An Interview with Ewa Podles
By Joel Kasow
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
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?
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
Did you always have that special voice, and
also the coloratura technique?
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.
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
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
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?
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
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
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
JM: And he really
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:
et Eurydice (Forlane)
Songs by Tchaikowsky,
Moussorgsky and Rachmaninoff, with Graham Johnson (Forlane)
To be released soon:
aux enfers (EMI)