The Bayreuther Festspielhaus and Budapest’s Müpa are separated by 800km and various international borders, but they are linked in spirit by the Wagner Festivals that both cities host every summer. Ádám Fischer, who created the first Budapest Wagner Days in 2006 and has remained their Artistic Director ever since, has conducted in both houses and praises both as having acoustics that are particularly friendly to singers. “You don’t need huge voices to come over the orchestra”, he explains, adding “you can have smaller voices than the Metropolitan. It’s not that huge voices can’t sing, but you can use the difference between piano and mezzoforte more than in another hall”.

Ádám Fischer © Szilvia Csibi | Müpa Budapest
Ádám Fischer
© Szilvia Csibi | Müpa Budapest

Fischer’s heart, however, is clearly with Müpa – I use the shorthand for Budapest’s Palace of Arts and its Béla Bartók National Concert Hall – the venue in whose construction he was intimately involved. “The advantage of Müpa is that the orchestra people and the singers hear each other, so I can make more sudden rubatos.” What excites him is the ability to use chamber music techniques, whereby orchestral players and singers interact with each other on the spur of the moment, which he contrasts with Bayreuth, where “you have to prepare all the little freedoms, all the improvisations” in advance. The other defining characteristic of Müpa is that “even if the orchestra is louder than the singer, you can hear the singer perfectly, for me it is like one instrument in the orchestra in a very transparent sound. I want to use the different possibilities of the acoustic, so I love to work there”.

The staging of the operas in the Budapest Wagner Days has been variously described as “Concert staging”, “semi-staged” or even “more like three-quarters staged”. Fischer doesn’t like any of the terms, explaining that they are performances that are staged for the venue. “We should not make a production which would work in an opera house, because it is not an opera house. We want to use the concert hall, we want to bring people to concentrate on the music.”

I ask Fischer whether he discusses this type of production with his brother Iván, who also puts on concert stagings of opera. The two brothers do discuss these, he says, but explains that the requirements are different, since Iván is creating productions which the Budapest Festival Orchestra can take on tour to different halls in different cities, whereas his own Wagner productions are firmly rooted – he has strongly resisted any of the possibilities that have been offered to take one on tour. “What I want, what I dream about, is to do a production which works only in the Müpa. You have to find something that is unique.”

In the 2018 Wagner Days, Fischer will be conducting Tannhäuser, which he considers to be the most dramatic of the earlier Wagner operas: “There are no goodies and baddies in Tannhäuser and that’s very important for me. You live in a world that doesn’t recognise your truth and you have a bad conscience about yourself. It’s a very bad comparison, in a way, but it comes to my mind: it’s like being a homosexual in a world where homosexuality is a sin – you feel that you are right but then people don’t accept it, and then you hate yourself. The internal fight of Tannhäuser is very modern.”

Stephen Gould © Johannes Ifkovitz
Stephen Gould
© Johannes Ifkovitz

The key to a good performance of Tannhäuser is the casting of the tenor role, which Fischer marks out as “one of the three most difficult parts in music literature”. Apart from the sheer length of the role, which isn’t exactly unknown in Wagner, Fischer points out the tessitura: “It's exactly in the level of F# and G then G# where it's difficult for tenors. The very beginning is already very tricky, with the song that he's singing to Venus that is always getting higher and higher, in exactly the tessitura that makes a tenor tired. Different tenors have different solutions how to solve this problem and there’s a history of tenors fighting stage directors. Always, stage directors want them to act very much at the beginning; conductors and tenors say ‘don't do that’, if they move too much, then they can't sing at the end.”

In next June’s festival, the role will be sung by Stephen Gould, who Fischer considers as one of the most experienced Wagner tenors around and one of only a few who can sing Tannhäuser well; because he has sung the role many times, he knows exactly where his limits are.

The other big Heldentenor role in next year’s festival is that of Tristan, which will be sung by Peter Seiffert, who Fischer considers one of the best interpreters of the role of recent years. Seiffert is not so young any more, but Fischer says that his voice is exactly as it was ten years ago. Tristan und Isolde, he says, is the biggest challenge for conductors, having never been as popular as the other Wagner operas: even when the new Bayreuth had just started, it was the only one you could still get tickets for. He takes this as a personal challenge: “people who don’t like Wagner say that Tristan is too long, and this is what I don’t want to hear any more. We have to find a way to play it in such an exciting way that people never feel this. And it’s not too long, of course. If people don’t like Tristan as much as the others – I’m going to say it in advance – this is our fault, it’s my fault.” He also wants to show “the revolutionary character of the music, because Tristan changed the whole music literature. I really think that music has two parts: before Tristan and after Tristan.”

<i>Götterdämmerung</i> at Müpa in 2016 © Zsofia Palyi | Müpa Budapest
Götterdämmerung at Müpa in 2016
© Zsofia Palyi | Müpa Budapest

Regular attendees of the Budapest Wagner Days will notice one absence in 2018: for the first time in several years, there will be no Ring Cycle. That’s because the production is being renewed, ready for a return in 2019. Originally, Fischer explains, they had intended to emulate Bayreuth in changing their productions every three or four years: the first Ring was to be retired after six years and replaced two years later. Ten years on, the production has been so successful that its fundamentals are going to be kept. However, he and director/designer Hartmut Schörghofer will be making several changes, and they particularly want to change one technical aspect: the hole in the middle of the stage results in very long setup and teardown times. The result is they couldn’t put on a different opera either immediately before or after The Ring – “we couldn’t do a real festival”. The programme for the 2019 festival hasn’t been announced yet, but it looks safe to assume that it will include a Ring and other operas juxtaposed more closely than has been possible before.

I ask Fischer if his approach to conducting The Ring has changed over the years. It has, he says, but not in a systematic way that he wishes to explain: more important, he says, is to react each year to the singers that he is working with and use the personality of everybody. “Like a stage director can't make a thin person out of a fat person, he has to use actors in a way that they can be themselves; that is musically the same for me. Life is too short not to discover, every time, new things.”

 

You can see full listings of the 2018 Wagner days here, including Tannhäuser and Tristan und Isolde (conducted by Fischer), as well as Der fliegende Holländer (conducted by Peter Schneider). Our reviews of past performances are here.

This interview was sponsored by the Müpa Budapest.