Polish bass-baritone Krzysztof Szumanski joined the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists Programme in September 2006. After numerous appearances on the main stage in small roles, he has become one of the programme's most recognisable figures. On 18, 19 and 20 October 2007 he will play Gasparo in Donizetti's Rita in the Linbury Studio Theatre as part of the 'Meet the Young Artists Week', a series of mostly free concerts and workshops that allow the public to interact with members of the programme in various ways.
Szumanski took time off in the middle of rehearsals for Rita to tell me all about the neglected opera - and why he thinks the Royal Opera's Young Artists Programme is quite simply the best in the world.
Lasting only fifty minutes, Donizetti's one-act comedy Rita is rarely performed, so Szumanski describes its savagely witty plot. 'It's not a politically correct story! It's about a husband who likes to slap his wife to make her obey him. His motto is 'beat her enough to keep her at bay, but don't let her die'. It's a very funny story, though. One day, the husband, Gasparo, is taking a trip by boat but there's a huge storm on the sea and the boat is shipwrecked. He survives, somehow, but he's presumed dead. At the same time, there's a fire in the village where his wife Rita lives. So each thinks the other to be dead. A while later, Gasparo has fallen in love with someone else in Canada, but he needs a death certificate to prove that Rita is dead. So he goes back to Italy to find the evidence. He finds a tavern to stay in, and notices that the innkeeper has bruises on his face. It turns out that Rita is living there with her new husband, Beppe - only now, Rita beats Beppe! She recognises Gasparo, and the opera is about how the three of them resolve their situation.'
Donizetti's operas, especially the comedies, are sometimes looked on as entertaining but vacuous. Does Szumanski feel Rita has a 'message'? 'I don't know; you can play it in different ways. Certainly, Gasparo's advice to Beppe about beating women is not a good message! But I think we can find other things in this story. For instance, the opera tells us to find a balance in our relationships. By the end, the characters learn to argue with one another verbally, rather than hitting each other.
'The production is absolutely great, because it's set in Italy in the 1950s. It's modern, but not too modern, and it's a coffee bar instead of a tavern. I think it will be a lot of fun - we're all very comfortable as colleagues on the stage, and the Southbank Sinfonia is excellent.
'The music is very funny. Sometimes it resembles Rossini very closely, but Donizetti makes it his own. He hadn't written anything for a month and was desperate to compose something new, so he asked for a comic libretto - and he wrote the piece within a week! It's an amazing achievement. It's great to show people that Rita exists and I think the audience will love it.'
Szumanski describes his character, Gasparo, as 'a sort of macho - a tough guy who travels a lot. He's in charge all the time. He bosses everyone around. He's never weak. Gasparo is not nasty - he's just an Italian macho. He's a bit difficult for me to play, because I'm not like that. I'm trying to learn how to find it in my posture. We're doing a lot of dialogue, which is another challenge. When you sing an aria it's easy, because the music helps you. Dialogue means you have to perform as an actor, which means you have to understand your character really well.'
The production of Rita features a number of Young Artists, both on stage and off. Szumanski enthuses about his colleagues: 'Rita, the main character, is played by the soprano Anita Watson, who's new to the programme and excellent. I think she'll be great as Rita. Beppe is my friend Haoyin Xue. He has lots of high tenor arias, with C sharps - it's like La fille du regiment. He is absolutely great on stage and I'm sure the audience will enjoy hearing him. Tom Guthrie, the director, is also new to the programme. He has lots of skills - how to direct us, how to help us to find the character. He's very precise about putting the correct emotion into everything we do. I'm pleased that we're doing a lot of detailed work, because we're all young and we need the discipline and the help, especially with the dialogue. The conductor is Andrew Griffiths, who is very knowledgeable. He's also assisting the Ring Cycle, so he's a busy man!'
Although he now works in one of the greatest opera houses in the world, Krzysztof Szumanski's initial leanings were in a slightly different direction. 'I always wanted to be an actor. I went to two grammar schools and then I wanted to go to the drama academy. But one of our teachers discovered that I had a big voice, so I went to study singing for three years. I started as a high tenor with my first singing teacher, then later became a bass-baritone. I had one lesson a week during high school. Then I decided to try and get into the music academy and they wanted me, so I went for it. Being an opera singer is more difficult than being an actor, and I found it great fun. Many more emotions are involved; it's a bigger pleasure. I treat this job much more seriously than I think I would if I were an actor.'
Remarkably, Szumanski's move to England from his native Poland was a complete accident. 'I passed my audition to get into the National Opera Studio. I wanted to do a short course before starting my professional career, and I had a long list of different opera studios in Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere. Basically, the National Opera Studio was first on my list, I got in, and I didn't look for another one! I was lucky. While I was at the NOS, I passed the audition to get into the Royal Opera House scheme, and here I am!'
It seems to be with complete sincerity that Szumanski declares that 'this is the best Young Artists programme in the whole world. It gives you everything you could want or need. Personal training; gym membership; language coaching; piano lessons; acting classes. They provide you with everything. We also have money to buy music scores. It's absolutely brilliant. Last season I prepared eight roles and sang five of them. That's amazing because on this particular stage, there are no small roles. Even ten words are very noticeable. You can't make any mistakes. You might be waiting three hours to sing ten words, and you don't just have to get over the stress, you also have to learn how to be prepared. It's an excellent exercise.
'It's also very, very hard work. We work thirteen hours a day sometimes - it's endless, but it teaches you everything.
'This is the best opera house in the world and working with the music staff, directors, conductors and stage staff is so interesting. You learn so much - you even learn how to learn things quickly. It's a very complete experience. I know many young singers who are in similar programmes in other houses, but the amount of help and support we get at Covent Garden is much greater than in any other.'
This year, we've already seen Szumanski in Iphigénie en Tauride; November will find him covering the role of Dulcamara in the new production of L'elisir d'amore ('I'd like to cover Belcore instead because it's more of a lyrical role, but my friend Jacques Imbrailo is doing it!'). He's also doing the Second Knight in Parsifal with Haitink in December. But the role he's really looking forward to is Starveling in a revival of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the Linbury Studio Theatre with a number of Young Artists both past and present, including Andrew Kennedy and Katie van Kooten. 'It's such a beautiful opera. I really love it.' Szumanski also appears in the substantial role of Pietro in Simon Boccanegra next year under Sir John Eliot Gardiner, as well as the Flemish Deputy in Don Carlo with Simon Keenlyside and covering Sciarrone in Tosca and Nick Shadow in The Rake's Progress.
'At the moment', says Szumanski, 'music means everything to me. I can't stand a minute without it. I listen to all styles, including heavy metal, rap, electronic music and dance music. Opera singers shouldn't be closed-minded and just listen to opera. I listen to Mahler and Strauss as well as opera. Young artists must listen to as much music as possible. It gives you more knowledge of what it's possible to do'. He says he'd like to sing mainly lyric roles while he's in his thirties - 'now is not the time to sing Scarpia or Rigoletto' - and includes Don Giovanni, Escamillo and the Villains in Les Contes d'Hoffman as parts he would like to play.
Throughout the interview, Szumanski's enthusiasm for the Royal Opera House spills into nearly every sentence. 'Of course it's tiring. Sometimes I have to sleep all weekend to recover. But it's not work in the sense of office work. You must enjoy it, otherwise you'll get bored and be even more tired. We get to work with some of the greatest artists in the world. How can you not enjoy it?'
Krzysztof Szumanski appears in Donizetti's Rita at the Royal Opera House on 18, 19 and 20 October 2007. Some tickets remain for this bel canto rarity.
The unmissable Meet the Young Artists Week runs from Monday 15 October to Sunday 21 October 2007.
Read other recent interviews with singers such as Rosalind Plowright, Susan Graham, Sally Burgess and Marcello Giordani here.
Photo: Johan Persson