Bard SummerScape: A Chat with King Roger Director Lech Majewski

Classic Arts Features   Bard SummerScape: A Chat with King Roger Director Lech Majewski
Bard SummerScape's 2008 season continues with a new opera double-bill consisting of two rare works by Polish composer Karol Szymanowski: King Roger (The Shepherd) and Harnasie.

Beginning July 25, this unique presentation is staged and designed by Lech Majewski with music direction by Leon Botstein. The productions will employ the talents of SummerScape's resident American Symphony Orchestra, the Wroclaw Opera Chorus, a host of Polish vocal soloists, and a children's choir.

The 90-minute 1924 opera King Roger (The Shepherd) is described as "a work of volcanic emotional and spiritual intensity, in a libretto Szymanowski wrote in collaboration with Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz. The title character, an enlightened twelfth-century Sicilian monarch, discovers that a mysterious shepherd, who preaches a gospel of erotic abandon, is challenging his authority. King Roger, seeing his queen and court seduced by the shepherd's revolutionary credo, angrily confronts him, only to experience a rapturous revelation that fuses his rational and sensual selves."

The 1931 "pastoral dance" Harnasie will begin the performance. "Like his countryman Fr_d_ric Chopin, Szymanowski was frequently inspired by Polish folk music, in this large-scale work as elsewhere, and the establishment of an independent Poland after World War I no doubt heightened his sense of artistic patriotism," according to press notes. "Harnasie tells the story of a reluctant peasant bride who falls in love with an outlaw named Harnas, the leader of a gang of mountain bandits. This remarkable hybrid work, which is based on a scenario by Jerzy Rytard and the composer himself, features a transcendent score that includes a tenor soloist and a massive choir. It is considered the crowning achievement in Szymanowski's theatrical output, and has been favorably compared with Bart‹k's Cantata Profana, among other works."

Polish director Majewski launched his artistic career as a painter and poet, but is also a composer, producer, filmmaker, and the subject of a 2006 retrospective hommage at MoMA. He recently sat down with Alison Ames for a brief question-and-answer session about King Roger.


Q. You're a filmmaker and poet who has also written an "autobiographical opera" that you turned into a film. How did you get into staging this opera?

Lech Majewski: I was invited by Susana Meyer at Bard, and she convinced me I should take on the project. Bard is a fantastic place to work. Rehearsals are going very well so far _ the cast and chorus are from Poland, so I can rehearse in Polish, but I have to spend quite a bit of time translating into English for the crew and dancers.

Q. The opera's three acts are sometimes tagged "Byzantine", "Oriental", and "Greco-Roman". How are you presenting those visually?

LM: I have three different sets, but they're all linked by designs based on universal archetypes and symbols, with a touch from each culture as well as Art Nouveau. I've seen the opera only once but I didn't like the staging, so I found it a challenge to try to do better. Sometimes it's preferable to see something you really don't like so that you can improve on it _ not like seeing a fabulous show with incredible images that you feel you can't develop or make better.

Q. Are you doing anything with the mixture of Christian, Muslim and Orthodox cultures the story seems to be based on _ in Sicily at the time of the Crusades? Is there a political component?

A. No, I prefer to stay as far away as possible from politics! It's enough that the story concerns a "broken" King who is searching for something that his wife has learned from this visionary Shepherd, and that he first fights it, and is then liberated by it _ whatever it is! Politics isn't visionary or positive _ politics is about empty promises, vanities, and the destruction of human hopes.

Q. How about the music _ what attracts you most in the score?

A. The choruses, especially the opening one, are beautiful, but the music for the Queen, Roxane, is an absolute wonder to me. When Roxane sings it's enchanting _ its moves me straight to a magic garden.

Q. Why do you think the opera isn't well known? Are there weaknesses?

A. It's an amalgam of all sorts of thing, almost a battlefield of influences. I think Szymanowski was trying to encompass the entire history of civilization in ninety minutes, a pretty hard task! In addition to the "Byzantine" and "Oriental" and "Arabic" influences, there's even a touch of Hindu mysticism. The King is stagnant, watching helplessly as his kingdom is breaking down and his wife wanders away. And the vision of the mysterious Shepherd who appears from nowhere and wins over the minds of the Queen and the people doesn't encompass what comes next _ the consequences of "liberation". It reminds me a little bit of the Hare Krishnas!

Q. So it doesn't matter that we aren't left with a neatly tied-up ending? The broken King is liberated by the music and the dance?

A. Even though the Queen has disappeared who knows where, and that we don't know what the King is liberated from or to. It's a beautiful and mysterious work, and absolutely worth experiencing!

Q. What would you like to be the "takeaway" _ how do you want people to feel after they see King Roger at Bard?

A. I'd like them to feel awe! Awe at this mysterious creation of music, text, and images.

Interview courtesy of 21C Media Group, Inc.

Opera At Bard Summerscape 2008

Karol Szymanowski: King Roger; Harnasie
Tadeusz Szlenkier, tenor (Harnasie solo and Shepherd in King Roger)
Adam Kruszewski, baritone (King Roger)
Iwona Hossa, soprano (Roxane in King Roger)
Wroclaw Opera Chorus
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein, conductor
Directed and designed by Lech Majewski

Sosnoff Theater
July 25, 31, and August 2+ at 8 pm
July 27* and August 3 at 3 pm
Tickets: $25, $55, $75
Thursday Performance: $20, $45, $65

* Opera Talk with Leon Botstein
Sosnoff Theater, July 27 at 1 pm
Free and open to the public

For tickets and further information on all SummerScape events, phone the Fisher Center box office at (845) 758-7900 or visit

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