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’We do not want to tell why an opera becomes popular...’

’We do not want to tell why an opera becomes popular...’

Interview with conductor Gergely Kesselyák, director of the Bartók Plus Opera Festival of Miskolc, about the opera performances of the Festival.

Perhaps the most important event of this year's Opera Festival is the Hungarian premiere of Péter Eötvös's opera The Golden Dragon. The importance of this is unquestionable, but how does this work fit into the conception of the Opera Festival, to perform demanding but audience-friendly works, so called ’popular operas’, which are easily accepted by a wider audience?

Péter Eötvös is an unquestionable, unavoidable person of today's opera life. He is the most frequently performed living opera composer. I talked to him about the concept of the Opera Festival, which he fully supports. I was delighted that he gave his name and international prestige to the Festival: he accepted the post of Jury President in our Opera Composition Competition, and offered one of his operas, The Golden Dragon, which we are going to present now. The piece probably stands out of the ’popular’ operas a bit, if by ’popular opera’ we mean works related to Romanticism, or the new genre attempts, such as jazz opera or rock opera, that incorporate alternative music styles. However, I would add that the Opera Festival does not want to tell why an opera becomes popular today. It may well be that The Golden Dragon will be the one that will ’find its way into the popular direction’. We will see. Péter Eötvös is a fantastic musician and theatrical man; maybe he knows a recipe which I or other people would not think of.

According to your original concept, the name ’Bartók +’ covers works after Béla Bartók. This year, however, we can also see Puccini's La boheme and Mascagni's Iris, which were written at the end of the 19th century. Would you like to broaden the scope of the works in the Opera Festival?

I wouldn't really like to broaden it, but I don't have to, because my original idea was that Bartók's age, his contemporaries still fit into this circle. The late works by Puccini or Mascagni were written at the same time as Bartók's stage works or later, so these authors can definitely be included in the program of the Festival.

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Two Mascagni operas are performed this year. In addition to Iris, the composer's most popular opera, Cavalleria rusticana, is also presented.

Yes, this is presented in our program ’Opera for Thousands’ in an open-air performance. In these productions, however, we also choose year by year from the popular operas of other eras, too, from Mozart to Verdi to Puccini.

The Austrian composer, Albin Fries’s work Nora won the Bartók Plus Opera Composition Competition in 2018. The opera is going to be performed now on stage. What kind of career do you anticipate for the piece?

Albin Fries was not an unknown composer when he applied for our Competition. Before that he had already been invited to the Staatsoper in Vienna. I rate him as a significant composer, and his opera Nora is written with great expertise, artistic vein and inspiration. It is a highly personal work, a sincere and profound artistic expression, with well-functioning dramaturgy. On the other hand, I predict that there will be a professional debate about the music of the work, which has already started in the jury of the competition, and which I do not mind at all. The composer follows Richard Strauss's musical tradition, taking on a well-crystallized musical language of the turn of the century. That's why some say it's not enough original. But I believe, by contrast, that it is a problem when some authors try to create their own musical language. Because they do not give us a ’dictionary’, and people do not understand the work. I think the audience will love Albin Fries's piece.

Bartók's only opera, the Bluebeard’s castle is performed at the Opera Festival every year. Now another piece will also be presented on the same evening: Alexander Scriabin’s orchestral work Prometheus: The Poem of Fire, accompanied by a light show.

Yes, this will be a special performance. Scriabin associated sounds and harmonies with colours, and in this work he also wrote a colour organ part, with specific instructions on which sound to flash which coloured light. I asked lighting designer Tamás Bányai to present this in light of today's digital achievements. Bluebeard’s castle is directed by the conductor, Zsolt Hamar. According to his idea, Bluebeard’s universe is represented by the orchestra – which will be on the stage – and each door by a certain group of instruments.

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In recent years, we also heard many operas from the time after Bartók, from Bernstein to Nino Rota to Korngold. This year, the opening gala featured works by several authors. Besides arias and duets from the already mentioned Nora and Puccini’s Turandot, we also heard excerpts from Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane, Shostakovich’s Cheryomushki, and Aldo Finzi's La serenata al vento, the latter being probably unknown to most of us. Was this a kind of teaser, meaning that you will soon present the entire works at the Festival?

I hope, yes. I have a complete list of the works I would like to present, but for some reason I have not been able to do yet, including the opening concert pieces. I have been ’hunting’ Korngold's opera Das Wunder der Heliane for years, but performing the work requires a huge orchestra and it is difficult to be staged. It is performed only in the biggest theaters, but very rarely. Anyway, I would present any operas by Korngold, except Die tote Stadt, which has already been performed here at the Festival. My dreams that have not been realized so far include Aldo Finzi’s opera and Sostakovich’s operetta Csernomjuski, which I think would be a huge success. Besides the above, my old plan is to present Alexey Rybnikov's War and Peace as well as his symphonic tetralogy. These, of course, are huge undertakings, and the realization of the productions is not only up to us. To stage such works, the Festival usually looks for co-production partners, because producing these performances for a single occasion is not only financial but also intellectual suicide. However, if they are produced in co-production, the pieces are also performed elsewhere, and the costs are shared. For example, Aldo Finzi’s afore mentioned opera will probably be produced in co-production with several Italian theaters, in which the Opera Festival is also a partner.

Balázs Csák


photo: Vera Éder