Polish singers-brilliant strategy for American opera

Autor: Eva Orlowska

Photo: Roman Budzianowski
Top: Janice and Allen Jaworski, Karolina Kulemba, Joseph Beutel. Bottom: Tomasz Łysak, Tiffany Grobelski, Krystyna Untersteiner , Aleksandra Kurzak,  Shoshanna Budzianowski and Krzysztof Poraj-Kuczewski,  Seattle, October 17, 2010

In a slow economy, the US opera companies are grasping for new business models. Some cut cost and innovate but the leading opera houses choose to hire the world’s best performers. Recently, the best have come from Poland where opera is booming.

US have over 140 opera companies, more than Germany and nearly twice as many as Italy. Over the last two decades, the number of people at live opera performances has doubled. Yet, the total funding remains lower than in Germany and other European nations where companies receive massive state subsidies. With the recent economic downturn, the competition has been tough. Still, the leading Polish voices, Piotr Beczała, Mariusz Kwiecień, Ewa Podleś, Aleksandra Kurzak, Andrzej Dobber and Małgorzata Walewska continue to sweep top roles in major US opera markets-New York, Seattle, Chicago, Washington, Baltimore, San Francisco or Houston. All have performed at the Met, the world’s largest and most demanding stage.

Zbigniew Bochniarz, Bridget Swirski, Wanda Cieślar-Pawluśkiewicz, Mariusz Kwiecień, Krzysztof Poraj-Kuczewski, Piotr Pawluśkiewicz, Ewa Poraj-Kuczewska, Seattle, May 11, 2008

Internationally accomplished soprano, media consultant and voice professor at the University of California Los Angeles, Juliana Gondek says that opera companies must innovate to boost their bottom line. “The Met generates additional revenue with TV, radio and HD movie theater broadcasts. San Jose attracts major donors with rent-free resident Young Artist Program. Some companies slash the number of performances, reduce ticket prices and reach out to younger, wider and niche audiences. But companies that are most successful in challenging times manage to attract and stage the world’s top talent,” says UCLA professor.

Ms. Gondek, of Polish decent, who in 2004 won the Fryderyk Prize (Polish Grammy) for “The Complete Songs of Karol Szymanowski” has noticed the recent trend of brilliant voices streaming out of Poland. She believes that once the Iron Curtain fell, new talent emerged. And the increased competition of a larger pool produced the best.

“I don’t know why there’s so many marvelous performers from Poland but I’ve been very fortunate,” says Speight Jenkins, Seattle Opera General Director. “Unlike other opera houses that hire from Eastern Europe based on economic considerations, I seek the best and pay top rates for top talent. It wasn’t easy because the Polish stars are established internationally and in high demand. I did not get them cheap. I can’t be more pro-Polish than I am,” he says laughing. “I know that they need to appear in New York, Vienna, Paris and Milan for their careers, but I try to create a comfortable and open atmosphere so they come to Seattle.”

After the stunning reviews of Aleksandra Kurzak’s Seattle debut as Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor last Saturday, Mr. Jenkins eagerly awaits Małgorzata Walewska return as Dulcinea in Don Quixote in 2011. Then, he looks forward to Agnes Zwierko’s debut as Eboli in Don Carlos in 2013.

Grzegorz Boniecki, director at the Warsaw Chamber Opera, believes that as Poland catches up with the rest of Europe, it becomes a major destination for opera lovers. “We are giving artists outstanding opportunity to develop,” says Mr. Boniecki. “Poland’s long tradition of public education for the arts and the remarkable voice teachers, like Jolanta Żmurko, Aleksandra Kurzak’s coach and mother, are the reason why so many Polish artists are achieving this unprecedented success.”

The Warsaw Chamber Opera is gaining wide international recognition for its innovations like the Baroque Opera Festival or the Annual Mozart Festival, the only event in the world with Mozart’s complete operatic output (26 productions). This wonderful small company alone produced 125 performances to commemorate 400 years of opera in the world (2001) and An Ode to Europe, a festival of festivals, representing music from 25 countries of the European Union (2005). This all is in addition to the rich repertoire at the Polish National Opera in the Grand Theater just a few streets down. Opera is booming in Poland.

Aleksandra Kurzak’s manager Bogdan Waszkiewicz is thrilled with the Polish stars’ growing fan clubs such as the University of Washington Polish Studies Endowment Committee in Seattle. “It is good for American opera business but the drawback is that it is hard to book them in Poland now,” he says. Mr. Waszkiewicz wanted to proudly break the news in Nowy Dziennik that Aleksandra Kurzak will be the star performer in this year’s New Year’s Eve Celebration Concert at the Grand Theater in Warsaw.

When asked what she wanted to share with the Nowy Dziennik readers, Ms. Kurzak says: “I want the world to know that I owe my career to my mother, Jolanta Żmurko, my closest friend, voice teacher, brilliant soprano and an amazing inspiration.”

Malgorzata Walewska, Ewa Poraj-Kuczewska, prof. Zbigniew Bochniarz, Seattle, March 1, 2009