Gracious, charming, highly intelligent and perceptive, Polish-born artist Piotr Beczała (dubbed “Piotr the Great” in San Francisco), first graced the San Diego Opera stage in his 2010 Bohème debut, triumphed these past weeks in Verdi’s A Masked Ball, and will complete his “March madness” with Verdi’s monumental Requiem. Acclaimed for both the beauty of his voice and for his ardent commitment to each character he portrays, he is also an avid golfer, and loves being here in San Diego.
EM: What a pleasure it has been to welcome you back to SDO. It is such an honor to hear you sing, to be here talking to you.
PB: It is my honor to be here with this company.
EM: I really appreciate your coming in on your day off.
PB: No problem. I have until four o’clock tee time. I mean tee time golf. It’s the last possibility, actually, we can play golf, because tomorrow we start already with the orchestra rehearsal for the Requiem and it’s done. When I am singing I try to avoid too much sun, too much wind. I’m not very delicate, but you know, I have to be careful. It’s too serious. At a time when I did some small roles I could do everything, but it’s a long, long time ago. Sometimes we are somewhere and we have a good company, nice colleagues. But I’m not really social in that case because I have to say, “No thank you, I can’t go with you.” Of course people understand but it’s a little bit sad.
EM: But there’s so much other happiness to replace it, all these wonderful roles you’re singing.
PB: And I’m happy with that.
EM: How has your experience been here this time?
PB: It has been so harmonious, such a fantastic group to work with. Everyone contributes to create a wonderful experience on stage. They are always there for me, whatever I need, with costume, or anything. I don’t even have to ask. At La Scala… you may have heard about that.
EM: Yes, of course. That must have been so unpleasant for you.
PB: Not only the audience reaction, but also the experience as a whole. It is so much different at La Scala, the attitude of the people working there, from the States. Here, everyone cooperates to create a beautiful opera. At La Scala, they are not feeling a part of the whole process, they are more interested each one in themselves. They look at their watches, waiting for the rehearsal to be over. It’s not about making music. But here in San Diego, the group all works together harmoniously.
EM: And we have the privilege and honor of hearing you.
PB: I have the privilege to sing these kinds of roles. Sometimes when I speak with my colleagues they are more in German directions, more Strauss operas. It’s not really for me. It will be not challenging or fun enough to sing a Kaiser in Frau Ohne Schatten for example, or Bacchus, though I hope to do Lohengrin someday. But those Strauss roles, in my opinion, don’t fill the evening as a tenor. It’s hard singing, but fifteen minutes actually. It’s not enough.
EM: Plus you don’t have the opportunity to expand into the role, the way you’re so brilliant at doing. Your voice is glorious, of course, but also you infuse your characters so beautifully.
PB: If it's so short, you can't develop in the operas. Well, of course, they like it, too, to do this kind of music.
EM: À chacun son goût. Do you speak French?
PB: No, just un petit peu. All my French is Werther, Faust, des Grieux and Roméo. That’s all. But it’s old French and I can’t use it (laughs). I’m such a long time in America now, three and a half months. I will be now in Paris for three and a half weeks, for Bohème. I hope to have possibility to practice a little bit.
EM: I’m curious about your early background. You were born in… How do you pronounce it?
PB: Czechowice-Dziedzice. The difference between “Cze”, “Dze,” it’s really difficult for people out of Poland.
EM: Well, I have it on tape now so I can practice. But I wanted to ask you about the origin of the name. Is the first part named Czechowice because of the proximity to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, or is that coincidental?
PB: A lot of villages or towns in Poland are split by the river, for example, like Buda and Pest in Hungary. We had also a river but it was not the reason for the double name; it was the old part of the town and the new one. Dziedzice was the name of the aristocrat who owned the land. Czechowice was the town, and it comes together, Czechowice and Dziedzice.
EM: That makes perfect sense, if only I could pronounce it. What was your second language after Polish?
PB: In those days when I was a child it had to be Russian. But actually I consider German my second language.
EM: When did you leave Czechowice-Dziedzice?
PB: I was going away to study in Katowice.
EM: Which is about how far?
PB: Fifty kilometers. But I was living in Katowice, I wasn’t traveling. I had an opportunity, I got a stipendium and it was possible to have a room in the college dormitory.
EM: How old were you then?
PB: I was nineteen, nineteen and a half. Almost twenty.
EM: So really grown up enough to be on your own.
PB: Yes. I started, it was late, because for an opera singer, a musician, to start to do something with music seriously at nineteen is actually too late, because if you don’t have a possibility as a child to play an instrument, to do something with music, to read the music… you have to understand the language of music. It was very difficult for me to explore this kind of territory. It is better to have an education, to start a study in Poland, to be an opera singer. To be violinist, you have to make all the steps: grammar school, Conservatory, middle school, and then the study. As a tenor, the exam was pretty complicated, because you have also theory and history of music. I had to learn it all in couple of months so I could do the exam. Also reading the notes, the music, and solfeggio, it was really horrible because it was completely new for me. I was already almost a year in a chorus and it was some approach of the music. But I had to read the music. I had to learn somehow how it worked. In effect when I started to be a student, though the exam was positive, I realized I was the only one who really has no background in music. Everybody has three years violin, five years piano, as a child, then it’s much easier to manage what we have to learn.
EM: And all you had was chorus.
PB: Yes. It was tough. Actually, I realize two things. First, I really don’t have to play piano as a tenor. It was a big music academy, every instrument, and we also had pianists, who had to make the exam in accompaniment. And I was so nice to be ready when they asked me, “Could you sing the five songs for me with the exam?” and I said, “No problem.” I did it, and that way I had the song repertory through the years. I realized, okay, so many fantastic pianists, in any moment of my singer’s life I will find somebody who plays for me, I don’t have to play myself. But it would be easier, of course, if I could play on some level.
EM: But the most important instrument for you is just that glorious voice. I’m sure it was recognized, even if you didn’t start until you were nineteen. With voice, you still have to be very careful not to start too early, to push too early.
PB: That’s true. Your body has to be adult to sing opera seriously. When I hear now people, fourteen or fifteen, because the parents are so excited, they’re thinking, “Maybe he has a voice.” Of course maybe he or she has a voice, but the wait is so long to be opera singer. Especially in America, the young people have two semesters in college of vocal training and they think they are already opera singers.
EM: Speaking of young singers, was there a tenor who inspired you when you first started out?
PB: Fritz Wunderlich. When I came to study in Weimar I first heard his recordings. Not only the voice but how he sang with it, so much with Nature, not artificial or against Nature. Other singers, like Fischer-Dieskau, Peter Schreier, were such great artists, but everything was so precise. With Wunderlich everything was so natural. But we lost him too soon. So sad. He never reached his potential, and we’ll never know what it might have been.
EM: How would you describe the influence of your voice teachers, Pavel Lisitsian and Sena Jurinac, when you started singing seriously?
PB: They both were tremendous to me. Lisitsian was one of the greatest singing teachers of all time. He taught Pavarotti. His teaching technique was not to show but to explain how to sing, to make it your own, because each voice is different, unique, with its own qualities. After that, Jurinac invited me to study with her. She of course had so many years singing opera on the stage. She guided me to Mozart, to start with Tamino, and with Don Ottavio, which is by far the most difficult to sing. Then I was invited to my first year at Salzburg. I had the opportunity to watch and listen to all the great tenors of the time: Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras, Alfredo Kraus, Araiza, all of them together. I learned so much of value at that time. After that I went to Linz for first major engagement and to Zurich, which is an international opera city. And I have been lucky to work with great conductors. Muti, Nello Santi. Santi taught me bel canto. And he knows so well how to sing Verdi, for example, the dotted rhythms. Verdi uses those as a guide for placing the voice, not just to be precise and staccato (sings).
EM: Since then your repertoire has included so many of the most popular romantic opera roles: Alfredo, Duca di Mantova, Riccardo, Werther, Faust, Roméo, Lensky, Tamino, Don Ottavio, the Italian Singer (Rosenkavalier). How would you compare those to the lesser-performed works you’ve sung in, such as Rusalka, Iolanta, The Bartered Bride, Beatrice di Tenda? Which do you feel most comfortable in?
PB: Werther, Faust, Roméo, des Grieux, these are the favorite roles for me, my “meat” for my voice. Of course I love the Verdi, but the French composers, Gounod, Massenet, they knew how to write for the voice, to show off its best qualities. The line just goes to the best range and knows how long to stay there. Nothing feels better for me. With Verdi, one thinks Traviata and Trovatore. I haven’t sung Trovatore yet, but it’s actually Traviata that’s heavier, deeper. Trovatore is a musician. He accompanies himself with his instrument (mimes playing, sings), much lighter than Traviata, except three and a half minutes “Di Quella Pirra” (sings). Next will come Aida and the later, heavier roles, and eventually maybe Otello. But that one is a long way off, even if I can do it.
EM: And Puccini?
PB: For Puccini, one has to sing differently. You can’t do Verdi and suddenly switch to Cavaradossi. You must prepare. It’s much heavier. A different kind of singing.
EM: Now that you’ve done des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon will you also sing des Grieux in Manon Lescaut? Is that also a different kind of singing from the Massenet?
PB: Totally different, but doable. And yes, I hope to sing it one day. But I canceled Hoffmann in Vienna. It is a role that doesn’t give opportunity for character development. There is no transformation. With each act, he goes further and further down. I spoke with Neil Shicoff about it. As much as he did the role, he said it was difficult to deal with the character. So I decided not to do it now. But I won’t replace it with another engagement. I will do some charity concerts instead.
EM: How did you feel about the contemporary Rigoletto at the Met?
PB: I loved it. Fantastic. I thought the “Rat Pack” production really worked. When (Director) Michael Mayers first told me about it, he said it would be very different from the traditional. But I love those guys, you know, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior. This “Las Vegas” Duke of Mantova is such a combination of all of their personalities. And it really worked.
EM: What about that translation?
PB: That was not so good. There are things going on when I am at the back of the stage, very serious things, with Rigoletto and Sparafucile. When I first heard the audience laugh I wondered why. Then I looked at the translation and understood that the language, the slang, was not appropriate for that moment. It was just too much. But I loved the concept of the production, and it was so much fun to do.
EM: Now, after your huge success with Ballo you have the Verdi Requiem. How would you compare performing this masterpiece with Verdi’s operas? Would you call it a religious experience?
PB: It is a great masterpiece, of course. What Verdi wrote was so much from his operas, parts of Aida, Otello and others. There is of course the quartet, but not so much individual voices as all contributing to the whole, and so beautifully written. Each voice integrates perfectly with the others. Verdi was not so much a religious or pious man. And the Requiem is not part of the Mass, not prayer or being in church. It is its own piece, much more intimate than opera, but one’s own intimacy shared with something outside of oneself - with a Supreme Being.
EM: What is coming up for you in performances and recordings?
PB: After Paris Bohème I go to Prague for Tauber Heart’s Delight, which I do also in Salzburg and Vienna, then Faust in Vienna.
EM: But first we are to witness you in the magnificent Verdi Requiem this week. And what a pleasure it has been to spend time with you. Every moment has been precious. Thank you so much.
PB: Thank you.
Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at [email protected]