New horizons for the Hungarian State Opera
18 April 2013, Budapest, Hungary
Domonkos Héja(Photo: Tamás Gács)
Domonkos Héja has been the acting music director at Budapest’s Hungarian State Opera since 2011, following the resignation of his predecessor Ádám Fischer. Héja talks to Opera Now about recent developments at the company and his plans for the forthcoming season.
ON: What steps have you taken to change the company's artistic direction since you took over?
DH: We have taken a number of steps designed make the company more visible internationally. Firstly, we undertook a structural reorganisation, which should have been done years ago. This eliminated the status of soloists with contracts for indefinite periods, and gave us the opportunity to find the most appropriate voices and qualities for each role. Last year auditions were held in every section of the orchestra and chorus, ensuring that only the best musicians are now employed, as well as allowing us to engage some younger artists. We now regularly hold auditions for singers, which provide opportunities not only for Hungarians but also foreign artists.
How important is music by Hungarian composers to the identity of the company? Is anything being done to develop the next generation of Hungarian composers while putting a spotlight on important figures from the past?
This is extremely important, and I am pleased to say that in Hungary the name of our great nationalist composer Ferenc Erkel is already strongly associated with my efforts to promote his music. Prior to becoming the company’s music director, I conducted a production here of Erkel’s Bánk bán, using the original version unknown by earlier generations. Our current season began with the original version of Erkel’s opera Hunyadi László, and we have made recordings of both operas.
Erkel is an emblematic composer in Hungary: while his works show the impact of bel canto and French grand opera styles, he invented a unique musical language that contains elements of Hungarian folk music in abundance.
Another reason why we want to keep the biggest possible number of Hungarian operas in the repertoire is to safeguard the development of the Hungarian language. Next year we will stage János Vajda’s Mario and the Magician, which will be performed together with Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. In the future, I plan to perform Ligeti’s Grand Macabre, which has already been premiered in Hungary, and to stage more operas by Peter Eötvös. We have also announced an opera competition for contemporary Hungarian composers, including a biennial prize for new children’s operas.
The company has a huge repertoire of almost 100 productions. What are you doing to refresh this current stock of repertoire with new stagings?
By the end of each season our plans for the next four years are in place. This means we can schedule new productions well in advance and ensure the availability of world-famous stars for special events – and I don’t only mean singers. We are already negotiating with some international celebrities.
The Hungarian State Opera presents 450 performances a year with 5,000 roles, so we would like to allocate a certain percentage of these to guest singers. Artists already booked for future seasons include Kurt Rydl, Rainer Trost, Leo Nucci and Ivan Magri, plus conductors such as Ion Marin, Stefan Soltesz and the newly appointed principal conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra, Pinchas Steinberg.
We are keen to rebuild our Wagner repertoire, and plan to stage a children’s opera every year. Next season, for example, we will perform Mozart’s Magic Flute with students from Budapest’s Circus Arts School. Another area of development is our Baroque repertoire: the current season features a Rameau premiere plus stagings of Gluck and Lully.
I’m also a devout fan of Richard Strauss’ operas – the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2014 will be an appropriate occasion for us to provide audiences with a large dose of his art, performed to a high artistic standard.
What difference has the opening of the Erkel Theatre had to the company?
The Erkel Theatre provides an important platform for many artists, which in turn expands the range of work on offer for audiences. In the past, it typically attracted less wealthy opera lovers and visitors from out of town. Building on this legacy it is again becoming the home of affordable but high-quality opera for large crowds.
How does the company harnass and support singing talent within Hungary? Do you run a young artists programme?
I plan to re-establish an Opera Studio and invite directors to create two or three productions each year with young singers. Currently, a large number of talented young singers graduate from Budapest’s Academy of Music and other music colleges in Hungary, but can’t expect anything more than minor roles here, even though a presence at the HSO is indispensable for their development. It is important for them to get used to moving and acting on stage under the instructions of leading directors.
It is also crucial for young instrumental musicians to get some insight into the work of the HSO orchestra because they have not been introduced to this form of orchestral work at college. To achieve this, I think it is important to establish an ‘Orchestral Academy’ where our own excellent musicians can pass on knowledge to their younger colleagues. The newly opened Erkel Theatre could be a perfect venue for this.
Please tell us something about your artistic aims for the season ahead.
Apart from the children’s opera I’ve already mentioned, we are organising a Strauss Festival to mark the 150th anniversary of this great composer’s birth. We will dedicate thirteen nights to Strauss operas, presenting a wide range of company productions from the past 20 years. Besides Balázs Kovalik’s internationally renowned postmodern Elektra, we will stage Géza Bereményi’s Arabella, János Szikora’s Salome and Ariadne auf Naxos, Andrejs Žagars’s Der Rosenkavalier and one of Strauss’ most grandiose operas, Die Frau ohne Schatten. This series will be the highlight of the season.
The presence of Hungarian composers in our repertoire has also definitely strengthened: upcoming productions include Kodály’s Háry János, Vajda’s Mario and the Magician, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Pongrác Kacsóh’s folk opera János vitéz, and the world premiere of György Selmeczi’s I spiritisti.
It would take years to replace our whole repertoire completely, so in addition to the premieres we will renew old productions with changes to their lighting and sets, or by adapting the movements on stage. This process has already begun with our recent Parsifal.
Our long-term objectives include staging rarely performed works and real specialties.