Bellini 101

Were it not for the fact that I had been assisted in choosing pastries for the reception following the program by an enthusiastic set of two considerably younger siblings, I could have easily been led to believe that I was attending a lecture presented at a most prominent college of arts and humanities. The Symposium, which took place at our very own Polish American Cultural Center on Sunday, November 16, 2003, at 4:00 pm, was presented, as noted during the open discussion Dr. Jerzy Maciuszko, by several of the most distinguished scholars from the entire city of Cleveland. Opened by none other than Mr. Robert Finn, former Plain Dealer music critic, a position he successfully filled for 27 years, it was continued by Dr. Peter Laki. Only someone of his cultivated breadth of knowledge could have been able to undertake the Herculean task he considers his daily work: to write weekly program notes for the Cleveland Orchestra, a feat most appropriately compared by Mr. David Krakowski to writing a Master’s thesis a week. For his part, Mr. Krakowski, best known to us from his seemingly endless myriad of abilities as music director and organist at St. Stanislaus Church, participated in the Symposium as moderator, alternately presenting the leading speakers and deftly maneuvering the course of the broad discussion. How fittingly he introduced the final guest, not to mention the one most dear to our hearts: the master of the bel canto or canto legato school of singing Dr. Dorota Sobieska.

The main topic of discussion was La Straniera, the Bellini opera most recently staged in Cleveland by the Opera Circle, an organization directed by Dr. Sobieska herself together with her husband Mr. Jacek Sobieski. The ensuing conversation, however, was not limited to the single work in question. The goal of the Symposium was to enrich the perception of La Straniera by means of providing a larger philosophical, as well as poetic and musical, background; in short, by means of expanding our artistic vision. Therefore, during the course of the subsequent open discussion involving the members of the audience, equally appropriate was the question of Mr. Harry Herforth, former university professor and trumpet player for the Cleveland Orchestra, regarding the genesis of two later operas, Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and Berg’s Wozzeck, as that of Dr. Elżbieta Ulanowska, who of course regularly expands her involvement in the Polish community by way of a generous sample of articles contributed to Forum, regarding upcoming premieres of Opera Circle crafted by the quill of maestro Bellini.

In due course, the open discussion came to a close or rather transformed itself into pockets of informal conversation on artistic topics mingled with the vigorous consumption of flaky Italian pastry. The heterogeneous audience of roughly forty circled the dessert table considerably longer than common courtesy alone would have required before the crowd gradually began to diminish, trickling away one or two participants at a time. By far the loftiest recognition for perseverance belongs to Mr. Kwiatkowski and Dr. Mordarski who, well over an hour after the end of the Symposium, were still discussing aesthetics in the corner of the Cultural Center parking lot, their voices reflecting from the black asphalt into the raw November air.

As for my younger siblings, it is to be understood that the Italian bakery was treated with considerably more excitement than the subsequent dose of philosophical discourse. Nevertheless, my seven-year-old brother Julian listened attentively, in particular when Dr. Laki explained how historical fact inspired the French novel L’étrangère, which in turn became the basis for the libretto to La Straniera. And on the trip home that night, my younger sister Ola, who had recently turned eleven, nonchalantly summarized the highlights of the Symposium from the back seat of our raspberry red Ford Contour rolling along interstate 480. Matter-of-fact tone at hand, she stated that the Symposium had first featured Mr. Robert Finn, who had defined music as the most important element in opera and furthermore had argued that although the plots of many operas arouse scarce credibility at first glance, the music renders their content completely believable, even to the extent that they seem more real than reality. Meanwhile Mom, that is Dr. Sobieska, had spoken of blank or empty spaces in which our imagination is free to build its individual interpretation of a given work, as well as of secrets that we all take with us to the grave. Unknown.

Dr. Laki meanwhile had noted a certain imbalance in La Straniera in keeping with the spirit of Romanticism caused by the instability of the relationship between the heroine and the tenor, and an adjusted perception of time required to experience art as opposed to reality, as in the instance of an aria sung by a character that is dying.

The comment brought to mind a remark made by Claire Lang, a kindly acquainted volunteer member of Opera Circle. She had ended the public discussion reflecting on the final words of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello. Thanks to her, the Symposium ended not by a statement but with a question, to this day awaiting a response.

“When, if not in the arts, is there ever time, is there ever opportunity to gain a deeper insight into human nature; to simply stop and think a deeper thought?”

Wanda Sobieska

Forum, 1/2004