Renowned Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös speaks about his newest opera Valuska, at Hungarian State Opera, which adapts László Krasznahorkai’s darkly surreal novel The Melancholy of Resistance.

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Peter Eötvös
© Laszlo Emmer

This will be your thirteenth opera, and the first in the Hungarian language. Could you speak a bit about your prior operatic work, and your personal approach to composition for the stage?

Right after my secondary school studies and my years at the academy I was given the chance to compose incidental music for films and theatre productions, even for the greatest theatre in Budapest. Moreover, at the age of 19, I was musical director of Vígszínház (Comedy Theatre), one of the most prestigious prose theatres in Budapest. It was there (mostly during rehearsals) that I got to know the possibilities and requirements of the stage. Thus, it is no coincidence that my operas follow the dramaturgy of the theatre. 

I composed two chamber operas in the 1970s, the first one, Harakiri in Japanese, the second one in three languages: English, Italian, and the national language of the performance. I have composed seven operas in English as it is the most common language used in international operatic life. At the same time, I thought it important to use the languages of essential literature as well: Three Sisters by Chekhov in Russian, Le Balcon by Genet in French, Senza sangue by Barrico in Italian. When I do so, I immerse myself in the culture of the given language, the characteristics of the language, I follow the intonation, the anacruses, the tone of the vowels, the turbulence of consonants.

What led you to compose this first opera in Hungarian? Was there a reason you had not done so until now? How does the language effect the musical material?

A couple of years ago I was honoured to get a commission from the Hungarian State Opera to compose an opera explicitly in Hungarian. As my opera could have been performed in Hungarian for a limited number of native speakers, I simultaneously composed the German libretto for the Regensburg Opera as well, which meant a double amount of work, but the required changes gave me an interesting task. As the original commission came from the Budapest Opera, I regard only the Hungarian version of Valuska as my 13th opera.

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Eötvös conducts
© Szilvia Csibi

I had two choices: either I follow the strong lyrical sound of my previous operas such as Sleepless and Senza sangue, or take a slight detour towards musical theatre, like Goldene Drache. Therefore, the description of Valuska’s genre is tragi-comedy with music, or opera grotesque, which includes both genres, opera and theatre. I would like to emphasize the grotesque element, which is rare in opera, but very important in Valuska. The novel by Krasznahorkai proved extremely suitable. Everything is unusual in this book, the story, the flow of the language, new word formations, and the shocking realism at the same time.

Krasznahorkai’s prose led me to put fewer sounds and more rhythm on paper, and it also led me to theatre. I tried to present the essential presence of Krasznahorkai’s text to the audience in different ways: I included a Narrator who holds his book in his hand and he quotes from it verbatim from time to time. The chorus that appears in most of the time chews the words until they are letters only, and at times, we hear only the noise of letters, which is also a reference to an important aspect of the commission, the Hungarian language. And Hungarian literature, I might add.

The first part of the description, tragi-comedy with music, is served by the plot. The two protagonists, Valuska and his mother, the tragic Mrs Pflaum, trampled on by the mob: the music for such a moment is silence with me. As opposed to dangerous silence of the ever-present crowd: it is a dangerous humming, like a swarm of bees.

Let me talk about the lyric, melodic parts of Valuska. I had to be economical with them as much as possible, and reserve them for Valuska and Mrs Pflaum. Valuska has two arias, both introduces us to his view on the world, the order of the infinite cosmos, first from the relationship of the planets, then from the detailed description of a solar eclipse. The second aria is my favourite: Valuska holds a small glass with the small eye of the whale preserved in formaldehyde. He hold it in front of him like Hamlet does with the skull, and sings an aria to it, in which he seems to find the order of the cosmos again.

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In rehearsal for Valuska
© Valter Berecz

What led you to László Krasznahorkai’s Melancholy of Resistance, which this opera adapts? How did you approach dramatising this work, with its distinctive prose and emotional tenor?

I was captivated by its language, the endless sentences and abundant adjectives of Krasznahorkai hide an inner rhythm. I unfolded this inner rhythm. I wanted to “dry” its musicality, tried to stay away from its lyrical characteristics, or use them at a couple of places deliberately. This musical dryness suits Krasznahorkai’s language. I concentrated on theatre with music, rather than opera.

The story is dominated by the arrival of a strange circus in the unnamed town, whose main attraction is a giant, decaying, stuffed whale. Can you talk more about the sequence of events in the opera?

A huge lorry carrying a stuffed whale arrives in a small town in the Great Hungarian Plains. And if an enormous whale is not absurd enough in such a small town, a Prince weighing less than 20 kilos, with no arms or legs but having three eyes, and who chirps instead of talking, is rumoured to be the member of the circus company. There is no stopping to the rumour, a huge crowd gathers, and they translate the twittering of the Prince as they want to. They form an ideology, and the mindless destruction begins. Is the Prince telling the truth? Are these indeed the words of the Prince? Does he exist at all? It does not matter. The crowd is authorised with destruction, there is nothing to stop them, they turn everything and everyone into ashes. In this power hungry and aggressive environment there is a pure-hearted hope: his name is Valuska. He strives for good and is punished undeservingly.

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Design for the travelling, decayed whale
© Hungarian State Opera

Can you talk about Krasznahorkai’s central character, János Valuska? What attracted you to him?

It is Valuska who has all the positive characteristics that society lacks: love, helpfulness, a clear view on events, the knowledge and practice of (cosmic) order, the desire and ability to dream, a naïve bravery. The fact that he is given a life imprisonment means that these characteristics will never become part of his society. We won’t become, we can’t become, we don’t want to become someone like him – but we will always have him inside us as a unit of measurement.

What was your working method with librettists Kinga Keszthelyi and Mari Mezei on the adaptation? Did the text and the music take shape at the same time?

Working with my librettists is always a pleasure. Kinga Keszthely is an experienced former dramaturg of the Hungarian State Opera, she compiled the dialogues from the book that we can use in their original form. I have worked on the libretti of my operas most of the time with Mari Mezei for 35 years. Text and music evolve together, the final control of prosody is with me, then rhythm and pitch also become ideal.

What is the opera’s music like? Valuska’s uncle, György Eszter, expounds on the evils of equal temperament – did this have any effect the opera’s music?

I find a symmetrical, relatively small orchestra the most important aspect from a musical point of view. On the left and right, the wind instruments are mirrored, then the percussion, and the nine string instruments to give the lyrical sound are in one group in the middle. This arrangement is suitable for musical dialogues and the effective alternation between musical blocks.

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The cast of Valuska in rehearsal
© Valter Berecz

Can you say anything further about this production and its cast, with Zsolt Haja in the title role?

I have worked with Zsolt Haja several times. I know about his stage presence, I can hear his characteristic, high, soft and crystal-clear sounds in my head. When I was looking for a suitable material for my opera with my colleagues and got to Valuska, I cried out we should take Krasznahorkai as we have a natural-born Valuska, namely, Zsolt Haja, and I am going to compose it for him.

Valuska runs at Hungarian State Opera, Eiffel Art Studios from 2nd–17th December 2023.

This article was sponsored by Hungarian State Opera.