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Stanisław Moniuszko was born in Ubel, Belarus on 5 May 1819 to a Polish family during a time when the European map looked very different. After studies in Berlin he became an organist in Vilnius and worked hard to raise a large family. He began to compose stage works around 1840 and also a song collection “Śpiewnik Domowy” which was very popular with the Polish community. In 1848 a visit to Warsaw led to the creation of “Halka”, an opera which embodied the spirit of Polish folk music and dance. Moniuszko died in 1872.
Poland had already been under Tsarist rule and would be so throughout Moniuszko’s life. Numerous unsuccessful uprisings in the supposedly Polish city that hosted 12 Russian garrisons meant that any attempts to rekindle nationalistic feelings would not be tolerated and lead to censorship. At the time there was no education in Polish and very few publications in Polish existed. The Tsarist Kingdom of Poland led to the Tsar taking the title “King of Poland”. 80,000 Poles were exiled to Siberia in 1864. Only in 1918 did Poland become its own country again.
After its Warsaw Premier in 1858, despite the dangers of censorship, the Polish folk-music themes in “Halka” and national dance rhythms enjoyed enormous success leading to his being chosen as Director of the National Opera.
“Straszny Dwór” opens with 2 soldier brothers promising to each other not to marry because of their commitment to fighting for their country’s independance. At its premier in 1865 audiences began to cry during Stefan’s aria “Cicho dokoła” at the point where Stefan refers to Matka (Mother) as many of the audience understood this to represent their country. The metaphors did not end there, the aria about the Grandfather clock that hadn’t worked for 100 years but would chime soon represented the country of people dormant but yearning to wake up and regain independence. “Straszny Dwór” was banned by the Tsarist censors after 3 performances.
Bearing in mind the little amount of time he had available to compose (due to his commitments as Director of the National Opera and his short lifetime) his output of at least 12 operas (4 of these incomplete), ballets, 11 operettas, choral works, string quartets and the song collection “Śpiewnik Domowy” can be considered prolific. Around the world his operas “Halka” and /or “Straszny Dwór” have been performed before in UK as well as Czech, Turkey, Romania, Cuba, Mexico, Japan as well as in Chicago in 2007 where a huge cast of over 200 and live horses were attended by over 5000 people. The Polish Opera in London at POSK, Hammersmith, performed Verbum Nobile in 2008 and in 2014 began a Moniuszko cycle and have since performed “Halka”, “Straszny Dwór”, “Hrabina”, “Paria” and “Flis”. Internationally recognised opera stars who have appeared in our productions include Ania Jeruc, Rafał Bartmiński and Piotr Lempa. “Verbum Nobile” and “Halka” were directed by Richard Fawkes and all the others by Feliks Tarnawski whose career as Director of the Wrocław Opera Theatre spanned 2 decades.
This year POSK begins the Moniuszko Bicentenary celebrations with a Gala Concert on May 4th featuring Tadeusz Szlenkier and Ania Jeruc. The program will include well-known arias as well as songs from “Śpiewnik Domowy”. In October we present the opera “Jawnuta” for the 1st time outside of Poland with soprano Jolanta Wagner as Chicha and mezzo Olga Maroszek in the title role of Jawnuta the gypsy, directed by Feliks Tarnawski.
On the one hand Moniuszko’s operas can be understood in the same way as those of Glinka, Erkel and Smetana. The operas are full of beautiful Slavic tunes as well as engaging and dramatic ensembles and thrilling dance routines featuring peasants, aristocrats and gypsies. However, depending on the staging the subject matter can lend itself to any setting. There is no reason why Moniuszko’s music should only be performed by Poles or in Poland. The stories of all the operas can be reapplied to non-Polish cultures and reset in different times. Champions are needed to bring Moniuszko out of its comfort zone. Many great composers have needed champions to popularise their music. We have only to look at what Mendelssohn did for Bach. However a language barrier has led to the neglect of Slavic vocal music. The first challenge for any international opera company is to cross the language barrier. Imagine a world where only Italians singing in perfect Italian can sing Verdi or Puccini, and Wagner can only be sung by Germans?? That would drastically decrease numbers of performances of Traviata, Boheme and the Ring Cycle around the world. Just as a Greek soprano sings in Italian (Maria Callas) and a Spaniard in German and Russian (Placido Domingo) so can Brazilians, Japanese, French and English singers take on Moniuszko. This is the way Moniuszko’s operas will be brought to the much larger worldwide opera audience.
One very healthy environment for popularising a composer is when amateur groups around the world (such as the many we have in UK) are performing unknown operas. (Though rare in Poland, there is one town called Dębice where all the locals get together for the whole of May and perform Moniuszko to full audiences (1000 each time) every weekend and they have been championing Moniuszko for over 20 years. This May they present “Verbum Nobile” every weekend.)
On an international level, one violinist from Japan who performed “Paria” with us 2 years ago then went on to lead a performance of “Straszny Dwór” in Tokyo last year with an all-Japanese cast. In tandem with my continued performances with Opera Śląska in Poland where I conduct “Halka” and “Straszny Dwór” I am constantly looking for opportunities to conduct Moniuszko outside of Poland.
On a positive note I have just read that “Halka” will enjoy her Viennese premier this year at Theater an der Wien featuring tenor Piotr Beczala conducted by łukasz Borowicz.
Music Director - Polish Opera in London