My grandmother and Jurij Gagarin: interview with Maria Magdalena Kozłowska, at Santarcanglo Festival

ph Jan Tomza Osiecki


At Teatro Galli in Rimini we saw her COMMUNE, presented for the first time in Italy in the frame of Santarcangelo Festival 2022.

As more than regular frequenters of theaters and festivals for many years, we were completely enchanted by this creation that resembled nothing compared to what we normally encounter. This is why we decided to have a dialogue with Maria Magdalena Kozłowska, to get to know her creative universe a little better.

First of all: we know that there is an episode that links your grandmother and Jurij Gagarin, the astronaut to whom we dedicated the name of our magazine. Can you tell us about it?

In 1961 Gagarin was invited to my hometown, Zielona Góra, for the opening of a technical school named after him. He came in person, even though there were probably plenty of institutions carrying his name at the time. It was a big deal and a big crowd gathered in front of the school. My grandmother was also there, pregnant with my father. At the end of the ceremony, Gagarin got some flowers. He decided to throw them into the crowd, in a somewhat bridal gesture. My grandma caught the bouquet, at least this is her version of the story. She often romanticizes her memories of communist times and still dreams about marching youths, singing songs of joy and togetherness. She worked in the high management of the Polish Red Cross and she had an impressive carreer for a woman from a small village, so she must have been really tough. But she also had a soft spot for all kinds of spectacles, which made her love parades, official ceremonies and revolutionary songs sung by hundreds of throats. Her enthusiasm never went out.

To introduce yourself to the readers of Gagarin Magazine: can you name three of your reference points and three things you can’t stand, in the word of arts and culture?

To introduce my insubordinate spirit, I will start with an ambivalence, which will cover both categories: opera. I adore it and I also hate it the most. I think that the human voice conveys a testimony of the emotional, spiritual and corporal truth. However, it can be also entangled into a conservative, classist context, where its power is jeopardised. This I really cannot stand – restricting the voice and its potentiality. I’m also generally concerned by the precarious character of the artist’s life. We’re under huge pressure when it comes to our work, while often not being able to sustain ourselves. I’m very much in favor of the idea of the Universal Basic Income. People are much more productive when they don’t have to worry about the food or rent. Also: I hate it when classical musicians play pop songs or motives from films. That always makes me cringe. That’s technically four things, but the last one we can treat as a little ice breaker before the positive part: some artists work so beautifully with the political aspect of voice and language, such as Lawrence Abu Hamdan. He’s like a detective, diving into language as into a living, sensitive matter. I love the work where he shows how a specificity of an accent can play a crucial part in forensic investigation.

Besides that… well, I enjoy the poetics of the internet. The anarchist nonchalance of the coexistence of things of different cultural tone, which don’t belong together, agrees with me, as well as the ultra vernacular language used online. The internet is a never ending speculation, where anything can happen, also very real and dangerous things, but that’s what makes it interesting. I think one could see that interest in the montage of my pieces – fast and sometimes taking unexpected turn. I’m open to randomness and dead ends.


ph Jan Tomza-Osiecki


If you had to tell what happens in COMMUNE to a person distant from the languages and weirdness of contemporary theater what would you say?

COMMUNE is an attempt to reclaim women’s bodies in opera, by introducing their physiology and gaze. In the beginning we meet a gang of masked female musicians. They feel the need to express their rage, but lack the means to do so. They create a musical ritual in order to summon the Communist Grandma. She shows them that opera is a perfect way to channel one’s anger, since it offers numerous ways to efficiently raise one’s voice. The spell affects also the instrumentalists. In the following scenes, the musicians make an effort to expand their performance. Instead of choosing traditional stillness, they play in complicated poses, which does not equal resignation from virtuosity. On the contrary – their passion for music becomes truly embodied. The spectator can expect more classical arias and duos, but also contemporary music and improvisation. COMMUNE is a body-positive, emancipatory opera. No one is suffering here, nobody dies of unrequited love. Instead, the musicians celebrate the fluidity of their bodies.

Just as we oppose the orthodox regimes of performing music on stage, we also challenge the idea of a dry, contained body. We invite people into porosity, which encourages the voice to “explode through every whole of the body, so it becomes a fountain”. In general, the water is topical in the piece, as it appears also as a porte parole of the possible ecological disaster. The conclusion could be such – policing the body keeps us away from seeing the future, which will influence our reality in a very brutal way.

According to what directorial principles did you combine elements of the past and of the present (of art history, society and beyond) in this show?

I work very intuitively, introducing the logics of dreams and memories into my work. Sometimes it’s a juxtaposition that creates a cognitive discomfort – a presque vu, a jamais vu. Something that looks familiar, but feels foreign, or the other way around. My imagination absorbs facts and images, organises them according to a principle of acuteness, and then spits them out as new universes. Sense of humor is an important quality of my work, some of it you might call satirical, but it’s never that simple. I like traveling between affects.

Art is a game, which prevails over time. Artists have been playing with certain issues and motives for centuries, overwriting someone elses method, copying it with variations. We rework, transform and reenact, commenting on contemporary reality, but also creating it. It’s a bit like Talmud or Wikipedia, but there is no volume or book where you can find the rules, or the outcome. The game is a living tissue, nurtured by all the players. So, as artists, we are in constant dialogue with the living and the dead equally. When I quote Händel, I also quote all the times when someone sang Un pensiero nemico di pace and add my own layer.


ph Pietro Bertora


In your practice, and particularly in the case of COMMUNE, how much do you plan in advance and how much comes about in relation to your work with artists? And how do you select what you will keep from what you will discard, among the materials that are gradually created?

Well, I usually start with choosing people to work with. In the case of COMMUNE, I was interested in classically trained musicians, willing to expand their habitual ways of performing, without losing the skill. I started working with two flutists: Teresa Costa and Beatrice Miniaci and together we created the first sketch of the piece. They are both great musicians, as well as fantastic improvisers. They found their scenic style through their relationship with music. Even when they sing or dance, it’s somehow their variation on playing the flute. Having created the first draft, we got invited by Frascati Theatre in Amsterdam to create a longer piece out of it. I wanted our COMMUNE to grow, so we invited Aleksandra Wtorek – a young and passionate percussionist, who added some rhythm to the soundscape of the piece. And, of course, I was looking for the perfect communist grandma. I wanted to work with a countertenor to actually play with the high pitch and gender. I was extremely lucky to find Maayan Licht – a male soprano, a voice even higher than a countertenor. Maayan is a true divo, whose voice is absolutely sublime and makes people cry every time he sings. He also happens to have a great sense of humour, which makes him a great performer. So when in the piece he sings about a washing machine or scorns the granddoughter for buying too much, it’s hilariuos and you want your mundane life to sound just like that.

The piece was also influenced by the imagination of Jan Tomza-Osiecki, who designed the costumes and set design. In his vision, the well-known aesthetics of communist ceremonies become much darker, but also humorous – something of a dreamy, twisted playground. Inspired by hydrofeminism and its focus on porosity and fluidity, he created water lenses which deform my face while I introduce the audience to our community. The costumes turn operatic suffering on its head – streams of neon hair flow from below our eyes instead of tears, while our bodies burst with flowers and decorations exactly in the places we tend to hide the most.

In my performers, I’m looking for an unexpected combination of qualities – balancing them usually becomes the engine of the work. I usually come to a rehearsal well prepared – I know what I’m looking for – an image, a sound, combined with a certain emotion. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right way to get there.

First time in Italy: what differences have you found, in the reception of your work, compared to other countries?

I love Italy, I love the Italian audience. People understand the jokes, are curious about the unknown and open to eccentricity. I had a feeling that the Italian audience received the work on a very organic level; maybe because opera was born here. It’s holy and celebrated, but it’s also well grounded, so making fun of it still counts as love towards it. Someone even shouted “Brava!” at the end of the piece; believe me – it was dreamy to hear it, even if it was somewhat ironic. The context of Santarcangelo Festival, of course, brings the professional, international audience to the venues, but our show was attended also by the inhabitants of Rimini, all dressed up and elegant. I hope they liked it. I was so moved to be able to show the piece in such a context. The lavishing, lush interior of Teatro Galli highlighted the opera buffa references and provided a platform for a dialog between the musical tradition and the contemporary needs. I really hope to have more opportunities to work in Italy.

In Italy, despite being its “homeland” (or perhaps because of it), opera is often perceived as something old and boring – can you tell us about your Opera to the People project and explain what relevance does that world have nowadays, in your opinion?

The world of opera is one of the last bastions of conservative art. Dance and theatre have seen several revolutions, (not to mention constant self-evaluation of the visual arts), while opera still tends to be white and classist. I have a feeling that there is a lot to reclaim, especially by the singers themselves. I hope it’s possible to create a new circuit, so the performers can escape the trap of the strictly codified, stuffy environment, without being forced to live on the fringes of their own craft. Don’t get me wrong – I love the absolute artificiality of the worlds created in opera, but I want to bring some realness into them.

My roots are in performance, in the context of visual art. Even when I work with artificiality, like in opera, I’m interested in mindful presence, authenticity and certain roughness. I made an operatic video once, where a soprano, Wanda Karpińska, sings Ah, mio cor from Händel’s Alcina while taking out the garbage. Her voice reverberates beautifully in a hallway of a typical soviet block of flats. She moves slowly, struck by heartbreak, wearing an adidas suit and smoking a cigarette. It doesn’t take anything away from the aria; instead it finds the operatic grandiosity in the everyday life of a working class women, whose suffering is no less dramatic than the one of Händel’s heroine. Singing opera is like aestheticised crying.

Opera to the People is also kept in the spirit of celebrating the dramatic aspect of everyday life. As a Covid-proof project, it was supported by the Fonds Podiumkunsten to be shown on the canals of Amsterdam in 2021. We were sailing in a small boat, along with Jan Tomza-Osiecki and Pankaj Tiwari. I was wearing a spectacular, huge costume, which probably contrasted with the experimental songs and sounds with which I was mapping the acoustics of the city. We did it also on the waters of Berlin and Zurich, in the frame of Montag Modus and Gessnerallee. I’m fascinated by the urban landscape, especially its bodies of water. The voice reverberates differently in different contexts – sometimes the whole city can hear it, sometimes it’s frustratingly muffled. This socio-acoustic adventure renegotiates the very idea of spectacle and spectatorship. Anyone can experience it for free, but no one can see the whole piece, as the boat is always in motion, and the sound in constant transformation. Besides being this particular boat performance, Opera to the People works for us as an umbrella for workshops and actions, which promote making contemporary music along with communities and hopefully ignites experimental movements in the classical world.


ph Amirtaraj Stephen


Together with Pankaj Tiwari, you are working on a project about the simple and radical act of listening: you set a context in which people come and you, simply and without creating anything, listen to them. Through what arrangements, or devices, does the Listeners manifest itself as an artistic act and not, for example, as a social action?

The minimalist gesture we propose offers no particular answer to any social problem. Also, we’re hearing things that a social worker would be helpless towards, such as poetic complaints in a language we don’t understand.

We are interested in creating a new ritual, seen as a mode of sharing the space, reenacting and reshaping our social roles and functions. Including the role of an artist. As the Listeners we offer our time, presence and attention, as well as our emotional assets. People are invited to use it to their benefit. During an individual, intimate encounter they can express themselves vocally, tell a story, read their poetry, or just share the silence with us. The whole procedure deviates the capitalist understanding of time as currency, as anybody can take as much as they need. We use the structures of religious practices of our ancestors, but fill it in with our own interests.

The practice influences us as well, we’re not doing it just for the people. It’s inspiring to withdraw one’s voice, to become a total witness, almost passive. We cannot escape into our minds during a session though, since the premise of the work is to listen in an active way, to really process what we hear, tune into somebody elses voice. We want to create an environment where voices can reverberate freely. It is also a political activity and as such can become a social action, why not, but in principle it’s an artistic practice.

Again for those less familiar with the mechanisms of contemporary performance art: how do you fund, a project like the Listeners?

We work with several institutions, art spaces and theatres, as well as look for funding in the Netherlands, where we both live. The funding system is quite efficient there and it is possible to get support from several organisations – Performing Arts Fund, Amsterdam Fund for the Arts or Prince Bernhard Culture Fund or Mondriaan Fund.

We are very lucky to be surrounded by supportive people, who help us a lot, such as Jan Tomza-Osiecki, who designs costumes and objects for us and Tom Oliver Jacobsson, who is a magnificent host and comes up with his own rituals for the participants, as they wait for their turn to enter the space of listening. We all have a lot of projects of our own, so coming together for the Listeners or Opera to the People is a form of celebration, also a moment to pause the worries about the money and the politics of the art world.


Maria Magdalena Kozłowska – ph Eva Roefs


Last question: is there an idea that you have had for some time and have not yet been able to realize?

Well, I have a few notebooks full of dreams and fantasies. Naming all of them would put the reader into sleep or into madness, so I will be brief. For example, I would love to bring to the stage Dvorak’s Rusalka, using an actual body of water; collaborating with nature on this pre-christian slavic theme. Or to rework Mozart’s Magic Flute in order to forward the perspective of Papageno – sort of a bird-like holy fool. I think we should stop treating operatic librettos with piety and start messing with them much more. It’s also my dream to work with a chorus of people who identify as men, in order to investigate masculinity. I love gender bending on stage. Thanks to Maayan Licht, I got obsessed with the world of high-pitched male voices and would love to make a piece with him around the baroque castratos as singing machines. I don’t want to exclude lower voices either. I haven’t given it a proper look yet, and there is a lot of masculinity in me as well. It has been buzzing in my head for years now. I want to set it in motion to see what it sounds like.

Thank you.