10 Questions for Adrianne Pieczonka: beyond the aria

Adrianne Pieczonka is one of Toronto’s treasures, a fabulous ambassador for Canada when she sings abroad.

I first encountered her in Atom Egoyan’s Die Walkure with the Canadian Opera Company, a vocal and dramatic interpretation so compelling that it was as
though she hijacked the production. Everything was about Sieglinde because she made you forget everyone else. Her Ariadne changed the way i think about that sad mournful character, the most joyous Ariadne I ever saw.

The bio on her website proclaims the basic facts:

Internationally acclaimed for her interpretations of Wagner, Strauss, Verdi and Puccini, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka has brought to life such powerful women as Senta, Chrysothemis, Sieglinde, the Marschallin, the Kaiserin, Tosca, Elisabetta, and Amelia on leading opera and concert stages in Europe, North America and Asia.

Performances have taken her to New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna Staatsoper, ROH Covent Garden, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Munich Frankfurt, Los Angeles, and La Scala, as well as at some of Europe’s finest summer festivals including Salzburg, Bayreuth, Glyndebourne and Aix-en-Provence under the direction of such conductors as James Levine, Riccardo Muti, Zubin Mehta, Sir Neville Marriner, Claudio Abbado, the late Richard Bradshaw, Lorin Maazel, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Anthony Pappano and the late Sir Georg Solti.

What the bio misses are the impossibilities she encompasses. You cared about Pieczonka’s Sieglinde, the most remarkable dramatic portrayal completed by that big powerful voice. Her Ariadne (or Tosca, or any of a number of other roles) seduced you with a sweet vulnerability that doesn’t usually happen with Olympian vocal production. These qualities are something you need to experience in person. We’ve been very fortunate here in Toronto.

And now Pieczonka goes in a different direction: “beyond the aria“. Soundstreams take her away from operatic portrayals in her upcoming program at Koerner Hall. I had to ask her ten questions: five about herself, and five more about this extraordinary concert.

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

I am more like my mother than my father. My mother studied English and drama at McMaster University and she attended the Banff School for the performing arts as well. She could have had a career as an actress and she certainly had a dramatic flair in general. She notably played the Wicked Witch of the West in an amateur production of The Wizard of Oz when I was a child. My sister played Toto and I was a Munchkin. She trained as a teacher and taught off and on while raising her four children.

She was interested in all the fine arts – she was a very good painter and she tried her hand at ceramics, flower arranging, etc. She was a gifted seamstress and made many of my clothes when I was young. She exposed her children to all sorts of artistic endeavours – as a child I studied ballet, jazz dance, piano, guitar, saxophone and of course later voice. My parents weren’t big opera lovers but they did have a subscription to the Hamilton Philharmonic and we attended regular concerts as a family. My parents enjoyed lighter musical fare: they enjoyed popular musicals and Pops-style classical music. Both of my parents were very supportive of my desire to study music as a child, in high school, and later at University. I was never told that I should perhaps study something more “reliable” at University in terms of future employment. I am really grateful for their support.

My father is an electrical engineer and has a very scientific, pragmatic mind. My mother was (she died in 2011) a highly emotional being and I’d say I am also a rather emotional person. I suppose my parents balanced each other out in this respect. People often found my mother “larger than life” and a bit intimidating. She was 5′ 10″ and liked to wear rather flamboyant clothes and styles.

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka (Photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka (Photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

2) What is the best thing about being a singer?

The best thing about being a singer is that I can earn a living doing something I truly love. Singing is something very special: it’s a physical thing but there is a large emotional element too. It’s also intimate and elusive. It’s a hugely satisfying thing, singing. It can be exhilarating and very daunting too. I am 52 now and I still learn new things every day. The learning never stops – be it regarding repertoire, technical aspects, etc. No day is the same – or year or month. I travel a lot and there is pleasure in this of course. I have had so many marvelous experiences during my nearly 30 year career.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I certainly don’t enjoy listening to or watching myself! I think there are other singers who feel this way. I have a few DVDs of operas I’ve performed in which I have never watched. I rarely listen to a CD I’ve made. I don’t often listen to opera in my free time. I do tune in on occasion to the MET broadcasts but I’ve never attended one of the HD performances in the cinema.

I love jazz and probably my favourite performers are pianist Bill Evans and singer Ella Fitzgerald. I love radio station 90.3 Espace Musique which plays the best jazz selections from 6-8 pm during the week and some nice classical programming on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I sadly don’t often listen to CBC Radio 2. I find the playlists way too bland. I lived for 11 years in London UK and loved BBC Radio 3. What amazing classical programming they do, 24/7, and all classical! It’s sad to think what has become of the classical programming at CBC. I enjoy watching TV and films. I don’t like blockbuster type action films. I love indie, often foreign films. I like dramas – often quite grim stories, but not gruesome/horror stuff.

Meryl Streep is my favourite actor of all time. I marvel at her body of work, her versatility and artistry. In terms of TV shows, I watch Nurse Jackie, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Better Call Saul, Fargo, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Mad Men, and Masters of Sex. I enjoy documentaries too. I’d say I watch a fair bit of TVO – what a wonderful station this is!!!

4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I wish I could speak Russian and Polish. I’ve sung a few roles in Russian and it’s the most gorgeous language, so satisfying! I tried to learn the language with some tapes but I failed badly! I can’t even read the Cyrillic alphabet. My father was born in Poland but we were not taught Polish as children. In Europe I often have people coming up asking if I speak Polish and I am always a bit embarrassed to say “nyet.”

5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

Probably playing with our cat, Shadow, is the best relaxation for me – he loves to play and he is very feisty and beautiful. He gives me and my family so much pleasure and we just adore him. There’s nothing more calming than watching him sleep or snuggling up beside him. I love to read and I also find cooking very relaxing. I’m a big tennis fan and watching a great tennis match is also a nice way to relax.


Adrianne Pieczonka (photo: Bo Huang)

Adrianne Pieczonka (photo: Bo Huang)

Five more about the upcoming concert with Soundstreams.

1) The program with Soundstreams is sub-titled “”Beyond the Aria”, a big change from what we are accustomed to hearing you sing, namely romantic opera. Could you speak for a moment about the importance you place on alternatives such as new music and how you feel singing such repertoire?

I am really excited about the Soundstreams concert. I performed Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children nearly 30 years ago (with the group before it became Soundstreams). I was still a student at U of T at the time. I’m sure Mary Morrison, with whom I then studied, was somehow instrumental in this engagement. I have not performed the piece since then, and so it’s quite interesting to revisit it after so many years. My career is comprised of 95% opera – I’ve just spent the past four months singing back to back Fidelio productions (in Madrid and Salzburg). The pressure to be “Beethoven perfect” for the performances – stylistically, vocally, etc, is huge. Everyone has an opinion of how the music should sound – from tempi to appogiaturi. There’s so much tradition with these composers, so much history and one could maybe describe it as “musical traditional baggage.” I find modern music much more liberating. It’s thrilling to use my voice in different ways. In Ancient Voices, I have to do trills, clicks, sighs, whispers, sirens, etc. I sound like a bird at times, trilling, whooping and flitting here and there. It’s exciting and there’s less pressure to be “perfect.” Of course, my voice is much more dramatic and rich than it was when I was a student at U of T in my early 20’s.

Compared to Krisztina Szabó and Barbara Hannigan, I have performed next to no modern music at all! I saw both Krisztina and Barbara in Written on Skin earlier this year and was really impressed by the entire performance. I must admit that revisiting the Crumb especially has made me think that I should try to do more contemporary music. I am thrilled that the COC will feature more contemporary (and Can con!) repertoire in the present and future seasons. I do think that audiences should sample contemporary music along with the standard romantic/ classical repertoire.

2) Please talk about the program you will be performing with Soundstreams Sept 29th.

The program will appeal to a wide audience. Ancient Voices of Children is by far the most “out there” contemporary piece I will perform at the concert. It will feature last on the program. It’s a setting of some gorgeous Lorca texts in Spanish and I find the piece very earthy, sensual, and extremely beautiful at times. The small ensemble of soprano, boy soprano, oboe, mandolin, prepared and electric piano, and percussion manages to make some really unique sounds. Often the chamber players are required to whisper, yell, chant and hum! Fun!

Krisztina and I will sing a few solo and duet arrangements of some American Songbook songs by Crumb as well. Like in the Beatles Songs which will follow, the audience should be familiar with these tunes: When the Saints Go Marching In, Dem Bones, etc. They are quirky and often humorous settings and I will need to count like mad!!!

I will also sing three Beatles Songs, arranged by Lucianio Berio for voice and small chamber ensemble. I have a lot of fun singing these as I grew up as a child/teenager listening to the Beatles. Again, it will be nice for the audience to hear these very familiar songs (which I guess are now classics themselves) in a unique setting.

3) Please talk about the difference for your voice preparing this kind of repertoire, especially Berio’s version of songs by Lennon & McCartney, as opposed to an operatic role.

I don’t exactly know how I will perform the Beatles/Berio songs – sometimes I practice them with more of an operatic sound but then I sing them with a more natural pop or folk sound. I think if they are sung too operatically, they can appear like a parody and I want to avoid this. Yesterday is one of my favourite songs of all time and I am pleased to be able to perform it with Soundstreams!

Ancient Voices of Children is by far the most challenging piece vocally. When I sang it as a student I’m sure I had more flexibility to my voice. I’ve sung lots of dramatic Wagner, Puccini, and Strauss over the past years and my voice has grown and matured. It’s more rich and dark than it was as a student. Some of the very high bird-like acrobatics in Ancient Voices will be challenging for sure. I am enjoying the process – trying to train my voice to be agile and fast. Again, I have sung nearly 20 performances of Fidelio over the past four months, so I am switching gears technically. I do love playing around with my voice to find the right effect for these songs – playing with vibrato, shading notes with volume, fluctuations, etc. Ancient Voices has a few high C’s and even a high D which is a stretch for my voice. I’m sure I’ll squeak something out! It’s different writing than say Amelia in Ballo by Verdi which also has a few high C’s. The writing in Verdi has longer lines, which rise and fall more naturally. Crumb uses the voice differently – he has it sounding like a loon, like a banshee, and jumps around more from style to style.

4) I’m one of many fans watching your development with baited breath, eager to see what you might do next. After that beautiful liebestod you sang with the Toronto Symphony earlier this year, I wonder if you are considering singing a Wagnerian role such as Brunnhilde or Isolde someday.

I really enjoyed trying the Liebestod for the first time with the TSO last March. I have been asked before to sing the role but the timing was never right. It’s a terribly long role, a veritable marathon – the first act alone is more than an hour and Isolde never stops singing! Acts 2 and 3 require other vocal requirements and I just don’t know if I am up to that challenge. The role of Isolde also lies on the low/middling side for a soprano. This is why you often find mezzos singing the role, for example. Waltraud Meier or Petra Lang. I have sung so many Wagner heroines (Freia, Eva, Elsa, Elisabeth, Sieglinde, Senta) that I am very content. Just Brunnhilde and Isolde elude me and I am OK with this. I am happy to let things unfold and see what happens in the next few years.

Something I am very excited about it is that I will perform Schubert’s Der Winterreise at the Schubertiade next summer in Austria. It’s a prestigious Lieder Festival and I gave a recital there for the first time in 2014. I have loved Winterreise since I was a student. I lived for six years in Vienna at the beginning of my career and I saw Christa Ludwig and Brigitte Fassbaender perform the cycle often. I was always very moved by the cycle being sung by a woman. I know traditionalists might disagree. I am singing it in the tenor key and it fits my voice very well. The text and melodies also suit my melancholy side. I have that slavic tendency to love things in minor keys. I do hope to perform the cycle in Toronto and elsewhere too.

5) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

Yes, I would love to mention the teachers who have been instrumental in my career. Mary Morrison was my teacher when I studied at U of T and for many years after, when I’d return to Canada from Europe. Mary initially enabled me to access the top of my vocal range. It was a thrilling time back then and she is now a dear friend whom I see often. I am full of admiration for her dedication to teaching over the years. I think she’s been teaching for nearly 50 years!! Wow. She continues to shape young aspiring singers at U of T and has worked with many fine artists who are enjoying major careers. She is the Grande Dame of Canadian contemporary music and she did expose me to some modern works as a student.

My next teacher was Hilde Zadek who was a leading soprano at the Vienna State Opera and elsewhere for many years. I moved to Vienna in 1989 and lived there until 1995. I have sung there regularly since then and often had lessons with Hilde when I was in town. Hilde will turn 98 in December and she is still going strong. She attended a performance of Fidelio in Salzburg this summer (she was a very fine Leonore herself) and it was just wonderful to see her again. She too is a dear friend. Hilde shaped many roles I performed in Vienna and elsewhere. She sang many of the same roles as I did – Donna Anna, The Marschallin, Tosca, Ariadne, Desdemona, Elisabetta, etc. It was wonderful that she could give me guidance on, for example, where to take breaths, or where the orchestra might be overly loud in a certain section, etc.

I lived from 1995 to 2005 in London. In London I discovered a teacher called Gita Denise. Gita sadly died about eight years ago. She was a Czech dramatic mezzo and she trained in Italy in the bel canto tradition. This was my first exposure to the bel canto style but it was fantastic for my Verdi roles etc. She gave me a lot of technical assurance and guidance as I progressed from my 30’s to my 40’s.

I now work with my wife, Laura Tucker. Laura is a wonderful mezzo soprano but also a gifted voice teacher at U of T. We started to work together regularly about 18 months ago and it has been hugely helpful. Previously it was not always easy to work together. Tempers or egos would flare and up and it made working together impossible. But, something shifted and now we work together beautifully. She knows my voice inside and out and I trust her ears 100%. It’s quite a special thing to have a professional and private relationship!


Adrianne Pieczonka: Beyond the Aria

September 29, 2015 at 8:00 pm
Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, 273 Bloor Street West
Adrianne Pieczonka, soprano;
Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano;
boy soprano; chamber ensemble,
Conducted by Leslie Dala

George Crumb Selections from American Songbook
George Crumb Ancient Voices of Children
John Lennon, Paul McCartney Beatles Songs, arr. by Luciano Berio
Analia Lludgar Romance de la luna, luna (world premiere)
A pre-show chat with Artistic Director Lawrence Cherney will be held at 7:00 pm before the performance.

Tickets range from $37.50-$67.50 and are available through The Royal Conservatory Box Office at 416-408-0208 or online at soundstreams.ca. This concert will be streamed live at soundstreams.ca.  Click image for tickets & further information.

This entry was posted in Interviews, Music and musicology, Opera. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to 10 Questions for Adrianne Pieczonka: beyond the aria

  1. Pingback: Soundstreams: Beyond the Aria but not beyond Virtuosity | barczablog

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