Singing To her Own Tune
Motherhood – Greatest Role of her Life
By June Coxon; Photos by John Major
When most people think of opera singers what likely comes to mind is glamour – beautiful people, music, costumes and sets. But off stage, at least one Ottawa opera singer leads a life much like many women, juggling the needs of her job with a husband, young child and routine household tasks. Of course Alta Vista resident, the internationally famed Polish-Canadian soprano Maria Knapik must sandwich those roles and tasks in between performances at classical music venues across North America and Europe, her teaching career, and fundraising events.
Born into the musical Knapik family in Pradnik, Poland, Maria is the youngest of eight sisters. By age seven she had started playing the violin, and at 13 learned guitar, piano and trumpet as well. She began voice lessons at the conservatory when she was 16. Known as The Eight Knapik Sisters, the girls performed more than 4,000 concerts throughout Poland, Europe and the United Kingdom, often being compared to the Von Trapp familysingers of The Sound of Music fame.
“We lived a gypsy lifestyle,” Maria says. “We were always travelling. I went to high school in Krakow but missed many days of school because we were away so often.” Still Maria won a regional competition for her poetry at high school. She went on to attend the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Vocal and Acting Arts specializing in music and acting. Painting and psychology were her other interests.
Maria was still attending university when she met her future husband, Richard Sztramko, who was touring Poland with his father and brother. While they were in Krakow, the Sztramkos stopped at a country inn where Maria and her sisters were performing. Richard was captivated by the red-haired, green-eyed Maria. After a whirlwind long-distance courtship she movedfollowed by a traditional church wedding in Poland. At the time, although she spoke four other languages, Maria didn’t know English. So, in addition to completing her studies at Sir Wilfred Laurier University she also mastered another language.
Although Richard was born in Hamilton, Ontario, he is of Polish descent. A director of procurement at Public Works and Government Services Canada, he jokingly says “my father would say ours is a musical family too – because from time to time we would play on each others’ nerves.”
Richard may not be a singer, but their three-year-old son, Anthony, does like to sing along when Maria rehearses. According to Maria,“in spite of his young age he is very passionate about music and demonstrates a great appreciation for it. He’s also a great spectator and sometimes will stop his activity to observe and listen with such intensity– and will even give a round of applause at the end of a song.
“Before he was born,” she continues, “I often played music by Mozart. I also performed the role of Donna Anna from Mozart’s Don Giovanni when I was three months pregnant and that’s the music he likes best. When he was two months old I started including him when I rehearsed. So now instead of seeing it as competition, he loves music. My studio is next to his bedroom and even when I’m practising at full volume
he happily sleeps right through it.”
When asked how she balances her demanding career schedule with raising a child she admits, “I couldn’t do it alone. I have many wonderful friends and family, especially Richard who helps so much. We’re also very lucky because Anthony has a very positive nature. If he didn’t it would be much more difficult.”
“When Maria travels on the job I take on the dual role of Mommy and Daddy,” says Richard. “It’s a challenge and scary at times when Anthony gets sick or has a fall. Daddy is OK, but there’s nothing like Mom to make the pain go away.”
Before becoming a mother Maria travelled extensively, performing in operas and concerts. Now she concentrates more on oratorio and sacred music. “It’s a different, less demanding type of music,” she explains. “Opera is like theatre and involves daily rehearsal for periods of up to a month, there’s much more acting and about 300 pages of music, and some 40 pages of text to memorize. So although my career is still strong, it’s changed a bit.”
But that doesn’t mean Maria is less busy. Along with Maestro Michel Brousseau, she is artistic director of the Ottawa Classical Choir which she founded in 2006. The choir has moved from success to success, performing Mozart’s and Verdi’s Requiems, Handel’s Messiah, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and has recorded two of Theodore Dubois’ forgotten masses on a CD. Maria was the soprano soloist in the recording, something young Anthony clearly remembers even though he was just one year old at the time! Whenever Dubois is playing, he recognizes it, stops and listens.
Last year’s career highlights for Maria included performances at the National Philharmonic House in Poland, at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Centre in the U. S., and a concert tour in Italy as well as performing at Canada’s National Arts Centre. But her dream is to sing the beautiful role of Madame Butterfly one day.
“It’s an ongoing struggle to try and balance being a good mother with the career I’ve worked so hard for,” Maria admits. “Without the help from those who believe in me and support my career choice I don’t think I could continue. My career would not flow as smoothly without the support and understanding of my agents Mieczyslaw Olender of Artistic Agency NOVA in Warsaw, Sally Colbe of MIC Artists Managements of Montreal, and Kita Szpak of Ottawa. I wish I could mention everyone who helps, but there are so many.”
Before Anthony was even a year old Maria took him with her when she performed in Italy, Montreal and New York. “This year I’ll be touring in England, but won’t be able to take him with me. I’ll meet him and Richard at my family’s home in Poland after the tour,” she says with a smile.
Maria and her family are surrounded by music. When not rehearsing or performing, Maria devotes part of her time to giving singing lessons to aspiring young singers. “Even though I’ve had to interrupt my lessons for periods of time because of busy performance schedules, I’ve always come back to my teaching. I’ve been doing that for over 10 years now and I really enjoy it.”
Maria says simply, “I want to use my career to make people more aware of such causes and help good hearted people who are trying to make a difference in this world like Dr. Deva Marie Beck and Mary Ella Kebluseck. I strongly believe in trying to make a difference for others. So I either use some of my own concerts to raise funds to help others – particularly children – or I work with my committee to organize concerts to do the same.”
Before Anthony was born Richard used to be more involved in Maria’s concerts. “Now that’s almost impossible,” he admits. “The more she travels the less I can be there. However, when she performs locally then I can help. One major thing I can do is make sure that Maria gets the rest she needs before a big performance.”
Maria loves singing and performing but she is equally happy to spend time with her husband and son. She enjoys the tasks required to maintain a home and family. When she has an opportunity for leisure time she likes to read, study natural healing, walk and cook. Attending friends’ concerts and dancing are other favourite pastimes. “These days,” Richard notes, “we have a mutual hobby that we love – our son. It gives us both a great deal of joy to help him develop and and to guide him along his life’s journey.”
Maria agrees. “Anthony is my greatest treasure –having him is the greatest role I’ve played in the opera of my life. To be with him, watching him as he is growing up and developing different skills is a source of real happiness. He’s a real Canadian and already speaks English, French and Polish. Even though kids sometimes bring us headaches I’m convinced they also help us grow emotionally, make us better and more fulfilled human beings.”
After her performances, reviewers shower Maria with praise noting that she “shines equally bright on the opera stage as in concert or oratorio” or that she “exudes a charismatic star quality and radiant stage presence.” Over the years Maria has received numerous awards, both in Canada and elsewhere. They include the Gold Cross of Merit, in 2006, from the Government of Poland for her professional achievements, promotion of Polish-Canadian cultural co-operation and her charitable activities; the International Rising Star of Opera Award, received in 2005, from the American Institute of Polish Culture; and a Gold Medal, received in 2011, from the American Institute of Polish Culture for her ongoing national and international efforts to promote Polish arts and culture, notably in her discipline of opera. In addition, she was the first place winner in the Gerda Lissemer Foundation International Buffalo Vocal Competition and also in the International Vocal Competition at the Chigiana Festival in Siena, Italy. September 2011 she received the honourary title of Artist-in-Residence from New York’s Altamura Centre for Arts and Cultures, because of her high level of achievement as an artist and a person. No one else has received this award. The title is carried by her exclusively.
Her volunteer work revolves around music too. Following her family’s tradition of giving volunteer concerts, since coming to Canada Maria has organized concerts for senior citizen’s homes and fundraising concerts whenever there’s a need – like after the tsunami in Honduras, the disaster in Haiti, or the catastrophe in Somalia. Her concert at Ottawa’s Dominion- Chalmers United Church raised money for the Food First
program in the Northwest Territories.
In September 2010, Maria, with a team of young enthusiastic volunteers from the United Nations Conference of Non- Governmental Organizations (CoNGO), staged a concert in Manhattan to raise awareness of maternal and child health among UN delegates. Wayne Kines, a director of the Nightingale Initiative for Global Health (see www.nightingaledeclaration.net) has known Maria for 10 years. He says, “She’s passionate about maternal health care and was inspiring in the performance at Lincoln Centre. She sang in both English and Polish, conveying the sorrow of needless death by half a million women every year, perishing in childbirth without any nurse in their village. Her devoted artistry with deep emotion is helping to focus the public mindon preventing birthing deaths.”
About Maria Knapik
Maria Knapik frequently appears as a soloist with major orchestras and opera companies throughout North America and Europe. With her captivating stage presence and passionate singing, Maria breathes life into all the roles she performs be it Tosca, Alzira, Mimi, Fiordiligi, Nedda, Donna Anna, Liu and others. A highlight of her career has been the title role in the Moniuszko Opera Halka which made its American debut in 2005 in Opera Sarasota under the auspices of the American Professional Opera House. Received to great acclaim, the Halkain Sarasota has opened opportunities for other Polish operas to be staged in North America. As well, Maria has participated as a soloist in H.M. Górecki’s 3rd Symphony which has performed at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and at Carnegie Hall, where she has been a frequent guest. Maria has also performed as a soloist at the Washington Kennedy Centre with Maestro Robert Shafer and his Grammy award-winning Washington Chorus; as a special guest artist at the Annual Puccini Foundation Concert at Alice Tully Hall in New York’s Lincoln Centre; in Warsaw with Maestro Anthony Wit and the Polish National Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as sung with the Symphony Orchestras of Krakow and Lodz under the direction of Maestro Jerzy Maksymiuk.
Most recently, Maria participated in the American premiere of works by composer Theodore Dubois with Maestro Michel Brousseau at Carnegie Hall and with Maestro Brousseau in Giuseppe Verdi’s Messa da Requiem at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
In 2011, The American Institute of Polish Culture awarded Maria the Gold Medal of Honour for her ongoing national and international efforts to promote Polish arts and culture, notably in her beloved discipline of opera. She has also been recently honoured with a grant from the City of Ottawa: the Creation and Production Fund for Professional Artists as well as the Silver Medal “Gloria Artis” from the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage for outstanding artistic achievement and promotion of Polish culture in Canada.
Her numerous performances include starring in title roles of many productions, appearing as soloist in Gloria by Poulenc with Grammy-awarded Washington Philharmonic Chorus, at the Kennedy Centre; in an all-Beethoven program with the New York Opera Orchestra, at Carnegie Hall; as Musetta in Puccini’s La Boheme, in the Czech Republic; as Fiordiligi in Cosi Fan Tutte by Mozart, in Bulgaria; as Alice in Verdi’s Falstaff, in Germany and Switzerland; as Nedda, in the Ukraine; as Euridice in Gluck’s Orefeo ed Euridice, in Toronto; and as Halka by Moniuszko, in Sarasota, Florida and at the Warsaw National Theatre, in Poland.