Academic journal article Indiana Slavic Studies

Crossing Borders and Octaves: The Polish Diva with a (Di)staff Difference *

Academic journal article Indiana Slavic Studies

Crossing Borders and Octaves: The Polish Diva with a (Di)staff Difference *

Article excerpt

"It's nice not to be a prima donna." Janet Baker (British mezzo-soprano)

"Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore ..." Giacomo Puccini, Tosca

"She's a connoisseur's secret on this side of the Atlantic. She [Podles] should be a household name." The Wall Street journal

The Polish Powerhouse

During the last decade opera aficionados in the West finally have registered the magic of a "once in a lifetime" Polish contralto, the incomparable Ewa Podles (born April 26, 1952), whose sheer vocal power and extraordinary versatility unfailingly evoke responses of enraptured hyperbole among critics: "phenomenal," "remarkable," "riveting," "an epiphanic experience" (Anson); "magnificent abilities," "staggering range and power," "formidable musical imagination" (Cal Performances); "magisterial command, "ravishing singing" (Burwasser); "unique, preternatural powers," "fascinating" (Dobrin); "sovereign" (Kasow); "spectacular," "sensational," "a phenomenon" (So); "magnificent," "astounding," "uniquely gifted" (Shengold); "brilliant," "marvelous," "amazing range and flexibility" (Citron); "electrifying," "the thrilling vocal/focal point of the production" (Hulcoop); (1) and the like. A two-time Grammy nominee and the recipient of such awards as the coveted Grande Prix de L'Academie Francaise du Disque (for her recording of Russian songs) and the Preis der Deutschen Schallplatten Kritik (for her all-Rossini disc), Podles commands a stunning three-octave-plus range, a rare interpretive intelligence, and the capacity to sing lieder and operatic roles that span a dazzling stylistic spectrum. To hear her in the Baroque coloratura repertory that constitutes her calling card is to reconceive the nature of modern operatic vocalism and its potentially transformative affect (see fig. 3-1 following page 92).

Virtually born into opera, Podles made her silent debut at the age of three, as Madama Butterfly's child (Myers), and her fully-voiced adult debut in 1975 as Rosina in a Warsaw version of Rossini s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. After stints in Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, and Toulouse, in the early 1980s Podles embarked on a series of engagements throughout Europe, capped by her successful North American introduction at the Met (1984) in the title role of Handel's Rinaldo as a replacement for Marilyn Horne (see fig. 3-2 following page 92). (2) Thereafter, however, she unexpectedly vanished from the stage' until a Warsaw production of Prince Igor in 1990 and, the following year, Covent Gardens staging of Rossini s Guillaume/William Tell. (4) During the last decade, her career finally took flight; American audiences increasingly flocked to delectate her musico-dramatic pyrotechnics not only at the Met, but also in concert at various university campuses and performance halls in New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere.

After a quarter-century of international vocalizing, Podles cannot help but be aware that "her position in the musical world is only now expanding to find consistency with her magnificent abilities" (Cal Performances). Astute and unburdened by illusions about the primacy of capital and advertising in the media-heavy process of masterminding a famous persona, Podles has faulted operatic entrepreneurs for a musical ignorance that ill-serves her particular gifts. "They have money, they have influence, they can make a new star in a week," she points out, yet they have little inkling of a contralto's uncommon, sensational capacities (Kasow). In short, unlike traditional sopranos, such as Kathleen Battle, Angela Gheorghiu, (5) and Anna Netrebko, or the mezzo Cecilia Bartoli, (6) Podles has not impressed power moguls as ideal material for major promotional campaigns.

Apart from spellbinding listeners with her vocal prowess and the expressiveness of her execution even in the appreciably more circumscribed genre of recitals, Podles functions as Poland's unofficial cultural ambassador, (re)introducing international audiences to rarely performed music of such Eastern European composers as Moniuszko, Szymanowski, Lutoslawski, Karlowicz, Penderecki, and Musorgsky. …

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