A New American Opera
Performing as: Ignace
Friday, October 18th, 2019
@ 7:00 PM
Niezłomnych 1E, 61-894
3 PADEREWSKIS Program Notes – Oliver Mayer
I confess, I did not know a lot about Ignace Jan Paderewski until this opera came to be. When Joanna Klass from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute first told me about the Paderewski Musical Project, I did what most people would do nowadays when confronted by something new, foreign and polysyllabic: I Googled him. Walking to my car in downtown Los Angeles, staring at the screen on my phone, I poured over Paderewski’s chock-full biography, scrutinized photos of him — at first young, long-haired and rock-star hot; then middle-aged, authoritative and masterful; and finally sagacious, twinkly and Buddha-like as an old man — and said out loud to no one in particular, “If I write about him, I’m going to need three Paderewskis!” And so the title was born, well before a single line was written.
There is no reason to write about the past unless you have a need to somehow compare it to the problems of the present moment. Therefore, it was not hard to imagine the tumultuous life and times of Paderewski and write his story, precisely because of the growing tumult in our own lives and times, both here in the United States and abroad. Writing about a life in exile means a great deal when our own country presently rescinds asylum for immigrants from war-torn and annexed regions of the world. Working tirelessly towards the dream of a liberated Polish nation may have been Paderewski’s greatest gift to the world, but the dreams for peace and nationhood of our current international emigres are gifts that the world may never get to open. The fine line between patriotism and provincialism may have tripped up Prime Minister Paderewski in his day, but this same trip wire threatens to flip us head over keister in the politics of our immediate present, both in the US and in Poland. Writing about Paderewski helped me to see myself and my world. Because of his individual and unmistakable greatness — his prodigious musical talent, his ability to lead others, not to mention his knack at making championship Zinfandel wine — writing about Paderewski allowed me to express hope, aspiration, and an abiding love for the good of humanity, even with calamity hovering near.
As a writer of color, I was drawn to Paderewski’s otherness — exotic in name and appearance, sexualized by audiences and the press, never fully understood. To dramatize this (and also to make the most of singing opportunities), I decided that one of the Paderewskis must be female; one of the secrets to his greatness at the piano and otherwise was his balance of fire and tenderness, virility and cultivation. Listening to him play, I heard and felt immense nostalgia and grief, not simply for a faraway homeland, but for lost love. Although happily married for much of his life, Paderewski’s beloved first wife Antonina died in childbirth at 20. In his memoirs, he barely speaks of her, admitting that he never really got over her death. I don’t believe that you ever quite get over such loss of life and love. But great artists take loss and a find a way to consecrate it in their chosen vocation. It was my great honor to write about how Paderewski dedicated his life’s work to the spirit of this love. The poetry flowed.
Perhaps most exciting for me was writing about an artist empowered to change the world. We live in a time where many artists fight to exist, much less be seen and heard, beset by nihilistic inner thoughts and constant belittling, infantilizing and jeering from others – particularly when they try to address politics in a serious way. Paderewski would have none of that. His example is a clarion call and a meaningful survival strategy for us all. Without hope, there is no reason to fight. Of course, along the way, he had his doubts and defeats. But the telling of his life and love empowers us.
After Googling Paderewski, the single smartest thing I did was to contact my composer and friend Jenni Brandon. We have worked well together on projects before, and we vibe when it comes to our shared hope and optimism, even in the face of darkness. Paderewski inspired us both to give voice not only to a great artist, but a true patriot and a messenger of global peace. Our words and music are meant as a toast to life, a pledge to celebrate and remember who we have been — and who we still might be.
Special thanks to Marek Zebrowski and Krysta Close from USC’s Polish Music Center, Joanna Klass from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Eva Sobelevski, Jim O’Quinn, Przemysław Kieliszewski, Andrzej Hamerski, Renae Williams-Niles, Jon Lawrence Rivera, and the Paso Robles Paderewski Festival for their help along the way. One more great big thank you to our director and friend David Bridel.
And thanks to you for opening your heart to not one, but three Paderewskis. May they inspire you too.
Oliver Mayer, librettist