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"Opera is about passion" – interview with Kasper Holten

Polish version Flaga polska


During the coming Season, The Royal Opera will perform Król Roger by Karol Szymanowski. It will be a historical event, as for the first time, we will hear the Polish language sung on the Royal Opera House stage. Król Roger will be directed by Kasper Holten, Director of Opera for The Royal Opera, whom Jacek Kornak had the occassion to talk to during his trip to London.

Kasper Holten photo (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke 2011 published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Royal Opera House
Click to magnify...

Jacek Kornak: Over 11 years you created a high quality opera company in Copenhagen. The audience and critics loved you. A few years ago you decided to leave Copenhagen and move to London. Do you already feel at home in Covent Garden? How does the work here differ from your work in Copenhagen?

Kasper Holten: Basically it is the same job. In every opera house there are similar tasks. I need to select artists for performances and co-operate with conductors, musicians, chorus and many other people engaged in the opera production process. The important part of my job is the contact with the audience and the press, but I am also responsible for financial issues. Although these tasks are similar, working in London is very different. There is a different culture in England that I need to learn more about, but most importantly, there is a lot of pressure here. At the Royal Opera House, the expectations of the audiences and critics are extremely high. Here we recruit the best singers from all around the world. We compete at the very highest level. I could use in this context a comparison with football; it is as if previously I was leading FC Copenhagen and now I am managing Manchester United. It is the same type of job but a different league. At the Royal Opera House, my colleagues and I are committed to deliver our best. People do not go to the Royal Opera House to watch an ordinary opera production; they want to see something extraordinary and we need to deliver this.

J.K.: What are the biggest challenges that you face as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera?

K.H.: The biggest challenge is to always find the right balance. For instance, we have to find not just great singers, but singers that are the best for specific roles. The primary challenge for every opera director is to produce exciting performances. Selection of repertory is always a hard task. I try to get a balance between classical works loved by a broad audience, less known works and newly written operas. It is important for me to present wonderful works that, for some reason, have not made it to the stage of the Royal Opera House in the past or appear here rarely. An important part of my work is to understand the multiplicity of expectations of our audience, while not being afraid of artistic challenges. On the one hand, diversity of repertory is very important but, on the other hand, I cannot forget about the unique identity of the Royal Opera House. Apart from all of this, people working with culture and arts have to also think about finances, particularly because currently public subsidies have shrunk. We have to develop new business models and rely more on fundraising. The Royal Opera House is committed to be open and available to everyone. We do not want to increase ticket prices, but we are competing with other European opera theatres who receive much more public funding. As Director of Opera, I want to make our performances available to everyone but at the same time I am also responsible for the financial situation of my theatre. It is a constant struggle.

Kasper Holten photo (c) Sim Canetty-Clarke 2011 published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Royal Opera House
Click to magnify...

J.K.: You mention the identity of the Royal Opera House. A common perception is that the ROH and, in some ways, British culture, is regarded as cautious or even conservative. Many think that British theatre was left behind during the changes that happened in other European theatres during the 20th century. It is a common opinion that German and French directors are more innovative and many German directors are not afraid to experiment. Such experiments can open new paths in opera performances. What do you think about this? As an artist, do you want to bring something new to opera or do you think that opera does not need directors to experiment?

K.H.: In my role as Director of Opera, I appoint directors whom I consider to be remarkable and whose work makes sense to me. As an artist, I need to take risks and I need to be courageous; and, more than anything, I need to do what I believe in. I have to be authentic. As a stage director, I create something that I am convinced has a meaning. All this debate about German Regietheater as opposed to British traditional theatre is too stereotypical. The opinion that German theatre is revolutionary and British theatre is conservative is simply a cliché. In some sense, perhaps British audiences are a little conservative but I believe that our audience is curious and open to different points of view. I am certain that every audience expects to be seduced by the excitement of opera in performance. Most audiences expect something that, to some extent, is rooted in the original work but offers a fresh look at it, and tells an interesting story. In German theatre, in extreme cases, the audience can feel withdrawn from the work; sometimes it is even hard to identify the original work and guess what is happening on stage in some scenes. To me both approaches, conservative and radically avant-garde, represent extremes that I try to avoid. Certainly, I aim to bring to Covent Garden directors that are bold and courageous but I think that after a few decades of Regietheater, good opera directors are becoming more sensitive towards the visual side of performances. The days when there was a clear-cut line between Regietheater and traditional theatre are gone. Today, elements from various traditions combine. Currently I see a return to a more theatrical and visual staging of operas. A good example of such an approach is represented by Stefan Herheim. His productions are full of ideas but simultaneously very theatrical in a traditional sense. His work represents a creative and authentic approach to opera.

J.K.: I agree, I found the performance of Les Vêpres siciliennes one of the best I have seen in years at the Royal Opera House. Nonetheless, this performance had a mixed reception. I read a few negative reviews. Do you think that the expectations of British critics and audience are different from expectations of Continental audiences? And how is it in the case of your own productions?

K.H.: First of all, Les Vêpres siciliennes was a big success and it was very popular with our audience. We received many letters from audience members praising the performance and all the performances were sold out. When it comes to critics, they always have their own reasons. Most reviews were very positive, some not so much. Nevertheless, this production proved that ambitious and well made theatre can be appreciated by British audiences. As artists, we do not make performances for critics. If we start producing for critics, then we lose an important part of our game: the heart. We must produce what we believe in and what we find exciting. I make performances neither for critics nor for a specific audience; I try as much as I can to express whatever is fascinating for me and what I believe is the truth about a certain piece. What some critics find new was new twenty years ago, and what is actually new they may not understand yet. There are also critics who expect always new approaches. I think it is hard to make generalizations. As an artist I feel that I need to trust in my instincts.

Kevin O'Hare i Kasper Holten introduce ROH Cinema Season 2014/15

J.K.: On one hand you are an artist, a director who stages operas, on the other you are an administrator in your role as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera, where you lead the opera company from an organizational and financial perspective. How do you manage to combine these two roles?

K.H.: Of course directing an opera company, in particular The Royal Opera, is a very demanding task and it requires a lot of time. Perhaps I am not able to personally direct as many performances as I would wish, but administrating this opera company is fascinating. I do not think that my work at The Royal Opera makes a clear division between my being an artist and being an administrator. On the contrary, to be a good administrator of a cultural institution one needs to understand how it all functions from the artistic point of view. Also, with my experience of administrating an opera company, when I work on my own performances I am more aware of certain limitations and bureaucratic constraints. I cannot even imagine how I could direct an opera company if I were not an artist. My experience as a stage director helps me to understand certain artistic challenges. I am also able to negotiate when tensions appear. As an artist, perhaps I am more able to understand other artists. It is also easier to choose operas and develop a Season, being a stage director myself.

J.K.: As we came to this point, can you tell us something about the coming Royal Opera Season?

K.H.: I think the coming Season is really exciting. It presents works from the entire history of opera. We will present L’Orfeo by Monteverdi, one of the first ever operas. It will be performed at the  Roundhouse, an unusual location, where operas are hardly ever performed. It will be directed by Michael Boyd, a theatre director, so I am sure it will be a theatrically exciting experience for the audience. We also perform Anna Nicole, an opera that was written just a few years ago. Between these two, we plan to present a whole spectrum of well-known and lesser known operas that I believe the audience will love, particularly because for each production we have carefully selected the best international cast. We will have a new production of Andrea Chénier staged by our longterm collaborator David McVicar, with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. This production will definitely be one of the highlights of the Season, particularly with Jonas Kaufmann’s role debut in the title role.

We also bring new directors to The Royal Opera. I have invited Martin Kušej, currently considered one of the most exciting opera directors, to produce Mozart’s Idomeneo. Another well-known name is the young Italian opera director Damiano Michieletto, who will prepare Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Katharina Thoma will direct Un ballo in maschera. I find her to be  an extremely focussed, detailed artist. A very different theatrical tradition will be presented by Thaddeus Strassberger, an American director who has a very narrative, almost cinematic way of directing operas. He will direct I due Foscari on the main stage and Glare in the Linbury Studio Theatre. So, the coming Season will be a mixture of various styles and approaches to opera, but the key for us is to offer the highest artistic standard.

Musically, no one will be disappointed because six of the productions next Season will be conducted by our Music Director Antonio Pappano. He will conduct a variety of operas, starting with Turnage’s Anna Nicole, then operas by Verdi, Wagner and Giordano and concluding with Szymanowski’s Król Roger and Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Of course, during the coming Season we will also have on our stage many of the world’s leading singers. I have already mentioned Jonas Kaufmann. Anna Netrebko will perform in La bohème. This will be the last time we present our classical production of this opera, which  has been performed on our stage for 41 years. The production by John Fulljames of Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny is also noteworthy.Never before has this opera appeared on our stage. It will be exciting for me to work again with Mariusz Kwiecień, this time on Król Roger. This will also be the first opera I will work on with Antonio Pappano. Król Roger is a truly wonderful piece and I am happy that finally I have the opportunity to produce it, and I am thrilled that the leading role will be performed by Mariusz Kwiecień. I had a great time working with him on Don Giovanni. These operas, Mahagonny and Król Roger, represent two fascinating traditions in the history of 20th-century music. Through these works we aim to present our audience with the richness of operatic tradition.

J.K.: The first time Król Roger appeared in London was in 1975. It was a rather intimate staging and the work has never returned to London. Why did you decide to choose to direct it ?

Kirsten O'Brien interviews Kasper Holten
to find out about some of the preconceptions around the art form

K.H.: I am fascinated by the libretto and the power of Szymanowski’s music is unbelievable. I am captivated by this opera. As a stage director, I think this opera is one of those universal works that is a commentary on life and what happens to us. This work is exceptionally open for theatrical interpretations. It can be approached in many different ways. It seems  ideal material for any opera director. When I was appointed as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera, I discussed with Antonio Pappano what our first joint project could be. We both agreed that Król Roger would be just ideal. We both wanted to work an a piece that would be a challenge, something that would allow us to express ourselves as artists and allow us the opportunity to get our hands dirty, so to speak.We also wanted to work on something big. So Król Roger is exactly what we were looking for. The fact that the work of Szymanowski has never been presented on the stage of the Royal Opera House made it even more exciting. We will present something fresh to our audience.

J.K.: Many directors stage Król Roger as a highly symbolic work. It is often interpreted as a metaphysical, or almost  religious work. (A good example of such an approach is David Pountney’s production that was done a few years ago for Bregenz Festival). I think that this approach is stereotypical and, in the past, the purpose of this type of production was to hide homoerotic elements that are in this opera. It is against Szymanowski’s ideas. For him this opera was an expression of his own struggle with homosexuality. Can you say how you imagine Król Roger? What is this work about for you? How do you plan to interpret it?

K.H.: I guess there are symbolic elements in this opera, but for me this opera is not about religion. I do not intend to focus on transcendence or religion as such. I am more interested in, for instance, how people use religion in order to get power over others. It fascinates me how people and even whole societies relate to religion and what role it can play in people’s minds. Of course, I think that any attempt to erase homosexuality from this opera is just silly. Homoerotic elements are  there and I do not intend to erase them. On the other hand, I think there is much more to this opera. It is a very sensual opera, but if I make it just about Szymanowski’s struggle with his own homosexuality, I would simplify the work and lose its universal aspects. For me, this opera is about struggle, but I want to express this struggle as something universal. I want to translate Szymanowski to a language that is understandable for everyone. Everyone sometimes experiences an internal struggle between the intellect and the senses. It is an experience that is common for homosexuals and transsexuals, but also for heterosexual people. Everyone in certain circumstances experiences a conflict between beast and human, nature and culture. Often in cases like these, there is no good solution to the conflict. Perhaps the only solution is to find a balance between beast and human within ourselves. I think that this opera is not simply symbolic, as it is not about abstract issues. A lot depends on staging, particularly because the libretto is very open to interpretation. A good example of this is the ending, which can basically mean anything, or nothing at all. As a director, obviously I have to make choices and focus on certain elements and leave others on the side. I will not focus on homosexuality because, for me, this work is primarily about a set of universal questions: who am I? How can I live with my demons? How can I live in society? These are very concrete questions and they cannot be just seen in the context of homophobia. It would be a simplification of the opera. In some sense Roxana, Edrisi and the Shepherd are all part of Roger. They are elements of his psyche that fight each other. Of course, there is also a homoerotic element and I will not hide it, but I do not want to reveal too much. You will see next Season.

J.K.: You mentioned that you enjoyed working with Mariusz Kwiecień. Not all singers in the past have had to be actors. How important is it now that opera singers are also talented actors?

Kasper Holten and the cast
discuss the characters and music in Don Giovanni

K.H.: Opera singers are actors but in a different way from film or theatre actors. Primarily, they have to work with music and they have to develop a certain way of phrasing. Therefore, they simply cannot act in a naturalistic way. Singing is not naturalistic, but in opera the point is to express emotions. Opera is about passion. Of course, there are singers who are great actors. I feel lucky that I can work with Mariusz Kwiecień. He is like a high level, professional actor. He understands the technicalities of staging operas and he is very responsive to directors’ ideas, and, above all, he is great at expressing onstage emotions. This is crucial in opera. Besides Mariusz, here at The Royal Opera I have the pleasure of working with many great singers who are also talented actors. Charismatic singers can express subtle emotions which we have no words for and that is why we have opera. I love working with singers on the dramaturgical details of staging . Many people think that directors work on developing big ideas, concepts. This is also part of my work, but the most important thing is to work with singers so that they are able to express emotions on stage. It is amazing to observe how some ideas that I develop with singers subsequently grow on them, so that finally, onstage, they are able to create a new emotional world.

J.K.: And what about music? How do you work with music? Some opera lovers criticize directors for not expressing the music in their staging of operas. I think that your productions are quite visual and you rather follow the music but, for instance, in your Eugene Onegin there is a scene in the first act when farmers celebrate the harvest. They sing a joyful folk tune, but you made them stand still at the back of the stage wearing black costumes. Could it be that in this case, the director’s ideas took precedence over the  music?

K.H.: In opera, we always question what the music means. This is a key question, but the same music can mean something to you and something else to me. When we read literature, more often we can agree on some common interpretation, but in regard to music, meaning is very subjective. Regarding the example you just mentioned, when we read the text Tatyana says there,“When I hear this music, I used to dream” and if you also read the text of the song that the peasants sing, you would find that it is erotic in a certain way. In my opinion, the music here illustrates Tatyana’s emotions. If we see in this scene just peasants singing and dancing, we could have missed what is most important, Tatyana’s emotions. This chorus is too intense: when I listen to it, I feel there is something more than celebration, that in fact this song illustrates Tatyana’s state of mind. Therefore, I decided to focus the scene on her. Probably there is no definite answer to the question ‘what is a certain piece of music about?’. As a director, I always try to be honest. I want to express what I feel when I listen to certain music but I am, at the same time, attentive to the work itself and its context. Sometimes it is convincing for the audience and sometimes not. I think that in operatic music this is the most important, and the stage director has to be faithful to the music; but, when following the music, one also has to be courageous. Sometimes you have to try to say something new, if you feel it is authentic. In these cases, you need to be ready for criticism. After all, opera and the arts in general is not about giving final answers but about posing new questions. For me, the most important thing is to follow the music as well as my instinct. Art is not about certainty but about constant exploration. When I start working on a performance I have no final idea of how it will look. The process of staging a performance is a process of searching and experimenting. There is no ultimate vision of Eugene Onegin or Parsifal. These works will survive even the worst stagings. It is only my career that might be damaged (!), nevertheless, I constantly need to take risks.

J.K.: I am eagerly waiting for your new operatic explorations. Thank you for the chat.



Author and translation: Jacek Kornak

All rights reserved © Jacek Kornak 

Full version of the interview © Jacek Kornak and opera.info.pl


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