There is one expression that best defines Polish contralto Ewa Podles: she is a legend. This is the way critics and audience often refer to her, showing admiration and affection for this singer who manages to conquer people's hearts all over the world despite her elusiveness. Her appearances in the major opera houses are rare, and so are her recordings. But Podles' expressiveness and nobility in her performance are phenomenal. Her three-octave range is not the only characteristic that makes her unique: Podles has a masculine and intense voice that can mutate into an agile and bright instrument. Anne Midgette from the The Washington Post once defined her as 'an old-fashioned singer, in the best sense'.
On 20 December she will be in London in a recital at the Wigmore Hall, with her long-term collaborator and celebrated pianist Garrick Ohlsson. This will be a rare occasion for the London audience, as Podles' appearances in the UK are not frequent – but always hugely successful. Busy with tours in the US, she has just finished a successful run of Il trittico at the San Francisco Opera, featuring in a prestigious cast with Paolo Gavanelli and Patricia Racette. Podles portrays the severe Principessa in Suor Angelica, the second and perhaps most emotionally dense opera within Puccini's work.
I caught up with her before her final performance of Il trittico and prior to leaving for Boston to perform in Tancredi. Podles has a special relationship with the American audience: 'I'm always very happy to work in the US. I love it: everything is perfect, organized, we don't waste time. Sometimes, in Europe they call you a few hours before the performance and they say: "Oh, we're sorry, we have to postpone the rehearsal". Here in the US it's fantastic, everyone is very professional. It's just a pleasure, especially because in our job we are in a state of permanent stress. It's not easy to be a singer – we are slaves! It's so important that colleagues you work with are people you like'.
Podles' appearance in San Francisco was a double-debut: both at the Opera, and in Il trittico. What hasn't been new is her collaboration with the conductor, Patrick Summers, Music Director at the Houston Grand Opera: 'I know Patrick because I have already worked with him in Houston. We met for the second time here. And I also met the new director Nicola Luisotti; and met again the General Director David Gockley. We've been working together for a long time, and I'm very happy he invited me! I always repeat: better late than never!'.
Podles is aware that she has a lot to give to her audiences. In her second appearance at the Met in La Gioconda, in 2008, both critics and audience found her La Cieca totally stole the stage from any other characters. Her return to the Met was particularly significant for her: 'I hadn't sung for 24 years at the Metropolitan Opera. And after 24 years, all the journalists and the critics and the audiences asked people and pushed them to explain: "Why don't you invite Podles? We want to have Podles! Mr Gelb, do you hear this?"', she jokes. 'And he finally invited me: last year I sang La Gioconda at the Met, and you know what's happened? I got asked to sing in The Queen of Spades – I love it! – and I can't take it! Oh, what a pity, what a destiny! I would have liked so much to accept it because I love to sing in New York: I know the audience there loves me, I feel and I hear this. But I'm busy, exactly in the same period I'm singing Massenet's Cinderella in Paris'.
I mention that her status as a legend is often accompanied by another term: elusiveness. If her public is so huge and so affectionate, why aren't there many recordings out of Ewa Podles? Her reply is straightforward: 'I can't just go to the record company and say "Hello, here I am, I would like to record something for you". It's impossible: they have to invite me! It means nobody is interested in doing this, they have their own stars. I was never pushed by any recording company. I can do nothing'.
She also adds that she would have loved to perform more in San Francisco, and that she feels lucky to have such a good relationship with Luisotti: 'I sang so many times in San Francisco – recitals, concerts, including Verdi's Requiem. All this with huge success. And they never invited me to the Opera! They knew me of course, they read reviews and everything, but they didn't want me. It depends on the people who decide – who they want to invite. And you see: the director changes, and there is immediately a contract. New people think in different ways. And they find out I'm a good singer!', she jokes.
It seems that the relationship with the new Music Director is an aspecially close one. Does she feel that there is a particular feeling with Luisotti? 'It's difficult to say something about this because you work with them for five minutes! But I can say that I had only one short rehearsal with him, and it was perfect. It was fantastic, because there can be so many changes of tempo etcetera with one single aria, like 'Cruda sorte' [from Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri that Luisotti and Podles were rehearsing for the 2009 edition of Opera In The Park]. He had to be very careful of what to do, how to follow me, but I think we had no problem at all. He's a fantastic musician, he understood my way of doing this Isabella. And I sang my aria just once. The other musicians had another rehearsal in the park in the morning, but I don't sing in the morning. And I don't sing before a concert... you know, non parlare prima di cantare! [Never talk before singing]. And in the end it was OK! I think he was happy. And I was happy...everybody was happy!'.
Then she lets herself go on a good-natured rant about the peculiar Bay Area weather: 'I wasn't feeling very good, I have some kind of allergy here, so I didn't want to arrive earlier and wait, in this cool weather. It's very strange weather; I don't know what to wear!' We laugh, and she adds: 'I told my husband: if somebody very rich gives me as a gift a beautiful house in San Francisco, I will not take it!'
Podles' career has spanned over decades, and her voice has changed over the years. What has this meant for her repertoire, and how is this going to affect her choices in the future?
'When I started my career 30 years ago, I never thought that I would sing Verdi. Roles such as those in Un ballo in maschera, Il trovatore... I never thought I would be able to do this, with my light voice. I was all coloratura when I sang Rosina, you know! All like this', and she explains offering a sparkling rendition of the first lines of 'Una voce poco fa'. 'Now I have the voice to sing Boris Godunov – Boris of course! We change, voices change with the years. I'm not twenty year old anymore, I can't sing Rosina or Cenerentola. But thank God I have a different repertoire. And I'm very happy because I prefer more dramatic roles. You know, for thirty years I sang this this...' – and she hums a rapid coloratura passage. '...I've had enough! Because sometimes it's only a kind of a race for who sings faster, higher, who has more complicated cadenzas...I prefer roles to be very dramatic. I love to die on stage! Now I'm going to Boston and I will sing Tancredi. Tancredi has two endings: a happy ending and a tragic ending. Usually I push everybody to sing the tragic end. I want to die! Povero Tancredi, morto alla fine! [Poor Tancredi, dead in the end!]. And you know, now I'm very happy with this. And you see, in Tancredi there's no coloratura – nothing!'
'So, I prefer dramatic roles, and I prefer shorter roles. I don't want to tire myself too much. Three hours, four hours, like Arsace in Semiramide...it's four and a half hours on stage, singing and singing and singing! Of course I can do this, but I don't want to! I'm happy to sing roles like Erda in Wagner: five minutes on stage'.
Yet she is quick to make clear that her current preference for shorter and more intense roles is simply part of the care she always taken for voice: 'I don't take all smaller roles: no no no! In thirty years, I've done four auditions. I hate auditions! But the people to whom I sang 'Una voce poco fa' proposed to me Ulrica or Azucena. I said: "Listen, maybe in thirty years I'll be able to sing this, but not today, don't push me!" And I'm never afraid to refuse to take something, I was sure that step by step I would get everything, but in a good time, not too early. And maybe because of this I'm in very good condition – with my voice, everything. I never exaggerated. And now I decided also not to take everything that people propose to me. Until now I took everything: and why? I would like to profit a little bit in life!', she jokes, 'I had no vacations, because during vacations I had summer festivals, I was always busy, busy, busy, running, running, and now: piano piano! Meno è meglio! [Slowly slowly! Less is better!].
The Principessa in Suor Angelica is one of the roles that Podles has added to her repertoire most recently: 'I love it, I'm singing it for the first time. Every time is the first time here!', she comments referring to her San Francisco Opera debut. 'And they had proposed to me to sing the three operas, Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. And I said no, I don't want to sing Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi – in Gianni Schicchi there are twenty people on stage, they sing together like a choir... So it doesn't matter who sings, really! And this role is very important. In Suor Angelica there are two principals, Suor Angelica and Principessa. I wanted to sing only this. I told you: I love roles like this - dramatic, characteristic'.
She develops further her thoughts on this severe and somehow brutal character: 'I don't think Principessa is such a bad person. I tried to show that she also suffers very much, because of the death of her sister, Suor Angelica's mother. She's like a man, she has already been caring for the whole family for twenty years. She's also tired, I think, of thinking about everything. And she was afraid about Suor Angelica's sister, Maria Viola: who takes Maria Viola after the scandal? Who will marry her? Finally she's happy because Maria Viola found a husband. She tells Angelica how she suffers, how she talks with her mother and father, and how they also suffered'.
'I think she's tired, but she tries to be strong – stronger than she is. She wants to avoid unpleasant moments, she wants to run away from this horrible place, this hospital, she wants to forget about what's happened. She's not happy to have Angelica sign all those documents, but she has to do that. In that period it was understandable: I can understand her. But you know, this role gives you fantastic possibilities, as a singer and as an actor'.
With such an amazing career, with the love of her audiences and critics, are there any ambitions still to fulfil for Ewa Podles? She sighs, and explains: 'I think I've done everything of that I should do and what I wanted to do, even more – I told you, I never thought I could sing some roles, dramatic and heavy, for dark huge voices. But you know: all my life I wanted to sing Tosca!', and she laughs. 'It's of course not real, but it's my dream. I love this opera so much: those conflicts, and those problems. Tosca is such a beautiful character to play, sing and act'.
The love for Tosca is a special one, and has accompanied her since the beginning of her career: 'Maybe because that was the very first opera I heard on a black record, years and years ago'.
The thought of her beloved Tosca brings to her mind memories of her first moments in an opera house: 'People ask me how long have you been on stage. I've been on stage for 54 years already! And people don't believe me: "What are you talking about!", they say. I reply: Yes! because I started my career when I was three years old as Madame Butterfly's baby! Can you imagine that after twenty years I met my Madama Butterfly? She became a teacher at the Warsaw Academy of Music. She started to teach and I started to learn there. So we met and she said: "Oh! It's Ewa Podles, my baby!". It was love from the very beginning to the very end – she died. She was alone, she had no children, she had no husband – she was divorced – and she treated me like her baby, and I treated her like my mother, we were such friends, and spent a lot of time together. I took her everywhere in Europe, I showed her all the operas when I sang, so she was happy with me, she never wanted to take money from me for lessons, even after I finished my studies. I needed her help, sometimes, and I called her to ask: "Tell me what I have to do here, because it seems very simple but I don't know what to do!". And she could always help me and never wanted to take money. So I took her everywhere with me as a gift. It is interesting story, I think. A very beautiful story'.
Photos: Ewa Podles and Garrick Ohlsson in concert (Quebec, October 2008); Podles in Tancredi (Madrid, Teatro Real, 2007); Podles and Patricia Racette in Suor Angelica (San Francisco, September 2009). Copyright: podles.pl
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