Marriage of Equals

This month conductor/director Iván Fischer brings his Budapest Festival Orchestra back to the Mostly Mozart Festival for performances of Le Nozze di Figaro. ADAM WASSERMAN chats with the multi-skilled maestro about his collaborative approach to presenting opera.

Marriage of Equals hdl 813
Iván Fischer leading the Budapest Festival Orchestra in his own staging of Le Nozze di Figaro
© Gordon Eszter 2013
Marriage of Equals lg 813
Iván Fischer
© Marco Borggreve 2013

I n today's world of itinerant, fly-by-night conductors, Ivan Fischer is a bit of an anomaly. Not just for the stability of his three-decade relationship with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, or the rigorous attention to detail and the equipoise on display in his musical efforts. Rather, it's Fischer's unwillingness to keep his head down — his concern with what happens in front of the footlights — that sets him apart among today's journeyman baton-wielders and répétiteurs. For Fischer, whose career arc began with piano, violin, cello and composition studies in his native Budapest — and who has since held posts at Kent Opera, Opéra National de Lyon, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Konzerthausorchester Berlin — a holistic approach to music and drama is exactly the solution to many of the misguided efforts afflicting modern opera performances. 

Following applauded performances of Don Giovanni during the 2011 Mostly Mozart Festival, Fischer returns to Lincoln Center this month, where he will conduct the Budapest Festival Orchestra in performances of his own staging of Le Nozze di Figaro

OPERA NEWS: You'll forgive me for saying this, but there seems to be something almost masochistic about wanting to take on both conducting and directing duties for an opera production. What was it that first enticed you to assume both roles? 

IVÁN FISCHER: Well, when I started doing this dual role, I felt a certain liberated feeling. We always think that this convention of having a stage director and the conductor is the only possibility. If you think back in Mozart's time, there was no conductor and no director, so neither of the two. [Laughs] This strange duality ... I understand that it is the norm everywhere, but I find it less and less satisfying, actually, to the point that I decided that I'm not going to do any operas [just] as a conductor anymore. One can easily assume it was the clichéd answer — that I'm fed up with crazy stagings and directors — but that's not really the issue.

For me, it was almost the opposite — that I don't like my own role as the conservative conductor, who sticks to the score while the modern artist, the director, has a creative thinking process. This priest-like role of the conductor, it doesn't really suit me. I don't feel that this is my cup of tea. And then, since I realized that I've got this duality in me of seeing theater and music as an organic way — in a oneness — that was a liberating feeling. This is how opera actually works for me.

ON: You've said that Beaumarchais's play was really the starting point of your conception of this production of Figaro. How are both Beaumarchais's text and da Ponte's libretto reflected in your approach?

IF: Firstly, I think it already affected Mozart's approach very much, because if you compare it to the other operas, even to the other da Ponte operas, this particular opera strikes one as having a particularly fantastic libretto and a different kind of libretto. In Figaro, the story goes on, and on, and on, and on — there are more and more complications. It's almost impossible to recount the plot to The Marriage of Figaro, because you have to look at the whole libretto if you really want to understand who wrote the letter to whom, and who pretended not to write the letter, and so on. It's a very complex plot where every line is storytelling. And because it's pure storytelling, it requires a type of production where you really allow this libretto to shine. Maybe other operas need a little more active theatrical language, but here the storytelling is done for you by Beaumarchais. I find it fascinating and very different from almost any other opera I know.

It's incredibly clever that this play, which was seen as the main play of the pre-Revolution period is, despite its complexity, actually a very simple comedy in the end. Not very much of importance happens, except that the Count has to ask for forgiveness from his wife — this is basically the story. With all the plots that go on, this womanizer count has to fall on his knees and admit his mistakes and ask for forgiveness. There are plenty of contemporary parallel stories. There are American presidents and politicians who went through the same processes of having to ask forgiveness for some wrongdoings in the past. If this happens by people who actually bring them to this apologizing as the final result, then this is the success. This is what makes everybody happy — that it's not them who are allowed to do anything they want, and us who have to simply accept that they have those liberties and we don't. We can force them to apologize and admit their mistakes! I think that happens in every society and every situation. If you think back, historically, it was written at the perfect time, when everybody was thirsty for something like this — something that actually proved that the aristocratic people are not holy and sacred and untouchable.

ON: I know that the costumes were a point of inspiration for you in how you approached staging Figaro

IF: Györgyi Szakács is a wonderful theater personality and an extremely experienced costume designer who has done many, many theater productions and movies. She's a great artist, this lady. I think the costumes have a central role for me because of the changeability of this opera — the ability of the characters to change who they are. It's almost as if the change is more important than the costumes — to be able to change the identity, to change your sex, to change your personality, and to change your relationship to somebody else. In order to do that, and to have this hovering insecurity about who you are, you do it by dressing up in somebody else's dress. And, therefore, I think dress is almost like people in this opera. The characters are creatures. 

I first imagined how wonderful it would be if there would be no people, only dresses would float around. Then came the idea that I wanted to separate the costumes from the singers. So the audience sees the singers and their costumes apart. People put on these different costumes all the time, but here they have a life of their own.

ON: You've been music director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra for thirty years. What does your long affiliation with this group allow you to do with the Mozart–da Ponte operas that might not be possible with another orchestra?

IF: Well, we have a very long relationship — I know my musicians very well. They are really my family, and they know me. I think that's probably even more important, because I know that some other orchestras where I go to work first find me a little enigmatic. Like, "Does he really mean it?" My musicians know that if I come up with a crazy idea, I actually mean it. It's going to happen. So there is a little less worry and less fear, and a lot more taking part in unusual ideas. With these performances of Figaro, the players are in the same space where the singers are — they will be mixed with the singers. That requires, I don't want to say acting, but taking part in the story. Just being aware of the story and playing the music in a theatrical way. That is what I expect from them.

ON: You've made it a habit of giving particular attention to the physical orientation and placement of the orchestra and the singers. Does this Figaro's arrangement — singers placed on the same platform as the orchestra — present particular acoustic challenges? Or does it afford you an opportunity for musical intimacy that isn't possible in an opera house? 

IF: Well, there are a lot of opportunities, because the singer is close to the instrumentalists, so one can follow the breathing, the liberties, the changes of expression even. Whereas if you are in a conventional pit, you are a little more distant from all that. The disadvantage is that the musicians are a little further away from each other, so they don't have the habitual closeness to other instrumentalists. It's a little bit like throwing them in deep water, because you throw them into the action, into the stage, into the opera, rather than the familiar family feeling in a pit. I think for me, it's much more exciting, because hearing the first violins very well is one thing, but getting to hear the second-violin part alongside the Countess and Figaro and Cherubino is much more fun.

With all these [spatial] arrangements I always look at the piece — what that particular work requires. And in an opera as fast-paced as The Marriage of Figaro, I think being together works very well. There is another aspect — that we are in a period immediately before the French Revolution, with a chaotic household where everybody behaves in a more relaxed way than the hierarchy would allow. You know, in this household the servants make fun of the Count. I found that this idea of a messy, kind of unorganized crowd onstage reflects the historical period. So that everybody is together. It's extremely hard for these pure aristocrats to maintain their authority, because it's so crowded. So, from the story point of view and also acoustically, I love the idea of throwing everybody into the same pot.

ON: I would imagine that it also gives the orchestra players quite a bit more information about the drama of the opera. The horns in Figaro, for example, are used to represent cuckoldry — an effect that Verdi utilized as well. It must be rare for an orchestra musician to actually see how that works.

IF: You're right. And I think the worst thing in the normal opera world I find is when musicians have no idea what's going on on the stage. I think musicians should always be part of the action and be aware of what we all try to express. When I was very young, I went through all kinds      of reforming attempts. For example, my very first job was at Kent Opera in England, and I always arranged for a day where the orchestra had to watch one of the staging rehearsals, so everybody could see what they accompanied. Everybody loved it. I really don't understand why opera orchestras don't do that kind of thing. But I think it's crucial that musicians should be part of the drama and the feelings and the different moods and expressions.

In Review Mostly Mozart Don Giovanni hdl 811
Tassis Christoyannis as Don Giovanni and Kristinn Sigmundsson as the Commendatore in conductor Iván Fischer's production of Mozart and da Ponte's opera
© Richard Termine 2013

ON: One of the things that I found so interesting about the Don Giovanni was that you really achieved a balance of light and dark — a dramma giocoso — that seems absent from other stagings. Is there a comparable balance necessary in Figaro?

IF: Yes, I think it has a very wide range of emotions. Actually, Mozart always has that humor and high drama very, very close to each other. And, of course, me being a musician, I have an easier situation than many theater directors, because musicians immediately hear where the music is making a joke or where the music takes something seriously. If you isolate the two professions — and this is what happens in 99.9 percent of our opera life today — then the poor theater director has to make all those decisions. Not being a musician, they can easily make occasional mistakes. Some people make many mistakes. Some people get everything wrong.

Some people have better feeling. But musicians have a fantastic advantage. They're understanding the mood. I always try to tell my people that theater has to be musical, and music has to be theatrical. Then you get to a oneness of an opera performance which is unique. This oneness of theater — that's the only satisfying thing for me now.

ON: Has being involved with the stagings of these works changed your musical ideas about them? 

IF: This is very interesting, what you ask, because I almost see it in an opposite way. Throughout my life, from my childhood even, I always imagined Figaro the way I'm doing it now. I always looked at the music as a theatrical thing, and very often it was not possible because of a number of bad decisions. For example, you can have a casting mistake, and then already the music loses its natural effect. Or you can have a staging mistake — people who sing together are too far away or not balanced, or in wrong positions, or somebody who needs to be still at a certain point moves too much, or somebody who needs to move at a certain point is too still. 

I've been involved in many, many Figaro productions, and I always had a feeling that there were casting mistakes, staging mistakes, sometimes set mistakes — a problematic set can ruin the opera. There were always compromises, compromises, compromises. Finally now I can see this is what I always imagined. So I don't see that the opera directing has changed my musical view — it sort of confirms it.

ON: The touring schedule that you and the Budapest Festival Orchestra maintain is remarkably intensive. Why choose this career route instead of guest conducting or working with smaller ensembles? 

IF: Well, what I don't do is guest conducting. I'm not really interested in this conventional career as a conductor. I mean, I had enough success in my life. I conducted all the orchestras from the New York Philharmonic to the Berlin Philharmonic many times, and I don't feel any urge that I have to now work with this orchestra or that orchestra. It's not interesting to me.

What does interest me is how I can achieve certain results with my own family — with my own artistic family. And this we can do a lot by touring together. When this team is together, we spend a lot of time on planes, buses, hotels, restaurants, talking to each other and getting very close to each other. So it really becomes like a string quartet, except it's extended. It's bigger. My best friends are these musicians. I always go to the same hotel where they are. I never go to more expensive hotels. I always go on the bus with them. It's important. The human factor is very important.

ON: You've brought Don Giovanni and now Figaro to the Mostly Mozart Festival. Is Così next?

IF: Well, it might be The Magic Flute, actually. I know why you're asking — because people usually do the cycle of the da Ponte operas. I did a Così Fan Tutte just before Don Giovanni with Nicholas Hytner, the director. It was the Glyndebourne production, which we also performed in other countries. That opera is too close somehow. I don't want to do it myself now — it's too fresh in my mind. And I'm fascinated by The Magic Flute, so that might be next.

I don't know about you, but I remember when I was a child, I loved Flute. I was eight-years old, nine-years old. This was the opera I loved. Since then, I told many people and they all have childhood memories of The Magic Flute. I think this is very interesting because it has a certain immediate appeal to children. And although it's a highly intellectual and complicated piece, I'm very interested in a production which would appeal primarily to children. This is really my main interest with it. I would say it actually speaks to the inner-child of adults. It has this fantastic fairytale quality that we all love. spacer

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