Ádám Fischer in conversation with Bettina Mara

Ádám Fischer: in conversation during the Budapest Wagner Festival 10.6.2011 (BM)

Adam Fischer. Photo © Zsuzsa Pető : Source Palace of Arts - Budapest

The success of the Wagner Napok, or Wagner Days is largely the achievement of artistic director Ádám Fischer, one of Hungary’s most distinguished conductors. His annual ‘Wagner in Budapest Opera Festival’ is becoming more popular by the year – and rightly so, judging by the fantastic Lohengrin which has just been added to the Festival’s repertoire this season (reviewed here ).

Fischer comes from a musical family, and indeed his stage debut was probably when he and his younger brother Iván (also an eminent conductor) sang two of the three Genii in a production of The Magic Flute at the Hungarian State Opera, where he was to become music director years later – a position he resigned from last winter in protest, although he will continue to lead the Wagner Festival at the Palace of Arts, his way of bringing his Bayreuth experience (where his 2001 Ring won him the German magazine Opernwelt’s “conductor of the year” award) back to Budapest.

Last week Ádám Fischer kindly agreed to a brief interview backstage during the second interval of Tristan und Isolde. He is easily the most unpresumptuous of classical music celebrities I have ever met, and as we sit down to talk I notice a fair-sized hole in the sleeve of his slightly rumpled black cotton shirt, so he’s obviously not interested in appearances, and I like that.

The first thing I ask him about is his resignation from Hungarian State Opera. His open letter against the rise of racism in Hungarian society, written together with pianist András Schiff and several other artists, has been published on the internet  (here and here) and  everyone has heard about the repressive media laws introduced by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, but are there other reasons as well? “The truth is, I might have decided to step down at some point even if it hadn’t been for the recent political developments in Hungary, and unlike András Schiff, I don’t intend to turn my back on performing here altogether. We are both very concerned about the situation here, the rise in anti-semitism, homophobia and xenophobia, and personally I have launched a new project – a website to fight against intolerance and racism, particularly with respect to the Roma. And don’t forget that our country has just adopted a new constitution which basically denies Slovakia’s right of existence as an independent state! Too many of our politicians are indulging in visions of the past, of our ‘historical independence’. But what made life so difficult for me at the State Opera was the extremely cavalier attitude with respect to commitments, the incredible nonchalance with which promises were often broken. I hardly need to explain what kind of a situation that often put me in, when I had already recruited artists, only to hear later on that someone had changed their mind. And then there were the musicians who would go to their politician friends whenever they wanted something, such as a job for a relative. Needless to say, politicians have no idea what an opera company really needs.”

What about the style of productions shown at the State Opera House – most of what I have seen there strikes me as much more conservative than what is on at the Wagner Festival…although of course there are several exceptions – the new opera by Gyula Fekete, Excelsior, The Magic Flute (links to reviews below) directed by László Marton, who also staged the Festival’s Lohengrin, or last year’s Fidelio, which Fischer conducted – and which was fairly controversial?!

“Well, that Fidelio is not being revived next season. The prevailing policy at the State Opera House creates productions that belong in a museum.” Indeed, on the day following this conversation I saw a performance of Manon Lescaut which looked like it must be decades old, but in fact had only just premiered in 2008… “In this day and age it’s almost impossible to avoid that sort of thing at a repertoire and ensemble theater, though, the result being that sometimes 50-year-old productions of Traviata or Tosca are still being put on. ‘Not good enough? Then we’ll schedule some additional rehearsals!’ was my predecessor’s answer to this problem. But seriously, the trouble at repertoire companies is that new productions have to be stageable for the next 30 years, and that makes most interesting projects unaffordable. Whenever I broke that rule, of course it didn’t exactly make me very popular. In future I will be going where I can find the conditions I need to work, and that is in the West for the most part.”

In the West? Hasn’t it been years since the iron curtain came down? “Well, the West can be Australia and New Zealand as well as far as I’m concerned, but I admit that some old habits die hard, including certain figures of speech.”

But of course he will be continuing to carry forward the Budapest Wagner Festival, with a new production of Tannhäuser and a revival of the Ring cycle scheduled for next year? “Yes, no question about that, the Wagner Festival in Budapest is ‘my baby’. Ever since the inauguration of the Palace of Arts, it has been a wonderful opportunity to stage new and exciting productions of Wagner operas for which tickets are actually available to the public, and at a reasonable price, too. It is developing into a viable alternative or complement to Bayreuth, depending on your point of view.” The long, one-hour intervals, good restaurants and the Modern Art Museum housed in the Palace of Arts complex – built on the riverbank with a spectacular view of the Danube – all contribute to this. “Budapest audiences are quite conservative, though, and although the ‘experts’ are happy to attend our performances, many of this city’s regular opera-goers are loathe to make the short trip down here to see something new. Someone once said that there are cat audiences and dog audiences, in that it is in a dog’s nature to follow his master, but a cat will always want to stay in the same house. That makes the our opera audience in Budapest a cat audience, I suppose.”

It’s only a few stops on the tram along the Danube to come down here from the center of town, though, and whoever isn’t willing to do that this season will certainly be missing out on a fantastic Lohengrin, complete with ‘police dogs’ on stage… “Incidentally, the idea for those dogs came to mind while watching the royal wedding on television and the massive security precautions it involved…! So our Elsa and Lohengrin have Kate and William to thank for that.” Nonetheless, director László Marton’s work speaks for itself – and he is also an artist who has had his share of run-ins with authoritarian governments.

Ádám Fischer has at times expressed a bit of exasperation with so-called ‘authentic’ performances, so I wonder how this applies to Wagner? “What I meant by those statements is that you can just as easily play badly on old or authentic instruments. It’s important to understand the intentions of the composer, but it’s wrong to hide behind them, since you have to bring your own personality to what you play. That applies to Wagner’s music in that a different sound can be produced by playing on catgut strings, of course, but above all because it used to be considered somewhat unauthentic to perform his work outside Bayreuth.” But as Fischer says in his Parsifal program notes, every conductor should go on a pilgrimage to Bayreuth in search of the music’s origins, and then go off and be ‘authentic’ elsewhere. Following the initial 30-year ban on performing Wagner’s music outside Bayreuth after his death, the first Budapest performance actually took place just hours after that ban had expired, and was awaited with much the same excitement as a new Harry Potter book is today! “Wagner has always been very popular with audiences in Hungary, and I am doing my best to sustain that enthusiasm.”

How exactly does a conductor do that – what is it he does in the orchestra pit? could it be one of the reasons he chose conducting over the piano?

“I can’t really say exactly what it is that we do. In the past I’ve joked about how I was too lazy to practice the piano, and there’s a tiny bit of truth in that. Presumably you know that my father was a conductor, as is my brother, whereas my mother and sister are psychologists – I have always said that both are charlatan professions, in a way. So we’re a family of charlatans!”

Unassuming as he is, the man leading the orchestra at the Wagner Days is anything but an imposter, and this year’s performances are not over yet: you can still catch Lohengrin and Parsifal at the Palace of Arts this weekend.

Bettina Mara

For further information and tickets, visit the Palace of Arts’ website at: www.mupa.hu

Read about this year’s Tristan and last year’s as well as recent  Seen and Head reviews of Excelsior and The Magic Flute

Seen and Heard has also reviewed the Palace of Arts’ 2009 Hommage à Ligeti,
a more recent Ligeti concertand the Budapest Chopin Marathon

Originally written in German for Orpheus Oper International (www.orpheusoper.de)