IIN MEMORIAM – The New Opera Guide of the Modern Generation. An Interview with Stefan Mickisch

The New Opera Guide of the Modern Generation. An interview with Stefan Mickisch. (JPr)

R.I.P. Stefan Mickisch 5 July 1962 to 17 February 2021

Stefan Mickisch (c) Martin Ritter

Though not as well-known as he deserves to be in the UK or USA, the lecture concerts by the pianist and musicologist Stefan Mickisch have in a very short time attained cult status in many of the great music capitals of Europe. Born in north-eastern Bavaria, in 2006 Stefan Mickisch was called during the Vienna Mozart Year the ‘new opera guide of the modern generation’. He has performed his famous introduction matinees – part lecture, part recital – at the grand piano at all of the performances of the Bayreuth Festival since 1998, entertaining and informing those with tickets for the Wagner operas … as well as those without any. These events – which already had a rich tradition – have now gained an even higher reputation and prestige, as well as large audiences, because of his humorous way of presenting things and the many cross-references and the other comparisons made within the world of music. He has the ability to make everything instantly recognisable because of his consummate skill at the piano. So in Bayreuth, even those with only a small understanding of German can still gain a deeper understanding of the operas and he makes it possible for his audiences to find a completely new approach to appreciating music.

Stefan Mickisch, won several national and international piano prizes at a young age, and trained in Nuremberg, Hanover and Vienna. He has arranged his own piano transcriptions and fantasies to delve into the musical dramatic world of Wagner, who undoubtedly stands at the heart of his artistic work, but – as this interview (carried out by email) about his background and activities reveals – he is far from limited to that composer.

Where were you born?

In Schwandorf, a small town in the east of Bavaria, not far from the Czech border and that probably explains some ‘Bohemian’ musical blood.

Are you from a family with a love of music and were they musicians?

Yes, my father – a multitalented pianist, organist, conductor and improviser – was music professor at the Schwandorf Gymnasium. He was my first music teacher when I started to play at the age of four. When I played the Schumann concerto at 14, he said: ‘I cannot teach you any more, now you must go to a “real pianist” and that’s what I did later on. My mother also played piano and had a wonderful soprano voice.

Why did you decide to study music?

I remember very well thinking for a short period at the age of 18 whether to study philosophy, or history, or Latin … or piano. It was not a long phase of reflection, because my piano passion was very strong. And later in my lectures I could bring in all my interest and knowledge of the other subjects.

When did you decide to become a pianist?

Probably at 13, when I won first prize in the German National Youth Piano competition.

Do you play any other instruments?

Yes, I like to play the violin and the viola. As a violist I was concertmaster in a semi-professional Symphony Orchestra playing pieces like Tchaikovsky’s Sixth, Beethoven’s Fifth, and Mahler’s First Symphony.

You play music from – and lecture about – a number of composers but you are best known for Wagner – when did you first hear his music?

At 15 I listened to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – live from Bayreuth as a Bavarian Radio broadcast – and this was a kind of initiation experience. I read the Carl Tausig piano reduction and was amazed about the qualities of that incredible music.

What is special for you about Wagner’s music?

His emotions and sound, the depth of feeling, the operas’ uncompromising length and their very interesting and philosophical texts. The fact, that every opera is indeed very different from any other. This is different to something like the Bruckner’s symphonies which all sound very similar to each other and could be spoken of as ONE big Bruckner Symphony in 9 parts.

You are now best known for your introductory Bayreuth Festival lectures about music. When did you decide to concentrate on this rather than concentrate on being an accompanist or concert pianist?

The first step was in 1993 when I decided to follow my instinct and passion for Wagner and started to play his music on the piano. It was in that year that I got an 8 weeks bursary in the US for the art colony VCCA (Virginia Center for the Creative Arts). At this marvellous place, inspired by around 40 artists – not only musicians, but mostly visual artists, painters and writers – I composed my first paraphrase of Götterdämmerung, and explained the most important contents, in English of course, to my artist colleagues. Some of them were Jewish and had – not surprisingly – never before listened to Wagner! The Wagner concert I gave at the end of my stay on the VCCA Steinway came out to be an outstanding success and experience which sort of changed my artistic life. The second step was the invitation in 1998 from Bayreuth to give all 30 lectures there in summer, playing and explaining the Wagner operas on the morning of each day of the performance to the public.

Is each lecture basically the same on the individual operas or do you try and vary them by dealing on different related musical matters?

I have always varied my lectures; I give examples of other composers’ works which have a certain relation in keys or in content to the Wagner music. Sometimes the listeners hear the connections through music from Beethoven over Schumann to Wagner, coming up to Puccini and ending with Richard Strauss, for instance to show ‘fulfilled love’ in the key of E-Major, which has – by the way – to do with the sign ‘Leo’ in the zodiac.

What do you hope your audiences ‘get’ from attending your lectures?

Happiness, enjoyment and enlightenment.

The lecture CDs you have made – are they an extended version of your lectures?

The Bayreuth lectures of the 10 operas from Dutchman to Parsifal have the ‘original’ lecture length of around 90 minutes. All my other CDs (Rienzi, Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, Mozart, Beethoven, Puccini, Strauss and others) are longer. I do not concentrate just on Wagner and Bayreuth; this would be too narrow for me.

Your CDs of piano transcriptions are special because they share your wonderful ability to create the sound of the orchestra on just a single piano – is there anything special that you try to do to achieve that?

There are many things I do on the piano, but how can I describe what that is? It is not a ‘piano reduction’, it is not a ‘hammering’, it is not an arrangement in the ‘Liszt-manner’, it is not ‘the orchestra’ of course … and it is not just the piano. It is a special combination of many means in technique, sonority, composition, improvisation, and even I myself cannot describe the results adequately.

What is so special for you about Bayreuth?

Wagner of course … and the concentration on him.

What other composer’s music do you admire and why is that?

In Wagner’s opinion the best three composers were Bach, Beethoven, and Wagner – and I think he was right! Some would not like to exclude Mozart and Schubert in their personal ‘hit-list’. I would also add Puccini and Richard Strauss, also Scriabin, as the main theme of his Fourth Piano Sonata is based on Tristan und Isolde.

Do you have any special plans for the near future or is it much of the same?

I will perform a big Strauss cycle in Vienna, including Salome, Elektra, Die Frau ohne Schatten, An Alpine Symphony, and Ein Heldenleben. Of course, there will be very many concerts to come up in 2013, Wagner’s celebration year of his 200th birthday, including a lecture-piano cycle of all his 13 operas in Munich (Gasteig). Also I have invitations to play and explain Parsifal at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and at the Salzburg Easter Festival.

You appeared with Stephen Fry on his BBC TV programme about Wagner playing on Wagner’s Wahnfried piano – how did you become involved in the programme?

I was invited.

What did you think about it when you saw it?

To be honest I would have done something a bit better.

Is there anything else you would like to tell me about?

Maybe just this funny story that hints at the never-ending political problems with Wagner. One day I met an old friend from school again after many years. He drove a Volkswagen car and had a big Schäferhund – most will know it as German Shepherd dog – with him. He spoke about Wagner being totally unacceptable for him because of his anti-Semitism. Well, I asked him, if he regularly paid the tax collected by his church? He said, yes, of course. Well, I replied (playing advocatus diaboli) – the Devil’s Advocate): ‘You should perhaps know that Hitler loved the kind of dogs you have in a car, of which Hitler founded the production factory in Wolfsburg in 1937, and that he also made his very first international contract with the Vatican state in 1933, due to which you still pay the church tax, because exactly that law has not changed in Germany since 1933. So, if you blame Wagner, you can do it, after you leave the church, buy a Citroën and get a cat instead of your Schäferhund.’

Jim Pritchard