In May reviewer John Weretka reported that Opera Australia had broken new territory in King Roger, mounting the first opera in Polish the company had ever performed. Here he speaks with leading lady Lorina Gore about this landmark production.
JW Opera Australia has been drawing attention to the fact that King Roger is the first time an opera has been presented in Australia in Polish. I’m imagining that most singers don’t get much of an opportunity to study or sing in Polish. What were the particular challenges the language brought?
LG This was my first experience singing in a Slavic language, and it was certainly a challenging one. Opera singers are usually quite comfortable singing in Italian, German and French, however the soundscape of Polish is completely different to these Latin based languages. It took me weeks to transcribe the score, looking up each word individually, and I used a lot of online tools to cross reference the pronunciation. The Polish version of Wiktionary (www.wilislownik.pl) in particular was very helpful. I also listened to a lot of Polish singers in the role, to hear how they delivered the text. It’s amazing how much variance there is between different singers, and how they individually adapt the language as needed to navigate the extremes of their voices. When singing opera, one is always trying to find the ideal balance between clarity text and beauty of sound. Fortunately we also had the wonderful language coach Adriana Hanic working with us, and as a former singer herself she was instrumental in helping us with this fascinating language.
JW Although Szymanowski’s opera is called King Roger, the opera is essentially a two-hander, a kind of battle between the Shepherd and the King as the King tries to resist the dangerous Dionysiac impulses represented by the Shepherd. Where do you think this leaves the character of Roxana?
LG I actually see this story as an interplay between four characters – primarily the King and Shepherd; however Queen Roxana and the King’s advisor Edrisi also play an important part in Roger’s story. Both Roxana and Edrisi appeal to King Roger to listen to the Shepherd, and implore him to open his mind to a new way of thinking. In this production directed by Kasper Holten, the marriage between Roxana and Roger has been lacking in passion and desire for some time, and Roxana is hopeful that if Roger is able to embrace the Shepherd’s ideals, it may again reignite their love for each other. However upon releasing his suppressed desires, they instead threaten to destroy him and all he has. Whether ultimately he finds enlightenment at the end of the opera, is somewhat left to the audience to decide. I love that the symbolism in this opera has people engaging in discourse about what it all means after watching the production.
JW Szymanowski seems to have rejected the title of ‘opera’ for the work, preferring to call it a ‘mysterium’, which reminds me both of Skryabin’s Mysterium and the medieval mystery play. Is there some sense in which King Roger is meant to represent ‘the end of things’ (maybe the ‘end of the self’), as Skyrabin’s work was meant to, or is the image of the abstract representation of morality, as in the medieval mystery play, a more fitting analogy? What are the challenges for dramatic characterisation in this work?
LG When asked about this production, I would sometimes simply refer to it as performance art. It’s a highly symbolic and poetic drama set to an incredibly complex musical score. The colours and layers in the music are something that I came to appreciate with increasing respect the more I studied the score. The entire piece was written over a very long period of time (6 years) and according to written documentation, even Szymanowski himself had moments of both pride and doubt about his work. The three acts all have very different ‘flavours’, and the piece is set in ancient Sicily; a cultural melting pot and travel gateway for the multiple countries which surround the small island. There was also certainly a transformation of Szymanowski’s musical style over the extended composition period. The challenge for any director of this piece is to find meaning and purpose in the story, however the gift of a poetic and symbolic libretto mean that it is open to varied interpretations. In this way it can also be left to the audience to decide the fate of the King. Was it a dream, or some imagined tale? Does the King lose the stability and safety of structured society and religion, or does he find a new kind of heightened enlightenment? These are perhaps questions which might be better answered by the director of our opera, however I truly believe that much of the enjoyment of watching a work like King Roger is being able to analyse these concepts yourself!
JW I found the staging extremely sympathetic to the realisation of the ‘story’. What kinds of issues do you think the directorial team was trying to explore in this staging?
LG We were fortunate to work with wonderful director Amy Lane, who assisted Kasper Holten for the original staging of this production at the Royal Opera Covent Garden. We spent a lot of time discussing the meaning of the words, and the relationships between our characters. Our intention is to always to follow the reading of the original production as closely as possible, however with each new cast you will inevitably encounter small adjustments in how the characters are portrayed. In order to bring an honesty to your performance, you need to find your own truth in your actions, rather than just mimicking or copying someone else’s interpretation.
There are several themes that run through the piece – organised society and Apollonian clarity and intellect versus the freedom and lawlessness of Dionysian sensuality. There are question marks drawn about the sexual preferences of the King and whether there is true love for Roxana, or if her union to the monarch is simply in order to conform to society’s expectations. Interestingly in this production, it is the Shepherd who ends up in the formal suit of the King, and Roger who is stripped bare of all responsibility. It is difficult to say who is the true victor in this story – it really depends on your view of what is most important in life.