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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Concert in Bernal Heights on Saturday

Last week Bernal Opera sang in Mendocino County, this weekend we will be performing – and entertaining – closer to home, at the Infinite Koncepts Gallery, 3844 Mission St, San Francisco. Program includes arias by Catalani, Puccini, Massenet, Boito and art songs by Karłowicz, Różycki,  Dell’Acqua. Starting at 8 PM, Nov. 22nd, 20 bucks a ticket with some delicious food and wine included. If interested, call Alejandro at 415 595 8054 – see you there!

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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…

Esther Gokhale on Posture

After the operatic soirée, where I talked at some length about the connection between singing and posture Richard recommended to me a book by Esther Gokhale “8 Steps to a Pain Free Back”. What a great find! The author went around the world in search of people who can still stand and walk in a natural way. She also has insights as to why women’s backs went bad as soon as the corsets were out and it became fashionable to look “relaxed”.
I would add that flappers were supposed to be flat-chested and many women became self-conscious about that part of their bodies, hiding it between the shoulders. But what happened to the men? Men’s fashions did not change all that much until the Beatles got out of their suits in 1960s. Ms Gokhale says another factor is lack if proper modeling from family members. But where did those male family members loose their proud posture?

My pet theory is that posture is a reflection of a general state of mind. In Polish, BTW, “attitude” and “posture” are the same word. We start as children looking forward to each day and every new experience, we reach up, get up, get going. But the world that presents itself to an adolescent can be intimidating. Academic expectations, competition, uncertainty – some individual’s deal with those elements of school years better than others. The less confident ones hide in their shells, sink into their bodies, bend under a real or perceived burden of life. A few years in that mental and physical space and your back starts to hurt.

Gokhale’s book gives some great tips on how to reconstruct a natural posture. I believe It is the same posture that enables singers to phonate with the greatest ease and efficiency. I did not study it in traditional cultures but I did study it in dancers, actors, athletes and , of course, in singers. It consists of a well “stacked” spine and the pelvis without posterior or exaggerated anterior tilt. Esther Gokhale makes a good case that some anterior tilt is actually part of the healthy posture. This is a very subtle distinction, because you don’t want to “tilt” forward the hips of someone with lordosis. I bet she can help a lot of people with hands on work. Anyway, the photographic material makes it pretty clear: the pubic bones that hold all the “guts” should be under you, not in front of you. The top bones of the pelvis should be in line with the hip joint, not behind it. It can feel like they are pushed forward.

I love how she explains the issues of the spine but have a bit of a problem when she talks about other parts of the body. From a singer’s perspective the advice on the movement of the rib cage is incorrect. The breast bone doesn’t move with every breath, doesn’t need to. Observe the chests of the most powerful singers – completely immobile. Also, I would never try to “fix” or stretch the neck, with any physical manipulation, like pulling up by the hair.

I disagree with the notion that the weight of the body should be carried primarily on the heel, as the “delicate” bones of the front of the foot cannot handle that task. If you ever tried to jump from any height and landed on your heel you know why this is dangerous. The bones if the front and middle of the feet are there as shock absorbers, and we should use them more, not less, to reduce impact, especially to protect the knees.

Manually massaging and twisting the feet to give them the “desired” kidney shape – I think she means developing a proper arch – just doesn’t work. In order to twist the foot in this way you need to indeed stand and walk primarily on your heels. Which is unnatural. The muscles of the foot are not getting exercised by carrying the body’s weight but by that artificial twist.

A very good idea in the book is the concept of exercising posture during everyday activities and even resting. Now this is a workout after my heart – even in your sleep! This part reminds me of Alexander Technique, which is another good posture correction system. Part if it consists of stretching the back while lying down, which is assisted by a practitioner. Ms Gokhale shows how to do it yourself.
In general, great resource including lots of inspiring pictures.

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Bernal Opera Gala came and went

I think we had a full house on Saturday – opera singing for many lovely, interesting people plus wine, snacks and cake. Of all the pieces performed the most commented one was my beloved “Aria with Chimes” from The Haunted Manor by Moniuszko. If I can get Rob from England to orchestrate more material my dream of staging this wonderful opera in San Francisco will come true! Apart from that, the recipe for a good evening is: two Verdis, three Puccinis, Handel, Rameau, Mozart and Wagner. Oh, and yes, Spohr. Kudos to Justyna for joining in and sight reading some of it on the fly.

As a true Pole I am not able to say at this point what the rest of the season will look like, things will happen as they happen. If I can get Our Producer to open the house on a regular basis, let’s say once a month, we will plan the program in a more detailed way so that pieces don’t get repeated. I liked that some guests found out about the concert an hour in advance, confirmed, came in and had a good time. That’s pretty much how I go to shows – sometime during the day I realize I have a free evening, look around, see something on and try for it.

I am also considering creating a separate Bay Area Classical  House Concert Meetup group for promoting our events. It seems daunting to starts something like that from scratch, since through the established groups it is easy to reach many people at once. On the other hand it would put out a clearer idea what kind of music to expect. So watch out for it!

Thanks to those who attended and see you again!