Chicago-based ensemble gives a voice to Polish pride
Bridget Ascenzo had mere seconds to rejoice over her acceptance into the Lira Ensemble of Chicago before the panic set in.
After declaring Ascenzo hired, Lira co-founder Lucyna Migala breezily announced that the group sings exclusively in Polish, but no worries; she’d teach Ascenzo the alphabet on the spot before whisking her off to her first rehearsal.
“I was so surprised, I didn’t even have anything to say,” laughed Ascenzo, who’d simply responded to a newspaper ad seeking singers and didn’t speak a word of Polish. “They handed all the music to me, and it was like … ‘Can I buy a vowel?’ My degree had prepared me to sing in Italian, French, German — all the operatic languages — but Polish was a totally different story.”
Fast forward five years, and the Sterling Heights native — who was active in music programs at Stevenson High School and St. Blase Catholic Church before studying classical voice at DePaul University — sings comfortably in her adopted tongue.
Ascenzo and her fellow Lira singers, of which there are eight to a dozen at any given time, perform en masse, as well as in smaller groups, at gigs throughout the Chicago area and beyond. And come Nov. 25, she’ll be coming home, in a sense, appearing with the Lira Ensemble for a holiday concert at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts in Clinton Township.
The show will be a mixture of classical Polish music, Polish Christmas carols, folk songs and dances featuring Lira’s singers, dancers and a 35-piece symphony orchestra.
“Every five minutes, there’s something different happening onstage,” said Migala. “It’s a potpourri, but one (in which) you’ll find things to love.”
Migala said the shows don’t just appeal to a Polish-speaking audience. She narrates in English throughout, supplying each piece’s meaning and historical context.
“You really have a sense of what’s going on, even if you don’t understand every word,” said Ascenzo. “And the music is gorgeous. It’s very easy to enjoy.”
“Not all of our audience is Polish at all, or Polish-American, and a small percentage of our audience understands Polish or speaks Polish,” added Migala. “The necessity is, you need to love music.”
In fact, Migala adores bringing Lira to crowds of decidedly non-Polish folks; she fondly recalls performing for audiences whose members were all black or all Hispanic. During such concerts, “we are in heaven,” she gushed, because it helps further spectators’ knowledge and appreciation of the Polish culture.
That was Migala’s reason behind establishing the Lira Ensemble with her voice professor, Alice Stephens, in 1965.
As an immigrant from Krakow, Poland, who adored her native homeland, as well as her adopted home in Chicago, Migala found the rampant “Polack jokes” mocking Polish people’s intelligence hurtful and uninformed, and she was seeking a way to combat them.
“They were really ugly and stupid,” she said of the barbs. “I decided that the best defense is a strong offense … in the football sense of the word. I decided instead I would show them what Polish people are like through our music, our dance.”
Stephens and Migala developed a company capable of demonstrating the full gamut of Polish music — ancient, Renaissance, Romantic, folk, contemporary — through vocals, instrumentals and dance.
Most of the ensemble’s singers are not Polish, but “they get really into the culture and really get into the language,” said Migala. “People assume when they come to the reception after or backstage … that we all speak Polish because we sing so beautifully in Polish.”
Perhaps the ultimate compliment, she said, is the wildly enthusiastic reception Lira Ensemble has garnered while actually performing in Poland, to all-Polish audiences.
Decades ago, when Poland was still under Communist rule, “it actually was sort of a subversive thing to come out and hear this musical group from America,” said Ascenzo. “It was really well-received, and they were grateful that Americans were dodging behind the Iron Curtain.”
Migala laughed that she knows “God has a sense of humor” because nearly all of Lira’s dancers — who don’t speak a word onstage — actually understand and speak Polish fluently, as most are either immigrants or have Polish ancestry.
“Our mission is to bring the best of Polish culture into American life,” said Migala. “When we have artists like Bridget, we’re doing it; we’re fulfilling our mission because she will then, as an American, pass this on. She is learning not only about Polish song and dance, but a lot about Polish culture, history, tradition, and she’s passing that on.”
Tickets to Lira Ensemble’s 3 p.m. Nov. 25 performance at Macomb Center for the Performing Arts are available by calling (586) 286-2222 or visiting www.macombcenter.com. Gold Circle tickets are $55; house tickets are $45. Macomb Center is located at 44575 Garfield, near Hall Road, in Clinton Township.
For more information on the Lira Ensemble, visit www.liraensemble.com.