The Body and Needs of a Man – An Interview with Mariusz Kwiecień
I wake up at 3 or 4am almost every night, with lines from Roger on my lips, and I sing or hum. – Culture.pl interviews Mariusz Kwiecień in the wake of the London premiere of King Roger, an opera by Karol Szymanowski which will be staged by Kasper Holten
On the 1st of May, 2015, the Royal Opera House – Covent Garden will host a premiere staging of King Roger, the most renowned opera composed by Karol Szymanowski. This time, it will be directed by Kasper Holten. The role of Roger is performed by Mariusz Kwiecień, an opera singer who performs on all of the most significant stages of Europe and North America. Mariusz Kwiecień has already taken on this role several times before – earlier he has performed in a staging directed by Mariusz Treliński (which premiered in Paris) and Michał Znaniecki (with an opening show in Bilbao).
Filip Lech: When did you first encounter the figure of King Roger, or first hear and see the performance of Karol Szymanowski’s opera?
Iwaszkiewicz wrote a wonderful text, but one that requires many hours of meditating upon. He ponders about what the particular phrases mean. It is such an unclear text that it can be interpreted within a religious, erotic, political, philosphical or psychological frame – this text triggers so many themes in the mind that it requires a proper approach and great concentration. It took a while before I understood the text and was able to imagine its interpretation and perfomance. And then, everything changes when we arrive at the theatre, and encounter the director and his vision. I often had to reconsider the text anew in my head.
Do you have in your mind your own ideal Roger, one that isn’t the director’s interpretation?
I don’t think so. I learned from the recordings of the piece conducted by Ochman, Roger was sang by Hiolski and Roxanne was performed by Zagórzanka. For me, it is the best one. I have also listened to the performance of Wojtek Drabowicz, Thomas Hampson – they are interesting, and inspiring, but I feel close to the oldest one. Perhaps this is due to fact that generally, I don’t listen to recordings, and once I have to do so, I chose those realised in the 1950s and 60s. There is meaning and some kind of power in it – perhaps it is Hiolski’s power, Hiolski who is excellent (although from what I know, he didn’t like to sing this part).
Will the London Roger be a philosopher?
Kasper Holten is directing an opera which depicts reflections on human nature, on the faults and needs of man. Such an approach is distinct from what we usually see in Poland, where Roger is usually captured merely withing the religious and spiritual framwork. I cannot reveal all the details of the London staging, but all of the figures on stage are going to be a part of Roger. This is very innovative, I have never seen something like this before. Edrisi is a mentor, the highest part of consciousness. Roxanne is the angelic element, the feminine power of peace as well as seduction. Roger is man of the body and its needs. The Shepherd is everything that Roger desires but fears at the same time, something which he hides, something buried deep in our heart and mind.
I am sure that the London Roger will find both his proponents and critics. But we cannot constantly be watching the same thing, always looking at productions that speak of the same thing – why would we go to see them? Here, we discover Roger’s inner world, his struggle between weaknesses. He has to be exemplary for his own people, but he is uncapable of it and scared, he has hidden problems which will surface sooner or later in each person. We will be witnessing a moment when all of this crumbles to pieces.
Kasper Holten has been working on King Roger for four years. What is it like to work on a performance which so thoroughly and deeply thought out?
I am not sure how long other directors work on their stagings, but four years is indeed very long. What I like about Kasper is his absolute readiness to work with the oeuvre. Last year I sang in his production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and for me, next to the Warsaw production directed by Mariusz Treliński, it is the best Don Giovanni that I managed to impersonate in my life.
Here, it was also the psychological approach that dominated – a mid-life crisis and the weakness that entail from it, omissions that make life fall to pieces, and still we have to go on. I love the clear and precise statements of the director – from the outset, we work in a concrete direction, each person has a place in the performance. There aren’t any ‚maybe’s, nor inventing the performance during rehearsals. There isn't any of the "if it doesn’t turn out well, too bad, people will think it’s great art” kind of an approach.
There is always a leeway for negotiation, in the case of King Roger, his sexuality was such an area. He cannot be desexualized, the fact that Szymanowski and Iwaszkiewicz were homosexual is absolutely apparent in the libretto and in the music, one can feel it. We wanted to show it in this performance, Kasper knew that he need to have a strong culmination which will be sexual. In the beginning, we were approaching Roger’s infatuation with the Shepherd, wherein Roger was forced to attack him and the Shepherd responded by giving him a kiss. We turned away from this idea. When Kasper saw his vision on the stage, he understood that it will not fulfill its function. It would suggest that the Shepherd is gay, rather than depicting the symbolic weight of the kiss. The kiss which is an omnipotent love of the world, a gesture worthy of Jesus, and devoid of desire.
This is one of the few situations in which we changed something on the go. Everything else – the entrace of particular figures onto the stgae, the change of sets, the coordination of the choir and the ballet of which this perfomance is full – all of this was established from the outset. We always put in a lot of effort and emotion into our rehearsals, one cannot do it otherwise. I am exhausted after rehearsals, I practically cannot sleep. I wake up at 3 or 4 am almost every night, with the phrases of Roger on my lips, and I sing or hum. I try changing the subject of my thoughts, count sheep and go to sleep – but it is impossible. We are so intricately bound together with our roles. If we didn’t do it a hundred percent, our powers would be wasted, and no one would want that to happen, right?
The opera is not only music, acting, and singing, it is also the libretto and the language that it was written in. In London, you will be singing in Polish. Kasper Holten told me that in his example of the libretto he jotted down the translation above every word in Polish. What is it like to work with a foreign director on a Polish performance?
It is not very easy. Actually, the whole team: the director, the conductor and the singers are all walking on a slope. In theory, each word is explained for them, but they do not know the way a phrase runs, nor what the melody of the language is. Polish isn’t a languge frequently used in the opera, I would say more than that – even Penderecki writes his operas in German. For a majority of people it is their first contact with Polish opera and the Polish language. On top of this, the poetry of Iwaszkiewicz is very difficult, even Poles find it hard to understand. So what that I am performing the phrases and singing, if I need to think about what is that I am singing of in the first place. Some of the phrases are constructed in such a way that at a first hearing, it is hard to understand anything at all.
Some say that Iwaszkiewicz’s libretto is not a operatic one.
That is true. It is too poetic, not clear enough. It is best to study the text before listening to the music, but not everyone has the possibility. English audiences will be presented with a translation, which, I assume, will be transcribed in a more contemporary manner. We often help our co-workers out – me, the singer Agnieszka Zwierko, Marek Ruszczyński, who is a pianist and a language supervisor of the performance. we try to overcome certain ambiguities, as a word for word translation of the libretto would not render all of the latent meanings of the text. We do this with pleasure, after all it is a huge event when someone is singing in Polish in London. Later we will be singing in Chicago, Paris, and Madrid. I am not saying this as a patriot, because I am not really a great patriot. I think that the music and the libretto are so beautiful that they are worth being presented to a wide audience and we have to give it our everything. In order for it to be understood in the best and most full kind of a way.
How will Mariusz Kwiecień spend his time after the premiere of King Roger?
Mariusz Kwicień recounts, "Right after Roger, I will go to Barcelona to sing Dionizetti’s Don Pasquale, performing the part of Malatesta. In July, I will be in Munich, singing Onegin together with Anna Netrebko. August is only for me and my close ones. In September, I once again set off into the big season, beginning in Madrid – opening the season with Dionizetti’s Robert Devereux. I will be singing this opera for the first time in my life. Next will be Don Giovanni in the Viennese Staatsoper, after which I fly into Kraków, for Michał Znaniecki’s staging of King Roger, conducted by Łukasz Borowicz. In December, there will be a premiere of the Metropolitan Opera’s The Pearl Fishers by Bizet. In February, I am at the MET once more, premiering Roberto Devereux, and then another premiere of Don Giovanni takes me to San Francisco.
Author: Filip Lech
translated by Paulina Schlosser, 30/04/2015