Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Interviews

Mark Padmore reflects on Britten's Death in Venice

“At the start, one knows ‘bits’ of it,” says tenor Mark Padmore, somewhat wryly, when I meet him at the Stage Door of the Royal Opera House where the tenor has just begun rehearsals for David McVicar’s new production of Death in Venice, which in November will return Britten’s opera to the ROH stage for the first time since 1992.

An interview with Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Oxford Lieder Festival's first Associate Composer

“Trust me, I’m telling you stories …”

In conversation with Nina Brazier

When British opera director Nina Brazier tries to telephone me from Frankfurt, where she is in the middle of rehearsals for a revival of Florentine Klepper’s 2015 production of Martinů’s Julietta, she finds herself - to my embarrassment - ‘blocked’ by my telephone preference settings. The technical hitch is soon solved; but doors, in the UK and Europe, are certainly very much wide open for Nina, who has been described by The Observer as ‘one of Britain’s leading young directors of opera’.

Bill Bankes-Jones on the twelfth Tête à Tête Opera Festival

“We need to stop talking about ‘diversity’ and think instead about ‘inclusivity’,” says Bill Bankes-Jones, when we meet to talk about the forthcoming twelfth Tête à Tête Opera Festival which runs from 24th July to 10th August.

An interview with composer Dani Howard

The young Hong Kong-born British composer Dani Howard is having quite a busy year.

Irish mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy on Salzburg, Sellars and Singing

For Peter Sellars, Mozart’s Idomeneo is a ‘visionary’ work, a utopian opera centred on a classic struggle between a father and a son written by an angry 25-year-old composer who wanted to show the musical establishment what a new generation could do.

London Bel Canto Festival 2019: an interview with Ken Querns-Langley

“Physiognomy, psychology and technique.” These are the three things that determine the way a singer’s sound is produced, so Ken Querns-Langley explains when we meet in the genteel surroundings of the National Liberal Club, where the training programmes, open masterclasses and performances which will form part the third London Bel Canto Festival will be held from 5th-24th August.

Un ballo in maschera at Investec Opera Holland Park: in conversation with Alison Langer

“Sop. Page, attendant on the King.” So, reads a typical character description of the loyal page Oscar, whose actions, in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, unintentionally lead to his monarch’s death. He reveals the costume that King Gustavo is wearing at the masked ball, thus enabling the monarch’s secretary, Anckarstroem, to shoot him. The dying King falls into the faithful Oscar’s arms.

Martin Duncan directs the first UK staging of Offenbach's Fantasio at Garsington

A mournful Princess forced by her father into an arranged marriage. A Prince who laments that no-one loves him for himself, and so exchanges places with his aide-de-camp. A melancholy dreamer who dons a deceased jester’s motley and finds himself imprisoned for impertinence.

Thomas Larcher's The Hunting Gun at the Aldeburgh Festival: in conversation with Peter Schöne

‘Aloneness’ does not immediately seem a likely or fruitful subject for an opera. But, loneliness and isolation - an individual’s inner sphere, which no other human can truly know or enter - are at the core of Yasushi Inoue’s creative expression.

In interview with Polly Graham, Artistic Director of Longborough Festival Opera

What links Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Cavalli’s La Calisto? It sounds like the sort of question Paul Gambaccini might pose to contestants on BBC Radio 4’s music quiz, Counterpoint.

Six Charlotte Mew Settings: in conversation with composer Kate Whitley

Though she won praise from the literary greats of her day, including Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound and Siegfried Sassoon, the Victorian poet Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) was little-known among the contemporary reading public. When she visited the Poetry Bookshop of Harold Monro, the publisher of her first and only collection, The Farmer’s Bride (1916), she was asked, “Are you Charlotte Mew?” Her reply was characteristically diffident and self-deprecatory: “I’m sorry to say I am.”

"It Lives!": Mark Grey 're-animates' Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

“It lives!” So cries Victor Frankenstein in Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein on beholding the animation of his creature for the first time. Peake might equally have been describing the novel upon which he had based his 1823 play which, staged at the English Opera House, had such a successful first run that it gave rise to fourteen further adaptations of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novella in the following three years.

Unknown, Remembered: in conversation with Shiva Feshareki

It sounds like a question from a BBC Radio 4 quiz show: what links Handel’s cantata for solo contralto, La Lucrezia, Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, and the post-punk band Joy Division?

Remembering and Representing Dido, Queen of Carthage: an interview with Thomas Guthrie

The first two instalments of the Academy of Ancient Music’s ‘Purcell trilogy’ at the Barbican Hall have posed plentiful questions - creative, cultural and political.

Angelika Kirchschlager's first Winterreise

In the opera house and on the concert platform, we are accustomed to ‘women being men’, as it were. From heroic knights to adolescent youths, women don the armour and trousers, and no-one bats an eyelid.

Mascagni's Isabeau at Opera Holland Park: in conversation with David Butt Philip

Opera directors are used to thinking their way out of theatrical, dramaturgical and musico-dramatic conundrums, but one of the more unusual challenges must be how to stage the spectacle of a young princess’s naked horseback-ride through the streets of a city.

The Moderate Soprano : Q&A with Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam

Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam play Audrey Mildmay and John Christie in David Hare’s play The Moderate Soprano which is currently at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London.

No Time in Eternity: Iestyn Davies discusses Purcell and Nyman

Revolution, repetition, rhetoric. On my way to meet countertenor Iestyn Davies, I ponder if these are the elements that might form connecting threads between the music of Henry Purcell and Michael Nyman, whose works will be brought together later this month when Davies joins the viol consort Fretwork for a thought-provoking recital at Milton Court Concert Hall.

Garsington's Douglas Boyd on Strauss and Skating Rinks

‘On August 3, 1941, the day that Capriccio was finished, 682 Jews were killed in Chernovtsy, Romania; 1,500 in Jelgava, Latvia; and several hundred in Stanisławów, Ukraine. On October 28, 1942, the day of the opera’s premiere in Munich, the first convoy of Jews from Theresienstadt arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90 percent of them went to the gas chamber.’

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Interviews

Friedrich Haider
02 Jun 2015

Falling in love with Wolf-Ferrari — An interview with Friedrich Haider

Bratislava in Slovakia might seem an unlikely place to come across the opera I gioielli della Madonna (The Jewels of the Madonna) a 1911 rarity written by the Italian/German Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, a composer best known for his one-act opera Il segreto di Susanna ( Susanna’s Secret) and his comedies based on Goldoni.

Falling in love with Wolf-Ferrari — An interview with Friedrich Haider

By Robert Hugill

Above: Friedrich Haider

 

But the Slovak National Theatre (SND), based in Bratislava, has as its Music Director and Opera Director the Austrian conductor Friedrich Haider who has spent the last 12 years exploring, conducting and recording Wolf-Ferrari’s music, and the opera company there has the sort of large permanent ensemble which is necessary to bring off I gioielli della Madonna, an opera with around two dozen named roles.

I was in Bratislava to attend the premiere of SND’s I gioielli della Madonna and interviewed Friedrich Haider in his office in SND’s modern offices in their new building. Performances of opera are split between the old building (built in 1886 and last renovated in the 1970's) and the new one (designed originally in the 1980's but not completed until 2006), which is shared with the ballet company. The drama theatre uses another auditorium in the same new building and there is also a studio theatre.

SND-new-building-1.pngThe new Slovak National Theatre

In person, Friedrich Haider is lively and affable, eager to communicate his love for the music of Wolf-Ferrari and full of questions, so that our interview was very much a dialogue and we concluded with a discussion of initiatives in the UK to attract younger audiences, something that interests him keenly.

We started with Wolf-Ferrari, a composer about whom Friedrich Haider feels very strongly. He first came across Wolf-Ferrari's work in 2002. In London for a recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, he found a score of Wolf-Ferrari's opera Il segreto di Susanna (Susanna's Secret) in a second hand book-shop. Reading the score through for the hour until the shop closed, he fell in love with the work and bought the score. A performance on the radio in Munich followed, with baritone Renato Bruson, and subsequently Friedrich Haider made a recording live recording with the Oviedo Filarmonia. After this first big step with Wolf-Ferrari, he looked at all the composer’s scores that he could find, and was not disappointed. Friedrich Haider regards over 70% of Wolf-Ferrari's music to be good, and certainly above average for many of the composers being discovered today.

Wolf-Ferrari was of mixed Italian and German heritage and trained in Munich. Though he loved Wagner's work he was against both Wagnerism and Verismo in his own operatic style. His first comedy Le donne curiose (1903) demonstrated his lighter touch, and made him an overnight success; Mahler heard it and conducted it in Vienna. Though Wolf-Ferrari would write 9 comedies, I gioielli della Madonna which SND is performing, is very different in style, being darker, eclectic and more dramatic (and is often erroneously regarded as an essay in Verismo). Friedrich Haider feels that you must know it to truly appreciate it, but that the work has everything that an Italian opera needs.

SND-new-building-interior.pngThe interior of the new Slovak National Theatre

The plot is, on the surface, quite simple: two men Gennaro and Rafaele compete for the same woman, Maliella, and Gennaro steals the jewels of the Madonna to get her, with tragic results. Friedrich Haider sees the musical style of the piece arising because the plot demands it. It is the only work in which Wolf-Ferrari demonstrates that he can be a modernist, with passages at the end of Act 3 which blast tonality with a sequence of chords which you can no longer analyse. There are four bars which Friedrich Haider calls futuristic and remind him of Shostakovich, demonstrating that Wolf-Ferrari had post-Romantic harmony at his finger tips.

Friedrich Haider does not see Wolf-Ferrari's eclectic style as conscious, but rather it reflected the way the composer felt about the needs of the plot. He quotes Wolf-Ferrari as saying that when you write in D major it is important that it is a new D major, and he goes on to point out that Wagner followed the harmonic complexity and daring of Tristan und Isolde with the opening of Die Mestersinger which is in C major, which Friedrich Haider calls a C major which has never been heard before.

Friedrich Haider, isn’t interested in the particular style of a piece, for him if a work is good or not is expressed by the work itself and not its style, and he emphasises that he does not believe in the linear development of music, pointing to Richard Strauss's development after the daring of Elektra. Also a pianist, Friedrich Haider goes on to comment that having played many of Richard Strauss's songs he has realised that the C major which Richard Strauss writes at the beginning of his career is very different to the C major at the end.

I gioielli della Madonna can seem just a common criminal story But Friedrich Haider finds a deep psychological meaning in the work which makes it more rewarding to interpret. The society depicted in the piece is very much of the South, with a strong connection to religion and a cult of the Madonna which he calls much more than religion, being positively existential. The whole piece rooted in this society and for a production to work it needs to have Southern Italy (or perhaps Southern Spain) as its setting. For the people in this area, Gennaro's stealing of the jewels from the statue of the Madonna is the most terrible thing that he could do.

Friedrich Haider is also keen to explore Wolf-Ferrari’s links with analytical psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) whom he met in Vienna, citing the way Gennaro’s obsessions with his mother, the Madonna and with his step-sister Maliella link to Jung’s woman/Madonna/mother archetypes. He also points out the way Wolf-Ferrari characterises Rafaele and the Camorra with jolly music (including a waltz) rather than solemn, dangerous music. It shows they are like you and me, and not always dangerous.

SND-old-building-1.pngThe old Slovak National Theatre

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is the way Friedrich Haider links the jewels of the Madonna to Rafaele’s attitude to Maliella. She is his Madonna, and when she loses her virginity (her Jewels) he is no longer interested.

During the rehearsal process they realised that the piece was still relevant as papers were full of an event when in Southern Italy a procession of the Madonna stopped and made a bow outside the house of a Mafia boss who was under house arrest.

Wolf-Ferrari's opera buffa works can be difficult to perform because of the transparency of their orchestration, but Friedrich Haider sees the difficulties of performing I gioielli della Madonna arise because of the work's complexity, both in terms of harmony and instrumentation. It is not simply written and for a conductor it is not easy to manage. (I suspect that this and the large number of small solos are perhaps also behind the work's absence from the opera stage).

The large chorus and number of soloists make the work logistically difficult to stage though Friedrich Haider has benefited from the big SND ensemble and the strong choral scene in Bratislava, thus making it easy to cast the many smaller roles with quite a few being sung by members of the choir. The response to the work of all the performers has been consistently enthusiastic and there was a lot of positive energy in rehearsals. Rather intriguingly not only are Wolf-Ferrari and Friedrich Haider of mixed Italian and German heritage, but so is the stage director of the production Manfred Schweigkofler.

Friedrich Haider has recorded a number of Wolf-Ferrari's works, including the violin concerto which Wolf-Ferrari wrote in 1943 for the young violinist Giulia Bustabo with whom he had fallen in love. When planning the recording, the young violinist Benjamin Schmidt agreed to look at the score (it was a work he did not know), but after reading the score through Schmidt was highly enthusiastic. And the press were equal in their enthusiasm for the work, when the recording was released. Friedrich Haider feels a strong connection with Wolf-Ferrari, and regards such success as not so much his as for the composer.

Other recordings planned includea setting of a Biblical story, Talitha Kumi (a sacred mystery for tenor, baritone, choir and orchestra), all the overtures and intermezzos, an early serenade and the late missa brevis. They will also be recording the performances of I gioielli della Madonna and are currently seeking a record company.

I gioielli della Madonna is being performed in SND's new building, which Friedrich Haider regards as being acoustically too dry, but it has excellent technical facilities. SND is a substantial organisation with 950 employees and they do 150 operas per year (reduced from 170 by Friedrich Haider in order to facilitate more rehearsal time), along with ballet and drama.

There has been a 20% increase in ticket sales since he took over, and Friedrich Haider comments that though they are never totally happy and always find something to improve, their work is there to be judged by critics and people and this increase shows that people appreciate the work. Friedrich Haider has also tried to have a fresh, more modernist approach in the stage direction, though he admits that the production of I gioielli della Madonna is perhaps conservative.

Regarding modernist direction, Friedrich Haider takes a pragmatic approach commenting that he does not want stupid things, but some modern direction can be good and he cites as an example the Peter Konwitschny production of La Boheme which the company premiered in January 2014. But an audience must want to see a production, and there is the cost to consider, but Friedrich Haider wants productions in a style which will speak to the audience of today.

He regards direction in Germany today as being in something of a corner. Directors need to remember that an audience is coming to the work and it should be appreciated by them, and understood by them and for Friedrich Haider too many directors forget this. As with most other opera companies he is concerned with the number of young people coming to see productions, and is pleased that their numbers in Bratislava have increased, pointing out that this is not the case in many companies in Italy and in Germany. SND is doing more young people's productions and these have been received fantastically.

Up until now Friedrich Haider has been both Music Director and Opera Director, but he is stepping down as Opera Director feeling that combining the two roles is too tiring and he wants to devote his energy to the music but will feel that he can still comment. He also wants to continue his campaign to attract young people, taking it out of the opera house and go to universities and schools to speak about music and opera. He points out that though when you talk to them people are interested, they need to know about opera first, to know that it exists and what it is about.

Though we come to the end of our allotted time, our discussions continue as Friedrich Haider escorts me out of his office, still full of alert energy despite being interviewed by a series of journalists and highly interested in what is going on in musical and operatic life in the UK.

Robert Hugill

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):