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"I was always dreaming as a child that I would be the prince," says Mariusz Kwiecien. At the moment, he looks more like the most popular graduate student in the opera workshop. It's the start of the Memorial Day weekend, and suddenly, after the award-winning Worst Winter Ever, New York is broiling. Kwiecien is wearing a polo shirt and khaki shorts and carrying a shopping bag from the Juilliard bookstore. His hair, formerly longish and curly, is in a summer-weight buzz cut. But he's about to get a high-profile chance at nobility. In an unusual vote of confidence in a singer not yet forty, the Met has cast him in the title role of a new Don Giovanni, opening next month under the direction of Michael Grandage.
Kwiecien has never met Grandage or seen any of the director's stage work. Grandage is a relative opera novice, known primarily for his work as artistic director of London's Donmar Warehouse and for his staging of the Broadway and West End hit Frost/Nixon. But Kwiecien isn't worried. For one thing, he doesn't believe that the great role needs to be played in any one particular way. "This year it's ten years since I sang my first Don Giovanni. I'm open for everything. I've done it in many ways. Sometimes I'm just a stupid seducer, just for my ego, sometimes I was playing a person who cannot really seduce and is trying to do it just to prove that there is still some heat coming from inside, but it isn't actually. And then I've done it in ridiculous productions where I was almost a Jesus Christ, or where I had a crown on my head, or where I was raping old women onstage. Many, many things. So I just have to know why from the director — why the director decided to do Don Giovanni, what he wants to say, where is the start and the end of my person, why do I die, why do I seduce people. I am not a person who wants to disappear onstage. I am coming in front of the public to exist, to give them some kind of motto, some text — I am telling you that I am this."
Thomas Allen, the much-admired Don Giovanni of an earlier generation, recently told OPERA NEWSthat he missed "a devil" in the younger generation of singers who take the role. Asked if he agrees, Kwiecien becomes highly animated. "Yes. But we have to always remember that Giovanni doesn't have the greatest music in the opera — but he has the most challenging character. We have to give not only lots of devil, we need also some angel. I don't think that if any woman would meet on the street a man without this soft, sugar-ish thing — not necessarily a devil, but you can call it a devil, because it is also a seduction — no woman would go with that man after two minutes, and Don Giovanni wouldn't succeed. So it has to be that he has such an intelligent brain, being a man with huge experience, not only sexual experience but psychological experience, that he's using what nature gave him, his colors. I miss not only devil, I miss colors in Don Giovanni. I miss when a man comes in front of a woman that he should make her happy and satisfied. One woman wants to be adored, another wants to be treated rougher, one wants to be treated like another guy, and he has to know immediately.
"It's always incredible that we have such different casts, different ladies, different girls, and with every one in rehearsal I always try to find what does she like, what is she like, what is her ideal man like. When I have one Zerlina, I like to sing to her with the sweetest voice I can. When I have a Zerlina who is not a soprano but a mezzo-soprano, and she is more seductive and earthy, I do it a little bit like a gangster. When I have a very strong woman I try to be on top of her, because strong women usually have soft men as husbands and lovers. So that is what I'm looking for, those colors. So I agree with Thomas Allen about this devil, danger — it has to be dangerous, but it has to be also sweet and honey-like. And this too I miss in many Don Giovanni productions and interpretations of baritones.
"I try to give this when I sing 'Deh, vieni alla finestra.' This should be absolutely unreal, it should be angelic, it should be like a song, like the last piece of light that comes from my soul, which is otherwise so dark. It should be like this one piece of straight white coming to the woman, or to God or heaven." Kwiecien has raised one of his hands over his head, index finger outstretched; the other is on his heart, and his head is cocked to one side. It's as if he had been asked to do a puppet version of the final scene from Faust.
Many singers who perform a lot of Wagner or a lot of Puccini lament that they really want to be asked to do other things, but many singers who are primarily cast in Mozart or in Verdi are quite happy to stay where they are, refining the great roles over and over. Kwiecien, it is clear, finds it rewarding to sing so much Mozart. Although when he sang his first opera, Le Nozze di Figaro, he was Figaro, "I already thought, 'Okay, I'm singing Figaro, but the Count is where I want to be.' And when I did my first Count, it was just, 'Okay, that's my home.' I think this is my most successful role." Most young baritones loathe singing Guglielmo in Così Fan Tutte and can't wait to move on. Asked if he minds Guglielmo, Kwiecien blurts, "I hate it!" But then, quickly, he rolls his eyes. "Well, I hated it. Not because of the music — the music is lovely — but the character is not interesting. Or it wasn't for me."
But last summer, asked to stage the piece and sing Guglielmo for Italy's Reate Festival, he agreed. "I thought, this is like with Don Giovanni. When I was younger, when I did my first Giovanni, I thought Don Giovanni had to be a young man, full of passion, full of sex appeal, strong. In the same way I was talking about Guglielmo, 'Oh, he's stupid, he's naïve.' Well, I changed my mind about both of those characters. I try to play Giovanni now in a different way, not only as a volcano of sex. And when I was young, I was some kind of Guglielmo myself in talking about Don Giovanni, and now I will try to find in Guglielmo more of an Italian character, not judging him because of his simple way of thinking."
Kwiecien freely describes his growth as an actor, tracing his history with Lucia di Lammermoor. "When I sang Enrico for the first time, it was in Brazil, with June Anderson, and I did some bad singing. When I was twenty-something I thought that when I play a cruel brother I just have to beat her and shout at her. Then when I did it at the Met, the first run was with Natalie Dessay. She is a great actress, she is fantastic, but I didn't feel well, I had some health problems. But later, with Anna Netrebko, I felt better, and Anna is a man-eater, woman-eater, music-eater — she is an everything-eater. And I did it with a completely different point of view. I think it is normal to grow up, and you realize that sometimes a whisper can be stronger than a shout."
Indeed, the most notable aspect of Kwiecien's performances now is the variety of his responses to the others onstage. This was apparent in 2008, when Susanna Phillips played opposite him as Countess to his Count in Santa Fe and, a few months later, as Musetta to his Marcello in a Met revival of La Bohème. She was not a natural stage presence (and the latter occasion was her high-pressure Met debut), but Kwiecien's unwavering focus on her in each situation was like a life preserver. He is the rare singer who leaves a primary impression of what he was able to pull out of the other members of the cast.
If Kwiecien is now in a position to be the anchor for a new Met production, and be confident about it, his new stature is more than merely the next step in his career path. It is clear that his maturity and his command of a role come from one specific event, a subject to which he returns repeatedly in conversation. When Kwiecien sang in a Krysztof Warlikowski production of Szymanowski's King Roger at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, he had to come to terms with both a demanding title role and a frightening rehearsal process. The result, he says, was "the first time in my life I really felt so unified with a role." The production opened in June 2009, but when he speaks about it he seems to have been performing it an hour ago. "Warlikowski is a director who doesn't really tell you what you have to do onstage. He trusts you. But for two weeks we had only conversation, not even one note sung onstage. And we'd been tired of talking and talking, and finally we said, 'Listen, let's do something. Let's try it.' And we tried, and he still didn't say 'good' or 'bad,' he was always just controlling our emotions and saying, 'Think about this, or about that,' and finally we discovered, maybe three days before opening night, very late, at the last moment — under huge pressure and nervousness inside, because we were not sure what we were doing onstage — what he wants from us. And then finally in the last days before opening night we'd been able to create a piece of art, basically made by all of us."
The rehearsal process was harrowing — Kwiecien became ill for a time — but he is now on a crusade for this opera. "For the first time, I felt really that I am an artist creating something special onstage, and after the whole run, I needed a week to come down, because my energy inside me was vibrating so high." The Warlikowski production was revived last spring in Madrid, and in 2012, Kwiecien will sing King Roger in a new Stephen Wadsworth production at Santa Fe — "my favorite festival in the world and one of my favorite places in the world." He loves the opera for the same reason he keeps singing Don Giovanni:there are so many ways of doing it. "The libretto gives the chance to me as a singer, and to the stage director, to create something very unusual. Because the libretto — well, it's very hard to say what it's about. You can play it as an erotic, sexual piece. You can play it as a very religious piece, because it treats the subject of God. But this God can be who knows what — can be everything, basically. And then it can be a simple piece about society and a period in Sicily, in Palermo in the twelfth century. It uses history and things which really happened, so you can play it as a historical piece."
When asked if there are other Polish figures he would like to play in an opera, Kwiecien steers the conversation in another direction. "That is a very American thing, to have heroes and be proud of your country. Of course I love my people and my country. But when I was born, my country was really a prison for all of the Polish people. We were not very happy with Communism in our country. When I was young, I was watching these movies where you have noble people with their gestures, how noble people sit on the chair with the full body, how they belong, how they look, how they move their heads. I wanted to use it somewhere. I remember my mother told me about when I performed a Polish piece, Balladine, in school. I was maybe eight or nine. I was playing the prince. My mother told me, 'When I watched you, I was ashamed — I thought how is it possible that this boy sits, moves like somebody who had a year of lessons in movements of the period?'" Kwiecien's English is rapid-fire, comprehensive and idiomatic, but did he really mean to say that his mother was ashamed? "Yes! Because at that time under Communism everybody had to be the same, everything was grey. Everybody was earning the same amount of money, nobody was rich, nobody was poor — everybody was poor, actually. And if you see that some child is different, singing, speaking poetry, acting in that way, a mother feels like, 'Oh my god, what to do with this — is this okay? Is this wrong?' In America if you have a child, three years old, singing 'I Will Always Love You' like Whitney Houston, mothers say, 'It's brilliant, it's great!' because you want it and you have it around you."
Later, a high-school teacher gave Kwiecien a vocal solo, "enough to feel the nervousness, the stress which comes from being in front of the public, but I liked it. It paralyzed me somehow, but it was a seductive feeling." Friends encouraged him to enroll at Kraków's Academy of Music, where he won a prize in lieder. But when he heard the winner of the opera prize, Daniel Borowski, Kwiecien decided, "When you sound like that, when it brings and gives this kind of excitement, this kind of colors and power in the voice, I'll try to do opera." With Guglielmo's logic of youth, he decided that he needed Borowski's teacher, and after three years of vocal study in Warsaw, his career was launched.
The Juilliard shopping bag, it turns out, offers a glimpse of the next stage of his career. It contains a brand-new score for Verdi's Don Carlo. Kwiecien will be singing his first Posa in Munich in January. Asked how he will go about learning the role, he cheerfully runs down his plan. "I'll learn the text and the music. I play a little bit of piano, but usually I have my flute, that's how I learn everything. And during this trip to Madrid I went to El Escorial, just to see how it looked originally, just to feel the smell of mold in this castle. I went to the cathedral, which was spectacular, amazing. The icons — you see this beauty just attacking you almost. And the simplicity. I just needed to feel it, to be in the role. And of course I have to read a bit of history. Then I try to do — not much more. I try not to do too much with coaches or dig on the Internet too much, because every story which is used for an opera is half history and half fiction, and this half fiction gives us a chance to create something."
Not that he is a stranger to the Internet. Kwiecien is scheduled to fly to Tokyo in two days for a Met tour, but he volunteers that he spent the morning blogging about The X Factor, a British televised singing contest. "I tried to write something — anonymously, of course, because it works like that. I wrote information. Obviously I'm long enough in this business that I can say that somebody makes mistakes, or somebody is good or bad, or that singing should be a certain way technically. And I got such terrible reactions from the other bloggers. People actually said that I am an idiot and I have no clue what I am talking about." We agree that he may sing new productions at the Met, but of course, every single person on the Internet is also an expert. "And I said never again, that's enough. Mariusz Kwiecien is done as a blogger for sure."
WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut.