Csaba Káel’s CV is multi-faceted: freelance opera director, CEO of Müpa (formerly known as the Palace of Arts Budapest), chair of major performing arts festivals in Hungary, Hungarian Film Commissioner. That’s not a historical CV: Káel holds all these jobs today. In the first of a two part interview (by Zoom, of course: this was 2020), I spoke to Káel about how he got started and the joys and travails of running a major cross-arts centre in this troubled year.

Csaba Káel
© Szilvia Csibi

Káel is perhaps best known across the world not for his work in music and opera but as a prolific film director. Long before this, however, he started his artistic career as a painter: as early as his teenage years, his paintings featured in several exhibitions and he was attending summer master classes in Tokaj, taught by the top Hungarian artists of the time.

Those teenage years were in Kazincbarcika, a small “socialist town” in northern Hungary 12 miles from Miskolc, which was the country’s second largest city at the time. One of his schoolteachers gave him a book about the Renaissance and he was spellbound by the humanism of the period; the contrast between that and the official Real Socialism doctrine was particularly striking, providing Káel with “the real route to myself”.

That flash of inspiration was the first of several that prompted radical career shifts. As he pondered the limited career prospects for artists in 1980s Hungary, he saw a TV film about the brand new Munich Olympic Stadium and its engineer Frei Otto, which persuaded him that his future career would be in architecture: he duly qualified as a structural engineer at the Technical University of Budapest. But those plans got diverted, because the university had a wonderful small theatre (“the best alternative theatre in town at that time”), to which Eugenio Barba and Odin Teatret were invited (“can you imagine, in ‘83, for us it was just a miracle”). Next, at the University’s Movie Club, he saw the films of Luis Buñuel and was instantly smitten. Forsaking the dreams of architecture, he was lucky enough (or perhaps simply smart enough) to stand out from a field of 900 applicants and secure one of the six university places for film directors, entering a class taught by the five times Cannes-nominated Károly Makk.

Two decades on, in 2005, the diversity of his background has surely served Káel well as he became Artistic Adviser to Müpa and then its CEO. But if his CV seems charmed, the coronavirus had no regard for the charms: on March 11th, an official press conference to launch Müpa’s 2020-21 was rudely interrupted by the Hungarian government’s decision to impose a strict lockdown, closing the borders, restricting shopping hours and closing down theatres and cinemas. An hour after describing what was to be a splendid season, Káel found himself announcing its cancellation (“it was so surrealistic”). Just three days later, March 14th, was Müpa’s 15th anniversary: plans for celebrations, which were to include specially commissioned classical and jazz pieces, were wrecked.

Many of the 23,000 people in Müpa’s loyalty programme were devastated (“this is very important because these people love the arts, love to be together. For them, this is a very important part of life. They come here with friends, with family and they love the arts, there’s no question.”) Káel received hundreds of gushing letters of support.

Csaba Káel
© Szilvia Csibi

Müpa has had a film studio since 2005. Initially, it was used purely for recording concerts for the archives, but in 2013, they started filming concerts in HD, selling the films to Hungarian public television. Two concerts have been broadcast every week since then, and live streaming started in 2010, for the simple reason that the halls were selling out and it was considered essential to share the concert experience with people who could not come to them. So when the pandemic struck, the streaming infrastructure was already in place, leaving Káel with the task of increasing the amount of streaming and redesigning and rebranding the service (it’s now “Müpa Home”).

The important thing was to organise concerts even if there was no audience in the hall – not just for the sake of streaming, but to enable artists to play and be paid (“it was very useful for the artists, because they had no money at the time, they spent three months without any concerts”). Müpa is blessed with a huge car park, which enabled them to stage a series of 16 drive-in concerts, broadcasting to people’s in-car audio: ”these became very fashionable in Budapest.” Composers also needed support, so in July, Káel set up a composition competition on a substantial scale, with no less than 14 categories ranging from shorter choral music to big symphonic music and opera: the winning compositions will be premièred at Müpa or at one of its partner institutions over the next three years.

“The institutional system is supported by the state, which is a very good basis”, Káel explains. “We could help the freelancers because the state was behind us”. Subsidy money that might have been used for bringing in large international orchestras could be diverted to help local musicians and composers.

Eventually, in September, Müpa was able to re-open to audiences, albeit with many cancellations and changes of programme and with the by-now-familiar Covid sanitary measures. CAFe Budapest – the capital’s contemporary art festival – was able to go ahead. But the second coronavirus wave has dented confidence. “In the beginning, everybody wrote ‘we will go back as soon as possible’. But the pandemic became more serious in autumn in Hungary with the numbers of diseased and people who died. It was a shock for Hungary, because in springtime, we were safe opposite the virus, but after the summer, it became very serious here.” Many people became fearful of returning to the hall: Káel explains that there were some sold-out concerts which only 40-50% of the ticket-holders attended.

I ask whether concert life will change after Covid. It already has changed, he answers, with such things as outdoor events, site-specific concerts, concert marathons, overnight or 24 hour events. Some of these events have proved very popular: for Bach’s 330th birthday, they played his complete organ music in an event that attracted young people who had never previously listened to organ music but were happy to sleep over at Müpa. (Some of these formats will now have to be reinvented based on what's considered safe). Maybe old forms will be popular too, he muses, such as “the garden concerts. It was normal in the baroque time, so in our days, why not? To have art near to nature is not so special. And we would like to use our Danube, that’s a fantastic opportunity we didn’t use before. For you, the Water Music was born on the Thames, so why not?”

For now, Hungary has been severely locked down once more, with venues closed until January 31st at least. Hungarians have been signing up enthusiastically for the vaccination programme, so let’s hope that 2021 will see a return to better days on the banks of the Danube.

This interview was sponsored by Wavemaker Hungary
For the second part of this interview, that you can find here, we will leave the subject of Covid-19 and talk about the worlds of opera and film.