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Gergely KesselyákGergely KesselyákInterview with conductor Gergely Kesselyák, the director of the ’Bartók+ Opera Festival’ in Miskolc. The interview was made some days after the Festival of 2014.






This year’s ’Bartók+ Opera Festival’ held in June is over. Were you be able to present all the works that you had planned?

We always have dreams, of course, and not all of them can come true. But during the planning of the festival there is always a moment, when some of our dreams have to be put away, and it has to be said, that the festival can only be made within certain limits. This year it was said quite early, sometime at the end of last Autumn. Then the program we wanted to realize became a reality on all points, and in my opinion, was presented at a very high level. For many years it has been the first time that we did not have to cancel any of the programs.

Which performance are you proud of the most?

I would not like to and could not name one performance. Our two guest performances were very important: one of them was Korngold’s Die tote Stadt in the guest performance of the Debrecen Csokonai Theatre, with Robert Dean Smith in the title role and performed by the Miskolc Symphony Orchestra. The other was Nino Rota’s Napoli milionaria in the guest performance of the Teatro del Giglio from Lucca. I think both were a big success, and it was the first time I could really show the audience what I think of, when I say that there are melodic, easily receptible operas after Bartók, too. Of course, it was also the first time, that the festival had the money to bring here two such serious productions with such excellent casts. I am also glad that our series called ’Opera of thousands’ could be realized in the monumental perfomance of Aida. I am also very proud that this year we could stage the first opera written at the request of the festival: György Selmeczi’s Byzantium.

It seems to me that this year more people have come to see these contemporary operas, and the tickets were usually sold out. Did you put more emphasis on the PR of the Festival?

Three years were needed to make my new conception really known. We talked a lot about it, many wrote about it, too, but we needed time to popularize it. Of course, we still have a lot to do in this regard, but I am really glad that the audience in Miskolc have shown its openness again. In the 1990s many people objected our plan to make an opera division in Miskolc, but soon everyone accepted it. A few years later everyone was puzzled to hear that we wanted to make an opera festival here, in this ’miner town’, but then it turned out that the people loved it. Some years ago they were shocked to know that I was planning to turn the Miskolc Opera Festival into a contemporary music festival, but now it seems to be accepted: this year I met a really enthusiastic audience at the Festival.

Gergely Kesselyák in the Opening ceremonyGergely Kesselyák in the Opening ceremonyWhat else can you do to make the Festival even more well-known in the world?

We have already done a lot. Our page on Facebook works very well, during the Festival there were more than 60 thousand people following our reports. But now we cannot really do much more, and this is mainly because of our limited budget. This year our budget was about 260-300 million Forints [about 800 thousand-1 million Euro – ed.]. In fact we did not spend that much but only 200 million Forints, the rest was given by the Hungarian State Opera House, the Csokonai Theatre of Debrecen, and the Hungarian Opera of Cluj Napoca, including the work done by them. But at the beginning of last year we did not know it yet, it only became clear during the year. At the moment we only have 63 million Forints for next year and we have no idea at all, whether we will have 200-300 million Forints again. This is the biggest problem: if once we would like to make it a really famous international festival, our budget should be approved one year before the festival, not some months before that. Our tourism partners would already like to see our program for next year now, but in vain. We can only start planning seriously - or rather, accomplishing the certain productions already planned - very late. So, despite having dreams, plans, production partners and joint ambitions, I do not know in time how much money we will have. I hope, it will change in the future, and we work very hard to change it.

Let’s talk about the Opera Composition Competition. Last year and this year we could learn of several new operas, but there was no winner, neither in 2013, nor in 2014. Do you consider the competition a failure?

No, not at all. The objective of the Miskolc Opera Festival is to give way to new, popular operas. More and more people know about us in the world, know that there is a festival, which is small, but advocates its aims loudly and consistently. But these operas are not neceserally born in two or three years. After all, we want to make music history, even if it sounds a bit grandiloquent, and it takes time. We may not immediately find what we are looking for, and we do not necesseraly award a first prize. The essence of this competition is not to find the best opera out of the ones competing that year, but to find a new opera, which can carry on the trend started by Gershwin, Bernstein, Korngold, Nino Rota or Sondheim. Or an opera showing a new trend, which we did not think of, but listening to it we say: that’s it, this is the one, because it got a standing ovation at the end of the performance…
It is also important that neither the jury, nor the audience is infallible. It can happen that we say ’no’ to a work, and in ten years it will turn out that we were wrong. Maybe the composer will already have made a revision of his work by then. But in any case, it is true that we will have to propagate the call for this competition more intensively all over the world, for example in student concerts, festivals, and we also have to meet as many composers as we can in person to ask them to write operas.

But I have heard several people asking why the jury let a work reach the finals if they knew it would not have a chance to win?

Gergely Kesselyák in the jury of the Opera Composition CompetitionGergely Kesselyák in the jury of the Opera Composition CompetitionThe final is also part of the competition. I do not think it is fair if the members of the jury meet in a room and decide not to let any of the works get into to the final, saying they are not good enough, so the final is cancelled. In this case there is no real competition and it may seem as if the Festival would run away from its commitment. The jury may think there will be no winner, but the public should be convinced, too, so the audience must also have the chance to listen to the works. Moreover, in this competition the public is also a member of the jury. In addition, this is the only way to help the three composers have their operas performed. And otherwise they could not learn from it. You cannot test everything on your desk or computer. The competition has brought several values to the surface. For example, here is the Italian composer, Girolamo Deraco, who was a competitor last year, but was a member of the jury this year, and his new instrumental piece was also part of this year’s program. I think he is a fantastic benefit for the Festival. Last year he brought his 8-second piece ’Taci!’ to the competition and we knew he could not win, because his work is not a ’popular opera’. But this was the way the world could get knowledge of Girolamo Deraco’s opera. What’s more, through him we could come in contact with the company from Lucca, who has brought Nino Rota’s opera now. We have another plan for 2016: we will submit an application to the EU together with Lucca and the opera house of San Francisco [note: ’Taci!’ has also been premiered in San Francisco – ed.], for a new opera by Girolamo Deraco. It will be a ’space opera’, which presents different historical eras, looking down on our blue planet from space…

What can we know about next year’s Festival?

I am glad to talk about it, but I would like to emphasize, that at the moment these are plans only. Composer Aleksandr Ribnikov – with whom we have had a close co-operation for years – has been writing his new opera War and peace for a long time. I would love to have it performed but the piece is not ready yet. Levente Gyöngyösi has been invited by the Dohnányi Orchestra to write The master and Margarita – based on Bulgakov’s work -, which will be a ’musical-like opera’, and I would also like it to be presented in Miskolc. There is a beautiful performance in Brno of Korngold’s opera Das Wunder der Heliane. This is a finished production, but it was not on in Brno in the last season, so we could not invite them. Maybe next year. In the case of Korngold it is worth ’to strike while the iron is hot’, anyway, because this year his Die tote Stadt was a big success in Miskolc.

Can you mention some other composers after Bartók, whose works may be presented here - not necesseraly next year, but in the longer run - as ’popular operas’?

Sooner or later I would like to present Bernstein’s Candide. In my opinion, West side story can also come into consideration if it is performed with a really recognized cast, music management and a direction of an operatic ambition. It would be nice to stage Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in a serious production, and sooner or later I would also like to see Kurt Weill’s opera The rise and fall of the city of Mahagonny here. This work has already been performed in Hungary in the direction of János Szikora, with me conducting. That production could be renewed, but any other direction could come, of course. I would also be happy to present another opera of Nino Rota. Furthermore, there is Stephen Sondheim. I am not sure that his works can be played without amplification, but his wonderful musical Sweeney Todd – we can call it an opera – has already been played in big opera houses.

What can we see next year in the free performance, the ’The opera of thousands’?

Probably Il trovatore, in a cooproduction with the Budapest Opera House again.

In the Ice Hall again or in the street, like in the previous years?

I do not know yet. We would like to continue to make productions in the Ice Hall – for example, Ribnikov’s War and peace or Levente Gyöngyösi’s already mentioned opera, if they will be ready – but Il trovatore may also be there, we have made no final decision about it yet.

We have talked about Levente Gyöngyösi’s new opera. Are there any other new, Hungarian operas that you are planning to present?

I would certainly like to present Gyula Fekete’s Egy anya története (The story of a mother), which is a beautiful opera. Tamás Beischer-Matyó also has a new opera, which totally fits in with our conception: it is an ’ultra-verist’ modern story focusing on a love quadrangle. I am very curious about Péter Pejtsik’s new opera – it is based on Örkény’s play Tóték (The Tóts), and it is looked after by tenor Boldizsár László, too, this time working as a producer. And conductor Ádám Cser also told me he was working on a one-act opera.

As I know you are also writing an opera.

Gergely KesselyákGergely KesselyákYes, but it is ’slow as molasses in January’. Firstly, I do not have much time to do it. Secondly, I think you should be a professional in one thing, and my job is conducting. Composing is a professional hobby for me and by this I do not mean being an amateur, of course. I do hope, that I will be able to make a professional product, but in the absence of routine I need more time to do it than a composer does.

Would you say something about your opera? Is it going to be a ’popular opera’?

Yes, but talking about the attribute ’popular opera’, I would like to emphasize that I take it very seriously. I did not find it out because I am mercenary, but because this is the problem concerning me the most. Namely how opera, classical music can be returned to its original state. Because in the old days this genre was created to entertain a lot of people at a high level. The other point is, that yes, the expression ’popular opera’ sounds very good from the point of marketing, because there is also an international will to bring classical music closer to a wider audience. Getting back to your question: if I compose, I would definitely like to write a kind of music, which, in my opinion, can be loved by many. It would not be good if my opera was only for an elite professional circle. I would like it to be popular, but at the same time to meet my own expectations in regard of its quality. Of course, I cannot know now, how the audience will receive my work.

You also direct operas. Is this also a ’professional hobby’, like composing?

Yes. I am not planning a new direction in the near future, but I have an older Nabucco-direction, which was performed at the theatres of Debrecen and Miskolc, and will be performed at Erkel Theatre in Budapest in the next season. I will have some work with it because of the new stage and cast.

After the Festival you conducted Carmen on Margaret Island, Budapest, then some symphonic works at the Dubrovnik Summer Festival. What’s next?

Relaxation, after the performances mentioned I finish my season.


Balázs Csák



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