Interview with Serge Dorny, artistic director of Bavarian State Opera
Antoine Lévy-Leboyer (ALL): When did you start working to put your mark on the Bayerische Staatsoper?
Serge Dorny (SD): It is important to understand the history of this house, the ‘vécu d’une maison’. The Bayerische Staatsoper is an extraordinary opera house with a tremendous history. We have discussed [before the start of the interview] some operatic experiences, you spoke about Der Rosenkavalier with Carlos Kleiber. You remember those moments.
The history of this opera house is fundamental. When you’re thinking about a new chapter, you don’t write it from scratch. This is not a blank book. It is quite important to get a sense of how one can work with this enormous rich legacy and start writing the next chapter, not a new book.
ALL: This week, the Bayerische Staatsoper is closed because of the spread of coronavirus in Germany, and we have to hope this is only for this week. What has been the impact of the pandemic for the art, the artists and this house? Do you think that there’s going to be a before- and after-pandemic for companies as well as for operas?
SD: What we know for sure is that we will really have to live with COVID-19 for quite some time before normalisation returns. We did not expect to have to close the house this week. But suddenly, we had an increase in the number of positive cases that obliged us to reconsider.
In opera, everything is planned so far ahead. In doing so, we have lost some flexibility. It may be an opportunity to reconsider a few things. The repertoire opera houses, such as the Bayerische Staatsoper, have over the past decades become more and more dependent on ‘jet-set-singing’, on bringing in people for almost all roles from outside, from all over the world and not only from Europe. We now know that due to travel restrictions, what was possible yesterday is not necessarily possible anymore. Maybe we have to reconsider that.
The notion of an ensemble was once very well developed in Munich and in Vienna. I am thinking of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Munich or Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Vienna. The very important singers were considered the nucleus of these opera houses and led the latter to attain an extraordinary standing in the business. In the past, if the audience wanted to hear Fischer-Dieskau they could only hear him in Munich or perhaps in Salzburg. This gives a kind of signature to a house. In view of the restrictions and bans of the last two years, one has to consider whether one might have to partly rethink the concept of the ensemble. Maybe one has to find some kind of middle ground. Covid has taught us a lot in that respect.
And finally, it has taught us one thing which is how important a live audience is. Our theatres, our operas need content on stage and the feedback from an auditorium. Audiences are an extremely important actor in what is actually a dialogue. So, what we probably have felt more than ever was the urge to have an audience present. When opera houses and theatres reopened again after the first lockdowns, the feedback and the warmth, artists on stage and musicians in the pit could experience, reminded us of what makes this art form so special. The impulse that an audience gives to what is happening on stage is something remarkable that cannot be reproduced in a digital format.
Though of course, during these Covid times, all the opera houses, all the orchestras and all the theatres around the world have developed digital formats and digital content.
ALL: If I look at the season right now, you have some premieres but also the ‘classics’ like Tosca and the venerable Die Zauberflöte in the August Everding production. And in between, you have works which were premiered just for one streamed performance last year. So, it should have been the case for Walter Braunfels’s The Birds [which got cancelled because of this week’s closure] or the new production of Der Rosenkavalier, which is going to come back later this season. So, from the outside, it looks like as if you have two sets of premieres, which is such a daunting task. Is this stressful for the organisation?
SD: Obviously the Bayerische Staatsoper and my predecessor continued to produce content and likewise made it possible to continue a season how it was originally scheduled. And likewise, all the premieres that were announced finally took place. But sometimes they could not fit the complete original orchestration in the pit. Therefore, for Der Rosenkavalier, for instance an alternative version was presented, not Richard Strauss’s original version.
ALL: I remember attending Wozzeck in February with a reduced orchestra.
SD: We were not always able to perform with the original instrumentation. I am not talking about Wozzeck, but of Der Rosenkavalier. That is difficult because this work will be back this season and we don’t want to perform it in the same way, we want to perform with the full Besetzung. So, we will obviously need some extra orchestra and stage rehearsals to balance the acoustic. We have planned the rehearsal in such a way as to allow it to be performed as originally intended.
This problem is specific to certain productions. Other productions like Der Freischütz [another production which premiered last year] do not have big orchestras. Each production must be considered individually. In Aribert Reimann’s King Lear, for example, it was the composer’s condition that it should be performed with the original cast. With Wozzeck, it was about adapting a production that was already part of the repertoire. If we were to perform Wozzeck again, we would play it in the original scoring
ALL: There are a number of works that have required massive amount of preparation. You mentioned King Lear; to produce it, you need to have three singers on stage that can also sing Elektra, Salome and Sophie. It’s really difficult. The Bayerische Staatsoper once performed Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. Is there a risk that such works, after a miracle of agendas, could disappear from the repertoire?
SD: If you look at the opera repertoire, we have operas that are part of a so called ‘standard repertoire’, operas one performs every year, like Tosca, La traviata, Die Zauberflöte … And then you have operas that are important and interesting works, key works in the history of opera, but that cannot be performed every year. It is important that we have a mixture of the standard repertoire with other works – representing the 400-year history of opera – that we will perform a few times and then will disappear.
We cannot only perform blockbusters. The opera history offers around 50-60,000 titles written since Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Today, some 50 to 80 operas are performed over and over. Die Zauberflöte is a good example. There are probably 50 new productions of these works produced every year. If we say that opera is a living art form and an art form of the future, it is important that we widen the repertoire being offered. Audiences are curious. They do not want only to hear what they know, what they have heard, what they’re familiar with. It is our role to stimulate such curiosity and to perform an even wider repertoire. We quite often underestimate an audience. And we have seen that, for example, with the performance of The Nose there has been a wonderful public response, a curiosity and open mind. This is extremely encouraging.
If you are venturing into unknown or new works, it provides a new perspective to pieces we know. If I listen to a piece I’m unfamiliar with, it ‘aiguise mon oreille et mes yeux’ [‘Sharpens my ear and my eyes’]. Take the example of Carmen. Most people have an image of what they want to see in this work and how they want to hear it. When we attend a performance of it, we don’t necessarily hear what is performed, we reproduce what exists or lives in our memory. If we give to an audience a different experience where the reference disappears, they will look and listen differently.
ALL: They are not trying to compare this to the marginal differences of the last thing they’ve seen, they will see the whole thing.
SD: And the point for me is that it offers a real future to opera.
ALL: Is this one of the reasons why you choose among the new works, Les Troyens by Berlioz, The Nose from Shostakovich, Die Teufel von Loudon from Penderecki, Peter Grimes from Britten …
SD: You asked in the beginning, how do you start a new chapter? I studied the history of the house and at the repertoire we have. At the Bayerische Staatsoper, we have almost all repertoire of Richard Strauss, Wagner, quite a lot of Verdi, of Puccini and in often very solid productions. The core repertoire is well represented. Of the 45 or so opera titles we perform in a year, around 35 are of the repertoire catalogue we have. So, I found it interesting to add some different flavours. The new opera titles we are proposing are: Russian, Czech, French, English, Polish… Both Vladimir Jurowski [the company’s General Music Dircetor] and myself consider it very important to widen the repertoire.
And by the way, let us not forget that there will be a new production of a Strauss opera. We will do a new Capriccio at the Summer Festival, an opera composed for the Bayerische Staatsoper.
ALL: If I go back to the first question where you explained that you had a plan and an ambition and vision for the opera, can you describe it? What do you want to say to some of the people who’ve never been into opera house that they should try, come and experience an opera?
SD: I would like to analyse a bit this question of audiences. The point is that Munich is endowed with a wonderful audience. After the first lockdowns, after the insecurity and the silence we have been living for the last two years, when opera houses and theatres restarted, audiences hesitated to return to our theatres. There are many opera houses, theatres and concert halls which have serious problems getting their audiences back. I mean, I do not want to single out any, but the Paris Opera has difficulties to fill the house. The Vienna Staatsoper is no longer completely sold out. You see that theatres and concert halls are not completely full now.
When we opened the house at the beginning of September, quite rapidly, we found enormous enthusiasm from our audience to the extent of a full capacity. Munich has a real audience compared to other opera houses where the proportion of tourists is important.
Today, more than ever, arts institutions have a central role to play in the cohesion and construction of tomorrow’s society. Our societies have over the past decades become more and more diverse. And this evermore diverse society needs communication, dialogue, communion, to help construct cohesion; our society is having fewer and fewer places to facilitate a dialogue. Historical piazzas have disappeared. And the ever-growing digitalisation of our societies have created in part a solitarian society, with overcrowded social networks, often with empty communication, in which dialogue is often failing.
So, our society is in need of places where ‘being together’ is celebrated. Our theatres and our operas have the capacity to bring people together, responding collectively to a performance, sharing collectively emotions. I think we have a central position, an almost political role to play, political in the noble sense of the work, encouraging debate.
Sitting in a theatre and seeing this enormous power that opera has – music, singing, acting, lighting, sets and so on – is an experience that cannot be substituted by anything else and is very powerful. Digital doesn’t give you that. We often talk about L’immersion and the digital experience is not an immersive one. Sitting in an opera house, or sitting in the theatre, you’re really immersed, you’re part of that shared experience. But we, as art institutions have to also reach out. I think we have been living too long in an ivory tower.
(Interview edited for clarity of content)