World-renowned opera singer Ewa Podleś has been called a “true contralto” for the unique timbre, range and agility of her voice – a rarity on the opera stage these days. Her repertoire has ranged from the bel canto to the dramatic and comedic. The Polish-born performer was last heard at San Diego Opera in 2006 in the title role of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. This season she turns the tables at SDO to sing the comedic role of the Duchess of Birkenfeld in Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment.
Thanks to Media Relations Director Ed Wilensky, I had the good fortune to meet Ms. Podleś for the first time in a rare moment away from her duties. Her colorful, dynamic personality and charming Polish accent made for a truly entertaining chat that left me eager to see her perform on stage.
EP: First thing I have to tell you, I hate interviews (laughs). And my English is not so…
EM: Your English is remarkable, Ms. Podleś. Please tell me a bit about your background.
EP: In Poland, I grew up also speaking Russian. It was very useful in opera.
EM: How about Romance languages? Do you feel comfortable in them?
EP: I learned French when I moved to Paris twenty years ago. Things were bad in Poland then. My agent suggested coming to Paris, so we moved there. I didn’t speak a word of French. I took an intensive course, five hours per day, five days a week. Now I speak it fluently.
EM: Très bien. How long did you stay in Paris?
EP: After three years we returned to Poland. My agent had died, a very emotional experience for me, very sad. By then things had changed for the better in Poland, so we moved back.
EM: With your background in French, are you happy to be singing the Marquise de Birkenfeld in the San Diego Opera production of La Fille du Régiment?
EP: Oh yes, I’m glad to sing the role. I sang it at La Scala and Houston. It’s relatively short, less to sing, less tiring, but impressive. I would never accept a “secondary” role. I feel this role is crucial dramatically. The Marquise is easy to sing but not easy to play. She is multi-faceted, the most interesting character in the opera. I want to show the many faces of her personality, explore all the dramatic possibilities of playing her. I will make her character as important, as pivotal as it should be.
EM: Would you expand on dramatic importance? What makes her the most interesting character in the story?
EP: The role is one that can’t be cut like other secondary roles. The Marquise is a strong character, with a strong temperament, yet very touching. She opens the story, closes the story, and creates the intrigue. Her own history, starting from her youth, drives the plot. She decides what will happen in the future and creates the ending with her decisions.
EM: She has quite a transformational arc.
EP: Yes. And she is very complex, has many conflicting sides. She cares much about wealth, titles. She likes men. But she is not a happy woman because of the choices she has made. She has the courage to marry Robert, an ordinary military captain not from her own wealthy background, but has second thoughts and cannot find the courage to raise their child. She is ashamed to reveal the child is hers and so becomes the “aunt.” Yet she is an honest woman, who simply doesn’t want Marie to make the same mistakes as she has done. In the end she’s not afraid to tell the truth, and creates a happy ending by allowing Marie to be happy. And she becomes fond of Sulpice. But she knows Robert will always be her one and only love.
EM: Her character is indeed multi-layered. I’ve heard that you’re attracted to strong, complex characters, like Tosca, for instance.
EP: Ah, Tosca! You know, I was really born on stage. As a child in Poland I started when I was three years old, as the child in Madama Butterfly. My mother was in the opera chorus. Then I sang in the children’s chorus. I had only one recording, which was Tosca, with Callas and Di Stefano. I listened to it ten times a day, learned all the roles by heart. I loved that she was a strong woman. Such an incredible character. I would love to sing the role, but it’s impossible for my voice.
EM: I was playing violin in the Met Opera when you made your debut in Rinaldo in 1984. It was certainly a memorable experience for me. How do you remember it?
EP: A huge challenge. I was very young, I never had experience performing in Europe like other young singers. I just sang for (Music Director) James Levine and he offered me a contract. But I was unknown and came to the States, very afraid, with no English. Everything was new about Rinaldo. I never sang Baroque opera before. And no stage rehearsals!
EM: That must have been difficult, to make your Met debut in such circumstances, in a production mounted for Marilyn Horne.
EP: At my debut performance, two minutes before I went on stage, Director Frank Corsaro, who never even spoke to me in piano rehearsals, said, “Remember, you are a woman. Don’t try to be a man.” He completely destroyed my focus, my confidence, the strong character I had developed – everything I had built up for my performance. It was devastating.
EM: How did you handle that?
EP: I didn’t know what to do. I had lost my entire concept of the character’s personality. It was not the debut I would have wished. By the second performance, I was back to myself, and I was happy with it.
EM: What are your favorite roles? Which haven’t you sung yet that you would like to do?
EP: I have already sung what I want to sing. I had done pants roles, coloratura, all my life. Enough. I wanted to discover different repertoire. My voice is darker now, deeper. My favorites are the most dramatic, “mature” roles, where text and atmosphere are most important: Ulrica, La Cieca, Countess in Pique Dame. I would prefer those to my former, “fresh,” showy “fireworks” roles. Clytemnestra, that is my role. Every word opens up a new world for me.
EM: What advice would you have for young singers?
EP: Weigh your decision whether to accept a role. Don’t feel pressured to give an answer in five minutes. Don’t push yourself to accept roles that are too heavy. Careers are destroyed from that. I always had to see the music first before making a decision on a role. A voice takes time to develop but can be destroyed easily in little time. And try never to cancel!
(Ed Wilensky peeks in the door.)
EP: But is it time already? I could sit with her and talk another two hours!
EM: As could I, Ms. Podleś. It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for your time. Bonne chance with La Fille.