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Beata i Michał Olszewscy
opera.info.pl - 11/05/2015

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"I like my job" - interview with Dominique Meyer - part two

Polish version Flaga polska


The second part of Beata and Michal Olszewscy’ interview with Dominique Meyer, the Director of the Vienna State Opera. The first part of this interview is available here

Dominique Meyer photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper
Click to magnify 

A few minutes ago you mentioned that one of the unique features of the Vienna State Opera is its very wide repertoire, with fifty or even sixty titles of opera and ballet played each season.  However, being a repertoire theatre means having less time for rehearsals, especially rehearsals with the orchestra. In such case what steps are you taking to preserve and ensure a high level of each performance?

I am glad that you have asked this question, because it's the first time in seven years, since I was nominated, that such a question has been asked. And for me, that was my first concern, because it is a very important issue how one can modernise the old productions in such a way, that if somebody comes to the Vienna State Opera, he or she receives a high artistic value. To achieve this I, together with my crew, have had to develop a strategy.

Firstly, after discussions with the orchestra we decided to increase the number of rehearsals. Before, there were ninety during the season; now we have one hundred and ten rehearsals.

The second thing that I did was changing the contracts with the guest artists, who now come not later than eight or nine days before the performance. Earlier, they had to arrive just two or three days before. In many cases we also do two or even three weeks of rehearsals.

Thirdly, we have invested in new stage directors’ assistants who take care of the large number of repertoire productions.

The fourth point is related to the availability of the main stage for rehearsals, as it was principally used for the new productions’ rehearsals only.  That is why we have constructed a new rehearsals stage, which is the same size as the main stage. Now the new productions’ rehearsals may take place on this new stage and we can put all the decorations there. This allows us to have more time for rehearsals of the existing productions on the main stage.

Then, the next point was that many old productions did not look good any more, considering their sets as well as costumes.  So we have done two things. First, we produced a meticulous documentation of all sets and costumes. Then I had to find some money to refurbish them. To achieve that I decided to have co-productions, which allowed me to spend less money on premieres and reduce the cost of the House. At the beginning I was criticised for that. However, in this way I generated savings for modernising old productions. So far we have refurbished a large number of existing repertoire productions.

The last point I did was to ask stage directors to come back to the House when rehearsals of existing productions are done. Before, it was a normal practice that the in-house staff in charge of the repertoire never met the original stage director - in my opinion it’s valuable to have these people back during rehearsals. Now this is a routine, I do not need to advertise it anymore. To give an example, during the last season we performed “The Tales of Hoffmann”, the great old production, done more than 20 years ago, and the stage director, Andrei Serban came in for rehearsals, which was very valuable.

Wiener Staatsoper photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper
Click to magnify

Some changes have also been made from the musical point of view. For instance, we have established one version of how each opera is to be performed at the Vienna State Opera.  Before, there were different versions of the operas that were played, but we have created a catalogue with as few exceptions as possible, like in the case of “The Barber of Seville”, where we still have two versions.

When doing all these things, I knew that nobody would appreciate this at first sight, but now it is a great pleasure for me to read in the press that the quality of repertoire performances is high.

Being the frequent guests of the Vienna State Opera we have noticed the great importance of who is in the pit. Conductors can make singers feel very comfortable, or they can make the singers look at them all the time, not at their stage partners.

From my experience of hundreds of performances that I have seen here over these last four years I must say that there is usually a very good cooperation between the pit and the stage. However, this is also thanks to the quality of our orchestra. When I visit other theatres to see performances, I always miss them very much. Our orchestra is fantastic and this is the main reason why we can play “Tosca” one day, “The Flying Dutchmann” the next day, and then “Rusalka”.

We fully agree. The same issue was emphasised by Bryn Terfel, who told us after the “Tosca” performance in Vienna in January this year, that when you sing on this stage you have to know the role inside out, but at the same time you have to remember who the orchestra in front of you is, as this is famous Vienna Philharmonic.

Of course, everyone speaks positively about Vienna Philharmonic, but only a few people fully understand, that the orchestra is really the key for what happens here.  That is why we are able to provide fifty or even sixty operas and ballets a year. I have a long experience of being the director of four different organisations for twenty two seasons. Everywhere, if you plan to stage “The Ring,” you stop everything else for a couple of months. Here you play “Das Rheingold”, then “Die Walküre” and after three days “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung”.  And between these performances you can hear “Rigoletto” or “L'elisir d'amore”.  And there is no cause for concern because of the quality of the orchestra.

For example, this week we have two newcomers as conductors: Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Tomáš Netopil - two very good conductors. They were both impressed because the orchestra reacts so fast and so musically. The musicians understand perfectly what the conductors want if they are clear. This gives us a great ability to move from one part of the repertoire to the other, from Wagner to Dvořák.

It is also worth realising, that the reason why we may have so many great singers in our House is because of the fact, that we provide so many titles during each season. Especially because apart from the fact that we play fifty to sixty titles, we do them in the series of three or four performances. Therefore, you may have for example “Tosca” with three or even four different casts during the season.

We would like to ask you a question about being the director of an opera house. What are the main characteristics such person should have to be successful from both business and artistic points of view? What background should such a person have? In Poland, for example, there are directors who are conductors or stage directors.  What is the best solution in your opinion?  And an additional question - do you think that a director of an opera house should at least like opera as a form of art? We strongly believe that leading such organisation without understanding opera is a very difficult task.

You are absolutely right. Here, but it was the same when I was at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, I spend between ninety and ninety five hours per week at work. I come here very early in the morning, because I want to finish my administration work in the office just in order to be free to go to rehearsals. I also see many performances.  In my opinion it is not good when an artist is a director of an opera house. This is because if you are an artist, you must devote a lot of your time to be on stage. To be good at what you are doing, you must just concentrate on this activity.

I also think that it is good when there is a distinction between management and artists. Of course, when I put a programme together, and when I cast the piece, I do an artistic job, but I do not need to feel like an artist. There are many cases in which stage directors are artistic directors, but I think it can also cause difficulties, because a stage director has to prepare the rehearsals and to be there. When they are preparing a new opera production they work on stage six hours a day and then they have to prepare for the next day.

Dominique Meyer photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper
Click to magnify 

I work a lot not only because I am a workaholic and like my job. I do it because it is necessary.  I can’t imagine how the stage director could have enough time to lead an opera house, being involved in the rehearsals at the same time. Of course, there are exceptions. Our job has its artistic side, but you also have to run the house.  You have to prepare a strategy, to care about the employees, to deal with the laws and the budget. I like the situation when the artistic director is able to understand all the consequences of diverse decisions, the economy and organisation, how the house works, mechanisms of ticket sales and much more.  I do not like the idea when artistic decisions can be made without thinking of their economic consequences. Saying so, I believe that the key is that the director has to be able to cast pieces by himself, to choose singers and conductors.

But to be able to do this, an opera director has to understand and to know opera art very well?

Yes, I believe that an opera director has to know the repertoire and to know the singers, as well as the roles they are able to take. Of course, every newspaper’s reader may say that he or she wants to hear Anna Netrebko in this or that role, but the director should also be able to find new singers. This is an ability you need to have.  Every year I am asked by many organisations to be the head of the jury of young singers’ competitions, so I can discover new singers, which is important because we have an ensemble and we must find out the right people for it.  The second point is that when you cast operas you have to be able to give new roles to several singers, and to know what you are doing. The performances being staged now are a good example. In “Der fliegende Holländer,” you know who can play the part of Holländer or Daland, but to find a person like Carole Wilson, who sings Mary and who is now in the ensemble, is a completely different task. Another example is the case of “Rusalka”. We were very glad to have Kristine Opolais to sing the title role, but when she cancelled, we  prepared somebody in the ensemble, a fantastic singer, to be able to replace her. And so, Olga Bezsmertna made her role debut and she was well received by the audience and the press. This is a part of the job of an opera director - knowing how to find good singers.

And to create opportunities for them to start and develop their careers?

Yes, and to have a strategy. Because if I put a new name in the title role on a poster here, I create high expectations. People are used to having big stars. That is why I give my newcomers small roles, but they also cover the main parts, and if it happens that the main roles are cancelled, then they jump in. They are well prepared, as we know who is ready for which role, our pianists and the stage assistants are fantastic, so they are secured. This happened, for example, with Adam Plachetka, who jumped in to replace Ferruccio Furlanetto in “L'italiana in Algeri.” And this happens regularly with other members of the ensemble, like Anita Hartig.

We have been following the career of Anita Hartig over the last couple of years and are really amazed at the way she is developing.

This is a good example. Anita Hartig was once to sing Musetta in “La Boheme”, but then her colleague, who was supposed to sing Mimi fell ill - she replaced her, and it was a huge success. All this confirms what I said, that one of the aspects of the director’s job is to find the way to give young singers a good build-up, but you also have to be very careful here, because if you make a mistake, this may ruin their careers.

It must be a fantastic part of the job to find diamonds and make them shine!  This year in Salzburg we heard two young singers from your ensemble in “Don Giovanni”, Valentina Nafornita and Alessio Arduini. It was a big joy to listen to them and to see how they developed their abilities. They were equal partners to their more experienced colleagues.

I found both of them on the same day. It was five years ago in Como, in wintertime. I was the chairman of the jury of the competition, won by Valentina Nafornita.  Alessio Arduini made the auditions for me on the same day.

I feel a bit like the father of this family, taking care of them and seeing how they improve, but I try to do this very carefully, not to push them too fast as this may be dangerous for them. You have to go step by step, and it is not so easy for singers to say “no” when they are offered a big role by a conductor, for example. If you are going too fast you may disappear very quickly.

Wiener Staatsoper photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper
Click to magnify

We know that you also give lectures at a university. How do you find free time for that?

When I was younger, I was a professor and taught economics. I also like to stay in touch with young people. So, when I was asked here to teach about theatre management, I thought it was my job to do it. I can tell these young people things that they won’t find in any books. This knowledge comes from many years of experience and of daily work - this is not theory, it is real life, all the memories that have accumulated in your head, the problems that you have to solve. Apart from this, I also host a one-hour radio programme on Radio Stephansdom once a month.

Is this programme also about opera?

No, it's about classical music, which is my passion. I was the director of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, which is a special place, where you can hear about seventy symphony concerts per season, as well as piano evenings, singers’ concerts and chamber music evenings. Being the director of such organisation, you just have to know this repertoire. So now, being the director of Vienna Opera House, where I do exclusively opera and ballets, I miss a little bit the other kinds of classical music.

And what do you think about the recent popularity of baroque music?

It is not so new. I participated in this evolution. Firstly, because I like baroque music very much. Secondly, because as the director of Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, which was a private society with no state donations, I had to find a good strategy to successfully compete with such places as Salle Pleyel, Théâtre du Châtelet, the Paris Opera and also Opéra Comique. So for operas we did mainly baroque music, but also the whole Mozart cycle, Rossini appearances and pieces of the twentieth century, just to give another direction. We also did a lot of oratorios. I do not remember exactly, but we did approximately two hundred baroque pieces, including thirty eight Händel operas.  It was a fantastic thing to give life to the scores that had been sleeping for three hundred years. We also did Monteverdi, Cavalli, Cesti, all the works of Vivaldi, also Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Leo, Vinci. We also did French composers like Rameau and Moulinié, unknown composers as well as a cycle of church music.

We would like to come back to the repertoire of the Vienna Opera House. Let’s say that somebody from Poland wants to come to Vienna this season to see an opera performance - what would your suggestions be?

I would say: one Wagner opera and one Strauss piece, because this is our main speciality. But you should not forget that 60% of our repertoire is Italian, and for instance this season we will have the fantastic production of “Don Carlo” again, with a great cast. “Don Carlo” has always been a big event in the House. In the past, we had great conductors like Claudio Abbado or Herbert von Karajan leading this piece, so this is also a great part of Viennese tradition.

Dominique Meyer photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Poehn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper
Click to magnify 

This season the audience of the Vienna State Opera will also have an opportunity to hear “The Ring” cycle with a completely different cast and conductor.

This is how we always create a new interest by doing the same production with different artists. Simon Rattle knows “The Ring” very well as he did it several times, and presenting new singers to this production is very interesting. If we talk about Wagner, I am very grateful that I am on my position now, because if you remember the situation of Wagner singers in the second part of the seventies, it was impossible to do a good performance of his operas. You were not able to find a singer to sing Siegfried or Brünnhilde on a high level. Now, it is a fantastic period. You have great Wagnerian tenors like Johan Botha, Jonas Kaufman, Peter Seiffert, Stephen Gould, Christopher Ventris, Robert Dean Smith, etc.  Now, in Vienna, you can hear great performances of “The Ring” with such singers like Stephen Gould, Nina Stemme, Elisabeth Kuhlman and others. It is worth to remember this, because it is not sure that we will have a similar opportunity in fifteen years’ time.

Your opinion is very interesting as sometimes we meet people who say that the era of great singers and conductors is over. We don’t quite agree with such an opinion. When we saw Evelyn Herlitzius in “Elektra” in Dresden last January, we were impressed by her signing. This was an incredible experience.

Yes, she was fantastic and I’m very happy she will be singing all Brünnhilde-roles of the “Ring” in spring 2015. We did not have voices like that for years. If you compare recordings of different years you can see that there is a constant improvement. This relates not only to singing but also from the music perspective.  Rhythmically they are much better now. Singers speak foreign languages much better, they have fewer intonation problems, they control the vibrato better. So if you simply compare the voices based on these three criteria, you will see this improvement. They do much better musically now. The same relates to the sound of  orchestras. Two years ago, I asked Mr Walter Barylli, who had been the leader of the Vienna Philharmonic for many years and is a legend here, how he perceived the evolution of the Vienna Philharmonic. He shared the view, that there is constant improvement. So, I repeat that I am very happy to be here now. When I was young, there were no good Wagner singers, because it was the end of one era of Wagner singers generation, after Birgit Nilsson and Christa Ludwig. There were no tenors to sing Wagnerian roles - the last one was René Kollo. But I also remember that it was nearly impossible to play Rossini because of lack of tenors.

And now we have Juan Diego Florez ...

Yes, you have Javier Camarena, Lawrence Brownlee and many more. I can put on “The Barber of Seville” every season with three different casts. We can also play “L'italiana in Algeri”, which is a difficult piece.  I remember that when I was young, in 1976, the Paris Opera did a new production of “La Cenerentola”. They had two wonderful mezzo-sopranos you can only dream of, Teresa Berganza and Federica von Stade, but there was no tenor to sing the part. So, I think that if you look at this evolution from a certain perspective, you will see that there is a very positive change.

Thank you very much for the time you devoted to us.


The first part of this interview is available here - "I like my job" - interview with Dominique Meyer - part one

Authors: Beata and Michal Olszewscy

Proofreading: Meg

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