BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Trust a Hungarian Jewish conductor to look beyond Richard Wagner’s notorious anti-semitism and infamous personal life to mount a Wagner festival on a tight budget that has become a magnet for Wagner lovers the world over.
“I don’t know any other composer who had this intense effect that makes people crazy,” conductor Adam Fischer, 62, told Reuters in an interview on the last day of the two-week-long “Wagner in Budapest” festival at the city’s modern and acoustically crystalline Palace of Arts concert hall.
“This is like opium drugs for the Wagnerians -- and there are no ‘Mozarteans’ or ‘Beethovenians’ who are so dependent.”
Next year will see a worldwide frenzy for the bicentenary of the birth of Hitler’s favorite composer, with performances of his epic -- and, at 16 hours, epically long -- “Ring” cycle of four operas, and other musts from the Wagner back catalogue like “Parsifal”, “Lohengrin” and “Die Meistersinger”, everywhere from Melbourne, Australia, to Seattle, Washington, and at dozens of other venues across the globe.
After seven years of productions, planning and performances, Fischer has a well-oiled Wagner team running in Budapest, with an orchestra that has upped its game year after year, modern stagings, plus a stellar cast of Wagnerian singers, among them German tenor Christian Franz and Swedish soprano Irene Theorin, whose performances as Siegfried and Brunnhilde brought down the house in “Gotterdammerung”, the fiery ending to the “Ring” where everything literally goes up in smoke.
The festival is well-positioned to cash in on the Wagner craze but the canny Fischer, who seems to have planned everything from the very start, next year will offer a new production of “Die Meistersinger” plus revivals of “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal” but will not put on Wagner’s most famous opus because, as he put it, “everyone is doing the ‘Ring’.”
Although he conducted all of the operas, most of which started at 4 p.m. and sometimes did not end until 10:30 p.m., with intervals, and despite the city being gripped by a scorching heatwave, Fischer, with one more to go, professed not to be tired.
“If someone were to say I have to stand there and conduct 16 hours of music within four or five days I would say I would not be able, but if I conduct the ‘Ring’ I‘m not tired at the end. I don’t know why.”
Is it because Wagner’s music is so exceptionally good?
“Good is not the right word, it’s not good, it’s ‘there’ -- it has to be good if it has such a big influence and impact,” said the man who lives inside those swirling, at times almost ear-shattering, masses of sound.
An outspoken critic of what he sees as his own country’s drift towards a resurgence of anti-semitism under its right-wing government, Fischer is hardly one to cast a blind eye on the uglier side of Wagner, who wrote a viciously anti-semitic tract in his youth and, lest anyone had forgotten, republished it later in life.
Wagner also committed adultery with Franz Liszt’s daughter Cosima, 24 years his junior, who bore Wagner three children while she was married to another man.
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s affinity for the composer can also make the performance of Wagner’s work a tricky undertaking. Earlier this month an Israeli university cancelled a concert featuring Wagner’s music after Holocaust survivors complained the performance would cause them “emotional torture”
In Fischer’s view, there are some really nice composers out there who wrote bad music, and some nasty characters who wrote great stuff. Fischer is foursquare on the side of great music and is ready to look beyond, if not overlook, Wagner’s defects because his music, words and plots delve into the deepest and most basic of human emotions.
“Art is about emotions, you show love, desperation, hatred, jealousy, five or six basic emotions, this is art for about 2,000 years...A girl loves a man, the man loves another girl...and whether this is a Jewish girl or a Palestinian girl it’s not so important.”
The Wagner in Budapest festival, which the Palace of Arts says has attracted 50,000 people since it began in 2006, and which ended its season on Tuesday, is mounted in a concert hall, not the national opera house, and uses clever staging to dress up productions that fall somewhere between full-scale opera and concert versions.
The budget for the festival is an undisclosed portion of the overall 4.5 million euros the Palace of Arts gets from the government, which due to Hungary’s and Europe’s economic crisis has been cut more than 40 percent since 2008, plus income from ticket sales and other revenues, the Palace of Arts communications department said.
The festival has been likened to a “mini-Bayreuth”, a flattering reference to the purpose-built opera house Wagner had constructed in Bavaria in the 1870s.
What that means is anyone’s guess but Fischer, who has conducted Wagner at the house he built, and elsewhere, prefers to see Hungary’s festival as “Wagner from a different view”.
By that he means approaching the massively complex scores almost like chamber music, to bring out details that might get lost in larger halls or in the opera house, and to have very direct interaction during the performance with the singers, many of whom are world-renowned Wagner specialists, an elite breed in the opera world.
It is an approach that has won a goodly number of repeat visitors, among them two retired Glasgow doctors, Billy Candlish, 55, and Bisham Thakker, 52, back for their fourth visit and third “Ring” cycle.
“It’s gotten darker and darker and darker and the tempos have slowed a little bit,” Thakker said of Fischer’s approach to the music over several seasons.
First time visitors Tristine Berry and retired investment manager John Doss of New York were less impressed, with Berry, who works for the Koch Brothers-owned Invista textiles subsidiary, saying the semi-staged production of the “Ring” using video screens was “too distracting”, although the singers were “fabulous”.
Graham Davies of Devon, England, went Berry one better, saying he mostly ignored the staging to focus on the music.
“I’ve seen it very much as a concert performance, but as a concert performance fortunately without singers having scores in front of them, so they are interacting and I find it makes you concentrate on the text and, more importantly, on the orchestra so you start hearing things.”
To Hungarian Judit Parditka, though, everything about the 6 1/2-hour production of “Gotterdammerung” was manna from heaven.
“I adore Wagner.”
Editing by Paul Casciato