Peter Eötvös
© Marco Borggreve
First impressions always count, and when meeting Peter Eötvös, it's the clear gaze from his blue eyes that instantly captivate. At a cocktail party, he could easily be thought of as a very soigné, distinguished statesman. Speaking from his studio in Budapest via Zoom, we quickly decide on German as the language that suits both of us best to discuss his new opera Sleepless, which will see its Swiss premiere from the 29th March at the Grand Théâtre de Genève.

The plot of Sleepless is based on Norwegian author Jon Fosse's Trilogy — a compilation of three stories written in 2014. Why this work, specifically? To hear Eötvös tell it, and this being his 13th opera, it is the result of a certain routine process: it was the title chosen after he had submitted more than a dozen different ones, which were then mutually discussed amongst him and the commissioning theatres, until, by process of elimination, the final choice fell on Fosse's work. Once this piece was decided upon, Eötvös decided to write an “opéra ballade, which is different from composing a dramatic work. A ballade has its own sound, its own attitude. You tell a story, it is a timeless subject, the story can take place today or sometime in the future,” he tells me.

Indeed, the plot is almost biblical in character: childhood friends Alida and Asle have fallen in love and are expecting a baby. Because they are underage teenagers, they cannot marry. They want to make a life on their own, but can't. Everywhere and everybody they turn to for help, turns them away. The title Sleepless refers to this state, the constant trauma of trying to find shelter, both in the physical and emotional sense. In this desperate state, Asle turns to murder. Justice catches up with him and he is hanged. Alida bears their child, and she finds her own transcendental peace. Eötvös' wife and long time collaborator Mari Mezei wrote the libretto, which was translated into English by Judith Sollosy. 

© Gianmarco Bresadola | Staatsoper Berlin

When Hungarian theatre and film director Kornél Mundruczó and set and costume designer Monika Pormale presented the mock-up for Sleepless — an oversized salmon curled on a revolving stage, with the scaly side representing the outdoor world and a hollowed out inside, fish bones and all, for the interior scenes — Eötvös was instantly delighted: “I liked the idea of the salmon very much, including the revolving stage and the smooth transitions from one scene to another,” he says, adding: “the first impression should not be against the play, against the composition or the concept.” But why a salmon? “It's the iconic Norwegian fish, isn't it,” he laughs, “and it takes the story completely out of time and space.” 

One of the basic premises Sleepless deals with is the question of sin: can it be justified if another life is saved, and are the judges free from sin themselves? Although “the story is hopeless, the characters are hopeless, and there is no happy ending, the music is consistently transcendental, resolves the conflicts and gives hope for a better world,” the composer says. 

“I've known Kornél for a long time, and admired his theatre productions in Budapest, but we had never worked together before. It turned out to be a really good collaboration. He has found a style of working that also works very well for the singers, and it's based on positive reinforcement. My working style is similar with the orchestra: the autocratic style is a thing of the past. With the Staatskapelle in Berlin and the orchestra of the Grand Théâtre de Genève I have excellent musical bodies, who quickly understand my score and can interpret it beautifully,” he concludes. For the production in Geneva, the cast is exactly the same, thus shortening the necessary rehearsal period.

© Gianmarco Bresadola | Staatsoper Berlin

But what about his composition process? “I consider first selections when I draft the libretto with my wife,” Eötvös explains to me. “That's a first editing, where I take or leave out literary material and decide which roles to use, to emphasise, to leave out. I used to be very combative with stage directors, when it came to the scenic concept. In the past, when a director didn't agree with me, I fought for my vision. That cost a lot of nerves and in most cases did not change anything.

“My wife told me: let it be, directors are artists, they have their own vision. Your work will survive, another production will come and you will be happier. Now with Sleepless, we worked really well as a team and I think the entire ensemble felt this positive energy,” he says.

“When I compose, I imagine myself sitting in the middle of the audience, looking to the stage: I open my ears and listen to the music. Then I just write down on paper what I hear, what I have experienced. My music is well received in the music world because it has a strong positive connection with the audience, I am audience-friendly, so to speak,” he tells me.

Eötvös believes that his music should be intrinsically understood by his listeners without them having to read long programme notes. “The musical style of Sleepless is easily digestible for the audience, it's easy to perform for the singers, there are no intervals, the keys are familiar; it's not in the discordant style of the 1950s, it doesn't sound modern.”

His focus on accessibility doesn't surprise me: Eötvös is cosmopolitan and immensely curious, and has a gift of keen observation for all things human — the comic, the tragic, the whole madness of our existence in which he still finds a silver lining. 

© Gianmarco Bresadola | Staatsoper Berlin

Up to now, the only major work by Eötvös that had been presented in Switzerland has been his opera Three Sisters, based on Anton Chekov's play, at the Zurich Opera in 2013. During this 2021/22 season, there is a veritable festival of his works — The Golden Dragon was presented at the beginning of this year in Geneva and in Fribourg, concerts were performed in Basel in February, and March will see the premiere of Sleepless in Geneva, as well as concerts with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. As a member of the prestigious Sacher Foundation for over 20 years, Eötvös has a close contact with the music conservatories in Basel, Zurich and Geneva. 

Currently, Eötvös is working on his 14th opera — his first one in Hungarian, based on a work by Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai — for a December 2023 premiere in Budapest, with a German version planned later. “Krasznahorkai is an important writer, the winner of the Booker International Prize in 2015, with a very individual, stream of consciousness style. Although he wrote this work in the late 1980s, the themes of a divided society and the resulting conflicts are very contemporary. It will be a tragicomedy with music, or an Opera Groteska, yet again something new; I guess it's in my character, to want to compose each opera in an original musical style,” he chuckles.  

I ask him how he perceives the future of the opera genre, with its high production costs and current audience growing older. “Opera is a genre written for the future. I wish a few of my operas could stay in the repertory, to be performed a hundred years from now. Actually, I see a lot of interest from young people who want to get involved in theatre. Many composers want to write operas, but they don't know what is stageable. My advice to them is to gain experience in spoken theatre, in terms of timing, dramaturgy, libretto style. 

“It is dangerous to write only music, without considering the theatrical side. What interests me the most about opera is the diversity of theatre, which is what makes a piece dramatic, tragic, mystical, cabaret, or operetta — in other words, all the many possible, different forms of musical theatre. In this respect, this tradition is a continuation of Richard Strauss' aesthetic. He tried something completely different with each of his operas. Music and theatre go hand in hand,” he concludes. 

Sleepless will be on stage at the Grand Théâtre de Genève from 29th March to 5th April 2022.

This article was sponsored by the Grand Théâtre de Genève