Violetta Villas, one of Poland’s greatest vocal artists. Born on the 10th of June 1938, passed away on a Monday evening on the 5th of December 2011 in Lewin Kłodzki.
Polish vocal artist, opera singer, actress dies at the age of 73.
Villas performed popular music, Christmas carols, religious songs, as well as classical compositions, opera arias and operettas. She also recorded cover versions of popular American and French songs. Some of her greatest hits include, among others, Do ciebie, mamo, Nie ma miłości bez zazdrości, Przyjdzie na to czas, Szczęście and Oczi cziornyje. With a wide vocal range covering four octaves, her voice has been characterised as coloratura soprano. She learnt to play the piano, trombone and violin. A great career in the opera lay in store for her, and American critics referred to her as ‘the voice of the atomic age.’
On the 50th anniversary of her artistic career in February 2011, her greatest hits were performed at a jubilee concert in Kielce. On that occasion, Violetta Villas was decorated with the Medal for Merit to Culture – Gloria Artis, awarded by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
In that same year, a book on Villas was published by Iza Michalewicz and Jerzy Danilewicz, under the title ‘Villas. But I have nothing to hide.’ According to Iza Michalewicz,
‘We wrote a twenty-act drama on Violetta, and went over her whole life with a fine-tooth comb. She turned out to be an incredibly vivid, colourful personality, filled with contradictions. A human being with a great, extraordinary gift, but one unable to manage the pressures of her own career.’
Villas was actually born as Czesława Cieślak on the 10th of June 1938 in Liège, Belgium, where she spent her childhood. In 1948, she moved to Poland with her parents who settled in Lewin Kłodzki, and began to study music, which she continued in Wrocław and Szczecin. In 1959, she commenced her singing classes under the guidance of Eugenia Falkowska in Warsaw.
Villas’ vocal range and abilities paved a way for her to become an opera singer – a career, which she ultimately rejected in favour of stage performances and radio recordings with Bogusław Klimczuk and Edward Czerny’s bands.
When asked who discovered her talent and suggested she change her name, Villas pointed to Władysław Szpilman.
‘He asked me into his office and said: ‘Dear child, make sure people don’t get accustomed to Cieślak, because nobody will be able to pronounce that name abroad. They’ll maim it. Pick a stage name.’ I picked Violetta, because that is my real name, because I was born in Belgium. I added ‘las’ (Polish for ‘forest’) because I loved the forest and lived near one.’
When her song Dla ciebie, miły won the Express Wieczorny contest, Villas secured herself a place at the Sopot music festival in 1961. In fact, she also participated the year after. Villas sang at international concerts in Switzerland and Germany. In 1965, she won the Grand Prix at the third Festival International des Varietes et Music-Halls in Rennes, France. She gave concerts in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania.
In 1966, she was personally asked by the director of the Paris Olympia music hall, Brunon Coquatrix, to join a group of artists starring in a Polish variety show – the Grand Music-Hall de Varsovie. It was there that Frederick Apcar, producer and creator of variety shows, discovered her and invited her to move to Las Vegas. She stayed there for three seasons (1966-1969), singing side by side with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Charles Aznavour. Villas was the star of the Casino de Paris, where she used her four-octave vocal range to sing songs, opera and operetta arias in nine languages. Villas reminisced that;
‘The first four months involved constant, focused work for many hours each day. Learning languages, ballet lessons, singing, then the whole thing all over again. I couldn’t even begin to imagine having a private life. Besides, apart from the satisfaction and success I got from them, the shows at the Casino de Paris in Las Vegas were hard work.’
Among others, she performed the standard Strangers in the Night. Her interpretation of the song – somewhere between the classic mood and an erotically flavoured Marilyn Monroe-like rendition – characterised her vocal mannerism perfectly. This mannerism, along with her lifestyle, turned out to be one of the crucial factors in deciding Villas’ fate: from a candidate to world fame, she quickly became the symbol of a caricature artist, wasting away her great talent on songs that did not match her vocal abilities.
Singing and performing on stage made it easier for her to get involved in the film industry. In the US, she accompanied Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin and Bob Hope on the screen. She starred in television recitals, in the Syrena Theatre in Warsaw and on many stages in Poland and abroad – including Polish cultural organisations in Australia and the US. Villas was also sometimes cast in episodic TV shows in Poland, such as Andrzej Kondratiuk’s Klub profesora Tutki or Jerzy Gruza’s Dzięcioł. When Andrzej Wajda offered her the role of Lucy Zucker in The Promised Land (1974), she refused to travel to the set, because a black cat had crossed her path.
The artist was famous for her unique styling: she had created the visual identity of a 60’s Hollywood starlet and remained faithful to it. On stage, she wore striking ball gowns; moreover, there was no mistaking those long, flowing, blonde locks, which became her hallmark. In interviews, she underlined just how intensively she cared for her hair. On Mariusz Szczygła’s show in 1996, she put an end to gossip accusing her of wearing a wig, and gave out the recipe for a hair mask prepared with oil and egg yolk, which she supposedly used to keep her hair looking fabulous.
In the next decades, the singer was mainly recognised in Poland. The last spells of her success date back to the 90’s. But even if we take into account performances in Warsaw’s Roma Theatre or recording the Tata 2 album with the band Kult, it seems clear that already then, Villas had, first and foremost, become the symbol of a certain era in Polish show business. Her last hit was a song, which she performed in a duet with Kazik - Kochaj mnie, a będę twoją (1986).
Source: PAP, wyborcza.pl
translated by Ewa Bianka Zubek