 

What turned out to be our last report for Pegaz involved the new Millennium organ at the national Philharmonic hall and the Christmas celebrations at the Opera Narodowa.

 

Poland only had one capital culture project to mark the Millennium and that was a hideous but fine onstage organ at the Philharmonic. Of course, we had to include it. Of course, we should have celebrated Poland’s contribution to Arup’s swaying Millennium’s foot bridge in London. You didn’t know? Poland made the steel.

 

In the end, we did neither. Robert Kowalski rejected our report on the grounds that no one in the viewing public was interested in the organ and that in the material about the Opera I was only sucking up to Dabrowski. About the organ, he may have been right. If so, what an indictment that was. About Dabrowski he was wrong. If fact, my reporting from the opera may have cost me dear.

Warsaw Years

  As anyone knows who has worked in television, it is very easy to lose your head and think that you and the camera are more important than your subjects or, in the case of reporting from a live performance, the audience who have paid to be there. All too often camera crews ruin the atmosphere in a venue simply for a few minutes of broadcast time, for a superficial report. Like rowdy offspring who run riot under the eyes of doting parents and ruin the atmosphere of an otherwise tranquil café, camera crews should neither be seen nor heard.

 

When I was about 4 a friend of my mother’s and sometime chairman of BSA, sent me a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s great poem If. At the time, I understood little. All that appealed to me was the bit about walking with kings and not losing the common touch, whatever that was. It contains some truths which people in the media should inwardly absorb, actually, not just the media; perhaps all of us in this celebrity crazed, sound bitten society. 

 

A few days ago I was working with some 17 year old school children on theatrical improvisation. Afterwards we examined some of the social attitudes that emerged.

“Oh but we Poles like blaming other people”, a girl asserted. “We just do it and it is horrible of us”. If offers something of an alternative. I publish it here unashamedly.

 

 

“If”

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

By Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).