I guess that the two of you met on the Music Academy, is there any particular story to that?
Dániel Dinyés: No, it’s not the Music Academy where we first met, but an opera production, where I was the coach and the music director, and Klári sang the main role, it was an exam show at the Theatre Academy. That’s how we met each other, and I cannot really tell anything more particular about this (laughing).
Who invented the OperaLab concept? How did it cross your minds that the audience may need this genre?
Klára Kolonits: In 2003-2004, in Pinceszínház led by Péter Gárdos, Dani started an experimental show, that only treated about an aria, or a song, or a song cycle at once, and we did not even promote it very much back then. Children, parents and grandparents frequented it regularly and once when we had a chance, we asked them, what was that caught their attention. Everyone said something else. And we thought that it may be interesting to all age groups. But then somehow it was dissolved in the air, Dani stopped working in the theatre and for a long time we didn’t even raise the topic again.
DD: At the Bárka theatre I was the music director, while László Bérczes was the artistic lead – that is, before they sown with salt even the venue where the theatre used to be. Then he reached out to me a propos of the Ördögkatlan Festival, asking if I could do some opera-ish stuff, within a humble venue of a small church – just to make the festival more colourful. And so the show I had at Pinceszínház came to my mind. When I was a young boy, I frequented numerous music shows for children, one more boring than the other, because they always were telling me things that may be interesting for a performer, but for a small child are completely irrelevant. They were yearning to reach the essence of something and not to awaken my playful instinct towards the music. And at the same time I was interested in music since very young age, but the wonderful, rapidly passing hours I spent at home at the piano, somehow were not similar at all to those long, leaden-footed minutes during this kind ow shows. This is why I decided back then, that I don’t want to press the essential things by all means into a speaking concert, but that we should concentrate on little things – but with playfulness, similar to the feeling you have while playing with lego bricks at home. Let’s analyse the music from the very basics, so that everyone can understand, how does the composer work. I had no idea if this will work or not. So we promoted this idea and started at the Ördögkatlan Festival. At the first show, there was like eighty people. At the second, twice as many, and at the third they didn’t fit in the venue. We found out something good. Maybe the genre, or the style of speech, the communication between people. Then László Bérczes invited the show to Kaposvár, then the program manager of Katona theatre in Budapest saw it, and invited us there. The truth is, that OperaLab falls closer to my teaching in the music school, than to some sense of missions, because the latter is nonexistent (laughing). It’s simply all about finding a way to involve the child hidden in each of us.
Therefore the whole is more pedagogical than not?
D.D.: Absolutely yes. We had to work out a style of speech able to engage the children. You need to learn for how long you can explore the topic deeper and deeper, and what is exciting for people who do love the music, but are not active musicians.
How did you find the OperaLab stage director, Pál Göttinger?
D.D.: With Pali we met at Bárka, and our first common job was the piece of Péter Esterházy, Thirty-three variations on the skull of Haydn. We realised since the first moment that we can cooperate very well and that we understand each other perfectly. Many people take us as brothers, because we are both bearded and corpulent.
D.D.: And funny. Apparently it works well, because we cooperate like this for around ten years already.
Klára, you probably made friendship with the theatre already in Csokonai Theatre in Debrecen or at the Operetta…
K.K.: The roots of all this are actually somewhere else, when I was finishing my studies someone recommended me to György Selmeczi, saying that I’m a “more open” kind of singer. I haven’t finish the opera department, but a singing department at the Music Academy’s teacher’s college. For Gyuri one of his greatest yearnings was also explaining, educating people on music and theatre, and in 1999 he shot a series about opera history on Duna TV, called Opera Fairytales from Kolozsvár. Similarly he also started with details to reach to the whole picture, started with styles, shot opera videoclips. I took part in those, and we worked with film directors, which resulted in a complete detachment from the “usual” acting style. Here I had to react for rather short instructions, and do any abstract, random thing that was asked. I had a certain affinity for this, and in addition I have never met such an attitude in anyone else by then, only in Gyuri. At the Operetta they wanted a classical, traditional primadonna attitude, which stood rather far from my nature, but I had to learn this as well. There was an openness in me, though I wasn’t sure what I am open to. Of course I enjoyed beautiful dresses and traditional stagings, but the “spiritual adventure” was much more exciting for me.
D.D.: And this “spiritual adventure” is usually greater in such a staging, where the director is more interest in the inner content of the piece, and not the appearances.
K.K.: And so the theatre was always present in my life, I can mention countless examples. And I ended up in the Thirty-three variations on the skull of Haydn staged by Pali Göttinger, because they needed an absurd scene, where a real opera singer bumps into the stage out of nothing.
D.D.: Sorry, but this story has significantly funnier origins: there was a scene originally written by Esterházy, where the singers are waiting for an audition at Haydn. Stage director Pál Göttinger and Gábor Katona who was the choreographer, had no idea how such a situation looks like, so I invited them to our place and I asked Klári to show them the vocalises, movements, all the warming up. Klári presented all this with the Queen of the Night aria, and the choreographer was greatly amused by the whole process. We had a good laugh on this whole thing and then two days later they asked if Klári could actually jump into the stage in that scene. Esterházy loved the idea as well, that a serious singer comes in, yells her part in everyone’s faces and disappears. He wrote alternative words to that aria which started with “Kitsch, kitsch, kitsch”. And so this was how Klári ended up in this show.
K.K.: I felt that this is again such a theatre-making process, that I would enjoy a lot, but somehow I do not get it. If you take all my career at the opera house, I didn’t actually work a lot with staging directors, always ending up in a classical staging running already for many years – for example Bohéme was a production by Kálmán Nádasdy premiered in 1936…
Don’t they renew these stagings from time to time?
K.K.: No, they remain the same. There’s the stage director copy of the score, and if Nádasdy said in 1935 that Mimi comes from the right side and brings the key, then you are not allowed to do anything else. When they renew a show, then they take the old staging down and there’s a completely new staging director who interprets it his way. Once they modified a tad such a classical staging, and moved a metal stove right or left – the audience was outraged, because for seventy years the stove was there and not elsewhere, they didn’t accept this “modernisation”.
And at the same time, many say about the traditional stagings, that they are bleak, they see too much of theatrality an mannerism in the opera performance practice. Can we face this prejudice with more modern approach?
D.D.: Actually this is not the root of the problem. It doesn’t matter if the staging is modern or classical, what you need to find is the human content of the piece. The thing that grabs your throat, and impacts you right away. There is no problem with Nádasdy stagings, provided that the singing and acting isn’t empty. We have no idea what to think about a modern staging if the singers do not understand, but only follow the instructions. In the very moment when the choir enters the stage knowing and understanding what is their task and they can also act this right, the spectator is already engaged.
So it’s all about believing.
D.D.: Believing and trusting. The singer who stands in front of the audience has to be believable but what helps him to be so, is the mutual trust between the stage or music director and himself. Like this the singer can take the instructions he gets from them, and process them with a great joy into a thing which is also his own. To make a good production, many many thing need to be put together and it’s a very complex process. Very good stage directors can make very bad shows, because sometimes they simply do not find a common language with the singers. A lot depends on the spectator as well. Our conscience is dull from the TV – I turn it on and it entertains, end of topic. Comparing to it the theatre is something that you need to watch incredibly actively, because it can only have its real impact, when the spectator is fully present, actively following the plot, thinking about it in the meantime and dares to feel and experience the emotions generated by the theatre. Only in this case the situation happens, when you go home and cannot sleep until 6 AM or you feel that “Jesus, is was brilliant” and changed something in your life. I wouldn’t blame the Hungarian State Opera specifically, it has just as many possibilities to do good and bad things as any other opera house in the world. This is never depending on the times we live in, only on people. No matter if we are making an opera in the eighteenth century or today, the question is how does the singer perform it.
K.K. The same show on Monday can leave the audience completely cold, and on Tuesday they would go crazy. Maybe the cast was different, or the conductor, or it was just a bad day. There aren’t many people who do believe in opera nowadays, but if you are able to find the conductors, stage directors who do, then it can explode with an energy of a geyser.
So we shouldn’t say that our opera house is behind let’s say European ones?
D.D.: No. We worked in numerous places in Europe and everywhere we experienced just the same. The only thing we are behind is at maximum the fact that Budapest doesn’t have four or five opera houses.
Why does it make sense at all to visit an opera house today, what this genre can give us, that another one cannot?
K.K. There isn’t many genres that tickle so many senses at once. The music itself is an abstract thing that has an impact on our reason and emotions at the same time, and we didn’t even mention the plot. The human voice on top of that has an irreplaceable power of communication, its magic gives something to everyone. It’s not by accident that the drama theatres include more and more singing parts in their shows. Literally speaking, you can sell everything more efficiently with the music. There was a toilet paper TV commercial running for years, where they played the music from Traviata, from Flora’s ball scene. Even this shows clearly, that even toilet roll can be sold using us (laughing). From my own example, I was nine years old when they banned me from the opera house, because I threw my patent leather shoe from the box at a show that I found boring, also they led me out from a music show dedicated for children, because I was so bored. All this genre was very foreign to me all the was up to the point when my schoolmate convinced me to join her for a singing lesson. In that moment I became an addict and since then I am immersed in it completely. So I am not worried, because there are opera-goers, and there are people who aren’t yet, but sometime in their lives the time will come.
What is the importance of pre-study in the opera?
D.D.: This is country of Kodály, everything is based on study (laughing).
I guess that an opera singer must be a good actor as well. Is there an accent put on this during the studies in Hungary?
K.K.: Since the WW2 they really pay attention to that. Balázs Kovalik started his own school at the Music Academy, and András Almási-Tóth took it over and they teach this.
D.D.: The great advantage of this training is that it teaches you numerous general things – you need to go on stage like this, you need to look like this, you need to feel like this, you need to understand like this… and this is also a disadvantage, when the people who study there are stuck with this generalities. The training of an opera singer is most evident in the singing itself, sure they need to be good actors but first of all – and nowadays it’s often being forgotten – they need to know how to sing. I don’t care that much if they say about a singer, how good actor is he, if I want a good actor I will go to Katona theatre and see great ones. In the case of singer, I am primarily interested in how does he sing.
In the OperaLab these two things are put together, because you have singers and also actors in the show.
D.D.: This was my idea to have a production that would have both, and the characters that are actually putting the plot forward, should be performed by actors. And those that let things happen to them, to be the singers. And this dualism worked incredibly well.
So regardless of this difference, the rehearsals went on in a great atmosphere. But at the beginning, how did the actors react to the whole project?
D.D.: It should be noted, that when opera was being born, until the middle of seventeenth century, there wasn’t such a clear distinction between actors and singers. Schodelné or Lujza Blaha counted as opera singers, and at the same time they were incredible actresses. The difference started to be more pronounced, when the orchestra’s layer was growing and the volume of the voice needed to be relatively bigger as well – and then it came out that not everyone had a voice powerful enough to sing over a full orchestra. Back to the original question: together with Pali Göttinger we believe in work in very good atmosphere, but very deep in the same time. For the singers, presence of János Kulka and anna Pálmai was refreshing, because their reactions were reflexes of actors, who normally play real situations in real time, in a drama theatre. This made the singers’ reactions more prompt and quicker as well, and also they saw many many tiny acting tricks that they normally wouldn’t see. But this is valid in the other direction as well – I remember a rehearsal when Artúr Kálid who took over the role of Kulka was listening cautiously to all of the singers, and all of a sudden just covered a high note. The whole rehearsal stopped, and all singers whooped and celebrated “That’s it Artúr, you did it!”. For Anna Pálmai the Mozart singing was a wonderful, physically good feeling. Singing anyhow produces endorphin, so it does bring joy per se.
K.K.: The whole OperaLab is soaked with deep irony, often self-irony. But no one is flaunting a role of a world changing prophet. We can see that theatre and opera genres come together again. Especially the film provoked the need to see everything in real circumstances. Referring to your question on what can be the process of refreshing the theatre, there are many initiatives to incorporate the aesthetics of a film to the opera, I sang already a production where two dimensional stage became a 3D movielike experience.
D.D.: I think that it really doesn’t matter what are the means. The novelty will be always the meaning and the human being.
In one of our previous magazines, Mariann Peller who is a producer of Virtuosos, a classical music talent show, said that it’s possible to make the classical music understandable if we do not start with the most difficult pieces of Liszt for example, but we progress step by step. Do you believe in that?
D.D.: This is a generally supported view but I never felt it’s convincing: what is “difficult” for each of us? I was like ten years old when I couldn’t get enough of Penderecki’s Passion, it was so exciting for me. My brother at twelve would listen only Bach cantatas and Wagner. Another person in his forties will snore at Don Giovanni show (and this is my real experience from the audience). Anyhow at OperaLab we do not support this view. If I make something intentionally easier, less complex, then the spectators will be bored just the way I was bored myself at those children-addressed music programs where they treated me like an idiot. However, it actually surprised me how successful all this is, because I only do what I would otherwise do at home. So if I am working on Mozart, then I work like this. To this day I am surprised by the question of educating the masses. I only do what I always do at home and if people can think together with me, I’m very happy and honoured, that this is such a successful show. But there’s no yearning in me to reach to as many people as possible and then we will live in a happier, more beautiful, Mozart-educated society. I cannot be so naive.
K.K.: Dani really doesn’t have a feeling of mission of educating masses. We would just like to share with people what does music mean for us. For us it’s a real thing that we go home and make music just for the joy of it. Sharing of this joy, involving people is one of our goals – and not making business or a separate genre out of it.
So the acceptance and understanding of the genre isn’t depending on OperaLab means, but on the attitude of the listener.
D.D.: Great question, but I don’t think it can be put in black and white. The fact is, that a huge part of the success is on the spectator’s side, but as a performer I can prevent it if I do it badly, or simply do not find the right manner of speaking.
K.K.: Fact is, that many people became more open to this genre because of OperaLab and started to consume this culture in more substantial chunks.
D.D.: It’s true, I often meet people after classical music concerts who come to me and say that they started to frequent this kind of events because once they saw my OperaLab. Of course it’s not that if someone goes to the opera house and doesn’t understand what he sees then they’re stupid, but if they come to my show once then they will understand everything. I do not want anything else than to teach people to be open. If their openness affects their ears, mind or heart, almost doesn’t matter. Almost.
And what is the key to the openness that you want to transmit?
D.D.: No idea. Klári?
K.K.: Okay so I am supposed to answer this. It’s actually very similar to how we take up a role of mine and Dani is helping me studying it. He always says: okay, it can be sung like this, but let us listen to what orchestra is playing in under the voice. We, the singers, usually focus on pressing out of ourselves what the author wants us to sing, but we do not put ourselves in the composer’s context. And it’s very useful to understand every parameter that is around us, so that we know exactly why we produce this particular sound in this moment. What is the information transmitted by the orchestra? What is the meaning of this ensemble? This is amazing, and one of the keys to the success of OperaLab, that there are no separate tools for this. In the first two seasons we played Operabeavató in a square wooden stage with a makeshift set and still we could do half of music literature in these circumstances. Like this the people see that they get something primal, that we do not want to manipulate them with set or costumes. This lack of tools is stands very close to more age groups. I see that everyone who took part in Operabeavató as a performer, came out richer, and will never sing this Mozart piece the same way again – but they will sit at the piano and ask themselves these kind of questions.
D.D.: Maybe creating of the context it the key word here. That we shouldn’t move in one dimension only, but in as many as possible. There is no special basis for that besides the fact that I finished the composer’s studies and I am a composer myself so I see things a bit differently, maybe from the inner perspective of someone who does write music. I think that if someone works with a stage director or a conductor who helps in finding the context and encourages the singer to look after these things, then it will work for good in any theatre in the world.
What projects are you working on for this season? Are you planning OperaLab?
D.D.: Yes, we continue it and what’s more, we do it with the National Philharmonic Orchestra, in MüPa, with the title of Operamacera. From now on, we have an opportunity to do it with the whole orchestra, and it won’t be me accompanying on the piano all the time, but the instruments will be really there to show how does it actually sound like – therefore this develops really nicely. We have an OperaLab with Pali also for really small children, called OperaPlayground. In the Operetta theatre, as its first conductor, I also have projects – such as the premiere of Offenbach’s Bluebeard.
K.K.: I have a premiere at the Opera in the end of October: Meyerbeer’s Huguenots, which is a French opera that haven’t been played in Hungary since 1931. This won’t be an easy task for the ensemble, because its duration with cuts is nearly four hours netto. It will be also a current topic because of the Reformation anniversary. Besides that, Csokonai Theater in Debrecen will make Bellini’s Norma production for my specific request, because I always really wanted to sing it. And in the end of season we will have a premiere of Verdi’s Ernani in Szeged, staged by Pál Gottinger. And in the meantime I am always present at OperaLab shows as well, and I am really looking forward to it.