Q & A: Baritone Simon Mechlinski on Growing Up With Opera-Singing Parents, the Wexford Festival Opera & Working With Giorgio ZancanaroBy Alan Neilson
At last year’s Wexford Festival Opera I caught a recital by the largely unknown Polish baritone, Simon Mechlinski, and he made quite an impression. At the end of festival he received the Gerard Arnhold Bursary, an award made to a singer who is considered to have outstanding potential.
This year he returned to Wexford and gave another recital, in addition to performing in two operas, Bizet’s “Doctor Miracle” and Stanford’s “The Veiled Prophet.”
It has been quite a busy year for the young baritone who has been performing in a number of theaters across Europe, including Toulon in the role Onegin, Lyon and, of course, in his home country of Poland. His calendar for 2020 is already looking busy, so it is likely that his is a name you will hear a lot about in the future.
OperaWire was fortunate enough to meet up with Mechlinski for an interview during this year’s Wexford festival about his approach to his career.
OperaWire: What was your pathway into becoming an opera singer?
Simon Mechlinski: Firstly, both my parents are opera singers, so I grew up in a singing environment. At the beginning I studied with my father at the Academy in Poznań, where he was a teacher. Then I completed my Masters Degree in the class of Prof. Iwona Kowalkowska. My father is an excellent and accomplished artist and singer, and I learned a lot from him, especially on how to transmit emotions to the audience through the voice; he is an excellent stylist. However, he has a very different voice to mine; his voice is darker and lower, he is a bass-baritone. My mother was also helping me a lot. At some point, I realized I needed a different teacher, someone with a voice closer to mine, with a similar singing philosophy.
So I found Giorgio Zancanaro, a singing teacher, who lives in Verona, and started lessons, whose teaching suits my voice perfectly.
OW: What are the main challenges at this stage in your career?
SM: I have a lot do, and so much to learn and the sheer quantity is overwhelming. Even while learning my role for “The Veiled Prophet” I had to improve my English, because singing in English is difficult for me, I have a strong accent, and although it is getting better, I still have to work on it. It is very important, for there are some roles in the English language repertoire that I’d like to sing in future.
OW: Do you have any singing role models?
SM: When I was young I hated opera, mainly because I had to spend so much time in opera houses because of my parents’ jobs, so I certainly did not have a singer as a role model.
Things changed as I got older and I developed more interest in opera. There was a Polish baritone, named Andrzej Hiolski, who was very famous in Poland, but less well-known outside the country as he didn’t sing in other countries regularly. I absolutely adore his voice and I listen to his recordings very often. He was an excellent singer, and I really wanted him as a teacher, but I wasn’t aware of the fact that he died when I was 7-years-old, so the opportunity never arose. I suppose you could say he was my first role model.
As for today, I would like to say how much I admire my singing teacher, Giorgio Zancanaro. He has a near perfect technique, if such a thing exits, but it is perfect for my voice. I am copying his technique, although without trying to be an exact copy, because we have different artistic personalities.
When I started singing with him it was quite difficult. I had to learn so much in such a short space of time; I had to travel to Verona for lessons, so I could only have a few lessons before having to go back to Poland. Over the years, things have become a lot easier, and my technique has improved. I have learned so much from him, and I am very grateful for that.
OW: How would you describe your voice, and how do you look after it?
SM: I’d say I have a strong voice that carries well in theatre and I’m doing my best to keep it in very good shape. It is a question of balance. I try not to over or under use it, as both can cause the voice to become less consistent.
Being a singer is a stressful job and sometimes you need an escape, so you go to the bar. I know some singers complain, saying that a few beers causes problems with the voice. This is not true. Beer is fine, but bars are noisy and so people shout all evening. After a late night in such an environment the voice can be a mess the next day, so I am careful about where I go.
OW: You have just performed the role of Mokanna in Charles Villiers Stanford’s “The Veiled Prophet” at Wexford. What are your thoughts about the role?
SM: It is a very challenging role. It is an unusually written piece, probably better suited to a bass-baritone than a baritone as it is very stretched. There are a number of exposed low notes, with sudden leaps to the higher register. It is very uncommon for the baritone voice, and it took a lot of learning.
It is also a very dramatic role, although not particularly a subtle one. He is basically very evil, and ends up poisoning the whole “chorus.” There are no redeeming features at all. It is true, there are moments in the duets with Zelica where he shows a romantic side, but it is fake. He really does want to kill everyone. Occasionally, he appears to regret things, but in the following phrase he curses everyone. He is not a complex character. The other characters provide contrast: Zelica and Azim are noble. Abdullah has a great aria: it is entertaining, it is light although not primitive, but it is also noble at the same time. It is one of the best bass arias I have heard. In the end good triumph over evil, truth over deception.
But Mokanna is not me, not at all! I find it difficult to identify with him. But because it was a concert performance, I think it was easier to portray the character as I can concentrate solely on the voice to portray his cruelty, his menace, his evil nature. I would probably experience more trouble if it was a staged version, and I had to act out the role as well. I’d like to add that I absolutely fell in love with Stanford’s music and I consider this opera a masterpiece!
OW: What are your impressions of the Wexford Opera Festival?
SM: Wexford is a fantastic place to come and sing. I know that this is a common narrative among singers who come here, but it is also true! Everyone is so supportive, the atmosphere in the town is very friendly, the people are helpful, so nice, so generous. This is my second year here, and I would love to return again next year.
They also give you so many opportunities. Last year I sang in two operas, “Il Bravo” and “Don Pasquale” as well as giving a recital, which I used to promote the musical heritage of my homeland. I sang many pieces by Polish composers. This year I performed the lead role in Bizet’s “Doctor Miracle,” as well as Mokanna in a concert performance of “The Veiled Prophet.”
I also had another opportunity to give a recital and this time I decided to learn an aria in Gaelic, from the opera “Eithne” by Robert O’Dwyer. I wanted to do this to show my gratitude and respect for the Irish people, who have shown me such kindness. It is also a very beautiful aria.
OW: Do you enjoy doing recitals?
SM: Recitals are always difficult and very challenging. You are on your own and feel very exposed. It is a very tiring experience. In Wexford, you engage with the audience a lot, you introduce each piece, explain its background and so on; this is another strain on the voice. Yet, singing a recital is very fulfilling, more so than an opera, after all it is just you and a pianist, and if it goes well you feel you have really achieved something.
Also programming a recital can be quite difficult as there as so many things to take into account. You have to make sure that the combination of pieces sits easily with voice; if you choose a piece which is relatively high, then follow it with one which is very low, it can be difficult for the voice. And, of course, you have to remember that you are performing for an audience, so you have to program the recital to suit them, and not yourself. I prefer contrasting pieces from different composers, in different languages as this always helps to keep the audience’s attention, even if on paper it seems to have little sense, but the audience understands.
OW: What are your future ambitions?
SM: At the moment, I am very happy. I am doing so many interesting things. I have a contract with La Scala as a cover. The audition went really well and I hope that one day I can eventually get a contract in the first cast.
As for Wagner, I have sung one Wagner role already, a small role in “Die Meistersingers,” and I would like to do more. I would love to sing the Beckmesser; he is a very funny character, and I love the contrast with the deep philosophy of Hans Sachs. Also I would like to perform Telramund one day, and I know I could sing Wolfram now.
I am slowly becoming established in Poland, and I would like to sing in my home country more often, and promote Polish music. This is very important for me! This year I will be singing my first Verdi role in “Aida” in Opole, in the south-west of the country. Then I will be singing in Warsaw, in a concert performance of “Casanova” by Ludomir Różycki. In November, I will be doing a competition in Bydgoszcz.
There are many roles I would love to sing, such as Prince Yeletski form “Queen of Spades” or Robert in “Yolanta.” But if I had to choose one role it would be Marquis de Posa from “Don Carlo,” which I would love to perform at the Arena in Verona, so my teacher can have the opportunity to see me sing on stage.