Per Boye Hansen: The world of opera has changed during the pandemic

Three years ago, you promised that the National Theater would play Czech classics. You managed to accomplish that.

With our rich and proud tradition, we must take care of the Czech repertoire. In Prague, it is impossible to have an opera house in which the Bartered Bride is not performed. We have a new version of it that was very controversial, but it turns out that people really like it. We also presented Káťa Kabanová, which for me is one of the most amazing works. I consider Janáček to be perhaps the most outstanding composer of the beginning of the last century, but here he does not enjoy the popularity he deserves.

By presenting a number of interwar works, mainly by Jewish composers, as part of the Musica non grata project, you reminded the State Opera of the time when Alexander Zemlinsky was its music director. But don’t you feel that Schreker’s Distant Sound is already passé, to which the tensely romantic libretto also contributed?

I don’t think I should go back and evaluate the different productions we’ve done now. I know that the reactions to Schreker have been mixed, I understand that some people may not have been happy, but I think it was very important to introduce him.

All masterpieces, and this also applies to Mozart’s and Smetana’s operas, are connected to the time in which they were created, but they also abound in such qualities that break the boundaries of time and can thus speak to us even today. I believe this is also true of Schreker’s opera.

In my opinion, it is an important work, very personal and closely connected with the history of this theater (Zemlinsky performed it here in 1920, author’s note) and belongs to the portfolio of Musika non grata, which is musically diverse and full of contrasts.

I am very satisfied with the Musica non grata project, for me it was a wonderful opportunity to delve into the past of this theater and the city. Prague was a very important opera center during the First Republic. Czech, Jewish and German culture coexisted side by side, which was not without tensions, but it also brought fruitful interaction. People think of the period when Jewish composers were persecuted by the Nazis as being connected to Germany. But it is also the history of this city. I think it is necessary to show it.

Schreker was not Czech, but Austrian, but he was associated with Zemlinsky and was very inspiring in his time. Schönberg’s Erwartung, which we performed in November 2021, premiered in Prague on the initiative and under the direction of Zemlinsky. And the last premiere of the last season was Schulhoff’s Flames, which was very fulfilling for me. It was a discovery of a composer I didn’t know much about. When I first saw the score, I thought it was fascinating but impossible to stage. When I saw the result, it was a sensational work in many aspects.

Flames also had more favorable reviews than Distant Sound. It is so?

Yes, and they caused a great response abroad.

I don’t want to talk about critics in Germany, after all we live in Prague.

But we live in Europe. And it is important for the theater and this city that what we do here is recognized abroad. The flames provoked an unprecedented response from the international press, and not just the German one.

But why did you decide to stage Paul Abraham’s Ball at the Savoy Hotel, which is not very connected to Prague?

Above all, it is the first time we are doing an operetta. This is a difficult genre, but it belongs to the tradition of the State Opera. Until the Second World War, more operettas than operas were performed there. Even under Zemlinsky. It is also a way to reach the audience, an opportunity to show them that at the National Theater we also play this genre, that we don’t just leave it to commercial theaters. And I think it’s a good operetta. I like the plot.

If I look at the repertoire of the Opera, it could easily have been performed already in the sixties of the last century. There is no contemporary work. Why?

We all know the problems with staging contemporary operas. Many things were canceled due to the pandemic, including the Opera Nova festival, which I prepared with Jiří Rožně and where we planned some new music. Later we had no way to do it. I definitely agree with you that we need to head in this direction in the future. It’s a commitment.

But the problem is not only the absence of contemporary music, but also the great works of the twentieth century that could act as a bridge between the rich classical and romantic tradition and our contemporary music.

However, unlike Schreker, you did not even include the promised Le Grand Macabre by Gyorgi Ligeti. What is behind it?

It had to be postponed due to the pandemic, but will be announced later. We postponed a lot and had to completely cancel Szymanowski’s King Roger and Špalíček from Martinů.

During the previous administration, many new works by Czech composers were performed. Have you approached any Czech artists to compose for you?

Yes, we will do one Czech opera, but I won’t talk about it yet.

And wasn’t the time of the pandemic suitable for reaching out to artists?

Yes, but on the other hand, it was more of a time when we were more busy canceling or postponing projects than starting new ones.

You yourself said when you started that it was important for the Opera to have new works.

Will you organize an opera festival in the spirit of Opera Nova?

I would very much like to do that. Opera Nova was supposed to take place in the New Stage, which is being renovated. And there are also financial constraints that affect our ability to organize such a festival. It has to do with war, with inflation. We have to find a solution. And there were two years of the pandemic and the whole opera world changed.

How do you feel about the departure of Karl-Heinz Steffens, the music director of the State Opera, from whom you had high hopes?

He was in office for three years and it was a difficult time for him. Most of his projects failed. Král Roger was cancelled, the Nuremberg Masters were not staged. I think the situation affected him the most. When he told me he wanted to leave, I understood him. He is doing well on the international stage. And I need someone who will be with us more often and build the orchestra.

The music director of the National Theater Opera, Jaroslav Kyzlink, also left.

This is a completely different situation since the beginning of the pandemic. Kyzlink had been here for ten years and I was thinking about finding a new music director for the National Theater Opera. I was blown away by the work Robert Jindra had done with the ensemble, so I offered him the position of new music director after Kyzlink left. That’s normal.

Will Jindra have enough time when he heads the philharmonic in Košice so that the situation with Steffens does not repeat itself?

He has already spent enough time with us. There are only a few weeks a year in Košice. In addition, he is in high demand, he will be doing a new production at the Semper Oper in Dresden, he has been a guest at the Bavarian State Opera and now they are inviting him back. But I am sure that the National Theater will be a priority for him. It is good that we have a music director who also works abroad. He is very dedicated to working with us, he will spend almost the entire autumn here. He knows there is a need here.

Is it good that the State Opera belongs to the National Theatre? Wouldn’t competition be better?

I don’t think you can have two opera houses in Prague that compete at a high level. The city is too small for that. I don’t think that’s realistic. Now we can divide the repertoire and give each scene its own profile. We can present great romantic works at the State Opera and most of the Czech repertoire at the National Theater and have accessible works such as Carmen and The Spa of Seville.

And we also have the Estates Theater, where classical operas can be performed. If you use the possibilities of all scenes, you can have a wider repertoire. If you had two competing opera houses here, both would have to play Mozart, Janáček and Smetana. For me, what is best for the city, for the opera in Prague, is important.

The article is in Czech

Tags: Boye Hansen world opera changed pandemic

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