Audiences flock to hear a voice from the past

Ewa Podles stages a one-woman revival of the age of contraltos

Classical Music

October 17, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If you didn't see the wide smile on her face, you might suspect this Polish singer of severe diva-itis. But she's just having fun, and, come to think of it, she's really not even stretching the truth too far in the process.

With a 3 1/2 -octave range that stretches from baritonal depths up to a high mezzo's rarefied realm, Podles boasts one of the rarest and most visceral of voice types - the true contralto. But that's just the beginning.

Add in a stunningly rich sound, agility to sail through the elaborately ornamented style of coloratura singing, and a wonderfully extroverted personality, and you've got what pianist (and occasional Podles accompanist) Garrick Ohlsson calls "a force of nature."

Podles, 51, who makes her Baltimore debut tonight in a recital for the Shriver Hall Concert Series, produces a sound that, as the Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns put it recently, "seems to be from another gender, another world, another century."

You have to go back to such rarities as Marian Anderson, Clara Butt and Ernestine Schumann-Heink to get a sense of what the fuss is all about.

"I don't know why there aren't more contraltos today," Podles says, looking elegant and relaxed in the lobby of a Baltimore hotel. "It seems we go through periods. There will be a period of beautiful tenors, then baritones. The 19th century was the period for many, many wonderful, famous contraltos."

Nearly masculine

Oddly, the first teachers that heard Podles (POHD-lesh) in Warsaw misread her talent completely. They thought she was a soprano. "My mother said they were stupid," Podles says. "She was the first to recognize that I was a contralto."

And her mother would know - she was a successful contralto in Poland herself. "My mother sang so beautifully," Podles says. "My father liked to sing, but he shouldn't have. He was tone-deaf."

Those initial teachers must have been a little tone-deaf, too. Perhaps they couldn't understand how a voice with solid high notes wasn't a soprano or at least a mezzo. Maybe they just didn't know what to do with a young woman who could descend the scale so forcefully that she produced a nearly masculine sound.

"I have a great chest register," Podles says. "I was born with it. It's very natural. Some people think it sounds strange, but maybe it is the first time they heard a natural low voice. Some other singers try low notes but can't really get them, so they develop an artificial low register."

Initially Podles had only the low end and the high under control. "The middle was" - she makes the international hand gesture for so-so. "But my mother told me I would develop that in time, and I did. My voice is really three voices together."

Although she took home prizes from several international competitions, Podles did not have an easy time getting her career started. "When opera companies heard me sing coloratura, they said they needed dramatic singers," she says. "When I sang dramatic repertoire, they said they needed coloratura singers. It took time to explain that I can do both."

Today her repertoire ranges from Handel and Rossini, where that coloratura facility shines, to Verdi and Wagner, where her flair for drama gives her an edge. A female singer equally at home in baroque and Wagnerian territories, not to mention Mussorgsky, Mahler, Stravinsky, and Shchedrin, does not come around every day. No wonder Podles feels omnipotent.

`Thank God I am alive"

Her confidence was badly shaken, though, after a serious car accident in May 2003. It happened while being driven to Albuquerque, N.M., from a performance in Santa Fe. The driver - "a little old lady who shouldn't be driving" - changed lanes suddenly and hit another vehicle.

"The car rolled over four times," Podles says. "I flew through the window and landed 50 meters from the car in the middle of the highway." The contralto, who spent four months in the hospital, still has small glass shards lodged in her head, as well as arm and shoulder pain.

"I kept saying, why me? The accident will never be completely behind me; it often replays in front of my eyes. But thank God I am alive."

Sel Kardan is thankful, too. He's director of the Shriver Hall Concert Series, where Podles will sing works by Rossini, Chopin, Brahms and Rachmaninoff, accompanied by her stepdaughter Ania Marchwinska.

"She has been on our wish list for a long time," Kardan says. "Ewa Podles is one of the great voices of our time. She's not just a great opera singer but a great recitalist with very interesting repertoire. Vocal recitals are usually the hardest for us to sell, but the response has been just amazing. We've had more calls for Podles tickets than anyone else this season."

Folks at Milwaukee's Florentine Opera are no doubt also delighted with Podles' recovery; she makes her role debut as the witch Azucena in Verdi's Il Trovatore with that company next month.

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