The Polish Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale has the pleasure of presenting a panoramic film projection of the opera Halka by Stanisław Moniuszko, as it was staged in February for the inhabitants of Cazale, a village situated in the mountains of Haiti.
The winners of this year’s contest for the official Polish representation in Venice, artists C.T. Jasper and Joanna Malinowska and curator Magdalena Moskalewicz, decided to stage the opera in Haiti inspired by the mad plan of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, who wanted to build an opera house in the Amazon. Fascinated by Fitzcarraldo’s faith in the universal power of opera, but not uncritical of the colonizing aspect of his actions, they decided to reveal and undercut its romanticism by confronting a set of very specific geographic, historical, and sociopolitical realities.
The destination for their quest was Cazale, a village inhabited by the descendants of Polish soldiers who had fought for the independence of Haiti. Sent to Saint-Domingue by Napoleon in 1802 and 1803 to put down the slaves’ rebellion, the Poles—who had joined Napoleon to fight for the independence of their own country—united with the local insurgents. As a result, these soldiers were granted an honorary legal status of blacks in the newly established republic. Still today, people from Cazale identify with their historical motherland and bear creolized last names of their Polish ancestors.
Considered a “national opera” ever since its 1858 Warsaw premiere, Halka was praised for its depiction of Polish folk culture at a time when the country was still struggling to regain independence. Far from a simple rural romance, the tragic love story of the eponymous highlander peasant girl seduced and rejected by her mighty landlord is haunted by the echoes of bloody peasant revolt, underscoring the tense class relations between Polish landlords and their feudal subjects. These echoes become even more prominent in the context of the Haitian Revolution.
Through the gesture of exporting a Polish national opera to the Haitian tropics, which resembles the standard efforts of governments promoting their countries abroad, the project’s authors mean to ask whether such an export could signify something other than cultural colonization or state promotion. Does the nineteenth-century operatic piece, which is absent from the international opera repertoire, really have the power to represent national identity? How can this identity be constructed in the twenty-first century, and to what extent can it be understood by other cultures? Could the opera’s themes resonate with Poland and Haiti’s shared histories to connect, for a moment, two geographically and culturally distant communities?
Though not a typical social-practice project, Halka/Haiti does aim to highlight this little-known aspect of Polish-Haitian history in order to attract international visibility to the community of Cazale. After two research trips, the final ten-day visit to Cazale in January and February of 2015 included the choreographer, the theater director, and the director of photography, who together with the artists and the curator engaged with the local community in preparation for the performance. Two young men from the village worked as translators and coordinators of the daily dance workshops, and the Holy Trinity Philharmonic Orchestra from Port-au-Prince, a crucial partner in the Polish-Haitian collaboration, was invited to perform the score. The final shape of the opera performance in Haiti was a result of a collaborative process, an intentional product of the original form of Halka and the possibility of its staging under the local circumstances. Ultimately, the opera was performed by five soloists and the conductor of the Poznan Opera House, twenty-one musicians from Port-au-Prince, and eighteen dancers from Cazale on a road nestled between several houses, accompanied by passing motorbikes and animals, to an audience of over one hundred people.
In Venice, the Biennale audience is invited to experience a documentation of Halka as it was shown to the Haitian Poloné. Presented as a cinematic installation recalling the format of painted panoramas, Halka/Haiti probes the present-day power of traditional artistic genres to embody, represent, and, ultimately, construct national identities in the 21st century.
C.T. Jasper i Joanna Malinowska