BWW Interview: To Sing with Nature: Piotr Beczala at San Diego Opera
Gracious, charming, highly intelligent and perceptive, Polish-born artist Piotr Beczala (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, 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.