How to kill an opera company – news from Poland #Opera Kameralna (update)

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My personal operatic journey started 20+ years ago with a visit to Warsaw Chamber Opera. A tiny venue, a classical building hidden behind communist era apartment blocs did not  promise much but turned out to be a life-changing experience. It was the first time that I listened to an opera at really close quarters – almost at an arm’s length – and the effect was profound. It was totally immersive and with the period costumes, the charming set and perfect attention to detail it transported me to the 18th century. Grey reality of Warsaw disappeared, I was transported to a different time and space – pure magic! The decision to start my voice studies was greatly influenced by that powerful evening.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 8.25.43 PMThe company was the creation of one man – musicologist and oboe player Stefan Sutkowski, who in 1961 in the midst of Communist times traveled to Austria and in an antique bookstore bought a copy of the orchestra score for “La Serva Padrona”. He came back and put together a production which gave birth to the only private theatre in the Communist block. Over the next 50 years his tiny company staged all of Mozart’s operas which were played annually at the Warsaw Mozart Festival; held Rossini, Handel and Monteverdi festivals; discovered and revived ancient and forgotten Polish music; commissioned contemporary operas; and had a marionette stage as well. It is impossible to list all the good things this institution achieved on a shoestring budget. It relied, in its best years, on a combination of city funding and private sponsors. The Mozart Festival in June and July was a real treat in the city where traditionally most theaters close for the summer. It had two orchestras – an ancient music ensemble playing baroque music on old instruments, and the Sinfonietta playing everything else. Both the orchestras and the singers performed also at outside venues and events.

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Because of the small size home venue (160 seats), few international tours, and the low profile that director Sutkowski favored, the Warsaw Chamber Opera was in many ways Poland’s secret gem. It did not have the fame of Salzburg or the big names on its billboards, but it had high musical and artistic standards. It was a perfect training ground for young singers and a home for renowned singers like Olga Pasichnyk. Many people got hooked after just one visit, as I did, and ended up going to every new show and revisiting the old ones as they were revived.

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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The Chamber Opera functioned well under two different regimes and for decades until someone decided that it had it too good. Four years ago city authorities carried out an audit of WCO and decided the whole thing was “wasteful” and even accused Sutkowski of “criminal” corruption. Storage of old sets and costumes, singers and conductors on payroll, too many musicians… City funding for WCO was cut by  twenty five percent, forcing layoffs and closure of WCO’s many activities. It could no longer afford new productions. Director Sutkowski was forced to retire. The new director tried to expand the audience by doing open air events and addressing the financial restraints any way he could; but it was not enough. The Warsaw county regional government decided it could no longer afford WCP with its extravagant musicians’ pay of $459 per month. And so, this month it is disbanding the main orchestra,  giving notices to all the conductors and the singers.

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To give a fuller context to this catastrophe, it is worth pointing out that public funding for art institutions is a tradition of many Eastern European countries. The whole region emerged from World War 2 and Communism with its old elites decimated and impoverished. Unfortunately, the new business elites are not much interested in supporting the arts.  Poland is  a place where music culture is high-quality but is not widely distributed through the country – unlike Germany, for example, where every town, even a small one, seems to support their own symphony or performance venue. In Poland many professional musicians, trained over 18 years in specialized schools, cannot find employment in Poland and end up emigrating to Western Europe. The Warsaw Chamber Opera was one of the last institutions in Warsaw that offered steady, albeit very basic employment to musicians, singers and instrumentalists.

In the past four years WCO was receiving a city grant comparable to the budget of a repertory theatre – which usually does not  have a live orchestra, a puppet theatre, a community outreach program and the ability to conduct scholarly research. It was 1/5 of the budget of the National Opera. After the cuts in 2012, the opera’s finances never recovered. So now the only “solution” is to let go of the people, and make project-style productions with contract musicians. Will the musicians still be available? If there are no jobs for them in Poland’s capital city many might leave Poland or even leave the profession. Will it be any more efficient? It seems that with 150 musicians laid off this ensemble will be gone.

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The new acting director who set it all in motion with the support of the regional officials thinks she “will make WCP great again”. Well, great it already was. Ironically,  the acting director Alicja Węgorzewska-Whiskerd is a singer herself.

It is painful to see how shortsightedness and private interests disguised as “sound management” can lead to the destruction of a beautiful institution over half a century old. This is not just a Polish problem. War on the Arts also seems to be the theme of threatened administration policies here in America,  where the National Endowment of the Arts may be eliminated. What is there to do? Can art fight back? Will we be saved by protests, petitions? I don’t see good prospects on the long run. For Warsaw Chamber Opera – I hope  people who were touched by the magic of this place will always remember it and find enough strength to carry on its legacy.

Updated (June 3rd 2017): Stefan Sutkowski died on April 22nd 2017, the day his musicians were handed notices. Orchestras from all over Poland, including the renowned Warsaw Philharmonic are joining forces to protest the situation in solidarity with the Warsaw Sinfornietta. Who will play at this year’s Mozart Festival? Stay tuned.

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The Fundraiser was fun!

I don’t know which was the best part – the auction of donations (books by me and Bay Area author Marta Zucker), the dancing or the food… A few people got introduced to opera and seemed to like it! Sang the usual suspects (Queen of the Night) plus my beloved La danza by Rossini. All for a good cause! (Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity)

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The costume is always popular

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Sebastian was the highest bidder on “Hela”!

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Divine poppyseed cheesecake brought by Gregory.

 

A night to remember and to revisit next year!

Pacific Voice Conference – US Edition

I just attended the transcontinental Voice Conference at the SF Conservatory of Music – what a treat! Lots of fascinating presentations and a concert with superb singers of various styles.

There is always something new to learn about voice. Did you know that for belting the best vowel is Eh? And Jersey twang? We watched heavy metal singers’ vocal folds vibrate healthily during high volume scream (distortion produced by “false vocal chords” above), presented by Dr Krzysztof Izdebski. We heard inspirational stories from patients who recovered their voices after surgery or severe conditions such as Bell’s Palsy, often after hearing from “experts” that they would never sing again.

What I found the most interesting was that the absolute basic concepts of singing technique are still expressed in seemingly contradictory terms. I was very happy to see and hear Lisa Popeil of Voiceworks in Los Angleles talk about the jaw. She clearly demonstrated that the “loose jaw” is a concept that gets in the way of good singing in almost any style, from country to opera. She proved it with photos of great singers such as Cecilia Bartoli in the middle of her coloratura runs and Whitney Houston in her high notes.

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She also explained that the “release of the jaw” has nothing to do with “dropping the jaw”. It might technically be the jaw, but for all practical purposes it looks like working with a part of the face.

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Before this part can be specified, the student doesn’t really know what they should release.

 

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Another great presentation was the one on Alexander Technique. It was a very different approach than the one I got to know studying with a practitioner, much clearer and commons sense, but  I saw an area of confusion similar to the  issue of the jaw. Did Mr Alexander have a “forward pelvis” or a “posterior pelvic tilt”? Or both?

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The photos clarified what was wrong with his posture. ( The presentation by Robert Britton of SF Conservatory of Music)

We also got some tips for  teaching apps presented by Heidi Moss. I will write more about them after a test run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Singing opera makes you grow taller

An amazing thing happened. I measured myself and discovered my real height is different from what is written in my driver’s license, it is 5’8″ not 5’7″.

I took the measurement on the hint from Esther Gokhale’s book (8 Steps to a Pain Free Back). She says if you practice her stretches you can “decompress” your spine and in fact grow taller.  My singing workout must have produced the same effect. This is really good news, given my family genetics. And I half expected, at my mature age, to already begin shrinking!

Bernal Opera at Everett School

Last Friday we made some sound at the Everett School Fundraiser. Several great acts from kids, teachers and parents; fantastic audience. For our part, we made some operatic sound, donated three voice classes and a house concert in the Silent Auction.
Kudos to the Talent Show committee headed by Roxy!

Partenope at San Francisco Opera

Handel rules! What a genius! He is funny when tragic ( like in Julio Cesare), but he is over the top-wet-your-pants-laughing hilarious in a comic opera, especially directed by master stage director Christopher Alden. The amount of gags and jokes is astounding, but they just flow organically from the dialogue and the music. All the coloraturas and fiorituras are not an end in themselves, but rather sound effects of everyday actions like unbuttoning a shirt or shaking a cocktail. The audience really appreciates that!

The setting of the piece feels taken out from BBC’s Hercule Poirot – white architecture, high society, games of cards, drinks, cigarettes, silk pj’s…
Brilliant and foxy Danielle de Niese
pretty much dances her part from beginning to end, you cannot take your eyes off her. I never thought I would see a countertenor (Anthony Roth Costanzo) singing while hanging down from a staircase. How on earth does he “support” in this position? I am going to the gym tomorrow to see how this can be done.
All the cast top notch. It was interesting seeing how small an ensemble (orchestra) you need for Handel. This makes it easier for the lighter voices to shine (figuratively speaking) in a big theater.
Music : lovely, although no such memorable tunes as from Julio Cesare. Doesn’t matter – transports you to another time, another reality. Why, oh, why cannot contemporary composers come up with stuff like that, something that just feels great in your ear, in your muscles, in your bones… That was rock’n’roll of the 1700…

Nice touch – in the intermission the screen for the super titles showed the score of SF Giants-Cardinals baseball game. That sparked almost the same enthusiasm as some of the arias.

Very impressed and uplifted – so glad I went, in a spur of the moment…

Robin Williams’s piano

Can’t come to terms with the news of Robin Williams’s exit from this world. Extremely sad that the man who gave joy to millions lost it for himself…
In our music studio we have a grand piano that supposedly used to belong to RW. No paperwork confirming that, but that was the story told at purchase. The piano dealer later went to jail for fraud – so maybe it was just a made up line. Still, we had fun imagining running into Robin one of these days and asking him about it (sigh)
RIP

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Bernal Opera back in SF

Vacation is over! Bernal Opera made funny noises in Chania, Crete, Skipton Castle, England, Falenica, Poland (on multiple evenings!) and is now back in San Francisco, ready to pick up where we left off.

We’ve had great luck making new connections via Meetup, so now we will use the Bay Area House Concert subgroup to organize new events coming in September. More information will be posted here:

Bay Area House Concerts

Berkeley, CA
1,334 Music lovers

We are a group of house concert enthusiasts in the Bay Area. This group is created as a resource so that house concert hosts can find additional audience, artists can make fri…

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