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Opera is our treasure an interview with Jiri Nekvasil.

Jiri Nekvasil now has just half a season behind him as head of the National Theatre Opera. In this short space of time he has already staged several productions of recent operas there, showing continuity with his earlier approach at the Prague State Opera. At the Prague State he presented a number of works by contemporary Czech and foreign composers, and gave space to composers at the beginning of their careers in the series "Banging on the Iron Curtain". The reactions to these productions were mixed, and his National Theatre productions have continued to provoke very different reviews from the sceptical to the enthusiastic... It shows there is certainly much to talk about.

You have just half of your first season at the National behind you. It's too early for a full judgment, but what do you think you have achieved so far?

The first season is naturally very much a start-up exercise. Apart from the immediate day-to-day work, there's the planning of the next season and even subsequent seasons. In the Autumn we had the premiere of Jan Klusak's Bertram a Mescalinda aneb Potrestana vernost [Bertram and Mescalinda, or Fidelity Punished] together with the revived premiere of his Zprava pro akademil [Report for the Academy]. At the moment were preparing the first of a series of compositions commissioned by the National Theatre. It will be premiered on the 1st of May. The opera is called Machuv denfk aneb Hynku, jak si to predstavujes? [Macha's Diary or Hynek, what's your idea of it?), composed by Emil Viklicky on a libretto by Yohanan Kaldi and it will be staged in the small-scale Kolowrat Theatre. The audience will have the chance to see a freshly completed work, and I think it's a good thing when very up-to-date pieces are written and staged immediately, even if there's a certain risk attached. Martin Smolka has just delivered his pi ano version of the opera Nagano with libretto by Jaroslav Dusek, which we shall be presenting in April of next year.

We have put on a replica of the 1969 production of Mozart's Don Giovanni with the famous stage design by Josef Svoboda The Caban brothers introduced themselves to the public in an interesting interpretation of Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen. One of our tasks now is to carry through the project Czech Triptych, which is another series of semi-staged performances of three unknown operas of the pre-Smetana era: Frantisek Skroup, Jan Bedrich Kittl and Leopold Eugen Mechura. Next year the idea is to present works by early 20th-century Prague composers in the same cycle. Also in preparation we have the difficult premiere of John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer, and in my view this is quite a historic achievement, because it is the first staging of work of a contemporary American composer at the National Theatre. It will be performed in the original English and it is an example of American minimalism, although not so orthodox as the music of Philip Glass.

So the first season is marking out the road we want to take. Apart from that we're continuing with the project we brought from the State Opera -- Banging on the Iron Curtain. The project has already involved production of Zdenek Plachy and Jiri Simacek's pasticcio Karaoke Strezeneho Parnassu [Karaoke of Guarded Parnassus], a very controversial piece that has been provoking discussion of contemporary opera At the last "Banging" we presented chamber operas by Karel Skarka and Marketa Dvorakova and we are rehearsing premieres of Milos Stedron the younger's Lidska tragikomedie [The Human Tragicomedy] and two chamber operas by the brothers Michal and Marek Keprt The contemporary works are presented in this chamber form, what we call staged sketches. It is my belief -- and not a belief I only acquired when I joined the National Theatre -- that for its development opera needs impulses in the form of new works and staging experiments.

Karaoke of Guarded Parnassus aroused quite a storm, favourable and unfavourable. What was your reaction to the production?

Some of the reactions were really furious. The most hostile were from the traditional opera critics, but Vladimir Just, for example, produced an analysis that went right to the heart of the matter, and he was able to read the meaning that Zdenek Plachy was offering with this provocative form. It's a work that precisely, sometimes spine-chillingly, mirrors the current state of the devaluation of values, and it plays with themes in such a way that we never know how seriously it is meant It is not persiflage or a practical joke, as the traditional opera critics classified it, and I think it's just the sort of piece that Banging on the Iron Curtain should include. What is important is discussion of the themes and borders of opera, which are naturally moveable and shift as time goes by. I'm grateful that Karaoke was written, and for the atmosphere in the auditorium, divided into admirers and opponents. It is a work that think offers a contribution to the discussion of the devaluation of today's cultural values. Zd enek Plachy isn't afraid to go beyond the conventional borders into an area where intentions are unclear, and absurd connections emerge. It won't let you be complacent, forces you to think, and it's entertaining as well.

How did the Banging on the Iron Curtain project start?

The idea was born in the State Opera when we wanted to find a studio space for chamber operas and couldn't find anything in the building. We looked for other possibilities and in 2000 we co-operated with HAMU (The Music Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts) on a production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw which used the principle of the reversed theatre, with the audience sitting on the stage and the auditorium used as an extended background. And so space was one of the reasons. Apart from that we believed these things ought to be tried out and more of them presented than funds allowed on a conventional basis. So that was how we developed a programme an which productions used the space in front of the curtain, since when you actually measure it, of course, you find you could get three mini theatres like the Prague Rubin theatre into it. The productions take place at times when the other performances aren't normally being played, and so there's no disruption to the ordinary schedule. Using the form of t he stage sketch we can put on a whole work or parts of it, and test out how it works in front of an audience. It's a kind of workshop in which the composer can get a proper response and not have to write just for his desk drawer. We contribute a certain financial sum, which is neither large nor completely tiny, and people and experience. Commissions are determined by the space in the sense that the production must fit in, and it must be a contemporary opera form in world premiere. Then we can consider further collaboration with the composer or director.

Has any further collaboration yet come out of Banging?

If I take the last Banging in the State Opera, then I think that the German composer Jorn Arnecke was definitely interesting. I'm also curious about young Mr. Stedron. The stage form of Zirafi opera [Giraffe Opera] by Markata Dvorakova was certainly and inspiration. It was directed by Magdalena Krckova--the project gives us a chance to get to know the other musicians and artists not just the composer. I wouldn't go as far as to say we would immediately commission a major opera from someone, but the project brings us many potential collaborators and people it's good to know about.

Isn't the project title a little confusing? The phrase "the Iron Curtain" has rather different associations.

It has a symbolic meaning. The iron curtain hides the stage and young artists bang on it to get it to open to them, so they can show what they're made of, Apart from the purely practical meaning--it's played in front of an iron curtain--it is supposed to suggest the gesture of the young generation, who bang on the doors of the big theatres and shout, "Give us the stage and we'll show you..." So it means the opening up of the stage to young composers and contemporary opera

In the project that earned you the appointment of director of the National Theatre Opera, you also mentioned commissioning operas from foreign composers. Are there any in the pipeline?

Apart from the opera I mentioned by Martin Smolka, we already have a signed contract for an opera from the Italian composer Lorenzo Ferrero, which will have its premiere in 2005 and has the title Montezuma. At present we're considering commissions for the years 2006 and 2007.

Major opera houses construct their programmes mainly from 18th- and 19th-century operas, and contemporary works are in a minority. Does the fault lie with composers, audiences, companies or somewhere else?

The problems exist on several levels, which interact with each other. Up to the beginning of the 20th century it was mainly contemporary operas that were staged and the public awaited new works with great impatience. It was a period more dominated by creation than by interpretation. Then contemporary music became more exclusive and demanded more education. But this is a question of music in general. The 20th century is more a period of the interpretation of the music of the past. On the other hand, there have been and still are movements that try to speak to audiences in a more communicative idiom, to get over elitism and still come up with something new. They include the various neo-movements or Janacek's dramatism, for example, which is very much contact music. In this context minimalism has had been particularly significant. Glass definitely opened up music to a wider public among the young than did Stockhausen, for instance.

In your view is there anyone today who is pushing opera forward in the way Glass did in the Seventies and Eighties?

I wouldn't like to guess, and I may not have enough knowledge for it anyway. I don't know if anything so widely accepted has emerged since minimalism. Minimalism was a movement that brought innovation in the sphere of structure. While the end of Glass's The Fall of the House of Usherstrikes me as neo-romantic in its emotions, it is still highly contemporary music. Today I don't know of anyone taking development a stage further, and it's more as if various trends are being tried out. Maybe there will be more of a swing to composers who are returning to melody. They may get attacked for slickness by purist critics, but they are dismantling the myth that contemporary opera is a pain in the ears.

What is the main problem of opera written today?

Perhaps the most difficult problem is the choice of libretto and coming up with reasons why a theme should be treated in song and not, for example, in a film. You have to find a reason why ordinary speech is not enough and so the depiction of emotions needs to taken on stylised form. Today one frequent solution is to move over from libretto to screenplay and integrate various other kinds of medium.

Doesn't the fact that story and linearity of narrative are disappearing also have an off-putting effect on audiences?

The retreat from linearity is something you find in 20th-century art in general, for example in the novel. I wonder whether it might have been caused by the emotional impact of two world wars. It is also connected to the rise of new media, above all film, which involve cutting. The visual expression of the last twenty years is ultimately the videoclip, which is based on the cut All of this is reflected in opera too, but a hunger for the grand narrative and linear form is appearing again as a counter-reaction. This explains the great popularity of 19th-century works, where there is a strong and emotive story. What is important is that these two currents exist along side each other and can influence each other. New things must come into existence even if the price is risk, since otherwise the genre will die of a lack of dynamism and confrontation.

For you, what is the key criterion in choosing works for the opera repertoire?

As the director of the opera, responsible for the whole programme, I can't choose isolated titles, but have to build a structure that will exist in context I give precedence to programmes structured in particular cycles or series, in which the titles are somehow linked or have a mutual impact within the framework of particular themes. One such series is Czech Trpitych, which aims to compare and juxtapose examples of Czech music. We are planning an Italian series, which will start with a stage performance of Verdi's Requiem, followed by Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilei, a Czech premiere of the work. Another criterion is sometimes that a work has never been played in Prague or in the Czech Republic, or hasn't been played here for a long time. I think life is too short and it's a pity to limit ourselves to a few titles. It's better to get to know music in a wider context, but at the same time to return to some things at intervals, because the possibilities of interpretation may have moved on. So I don't wan t to put something on only because it appeals to me or someone else, but because it fits into certain contexts in the given dramaturgical plan.

Czech audiences have not had a chance to get to know many works of contemporary western opera, because they weren't staged here for ideological reasons. Does the National Theatre as the leading opera house have a certain duty to fill in the gaps?

There definitely are gaps, but you have to realise that the season isn't infinitely elastic, When the plan is drawn up, it is based on three titles, and if we are courageous there are chamber operas in Kolowrat, and Czech Triptych. As far as important works of the later 20th century are concerned it's a question of the choice. If I put one on, I can't put on another ten. Now the choice has fallen on Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer and it will be the start of a series of Anglo-American minimalist operas. The next will be Beauty and the Beast by Philip Glass and in the year after that I would like to present Nyman's opera Facing Goya. I think this is the type of opera that can draw a different public to the opera houses. But only one such title can be put on in any one season. The minimalist scene is so stimulating and fundamental that I consider it right to get to know it, and it's attractive to audiences as well. The themes are interesting, and The Death of Klinghoffer for example is an opera about terrorism , which dams has treated as myth. I agree that the National Theatre is an institution with a duty to mediate cultural values and stimulate the emergence of others. It isn't a private theatre that has to make money at all costs. But of course audience interest is important.

Has the function of opera in society changed in anyway?

I don't think there has been much basic shift. If there has, then it's possibly that opera is returning to it function as attraction for the masses, as various mega-events show. I'm fond of definitions of opera as an exotic irrational entertainment. That has always been the case. On the one hand art is unnecessary, but on the other it's essential for life. It is part of our European culture, which isn't only interesting to Europeans, either. Opera is our European discovery and treasure, and we ought to pamper it and develop it further.
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Author:Kratochvil, Matej
Publication:Czech Music
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EXCZ
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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