Stories of Poles, Ukrainians and Hasids. Jerzy Kornowicz’s new opera will be premiered in Kyiv and Lviv

Draw a genealogical tree through music, and then reflect on the pages of the history of Poles, Ukrainians and Hasids. To create an opera for children and adults, during which 1200 spectators will listen in silence, and also discover a multi-layered deep story – not about old photos, but a whole universe behind them.

On December 8 and 10, the National Philharmonic of Ukraine (Kyiv) and the Myroslav Skoryk Lviv National Philharmonic, in partnership with the National Ensemble of Soloists “Kyivska Camerata”, will host the Ukrainian premiere of a work by the famous Polish composer Jerzy Kornowicz with a libretto by Michal Rusinek, exclusively translated into Ukrainian by Tetiana Korotun.

In an almost autobiographical work, Rusinek took a look into an ordinary family from an unusual perspective, and Maryna Ryzhova, the director of the Ukrainian concert version, interpreted the opera as a family film full of nostalgia for a past life with dreams and faith in the future.

“The combination of avant-garde compositional technique together with such clear stylistic directions as tango or rock’n’roll makes this opera accessible to everyone,” according to the conductor of the event Nataliia Stets. In the end, the Lviv artist Yarko Filevych, who created an opera poster in the style of the Polish school of posters, noted that

“the Polish scene can best be represented by clear outlines, uncomplicated symbols and simplicity of feelings. Therefore, “Family Album” is an opera about how, despite the incredible complexity of our destinies, everything is actually very simple.”

About the main message of the opera, rich previous experience of working in the genre, as well as Putin as the main villain of children’s stories, the composer of the music, long-time president of the Polish Composers’ Union and cultural figure Jerzy Kornowicz told exclusively to The Claquers.

by Joanna Rusinek

— Nowadays, it is crucial to have young generations involved in art events. During Warsaw Autumn, the renowned contemporary music festival, you as the Director and composer conduct very interesting activities for kids but still, it seems quite a complicated task. What’s your experience in writing for the pickiest listeners?

This layer called “Little Warsaw Autumn” was organized this year for the thirteenth time. It was conceived by Tadeusz Wielecki, that time director of the festival, and Paulina Celińska – who became a commissioner of the Little Warsaw Autumn of the first 10 editions. Then it was addressed to the youngsters at the age 7 – 12. Last 3 the Anna Kierkosz is the commissioner if this part of the Festiwal, and the addresseer changed to 0 – 15 depending on the character of the event. It is already a fully grown festival in festival consisting of  dozens of events plus repetition of the events. This series of events includes musical theater performances, children’s operas, concerts, workshops, installations and promenade events.

Since the first edition of  The Little Warsaw Autumn, many initiatives with new music addressed to children have been created. The “Music is for Everyone” foundation organizes musical events even for pregnant women. My intuitive music group “Mud Cavaliers” once prepared a performance “Sounds from a Hat” for this foundation, addressed to children aged 3.  So, it is already quite popular and even a fashion movement in contemporary art.

When I was a teacher for years, I organized several events; also I wrote about 100 songs for kids for such occasions. Now I write music for theatrical plays for kids, and I love to do it. So when I received the invitation to write music for the „Family Album” I accepted it with joy. It is my second opera addressed to families composed by me, but with the mentioned „Mud Cavaliers” group we did a spectacle-performance “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to my libretto based on the novel by Jules Verne.

The first of mine I wrote for “Opera na Zamku” ( „Opera at the Castle)  in Szczecin, is called “The Least Probably Story”. It was a huge production commissioned for the performance in several interiors in the form of a wonder piece, with the audience moving from the main hall through the sequence of the other interiors and coming back with a two-hour duration, which wasn’t typical.

It referred to the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, very short, and I adapted it to the current time and changed everything except the main ideas, making a libretto. But for the songs’ words, I turned to my friends, distinguished writers, Andrzej Ozga and Marek Bartkowicz.

by Joanna Rusinek

 It was a story about the competition announced by the king on who would make the most enchanting thing or tool. And when the young boy constructed a miracle clock, it was distracted by the barbarian men. But I turned it into a story about a society that became crazy and decided to launch a new destructive power. It was exactly about Poland at that time, but the phenomenon of retreat from freedom in favor of material stability is also known from history and the present. I created a character, called TinPu the Hammer. TinPu is nothing but Putin.

Putin was for me already the most evil character in the world. In 2016!

So I composed a sort of political opera for families, however, if you do not read the allusions – this is a layer for parents,  children will be left with a morality play of the same type as “The King’s Clothes” in another Anderssen’s fairy tale.  It was well performed by the choir, orchestra, soloists, and ballet. And it was the first time when I used the formula of the family opera, which has two layers, for adults and kids. And the same operation is made in a “Family album”, but it has quite intellectual text, made by an excellent intellectual who is a libretto maker, Michał Rusinek. Recognizable writer and columnist, who was the secretary of Polish Nobel Prize winner, poetess Wisława Szymborska.

So I received the text already ready from the “Festival of First Performances” and they asked me whether I would be ready to write opera, – whatever “opera” means today. I acknowledge that in both layers it could be quite readable and attractive, and I decided to do it with consequences because there are a lot of formal and artistic references addressed to older people in this opera, but the story must be understood by the kids to be satisfied, hopefully.

So there are social and cultural backgrounds because of the references and quotations included in the music text as well that can only be readable by parents and grandparents and, on the other hand, special things for children. Will Ukrainians resonate with these ideas?

The opera message is quite universal to a certain degree. It is about nothing else than the extension of our identity with the people and world. So it starts from the room where the kids are closed, bored, and watching the ancestors’ photos. Then we have the next person appearing, family stories being told, for example, about a grandfather who disappeared somewhere. It is done as a disappearance somewhere in the East, in Russia, symbolizing the fate of a thousand people in Kolyma and Siberia, which is also common between Poland and Ukraine.

Another scene is made as my suggestion to Michal Rusinek, a plot about Jewish, because I needed a certain and even more serious scene, even traumatic issue in this libretto. So, we had a very similar history. And the animation of the hasidic couple in the opera looks like it is slowly disappearing, and then the empty landscape appears in the picture at the very end. How it is now in Poland, we have only empty places after Jewish civilisation.

by Joanna Rusinek

Then we have a lady pirate, it is about freedom that overcomes the barriers and stereotypes.  When we have a history lesson, it really refers to a local legend about the tower observer in Kraków, being killed by the arrow coming from Tatars. The sort of fanfare is played and, being interrupted, it symbolizes the moment of the killing of the musician. It is very local, however commonly known. And the last scene is about a monkey as our grand-grand-grand…mother. So, this extension is made as well in space,  from one’s own family through the human family to identification with nature, also in time , from the present to historical and evolutionary time.

Also, I decided to add one wordless scene, developed purely musically. It’s the last music scene looking and sounding very mysterious and being ambiguous. I entitled it for myself, which is not really a scenario, it is a “Cosmos”. That’s how I decided to reflect on our skill to identify with the world, especially when we are young, when we feel like we have  a secret link with the whole universe.

It refers to my past fascination with Max Scheler,  with his theory of numinosum – the state of metaphysical unity. To Carl Gustav Jung, to also the French philosopher and anthropologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, with all this cosmical vision, even called a “personal universe”. He linked the individual people and the nature of the universe.

So, it’s a very important line of the idea, which I emphasized also from my reflection, something added in the senses to the libretto, made in double coding: for kids, and for alder in every age.

If talking about kids, keeping their attention for almost an hour is a hard thing. Could you share some secrets of music making to make this whole sound good for both generations?

It’s a general problem because we are brought up and our kids even more in. We hear pop songs, experience advertising, and use social media. So it is also intended to be short and reduced in time. It is a problem which is quite recognizable, recognized by the producer of the CDs, of the records. In the past, the average time of a song required by producers was about three and a half minutes. Now it’s two and a half or even two. So how to overcome these new customs, I don’t know.

Generally, I do like to make something overpacking. I like exuberance, making more than less in every aspect. In my music, also, in the intensity of experiencing. I like to say too much. So it was for me to confront the people with such timing. But the first “Family Album”’s performance took place in a huge hall of the National Orchestra of the Polish Radio, which is for 1200 people. What I could appreciate after three performances, was that young people made it a full hall of silence. You know, the silence with young people is something like an oxymoron. It’s difficult to imagine that (even assuming that they came with their families) at least 500 or 600 youngsters were present and kept silent.

It is quite typical for all the stylizations that the composer makes, to make the music something difficult in the details, but keeping the appearance of simplicity. That is the major specific way. I did it the natural way for me. Maybe because I have kids, maybe because I have been in contact with the children for years. I guess that it was as simple as I wanted it to be and as complicated as I wanted to have it.

The video projection animation was added to the performance. How does it affect the opera, does it help or it takes more attention from people than the musical and dramatic part?

Opera was always a synthesis of art. Now it is taken over by the cinema. There are enough advanced technical means to create a film in opera, technical possibilities with video projections, a very professional light, tangible and dynamical light usage. So of course, it is always used in opera with multimedia aspects. And in this opera, it is made in a very dedicated and gentle way through the slightly animated drawings made by Joanna Rusinek.

by Joanna Rusinek

If the listeners got a chance to take a look into your family album, not the real one, but the album as a reflection of your good childhood memories, what would they be allowed to see? So could you share some personal moments that may intersect with the opera or some emotional aspect that gave you the inspiration to write it for children and adults. Is there something like that?

—  These links are obvious and strong, but I didn’t even consider them or analyze them. So generally my attitude was quite spontaneous. If, for example, one feels that after the music or opera is made by a calm person with easy family contacts, I hope that it will not be far from reality. This situation of the family spread around the world is also my case, because I have an aunt and cousins in different countries. We have Jewish elements in our family. We also have German and Lithuanian genes.

By the way, we are all musicians, so it is the most important element which builds our identities and links with others. So we, as musicians, do not know the figure called alien. We are absolutely resistant to this criterion. Because who is an alien? Beethoven? Bach? Smetana? Ukrainian poets? American poets from New York school? I think that it’s proven that music makes people resistant to demagogues and narcissistic pseudo-patriotisms, such as what Putin and most of Russian society present. 

We can say about poisoned societies like in the case of Germany before and during the Second World War, and the situation we have now in Russia is a sick society.

I would like to say, it’s amazing what Ukrainians are doing in this unbelievable situation, that you play non-Ukrainian music, and make something quite abstract or indifferent towards reality. It is my big tribute to the organizers of the opera performances, artists and the audience willing hopefully to come and to stay in different context. This opera carries the message: it’s about a certain brotherhood, being a family and maintaining positive energy which can build real community now.

The opera broadcast from the Lviv Philharmonic will be available on December 10 at 18:00 for a limited time:

Co-financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage in Poland 

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