Running an opera house isn’t an easy profession at the best of times, and even less so in this coronavirus-infected year. As general director of Hungarian State Opera, Szilveszter Ókovács has to organise not one house but three: the grand traditional State Opera House on Budapest’s Andrássy Avenue, the larger Erkel Theatre and the smaller Eiffel Art Studios, a brand new conversion of a disused railworks site.

Szilveszter Okovacs
© Laszlo Emmer

We’re speaking on the day after the State Opera’s plans have been upended by the government’s decision to close all public gatherings for the next 30 days. However, Ókovács seems unfazed by the continuous re-planning. In point of fact, nothing much seems to faze him, including the bout of Covid-19 from which he has just recovered (“it was quite easy with this virus, really. I’m a lucky boy”). Rather, he comes across as completely focused on the mission, as much at home in the world of government (he was commissioner for the State Opera before he became its general director) as in the arts world (he is a trained singer who used to teach opera history).

A key part of that mission, he explains, is the education of the next artistic generation, both audiences and musicians entering the profession – a difference from other Western European national opera houses for whom that activity doesn’t form part of their remit. The mission won’t be achieved by being a simple importer of international stars: “try to imagine that you have a poster for an opera production – say Così fan tutte – but the name of the venue is covered. It can be Madrid or London or anywhere in the world because it’s the same six artists, maybe from six different countries. And that’s not good for us because our national institute has different aims: we are not one theatre out of many; we carry the weight of opera and ballet.” Hungarian State Opera uses local singers whenever possible, although that’s in tension with another aim, which is to bring the operatic world to Hungary. “In the past ten years, since I’ve been general director, you cannot name a top category opera singer who hasn’t performed in Budapest.” But at the same time, Ókovács refuses to engage in the practice whereby the agencies of those top artists insist on him casting the less famous artists that they also manage, in order to "earn the right" of having the star: this would shut out well-qualified Hungarian singers.

The Erkel Theatre
© Szilvia Csibi

Although the State Opera is a repertory company, the 2020/21 season (as configured before coronavirus disruption) featured no less than eighteen new productions of opera and six of ballet. That seems an astonishing amount of new work compared to other companies, but Ókovács thinks it’s normal: “we have two big venues and the big studios. If you divide the number of premières by three, you get an ordinary number.” In addition, he feels that changes in the media have made it ever more important to produce new work: “the way the media tends to write or announce new things only, it’s easier to get through to the audience if there is a constant flow of new productions rather than to perform repertoire pieces all the time.”

Putting together ideas for the season started as long ago as 2017, when he had to tender for his reappointment as general director. The major part of the planning was done last spring, ready in plenty of time for the official announcement in December. The pandemic intervened soon after (“it’s like the devil playing games, as Don Giovanni would say”), and it became clear in March that extensive rescheduling was going to be required. The most significant challenge has been in the ability to rehearse new productions: work that should have been undertaken in the spring and summer has had to be postponed. This will have knock-on effects into this season and the next (“it’s like you build up a big structure of dominoes, then you kick one and the whole thing falls apart”). If a premiere is posptoned, it cannot simply be included in the following year's plans because of different rehearsal needs.

The State Opera House on Andrássy Avenue
© Attila Juhasz

So how to deal with the present uncertainties? Like many, the fallback option is providing audiences with streamed video. Fortunately, the current (hopefully temporary) ban on live audiences doesn’t imply a rehearsal ban and doesn’t stop performances to an empty hall, so their current “Opera Live” series, whereby they broadcast four performances every week, can continue. The new Eiffel Studios have excellent recording facilities, which will also be pressed into use, with CD recordings of Hungarian works planned. Viewer numbers for Opera Live have been strong in Hungarian terms, but still, Ókovács is ambivalent about video: his fear is that audiences may come to treat opera on video as a new normality and may not return to the opera house. It’s not the hardcore opera or ballet fans that worry him – those will come back as soon as health concerns are dissipated – but he fears for the next generation, who are spoilt for choice with the amount of video now available and whose habits are being formed by it.

Although the 2020-21 programme has plenty of fascinating things to discuss – there’s a big focus on all things French, rectifying years of under-representation of French opera in Hungary – it seems churlish to ask too many questions about the fine details of programmes that may or may not happen as advertised. Still, there are two new productions that I can’t resist asking about. The first is the opera by cross-genre composer Levente Gyöngyösi based on one of my favourite novels: Mikhail Bulgakov’s madcap satire The Master and Margarita, whose starting premise is that the Devil and various acolytes teleport themselves into Stalinist Moscow. “Gyöngyösi can deal with the orchestra masterfully. He can write in the style of anyone, but he has always been interested in how you can make popular music fit into the world of opera. This is a grand production with huge ensembles, which has had to be postponed many times.” The planned December première has been cancelled, but Ókovács assures me that the piece will be produced, with an announcement coming soon.

Eiffel Art Studios
© Attila Nagy

I also ask about Figaro³, a confection of the three operas based on the Beaumarchais trilogy: The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and the less known La mère coupable by Milhaud – excerpts of the three operas are assembled with new prose dialogue. The trick here, it turns out, is in the selection and editing of the music: Mozart and Rossini used different voice types for their main roles, so careful manipulation is required to allow a single artist to sing their role all the way through. The production concept riffs on the current vogue for researching one’s ancestry: in this case, it is the Countess and Cherubino’s love child who is trying to retrace his family tree. 

Is there an opera, I ask, that Ókovács would love to stage but has never had the chance? “If you had asked this question six years ago, there would have been a definite answer, Die Frau ohne Schatten, because that had never been performed in Hungary before 2014. But since then, we put on 50-60 productions per year and we have been able to perform examples like The Queen of Sheba, or Lear by Reimann.” Looking forward to next year, he feels the importance of completing the unfinished business of the Ring Cycle: Götterdämmerung had to be postponed when the State Opera House closed for repairs. He is highly conscious of Ring Cycle competition from Müpa, just a few kilometres away, “with a totally different budget and a semi-staged version with international superstars. We have to be able to compete with it, and it’s really important that we present the cycle ourselves. This kind of rivalry may seem strange in Budapest, but there is competition just as there is in Berlin. It does good to our relationship with our partner institute and gives a bit of excitement.”

The Queen of Sheba at Hungarian State Opera
© Peter Rakossy

Ókovács’ sights are now firmly trained on the 2021-22 season, whose highlight will be the much-postponed reopening of the State Opera House after its reconstruction. For three months between March and June 2022, the company plans to bring in a big name for every production (“which is quite difficult to organise logistically and financially”). Tricky negotiations are to come with the government around programmes for the Erkel and Eiffel Studios, but he is only too aware of how fortunate his institution is to enjoy the level of state support that it does: his last words to me are to express sympathy with those of us in countries like the UK and the US where major opera houses face an uncertain financial position.

This interview was sponsored by Hungarian State Opera.