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An Interview with Ewa Podles

By Joel Kasow

LYON, France. 3 August 1998 - The fascinating Ewa Podles, with her sudden appearances and disappearances, recordings on the mysterious Forlane label that are not always available, two sovereign Rossini recordings for Naxos and some recent work with Marc Minkowski in a wide variety of works, was briefly in Lyons last December to record the role of L'Opinion Publique in Orphée aux enfers, alongside Natalie Dessay, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, and Laurent Naouri, all under the baton of Minkowski.. Her unusual contralto voice, solid over a three octave range, may not be to everyone's taste, but I am subjugated by her facility, flexibility and timbre. For this recording, she replaces a colorless mezzo and the audience attending the recording sessions (to lend ambiance) is more than delighted.

Ewa Podles

OperaNet: It was, I believe, in 1982 that you began to appear outside your native Poland, on the international circuit, the Metropolitan Opera, Paris, Italy and then things quieted down. How do you explain this?

Ewa Podles: Nothing particular. People don't know my type of voice, a true contralto. At the start of my career, people called me a mezzo-soprano, but I am not a mezzo like other mezzos, I am a contralto. The first prize I won was for "Rare Voices". And a true contralto is almost unknown in the 20th century. You must have a range of more than three octaves, high notes like a soprano, low notes like a real alto, as well as the technique to sing coloratura. And if I sing with three voices, it's because it is impossible to sing over three octaves with the same voice - you can't sing a high C the same way you sing the low C three octaves down. The important people who decide don't know the kind of voice I have. What can we offer Mme. Podles? Rosina, perhaps, Dalila, not sure because the voice is so masculine. I often hear that my chest notes are too forced, too heavy, too coarse, but that's the voice I was born with, grâce à Dieu. I can't sing differently, it's me. I once spoke to Cecilia Bartoli, who told me that Decca was pushing her to record all the Rossini operas, not only Rosina and Cenerentola where she is excellent, but Malcolm [in Donna del Lago] or Italiana in Algeri. But the people who run things in this profession, in this business [in English], don't know a thing. They have money, they have influence, they can make a new star in a week. It's strange. Me, I can sing all those roles. My voice comes from my mother, who is also a true contralto, but in her day she didn't have the opportunity to have a big international career; she sang in Poland, but because of her baritone-like voice she sang in the chorus, but she also sang Rosina as she had the high notes. She always had a problem, even when she recorded for the radio, because when her name, Juliana, was announced, there were listeners who thought that a mistake had been made and they were hearing Julian. And my teachers had a problem because they too did not know much about the contralto voice.

Operanet: Did you always have that special voice, and also the coloratura technique?

EP: Yes. I was born with it. At the start, my voice was lighter, but after the birth of my daughter, my voice began to darken, to grow. I couldn't sing Eboli in my early years, but now I can. I'm going to sing Ulrica [Un Ballo in Maschera] in two months in Madrid. She's a strong character, a witch, like La Haine [in Gluck's Armide]. I like strong characters. I don't really like Rosina or Cenerentola.

Operanet: Is this the first time you will be singing Verdi.

EP: No, I've already sung the Requiem, Oberto once in concert, even the arias of Eboli in concert. It could be dangerous, and I'm a little bit afraid because I don't want to lose any of the flexibility. Of course, it's not possible to sing, for example, Eboli and Italiana in Algeri in alternation. Callas did that sort of thing when she was young, and she paid the price. But there is a sharp division of opinion about my voice: people either love it or hate it.

Operanet: When it comes to recording, I think the record companies prefer singers with small voices.

EP: Of course, you can add volume, color, you can turn Bartoli into Brunnhilde. People are pushed, which can be dangerous for the artist, because expectations become so high that no one can meet them.

Operanet: Do you find now that you are more intellectually aware of what you are doing rather than just singing?

EP: You must work your entire life, until the end. My voice is special. I don't have any particular problems with things that are extremely difficult, but sometimes I have problems with the simplest things. For example, Mahler's Third Symphony, where you start out with "O Mensch", and I didn't know how to begin. After all that difficult music I sing, I spent one impossible week, singing just those two words "O Mensch" at least a thousand times a day, just to find the right color, to stabilize the voice, because at the start it was all over the place I was so afraid. People must wonder why all this about "O Mensch".

Operanet: You're not the only one. I once heard Jard van Nes commenting on exactly the same problem. And then you have to sit on stage for about an hour before you even get to open your mouth.

EP: But "O Röschen rot" from the Second Symphony is also difficult.

Operanet: What sorts of roles did you sing when you started out?

EP: Rosina, Cenerentola, and even Carmen at the start, and lots of Russian operas. But in fact my career started outside of Poland. I sing in Poland because I was born in Warsaw, I live there, and I was engaged by the Opera as soon as I finished my studies to sing Rosina.

Operanet: And what about singing some of the Russian operas at this stage of your career? Marina or Marfa, for example?

EP:Of course. I've already sung Marina and Konchakovna in Paris, to great acclaim, with the Warsaw Opera on tour. I'm ready to sing anything that lies within my capacities. Someone must offer me a role, invite me, send me a contract. When something like that arrives, I look at the score when it's a work I don't know, like Rinaldo at the Met. But that was too soon for me. It was almost the first thing I did after school, and for all singers the Met should signal the moment you've "arrived". I did my best, but it wasn't great. It was too early, I was not prepared, I lacked experience, I was timid.

Operanet: And now you work with Marc Minkowski who evidently finds something in your voice. You've sung La Haine in Gluck's Armide, Polinesso in Ariodante...

EP: We had fantastic reviews after the performance in Amsterdam, with Anne Sofie von Otter who is truly a great artist. She sings so well, she is really fantastic, and I was really happy to sing with her. The role of Ariodante was written for her.

Operanet: But it's also a role that you could sing.

EP: Yes, of course, but her voice is higher.

Operanet: And the work is magnificent.

Jerzy Marchwinski (the husband of Ewa Podles, who is also present): If it is conducted by someone like Minkowski.

EP: He breathes life into each piece he touches. He wanted to do Semiramide with me, which would be good.

Operanet: Is singing Handel the same for you as singing Rossini, or different?

EP: It's not so different. But I prefer Rossini, because it's more bel canto. But with Minkowski, it's as if you were singing music written today. The characters are flesh and blood, he's not dogmatic in his approach. Sometimes I think he must have slept with Handel because he knows the music inside out. He doesn't think about it, he just plays it and it lives. The music is alive with him, because once I did it in Paris with Mackerras and it was a disaster. He killed Rinaldo, and I know that when I sang it in New York it was a standing ovation, and in Paris it was nothing. No cadenzas, no variations, nothing. You can't do this, you mustn't do that, it wasn't a good experience.

Operanet:Why do we see so little of you here in France, other than last year when you sang several concerts with Minkowski?

EP: I lost my agent a few years ago, and since his death it's been quiet. I lost not only a friend, but someone who loved me. Bernard Grégoire was like a brother to me. He found me and he started with me, the two of us together.

JM: And he was a Frenchman who studied at Berkeley, which made for an extraordinary mélange of European culture and American efficacity.

Operanet: And a new agent?

EP: It's not easy. You can be on someone's list with 40 or 50 other artists, but it's not the same as having someone working for you personally. We found someone in New York, Matthew Sprizzo, who used to work for Harold Shaw.

JM: And he really loves her.

EP:I had an agent in America for five years and didn't sing a single concert there in all that time. Since Matthew is there, I sing all the time, 15 recitals in a few months' time.

Operanet: How often do you sing during a year?

EP:I never have a day off. I sing a great deal, really. Everywhere. I am going to record an anthology of Polish song for Polygram: Chopin, Moniuszko, Szymanowski, Lutoslawski and Karlowicz, with Ewa Poblocka, a laureate of the Chopin Competition. Today I spoke with Forlane about a recording of the 17 Chopin songs as part of their Chopin project with Ahmed Rachman el Bacha. We also spoke about recording Des Knaben Wunderhorn with José van Dam and Georges Prêtre conducting the Sudwestfunkorchester.

And that's the end of our interview as it is back to the recording session.

A select discography of Ewa Podles:

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice (Forlane)

Handel: Ariodante (Archiv)

Rossini: Arias (Naxos)

Rossini: Tancredi (Naxos)

Songs by Tchaikowsky, Moussorgsky and Rachmaninoff, with Graham Johnson (Forlane)

Baroque arias (Forlane)

To be released soon:

Gluck: Armide (Archiv)

Offenbach: Orphée aux enfers (EMI)

[email to Joel Kasow | Back to Operanet]

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