Recognized as one of the leading baritones before the public today, Kraków-born Mariusz Kwiecień has appeared on most of the world’s major lyric stages. Following his initial training in Warsaw, his international career began on joining the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. Since then, he has established himself as one of the foremost interpreters of the works of Tchaikovsky, Donizetti, Bellini and Mozart captivating the public with his warm tone, easy line and exceptional stage presence. Current and future engagements include Malatesta at the Liceu, Yevgeny Onegin in Munich, Nottingham in Roberto Devereux in Madrid and at the Met and Zurga at the Met. I caught up with Mr Kwiecień following his sensational performance in the first night of Kasper Holten’s new staging of Król Roger at the Royal Opera House.
Mr Kwiecień, many congratulations on the first night of this new production of Król Roger at the Royal Opera. If I’m not mistaken this is the fourth new production of the work that you have done after Paris/Madrid, Santa Fe, Bilbao and now here in London. How important is Król Roger for you to perform?
Right now it’s probably the most important role for me. When I sang my first Don Giovanni, Giovanni at that time was the most important. Before that it was Onegin, later it was Rodrigo in Don Carlo. Now it’s Roger because the piece is becoming very popular, people are starting to discover this music and the story and the poetry, it’s so exciting and beautiful. The main subject of this opera is a psychological journey through the life of a man who is growing up, who is thinking about himself. I’m 43 right now and changing from being a young man to a grown-up person and I’m also starting to ask myself those questions. Iwaszkiewicz’s libretto and Szymanowski’s music, the whole piece, is helping me to answer some questions, that I have been asking myself, permanently, for the last couple of years. It’s also important because we don’t have so many Polish operas in the big opera houses. Sometimes, smaller companies perform Moniuszko’s pieces such as Straszny Dwór or Halka but Król Roger is probably the most remarkable of all those Polish operas, except perhaps Krzysztof Penderecki’s pieces which are very modern. I think that Szymanowski with this touch of modernism and originality is so special and so Polish at the same time. Being Polish, singing in Polish, in the great opera houses such as Paris, Madrid or now in London is a special thing for me. That’s why Król Roger is the adventure that I took a couple of years ago and it’s growing.
It’s the kind of piece that stays with you, that doesn’t let you go. Even as a spectator it stays with you for days afterwards.
Believe me, the last rehearsals we had here, the nights were sleepless. I’d wake up at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning with phrases of Król Roger on my lips, singing and thinking about the stage directions. We had five weeks of work, with brilliant people, with the ballet and the other singers, and of course with Kasper, Cathy and Steffen. We’ve been working so hard to do it so well. This is why I am so happy when I hear from you or after the opening night from the audience, that they really loved it. We received a huge ovation – we didn’t expect it actually. We were a little bit skeptical, afraid, of what kind of audience we have here in London, especially with this kind of music – Szymanowski, in a different language, an unknown opera, very strange libretto and quite modern music. I thought maybe the audience might not fully enjoy it, but actually they did and I am very proud and very happy.
Król Roger is a big sing for you. Of course you have that big final scene but there’s also a lot of high, declamatory writing involved in the part. What are the vocal challenges for you?
If I were to recommend Król Roger to anybody, I would say that you don’t need to have a huge voice but you do have to have a great technique just to survive from the first until the last notes. The music is written like it should be sung by big voices because there is a huge, rich orchestration and a powerful chorus on stage. The soprano has a very high, intense and loud role, and the tenor always sits in the passaggio. For Roger, from the beginning, he’s uneven with his thoughts and he has to shout sometimes. The role goes very high and very low and the second act is very dramatic. I wouldn’t have been able to sing Roger ten years ago but now with my experience, with my age, I think that he’s a perfect fit for me and also a good preparation for future roles. Even in Verdi, where the lines are more lyrical and the orchestration not as huge as in Król Roger, I have to know how to sing well in the passaggio, how to reach the high notes, and Roger has helped me to fully understand how to do that.
Being a singer you’re always learning and always discovering new things about your voice because your voice and your body are constantly changing. I have a lyric baritone voice but it’s not tiny, it’s a regular size and I’m able to manage to sing Roger. If you have a smaller instrument, think twice about this music because it can destroy your voice. Roger for me is the next step in the development of my voice that I wanted to take, it was on purpose. I remember singing the first rehearsal with orchestra in Paris, when I did my first Roger – I couldn’t finish the rehearsal because I was forcing my voice from the beginning. Then I had to learn. I took two days off from rehearsals and I thought, we won’t get very far like this. We need a super engine, with super gas for this, but we also need a brain, and to learn how to sing it intelligently from the first until the last moment. It was a big success for me and I started to learn not only to use what I have but also to train what I can get.
That’s certainly the sign of the best singers, those who understand their instruments and who work with what they have.
Otherwise it’s impossible to go on. Next year I will have been singing for 20 years and if I’m lucky I hope to sing for another 20 years. This is the time to prepare myself to accept that my body and my voice are changing and I also had two surgeries on my back in the last few years. That’s why I have to be twice as smart, twice as careful and that’s what I’m doing right now. I think that every solid opera singer who is thinking about a long career has to really sit down and re-think everything we’ve done, what we want to do and what we’re doing right now to make a clear way to continue the career.
When you’re thinking about your technique and developing your career – how do you go about that?
I call it intuition. I had three teachers in my life. The first was an older lady in Poland, then a Wagnerian bass in Warsaw, and my third and last teacher was Bill Schuman from New York. My last voice lesson was some 16 years ago. Since that time, I’m still singing and I think singing better, knowing more about how to do it. I know there are people who will always criticize this kind of behaviour because people think that you should always listen to others. But when you’re singing at the Met, Paris, Vienna, London, Munich, these fantastic places with the best singers, the best conductors, we have rehearsals and this is actually the best coaching I could ever have. Working and discovering new problems and trying to fix those problems. I’m learning, I just find my path and I try to keep to it. Also, my voice is very delicate and when I do something wrong, I immediately feel it, I lose the core and I start to get heavy and my voice becomes fluffy and woofy. This is what I hate actually about my voice. My voice isn’t very good for recordings and I know this. I recorded one CD and the second one I recorded half of it and I quit. I don’t like recordings, I hate the process of recording, constantly repeating, doing every piece five times. I’m a person who likes the theatre. I go on stage and I give everything just in one go. When I have to repeat something it’s really difficult to find the energy again to repeat it in exactly the same way or find even more emotions. So I said recordings are more for other people.
I don’t even listen to recordings. If I listen to recordings I listen to those recordings from the 50s and 60s with my favourite singers, with tons of mistakes, flat notes, cracks – and I love them. This is the real theatre. When I listen to CDs, even to myself, I don’t like it. It feels like I’m controlling everything about myself and my voice. That’s why I don’t have a teacher. If I start to have really big problems – I hope not – but if, then I’ll re-think this way of doing things and maybe I’ll find somebody who will help me. I’m not really rushing my voice, my body and my career to do heavy repertoire. It’s a big process of learning, of trying things, thinking about things, listening to my colleagues and the conductors and stage directors because they help sometimes very much. Life and the stage are my teachers.
If we think back to the premiere on Friday night, just a few days ago, you opened a new production and you mentioned that you’d had several sleepless nights beforehand. There must be a lot of pressure in starring in such a high-profile show. How do you prepare yourself vocally, mentally, physically for an opening night as big as this?
I hate opening nights because there’s so much pressure that comes with them. I love the regular performances when you can come and sing without any tension or pressure. Now almost every performance is an opening night, or recorded, or there’s a live transmission or radio broadcast. There’s always something. I have to say that after all these years I was stronger when I was younger. Now, I’m weaker because I know how big the pressure is on my shoulders. I know that people expect that, because I have a good career, I’ll deliver something better than possible. It’s impossible to deliver something better than possible. I can only give what I have on that day and actually, on this opening night, I was struggling with the end of a cold. It was just the end of it so that’s why I decided to sing. I also know that people had been waiting to see the cast that had been working for six weeks, as this is a new production of an opera that had never been performed at the Royal Opera house before, and our covers had had less opportunity to perform on the stage, as is often the case when you are preparing a new production. It wouldn’t have been the same and I know that sometimes people prefer to hear less great vocal production but to see the whole product that has been created.
I’d also say that many in the audience had also booked to see you, that must have added even more pressure.
Yes, I know that people had also booked for me because I have started to be recognized as an ambassador for this opera and as a Polish singer it’s obviously very important to me. I couldn’t sleep, I was pale and I felt as if I was about to faint on stage from the beginning. But it’s my experience that gets me through it. I know that once it starts, it goes, I just have to start it. In the end it was all much better. At the interval my voice was really tired and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to finish the show and that’s why we decided to make an announcement. Some people asked me why I made the announcement but I know if something had happened, I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself.
I have never been booed in other places but it happened in my native Kraków. I was so sick at the opening of the summer festival for Le nozze di Figaro but I pushed myself to do it. It’s a long opera, there are a lot of recitatives and at the end of the second act I had no voice at all and there were still two acts to go. I finished, somehow, and then I was booed. It was only one person but I learned a lesson that night, that no matter what piece, no matter which place, whichever house, I have to deliver the best performance possible. If I am not able to, I should at least make an announcement just to inform people that I’m not on the best form but I will sing for you.
We struggle with nervousness, especially in the days when we are not feeling very well. But on Friday, at the premiere of Król Roger, the pleasure in the third act when I started to sing, I knew I would finish it because some kind of energy came to me, I don’t know where it came from. The third act is my favourite act. I love it so much. And I knew that my voice felt better and my body felt less stressed, and believe me, in those moments when I was on stage it was just pure pleasure to sing, to open my mouth and just deliver this gorgeous piece of music to the public. Every performance of Król Roger is a special evening because it moves so many senses, touches so many nerves in my body, and for the public it’s similar because you cannot leave the opera house whether you’ve been on stage or in the audience without being moved.
When I saw you as Roger in Bilbao back in 2012 it was in my head for weeks and it still is now from Friday.
In this opera everybody can identify with some aspect of it. Everybody finds something really special, something moving in this opera. People who love beautiful music and poetry will love it. People who love great theatre will also love it because Król Roger always makes every stage director do something really creative. Some people will identify with one of the characters. Here in Kasper Holten’s production we have me, Roger, as the body and the brain, Roxana is my soul, my heart, and the Shepherd is everything that I have deep in my stomach that I want to hide. These characters create one person on stage. This production here is probably the most logical for me, it has the most answers to my questions at least. The Bilbao staging I also liked very much.
I loved Paris with Warlikowski and there were so many critics, even Polish critics who said ‘he didn’t understand the piece’ and I said ‘who understands this piece? Nobody understands it’. Everybody finds something in it. The Król Roger in Paris was the deepest emotional experience I’ve had on stage in my life. There was one performance during the third act, I was out, I wasn’t even present on stage. I was just levitating. I was singing and acting but didn’t feel 100% conscious. It was such a deep emotional experience – it was a transcendent moment for me. It felt like a real creation.
I’d just like to move away from Roger to talk about things in general because when I watch you on stage, I see a great actor – that goes without saying – but what you also do is unite text and music in the most incredible way. I don’t speak a word of Polish yet I knew exactly what you were singing about from the way you were singing it, even without surtitles – how do you do that?
Honestly speaking, I had always found opera boring. I love baroque music, Bach for example, because of the beauty and the constant changes – the mathematical construction is phenomenal. When I was young I didn’t like opera but I discovered I had a voice and I wanted to do something with that voice. I went to the Academy of Music and I got the highest grades but I still didn’t like opera and then I started to reflect on what I would like to express, what I would like to do in my life as an artist. In opera you have the music and if someone only likes the music that’s great but I don’t just love the music. That’s why text, the rhythm and richness of the text are so important. I love Don Giovanni because there’s constant action, Figaro because you can get lost in all the plots; in Król Roger you can discover another dimension, other worlds; Don Carlo is a fantastic piece and if you have great singers it’s phenomenal. That’s why I like to sing an interesting character who grows on stage, like Onegin for example, he changes from someone naïve at the start to someone who becomes smarter but still stupid at the same time. I’d love to do Rubinstein’s Demon in the future for the same reason. You probably get the impression from me that I basically speak with the voice, I love theatre in opera. I try to say with my body what I feel singing these words. I’ll do every gesture and find a special colour to express the emotions. Everybody will listen to music but to understand the text of the music you have to try much harder and that’s what I do. I love to create situations and change them and this is the most exciting thing in the theatre rather that just coming and singing beautiful notes.
It’s the total experience.
Yes, it’s the total experience. At least for me. There are people who come to the opera, close their eyes and listen. I also respect those people. It was Tito Gobbi, one of my favourite singers, who had an ‘ugly’ voice really, not very big, but what an artist! What a singer! The same with Callas – ‘ugly’ voice but I was in love with that ugliness because it was so truthful, so direct, so straightforward. I want something that will move the hair on my body, which will move my brain, which will push me, provoke me to concentrate, to look and listen. That’s why I try to put those qualities in my singing as much as I can.
So just one last question, to tie up. Let’s talk about the future – you have Onegin coming up in Munich, Malatesta at the Liceu, and then back in Madrid for Nottingham, then Zurga at the Met. What else can we look forward to from you, longer term?
I have signed contracts for another more or less five years and there will be a few Don Carlos. I’m planning to do Guillaume Tell which is a new thing, in French. Nottingham, Pêcheurs and Guillaume Tell are the three new roles that I have planned for the next four or five years. Then, we’ve started to think about Macbeth because this is probably the most lyrical of the big Verdi roles. I think that in five, seven years when I’ll be fifty, I can try to sing Macbeth. We’ve already spoken with a couple of companies about it. We are starting to speak about Simone Boccanegra definitely in six or seven years. I would also really like to do Jago in a small opera house. I’m not saying that I’m going to be the Jago of the century but I’d like to try it, it’ll be interesting. I like to sing those characters who are bad or who are just at least going through some kind of process of transformation inside. My dream when I’m much older is Falstaff and this is such a fantastic role to play.
I was also asked to do some stage directing in Italy but I said ‘not yet’, my career is still very good and I’m singing a lot of things but eventually in ten years or so I’ll start to do it. I know so much about the operas that I’ve sung that there are some twelve or fifteen operas I really know very well.
With thanks to the Royal Opera House