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Sydney Opera House

"We love it here"

 

Marek & Magda thrive on Opera & Australia

Some married couples would be alarmed by the notion of working in the same profession and for the same company. Long-serving Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra (AOBO) members Marek Kruszynski (violin) and Magda Kruszynska (viola) are not among them. “We’ve always worked together; it would be hard to imagine what it would be like not to,” Marek says.

The musicians met as teenagers, while waiting to audition to get into the Stanislaw Moniuszko Academy of Music in Gdansk, Poland. Marek, who would have faced compulsory national service if not accepted into the Academy, remembers thinking, while playing Paganini’s Violin Concerto No 1: “If I don’t get in, will it be the Tank Division or the Air Force...?”

But he was accepted, and became friendly with Magda, who’d also auditioned successfully. They don’t remember exactly when and how they became an item; only that they made it official in 1985, in a Cathedral that was going to be the venue for a Solidarity meeting straight after their wedding ceremony. “As we were leaving the Cathedral, it was filling up with Solidarity members, including Lech Walesa,” Magda remembers. Marek adds, with a laugh: “Ever since, we’ve been telling people that the future President of Poland came to our wedding!”

The warmth and goodwill between the artists is obvious, and makes chatting to them a pleasant experience. When discussing their life together, they constantly refer to each other for confirmation, and gently touch each other’s hands to emphasise a point or check a fact. They laugh heartily and frequently, and often talk at the same time, so that it can be difficult to decipher what either one is saying. 

Both grew up with music. Magda’s parents are professional musicians – her mother a pianist and her father a musicologist and composer. In their home, Sunday afternoons were considered holy, though not for religious reasons: “On Sunday afternoons the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Maestro von Karajan was on TV, and the whole family would be expected to sit around the dinner table and listen in absolute silence,” she says, smiling at the memory. 

Marek’s parents were academics, but his father played the violin until shrapnel wound to his right hand, acquired during the War, put a stop to it.  

Coming from such musical families, it was natural for both musicians to pursue careers in music too. They hoped that their son, Michael, would be a musician too, but they let him be when at age 17, having passed his final violin exam with high distinction, he told them that a career in music was not for him. 

“I was so happy with his final examination result that I felt my work as his violin teacher was done,” Magda says. “We are both very happy with his current career choices.”

Marek says: “I think he was discouraged by all the late nights that our music careers had involved.” As immigrants with no family in Australia, they relied heavily on babysitters when Michael was growing up.

The Kruszynskis came to Australia in their mid-20s, in search of the seemingly contradictory ideals of adventure and a more stable life. Until then they’d both been members of the touring Baltic State Philharmonic Orchestra, Marek as concertmaster.

The orchestra’s chief conductor, Baron Enoch Zu Guttenberg, was a scion of the Guttenberg family who gave the world the first printing press. And Europe certainly offered the musicians the benefit of a rich cultural heritage. But Marek says: “By the time we were in our mid-20s, our careers were already set until retirement. It didn’t feel very exciting. We were also travelling a great deal, which was exhausting and very difficult with a young child. Europe has a wonderful cultural life, but when you’re working hard and raising a child, there’s little opportunity to enjoy it.”

Magda’s father had been to Australia on a one-year sabbatical, and had brought back thousands of slides. “There were 800 of Uluru alone,” Marek laughs. “He just loved Australia and in the year that he spent here, saw a lot more of it than we’ve seen in 19 years of living here.” 

Besides through Magda’s father’s trip, they knew Australia through the movies. Marek says: “In the Poland in which I grew up, the Australian Outback was a mythical place captured in many films.” Which ones? They laugh. They can’t remember now. But they think there was one with Sigrid Thornton.

The final decision was made after a friend they’d met in a pub in Germany, and had told about their plans, revealed that he was Australian and encouraged them to move Down Under. Getting their papers in order took three years and, says, Magda, by the time they were ready to emigrate, in 1992, they weren’t sure that the friendship was still alive. “But the day we arrived at the airport in Sydney, there he was. He took us to the home that he shared with his father. We were going to stay for a few days, but ended up staying for 18 months. When we finally moved into our own apartment, his father, who had become like our father, said: “I feel as if my children are leaving home.”    

When they left Europe, the Kruszynskis had no idea what they would do in Australia. They’d contacted no music organisations, thinking that they might teach, or do something completely different. “We were young and full of energy and ideas,” Marek recalls.

But he quickly found contract work with the Sydney Symphony. Two years later, when Magda found work with the then Australian Opera, it became very difficult to co-ordinate their respective rehearsal and performance times with the needs of a young child. “We hardly saw each other,” Magda says, shaking her head. When three months into her new career there was an opening in the Orchestra’s violin section, and Marek auditioned and got it.

Magda says:  “At the Opera we both had permanent jobs and we weren’t touring – we finally had the stability that we’d craved.” 

Neither had played much opera before they joined OA. In the Baltic State Philharmonic they’d played European symphonic repertoire. “In Australian symphony orchestras there’s an emphasis on British repertoire,” Marek says. “We were not used to that, and it was not our first love. We love our European heritage, so Italian opera suited us very well.”

The first opera he played was Turandot. “I had goose bumps; I was in awe,” he says, stroking his arms at the memory. At the 17th and last performance, he still had goose bumps.

Magda’s father never revisited Australia to take more pictures of Uluru, but her mother has been for a visit (“I treasured the time with her”) and both Kruszynskis have been back to Poland numerous times.

On the day of our interview, Magda brings along a copy of the world’s first Dictionary of Icelandic Composers, authored and signed by her father, Marek Podhajski, and dedicated to the Fisher Library at the University of Sydney. She says: “I never got round to giving it to them, but now that we’ve done this story, I will.”

Her father had told her that Australia was a very caring country. “He felt that people had embraced him here.”

The Kruszynskis have had a similar experience. “We never expected to have musical careers here, and yet here we are, working in one of the most iconic opera houses in the world, with an ensemble of extraordinary people,” Magda says. “We love it here.”