Stefan Sutkowski - An Apologia - Warsaw Chamber Opera Concert (Warszawska Opera Kameralna) to celebrate the publication of 'Mój Teatr : 1961-2011' (My Theatre 1961-2011)

Certainly Warsaw has provided me with a number of unique musical experiences and last night in the superlative ballroom of the Royal Castle was no exception.

Stefan Sutkowski, the Artistic Director of the Warsaw Chamber Opera, has being going through a difficult administrative period recently and it seemed in many ways a fitting rejoinder to present his latest publication Mój Teatr: 1961-2011 to redress some unwelcome media attention. This substantial volume has been written over a period of 50 years and contains a history of the company, articles written by him for the premières of opera performances, accounts of important events at the theatre and concerts, personal memoirs, festival announcements, acknowledgements and an account of members of his family going back as far as the Great War.

To celebrate this publication the great early piano builder Paul McNulty managed to assemble five of his pianos from different historical periods. His Russian wife Viviana Sofronitsky played appropriate pieces of the period represented by the copies. She is the highly talented daughter of the great Vladimir Sofronitsky who studied at the Warsaw Conservatoire with the brilliant Chopinist, Polish pedagogue and pianist Aleksander Michałowski. She performed regularly in the chamber music and concerto sections at the annual Mozart Festival. Her recordings of the complete Mozart Piano concertos with Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviense for Pro Musica Camerata on a McNulty instrument are benchmarks of charm and musical refinement, quality and performance practice.

While writing this post I have just received some terrible news from Paul McNulty. During dinner last night following the concert Stefan Sutkowski was suddenly taken ill with a suspected heart attack and taken to hospital by ambulance.

The five Paul McNulty fortepianos in the exquisite Ballroom of the Royal Castle, Warsaw
Lt. to Rt.   J.A.Stein (ca.1788); A. Walter (ca.1792); C.Graf (ca. 1830); J. Pleyel (1830); L. Boisselot(1846)

Viviana Sofronitsky at the Stein instrument in the Ballroom of the Royal Castle, Warsaw 

Viviana Sofronitsky at the Boisselot piano in the Ballroom of the Royal Castle, Warsaw

Instead of resuming this posting as I originally intended, below appears an apologia for Stefan Sutkowski in the form of a letter to a friend who does not entirely share my views.

My dear friend

Yes you are right - I do lack objectivity concerning Stefan Sutkowski and Warszawska Opera Kameralna. I cannot rid myself of affection for the company despite these 'financial revelations'.

In the world of art there are many unpleasant background stories if you delve deep enough – Bernhard Berenson; Georges Wildenstein; Herbert von Karajan’s relationship with the Nazi Party; Wilhelm Furtwangler’s alleged ‘collaboration’ with them; Arturo Toscanini the screaming martinet; Riccardo Muti ruthlessly tyrannical toward maintaining production values at La Scala; Richard Wagner financially opportunistic and rabidly anti-Semitic - the list is endless. Vanity, ego, perseverance at whatever cost, obsession with perfection, losing oneself to what might be considered a 'normal' life, are all required by creative artists to succeed. I use additional and different parameters of judgement to the conventional moral and financial strictures and limitations in matters pertaining to art.

I simply cannot condemn anything Stefan Sutkowski achieved artistically because of some alleged financial mismanagement, over-manning or his reported attitude to some of his singers or production staff. From this amateur musician and writer’s point of view his achievement was very considerable indeed in world terms, not only Polish. After all his productions required five or six languages from the singers. Why would he not have a large number of performers to call upon? I have no idea nor do I really care what music critics or professional musicians think of what he achieved with this company. It was certainly absolutely remarkable for me and I trust my own musical judgement.

I am really not concerned with how he achieved these artistic triumphs. He devoted his entire life to this company. I noticed no S Class Mercedes ferrying him from the opera house to a palatial Dwor in the country nor did I notice him wearing Armani suits or Lanvin ties. I did however notice his absolute dedication to art (perhaps too dedicated?) and his devotion to the opera company of his own creation.

Often forgotten is the publishing house he established and the significant  commissioning and publication of important research projects on unjustifiably neglected early Polish music. Fine monographs were published on instruments, particularly Polish baroque organs, on which this music was performed.

Stefan Sutkowski gives people incalculable artistic and intellectual pleasure. The tickets for these outstanding performances were, at least in the 1990s, remarkably inexpensive. He often gave wine or coffee to the complete audience during the interval. The opera house was so small (seating perhaps 150) that a rare eighteenth century intimacy was created and remained paramount. All gestures of the artistic temperament and a generous soul.

The Opera Kameralna company had a profound effect on me in 1992 when I attended the Second Mozart Festival. At that time I was just a simple member of the enthusiastic audience and not a professional working musician. I actually kept renewing my work contract in Warsaw partly because I had never attended such a series of chamber operas in my entire and actually full musical life in London. This was long before matters became romantically serious with a beautiful Polish lady. Our early courting was done within the confines of this magical opera house of dreams. Love flowered in my heart in this enchanted place. I had only ever seen a couple of the better known Mozart operas in big productions at Covent Garden or the English National Opera. But here I was presented with all twenty-five Mozart stage works. They appeared uniformly connected  thematically and stylistically in production, costume design and scena.

Additionally there was the extraordinary phenomenon (to me at least) of the sopranist Darius Paradowski, a great star of the Opera Kameralna stage, in fact a star of any stage. Bunches of flowers rained down. The voice of an angel in the body of a Nureyev. The present chief conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, Sir Mark Elder, was overcome with admiration when I played him a recording of Paradowski in London. His voice and stage presence at Opera Kameralna were unforgettable in castrati roles, exactly what Mozart had in mind. In addition during this festival I experienced many of Mozart’s chamber and concerto works previously unknown to me. Period pianos like the ones we heard this evening were commissioned to provide an authentic period experience for Mozart.

Many is the hour I spent in bliss in this opulent ballroom listening to Viviana Sofronitky performing a Mozart piano concerto on a McNulty copy of a Walter fortepiano. When I commissioned my own harpsichord in London at the age of 25 by a truly great maker, David Rubio, it cost the price of a small London house. I had not a hope in hell of paying for it but convinced my bank manager to lend me the sum for ‘Home Improvements’. Certainly a harpsichord was a great 'improvement' to my home  but 
this is not quite what the bank had in mind I am sure! 'Naughty but nice' is my rather trite response to those taking the moral high ground on overextending your budget on art. Is there an artist alive who does not live and work beyond his means? Art and careful economic husbandry make strange and sterile bedfellows indeed. Untutored politicians, civil servants and accountants take note.

At that time such an exhaustive Mozart Festival as this had never ever been attempted anywhere in Europe. It remained unique for a long time until the Salzburg Festival mounted something similar once to celebrate Mozart’s 250th anniversary. Mozart himself lived way beyond his means but who cares today? The world of music is incalculably richer.

The Opera Kameralna festivals had an indelible effect on me. And it was not only Mozart I marvelled at. There was the quite astonishing Monteverdi Festival with extraordinary machines inspired by Leonardo da Vinci drawings, the Handel festival, operas by Purcell and even the relatively obscure but wonderful John Blow’s Venus and Adonis. This was quite apart from obscure operas ranging from the  Renaissance to Poulenc and the staging of new Polish work and forgotten major works in the operatic field. The first performance of the Easter Passion by Joseph Elsner (Chopin's teacher) scored for mighty forces of hundreds of musicians was a case in point. Then the rarely heard Bach St.Luke Passion...and so the list goes on.

Do the politicians, civil servants, journalists and accountants who wrote or inspired these articles and arranged the audits of accounts have the slightest understanding or sympathy for how these extraordinary artistic endeavours, which contributed so much to the cultural respect Poland enjoys on the international stage, were achieved? 'They know not what they do' to quote a far higher source. I have often thought there is little evidence of Christian principles in this intensely Roman Catholic country when financial or other ‘scandalous revelations’ occur. The hyenas and vultures gather. Small minds and small hearts beat furiously. Understanding, kindness and compassion seem thin on the ground. From the articles I have read, eyes are firmly fixed on the financial considerations and how ‘public money’ was utilised. To the greatest effect I would say – just look at the astonishing artistic results achieved over fifty years. I repeat fifty years.

Football stadiums of course are permitted free and easy budgetary reign and cost 'flexibilty' in the new religion of sport while Sutkowski’s plan for a world class concert hall in Warsaw is ignored. Readers of this blog will know how scandalous I feel the lack in Warsaw of a world class concert hall, the lack of political will towards supporting musical culture in this way in Poland. Staging opera is one of the most expensive entertainments in the world hence the sometimes outrageous prices of tickets. Yet one never felt exploited by ticket prices at Opera Kameralna.

I am sure most of the Polish audience at this concert tonight would have had similar very confused feelings to me. They are in much the same position as myself emotionally. All these ‘revelations’ are almost impossible to deal with rationally after you have been involved in the metaphysical world of musical art in the close and unique atmosphere of that small intimate theatre, a thing that Sutkowski had somehow, through impossible reversals of fortune, has facilitated for us. The space approached the intimacy of a royal court theatre, only two of which exist in the world. One in Sweden and one here in Warsaw in Lazienki Park. Unforgettable moments too occurred in that magical theatre created by that great aesthetic connoisseur, King Stanislaw Augustus Poniatowski, a man similarly mindlessly maligned for artistic extravagance. Perhaps it is a love affair I have with Warszawa Opera Kameralna. Not much rationality at all but then true art operates at a far deeper level than the merely conscious.

I spoke to Sutkowski often during many intervals and never had any reason to ‘suspect’ him of anything untoward. Fulsome praise for the achievement was all that entered my tiny head. Why would I as a simple audience member have any ‘inside information’ on his attitude to his singers or how the operation was funded. Why would this worry me anyway? Many of the singers I spoke to regarded Opera Kameralna as one large happy family. He seemed to represent everything I most admired most about the nobility, lack of materialism, idealism and honour of the Polish ‘old school’ of gentlemen. This has not and will not change.

You know, many of Henrik Ibsen’s plays deal with the terrible consequences in life of telling the absolute truth and what he terms the ‘saving lie’. Many of his plays demonstrate this - Enemy of the People for example or The Wild Duck. Such lessons were scarcely conceived of or learned in Poland during the dreaded period of lustracja. Few human lives withstand minutely close examination. 

I am suffering from this dilemma – I really do not want to know and I think many in Poland feel the same, however irresponsible and lacking in objectivity this might sound. Like infidelity in a long-term marriage. Is it better to know? Often not the case given the incalculable consequences of revealing the ‘truth’ whatever that may be defined as being. Pass over in silence and come to a quiet arrangement.

I still see this entire issue as the ways of the old regime in fatal, even tragic, collision with new, modern and efficient financial ‘transparency’. Sutkowski cleverly and courageously survived the hard school of Polish Socialism. The remains of that system I certainly experienced in 1991-94 when I was working in Warsaw. The ‘Sutkowski Syndrome’ arose all the time in many different areas of my working life as new methods and ideas of capitalism were often unsuccessfully laid across the decaying old ways of doing things. I learned that allowances should be made and opportunities for defense given in private. The drawing of a line under matters of this kind, the gruba kreska. Lech Wałęsa understood this very well and has recently been much criticized for the subsequent abuse of it.  However he had a point. This initial philosophy of approach, despite the dangers, has been forgotten with the passing of years.

At that time I tried to understand the difficulty and opportunities, good and venal, that ideological change and practical adaption offered to apparatchiks, nomenklatura and ordinary people. But then this is Poland and I am merely a foreigner. I will not go into this – I wrote an entire book touching on these very issues. 

I feel that unfortunately when such scandals as this erupt around people who have achieved much and selflessly given a great deal of their lives to a distinguished idea or career, most of their past achievements are quite forgotten in the fixation and prurient delight in present ‘revelations’. I have witnessed this many times in life – a distinguished scientist falsifies some minor data obsessed with proving his present theory – a doctor touches a pretty girl patient inappropriately for a moment – so what? Does this deserve any gifted and generous individual to be cast into the outer darkness and struck off without a compassionate thought of his great past achievements or consideration of what effect this may have on him personally? Shakespeare wrote movingly of the tragedy of falls from a 'high estate'. I feel this present behaviour and manner of proceeding on the part of the authorities and media is desperately unfair, bordering on the shameful, especially in the case of Stefan Sutkowski. Clearly it is the way of the world. But not my world.

I hope this little essay explains my rather complex emotions towards Stefan Sutkowski and the Warszawska Opera Kameralna – if you are the slightest bit interested in them my friend. I hope you will not disagree too strongly but then quite understandably you cannot feel what I feel just now as he lies in a hospital bed undoubtedly struck down by the added stress of these heartless so-called 'revelations' towards the end of a supremely courageous and distinguished cultural life in music. Quite apart from being a true Polish patriot in the finest sense of that double-edged sword or more correctly sabre.

Best as ever


For an account of Opera Kameralna in the early days of the Mozart Festivals in the early 1990's  : 

Both in English and Polish

Popular posts from this blog

Elisey Mysin recital - XVII International Piano Forum - Bieszczady Without Borders - Sanok, Poland

78th International Chopin Festival in Duszniki-Zdrój, Poland. August 4-12, 2023

The Polish Romantic Guitar - The Polish Musical Renaissance - National Chopin Institute Recording Review