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Polish pride on Sarasota stage

For the first time in 50 years, Halka, the national opera of Poland, is being performed by a U.S. company.

Published February 1, 2007


Polish-Canadian soprano Maria Knapik feels a sense of pride to be singing the title role in Halka, the national Polish opera by Stanislaw Moniuszko, which opens Saturday night at Sarasota Opera.

"It is a great occasion for all of the Polish people and for opera lovers who don't have a chance to see this opera very often and for me, of course," Knapik said last week.

Premiered in 1858, when Poland was partitioned by Russia, Germany and Austria, Moniuszko's opera reflected the conflicts and inequities of the time. Always popular in Poland, where every schoolchild is taken to the work, it is rarely performed elsewhere. The Sarasota production is billed as the first by a U.S. company in 50 years.

"In this opera you will see people longing for liberty, for freedom," Knapik said. "But you will not see it openly because Poland was under oppression. Nothing of these emotions could really be demonstrated because they could not get past the censors."

Set in a mountain village, the opera concerns the peasant Halka's love for a nobleman who seduces and then abandons her. Halka, who had a child by the man, kills herself when he marries another woman.

Knapik likens Halka to another tragic opera heroine, the title character in Puccini's Madama Butterfly. "Some of the psychological motifs are similar because both Butterfly and Halka prefer, instead of losing their dream, to lose their life," she said. "Butterfly says that when one cannot live any longer with honor, one has to die with honor, and Halka feels the same."

Vocally, Knapik compares the role to the title role in Verdi's La Traviata, with its mix of lyrical and dramatic singing, a challenging combination for a soprano.

"It's almost like two different parts," she said. "That's what makes it a difficult role and difficult to find sopranos who have that ability to maneuver in their voice."

Knapik, born in Krakow, Poland, is the youngest of eight sisters and was part of a popular family ensemble called the Eight Knapik Sisters, which performed frequently on Polish radio and TV and on tours. The sisters wore colorful folk costumes and performed traditional polkas, polonaises and mazurkas.

Along with Halka, Knapik has performed the soprano roles in two other Moniuszko operas, The Countess and The Haunted Manor. Now living in Ottawa, she mainly sings Italian opera, including the title roles in Alzira and Joan of Arc, Nedda in Pagliacci and Mimi in La Boheme.

Sarasota Opera is going all out for Polish authenticity in the production, conducted by David Neely and directed by Pat Diamond. The cast includes dancers from Chicago's Lira Ensemble, which specializes in Polish music, song and dance. Renowned Polish soprano Teresa Kubiak will be a guest of honor on opening night. Polish-themed events are planned at the Ringling Museum of Art, Selby Library and the Sarasota Film Society.

"For me, there is some pressure," said Knapik, the only Polish-speaking principal in the opera, which is sung in Polish, with English supertitles projected above the stage. "Even if somebody doesn't know this opera, they will know what is good or what is bad. I feel a responsibility and excitement to give of myself to make it as successful as possible."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or



The opera by Stanislaw Moniuszko has eight performances at 8 p.m. Saturday, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 16 and 21 and March 3; and 1:30 p.m. Feb. 11 and 24 at Sarasota Opera. $22-$109. (941) 366-8450 or toll-free 1-888-673-7212;



[Last modified January 31, 2007, 10:04:03]

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