Opera: The cognitive tool

An illuminating chat with famed Polish opera director Michal Znaniecki, who recently directed ‘A Masked Ball,’ his sixth opera in Israel.

FESTIVAL OPERA Tigre, recital Ewa Biegas. (photo credit: PABLO A. VARELA)
FESTIVAL OPERA Tigre, recital Ewa Biegas.
(photo credit: PABLO A. VARELA)
Michal Znaniecki – the famous Polish opera director, citizen of the world and a big friend of the Israeli Opera – met with Basia Monka in Tel Aviv during his latest Israeli premiere, Verdi’s A Masked Ball. In Znaniecki’s view, this opera reflects current political situations in many countries.
In the exclusive interview with The Magazine, Znaniecki shares why and how his debut at age 24 at La Scala opera house in Milan, Italy, changed his professional path; the story of his last 10 years of collaboration with The Israeli Opera; his experiences on Opera at Masada; and at the Festival Opera Tigre that he created in Argentina. He is not a stranger to challenges, and loves challenging the audience, as well. In his 25-year career he has worked all over the world with the biggest stars of opera.
We are meeting at the Israeli Opera, during your premiere of Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) by Giuseppe Verdi, sitting backstage and hearing the music.
This is the sixth opera directed by you in Israel, including this opera for the second time. How is it to be back with A Masked Ball in Tel Aviv?
A Masked Ball by Verdi, next to Samson and Delilah [by Camille Saint-Seans], is the most often performed opera by me. In my 25-year career, this is the 11th time I am directing A Masked Ball – each time differently, each time focusing on different topics and different priorities. In 2014, we produced A Masked Ball especially for The Israeli Opera, as the original opera performance in Tel Aviv, not brought ready and rented from another opera house.
How did it occur that you were invited to this project?
I came to Tel Aviv first with [Verdi’s] Ernani. It was an international co-production. The Spanish premiere was in 2009, here in 2011. There were no big chances to stay here as director, to be recognized as an Israeli director, because I am not Israeli and I am not Jewish. Everyone was saying it will be a single guest visit. But it turned out differently. I fell in love with Tel Aviv, with Tel Aviv opera, and I think, Tel Aviv with me. It was a mutual chemistry between me and the Tel Aviv audience and the theater’s management.
That was the turning point. I started to be invited here every year, and we decided to produce the Masked Ball, by the Israeli Opera. As a result of that, I did La traviata and Carmina Burana at the Masada Opera Festival – the great festival that in only two years became a recognizable brand in the opera world. This festival was a phenomenon and a great success. In 2016, I came back to Tel Aviv with Il trovatere by Verdi, and again it was very well received by the audience.
What do you think is specific about the Israeli opera audience?
Opera in Israel is more casual. People come to the opera house dressed casually, unlike other places in the world where people dress up. So I see it as not so elitist. Theater rooms are full. And there is, of course, a big Jewish Russian public and artists who created the opera, ballet and theater scene here.
Why did you come back with Masked Ball now, for the second time?
The political changes in Europe are going so fast, we thought we should warn people, talk about the dictatorship and manipulation. The opera can be a great instrument to talk about that. Usually, working on A Masked Ball, the romantic part of it, love is being emphasized. When we were in the rehearsals in 2014, members of the cast and crew were waiting for the results of the election in Israel. The right wing won. That was all they were talking about. I though, so we should follow that theme on the stage. Why in this opera is Gubernator, the man in love, so hated?
Working on it this year, I came to the first rehearsal in January, at which I heard the news about the assassination of Adamowicz [Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz, stabbed to death on January 13, 2019, during the finale of the biggest charity event in Poland]. It was horrifying that the “ball” was on, the murderer had a microphone in his hand, just like in this Verdi opera, and was still talking. That was shocking. I understood again why I am doing opera. And that it is not true that opera is ending. Opera is about us all the time, it is still relevant.

FAMED POLISH opera director Michal Znaniecki acknowledges ovations after final show of European Capital of Culture Wroclaw 2016. (Credit: TERESA GROTOWSKA)FAMED POLISH opera director Michal Znaniecki acknowledges ovations after final show of European Capital of Culture Wroclaw 2016. (Credit: TERESA GROTOWSKA)

It was devastating. And really, the resemblance between the Gdansk tragedy and Verdi’s Masked Ball finale is stunning. Why as a director did you chose the opera over the theater in the first place? You studied to be a theater director.
I think the opera has chosen me. After a year of theater studies in Warsaw, I took a break and I moved to Italy to study semiotics, at Umberto Ecco in Bolonia. Later I moved to the Piccolo Teatro of Milano, The Strehler Theater School, where I studied direction. As a student and an immigrant with no money, I worked at La Scala as an usher. That let me stay for rehearsals and listen to the best opera voices, including Luciano Pavarotti.
For my diploma, I directed a play, The Emigrants, by Slawomir Mrozek. And as the second diploma I decided to do an opera, thinking of it as an experiment. I did not think it would be my future. I joined the forces of the music school of La Scala and The Strehler Theater School. And got lucky! In the library of the Milano Conservatory, I found the third act of La bella molinera by Giovanni Paisiello. Until that time, this opera was shown only in two acts, so all the great directors, conductors and opera agents came to my debut at La Scala . They came to see the third lost act of Paisiello. The next day I had an agent, an offer from La Scala, to work on Monteverdi, and big singers wanted me to direct their concerts. I had luck.
Luck and talent! They liked your diploma. You were only 24 years old. Since then, you have worked with many famous opera singers. In 2008 in Valencia, Spain, you worked on Cyrano de Bergerac by Franco Alfano, with my personal favorite tenor, Placido Domingo. What kind of experience was that?
Working with Placido was very interesting and stimulating. He wanted to meet me before the project began. So I flew to New York, he invited me to the Metropolitan Opera to his other operas, and after that over dinner we were discussing scenes, how I was going to construct them. Usually, big stars, due to their other engagements, come to rehearsals in the last moment. Placido came to the new production already knowing a lot about it.
THE FAIRY Queen, European Capital of Culture Wroclaw 2016. (Credit: TERESA GROTOWSKA)THE FAIRY Queen, European Capital of Culture Wroclaw 2016. (Credit: TERESA GROTOWSKA)
Using the theater terminology, you had the stage reading rehearsals with him already.
Yes, but still he could not fit in the right way. For example, Placido wanted to clink his beer glass with a member of the choir, but the man could not move, was frozen. It was all very precisely constructed act, as not realistic. After the rehearsal, Placido called me, asking to meet with the pianist at 2 a.m. He flew to us from Hong Kong and had jet leg. He took off his shoes, and barefoot, walked scene-by-scene on the stage, “to feel the stage, the wood.” He had to understand why he is there, why he is saying something.
So in this case, using the film vocabulary, he was positioning the camera?
Exactly, he was. And our Cirano was filmed later on, and is still on Mezzo [Live TV]. Working with Placido was a great joy, watching him, how he was involved, excited and very open.
I worked with many stars or stars-to-be. Anna Caterina Antonacci, Jose Cura, Sonya Yoncheva, Ermonela Jaho, Luca Salsi or Polish singers Aleksandra Kurzak, Artur Rucinski, Piotr Beczala, and many others. With each of them, the work is different. But it is amazing how in such a short time we could build the sense of understanding, and sometimes chemistry. Soon I will be working for the first time with the Malgorzata Walewska in Candide [by Leonard Bernstein] at the Krakow Opera.
Did you listen to the opera as a child?
Yes. My mother, Wanda Koczewska, was an actress. There was no one to look after me in the evenings, so she used to drop me off on the way to work at different theaters, including the opera. I saw many operas, often in parts, so I was never bored at the opera. When not in theaters, I would spend my childhood in the editing room at the television station were my father worked.
Do you think that this influenced the way you work on opera today? That you are able to see and show the same operas in different ways?
For sure. I also know that an audience can be bored at the opera, so I do everything to avoid it. I know that the older audience who is in love with Wagner, like me with Monteverdi, can listen to it for seven hours and be happy. But the younger public gets bored. I was raised on video clips of the 1980s and I need that kind of editing.
I also studied the psychology of art and I know that the limit of concentration is 17 minutes. So my aim is to ‘edit’ an opera every 17 minutes – there must be a switch, explosion, a change of frame.
‘LA TRAVIATA,’ rehearsal on Masada. (Credit: LUIGI SCOGLIO)‘LA TRAVIATA,’ rehearsal on Masada. (Credit: LUIGI SCOGLIO)

When we met few years ago, you told me that you get bored fast, so you must work on a few things at the same time.
My concentration lasts 21 minutes.
Four more minutes than the audience?
Indeed. When I prepare operas for the next season, I have minimum of 10 of them. So to learn them, I study each of them half an hour a day, concentrating on a scene.
What is it like to learn an opera scene?
You have to analyze the libretto, but first the music, because there is such emotion. Each day I find one solution – a scene, a gesture, or a nature of a character or a key for the interpretation. Between rehearsals of A Masked Ball, I was preparing for my projects of 2020, for example Turandot, because the operas for 2019 I had already learned and prepared a year ago.
You have directed open-air mega-opera productions in a stadium in Wroclaw, Poland; La traviata and Carmina Burana at Masada, and for last six years you were the artistic director and founder of the Tigre Water Festival on the island of Kaiola Blue in Argentina. Why there?
Working on Masada, I spent months in the desert during the preparations, before rehearsals, measuring, bringing lights with camels, working on lighting at nights, because for obvious reasons you cannot work on it during the day. We lived the desert life with scorpions and other animals. We had our friend, the desert fox, who was coming every night, looking at lights and nodding his little head.
Did it feel like being on the moon?
Yes, it was a complete switch from the outside world. When we would come back to the hotel at 5 a.m. each morning, we played Jason Derulo at full volume, as though we were coming from a club, just to wake up. While working on Masada, that dryness, an island appeared next to Buenos Aries. I said, “After the desert, let’s do an opera on the water,” not building the set but using it. This is the year of Moniuszko, we are doing The Raftsman by him. We move between the islands on special rafts and floating platforms. Our audience, growing each year, must also get there by kayaks, boats and yachts. It was similar in the case of Masada. It doesn’t matter what opera we are showing, it is more about the experience.
So are you mobilizing people to culture?
Yes, it is harder, but it means they really want to participate, not just to watch. A different perception.
A participating perception?
Exactly. I do the same in Poland, Spain or Italy when I am working on social projects, including the excluded social groups – children from orphanages, prisoners, or seniors over 80 years old. For a year, we prepare people who have never before been to a theater, to be in a choir, on the best world stages with professional artists. People in wheelchairs, or paralyzed people must meet the challenge. Because I tell them, “People pay for the tickets, so please don’t tell me you have Alzheimer’s, but learn the lines of Shakespeare.” And they learn.
Do your ideas come to you in dreams?
No [smiles], I am very rational in my professional choices. Opera is a material I work on. An opera is my cognitive tool. I am not a music lover.
That sounds funny said by an opera director. I don’t believe you in this.
That saves me. I always maintain distance from what I do. If I was in love with what I am doing, it would be very hard to work on that material, to analyze it, to see it from outside, to build something on that. But of course, in every opera there is a moment when I cry. In some aria or another.
When do you cry in A Masked Ball?
Right now, at the cemetery [as we talk, we hear live music from the speaker], when Amelia – a woman, who in the times of A Masked Ball, was devoid of a man’s attribute of courage – enters the cemetery where she must collect flowers growing over dead bodies. I love contrasts in opera.
What was the last movie you saw at the cinema?
Spider-Man: Far From Home, the last animated version, I saw in 4D. It’s fantastic. Each scene was so well done that every second of this film has special value!

In which opera will we see parts of Spider-man?

I think soon, in Gianni Schicchi, by Puccini, at The Opera House at the Castle in Szczecin, Poland. I like to quote pop culture a lot.