A new era takes shape in the opera capital of the world

Opera song

MUNICH – Serge Dorny discreetly opened the door to the cavernous rehearsal hall of the Bavarian State Opera here one recent evening to see how Shostakovich’s “The Nose” played out.

Dorny, the company’s chief executive since this season, pored over an open score for the work, an absurd satire based on Gogol’s short story about a Russian official whose nose falls from his face and begins his own. life. Then he sat down to watch the preparations for what would be the first premiere of his tenure, and the first led by Vladimir Jurowski, the new music director.

The singers were following the lead of Kirill Serebrennikov, who was shaping the video-call production – via messages passed to his co-director, Evgeny Kulagin – as he is not allowed to leave Russia while on probation for corruption, a widely charged accusation. suspected of being politically motivated.

Jurowski sat on a stool, directing the cast and a pianist nearby. Every now and then, Shostakovich’s unruly scoring stopped as Serebrennikov stepped in like the voice of God, echoing through the speakers but invisible.

During a break, Dorny smiled into a webcam perched to give a view of the rehearsal space. “Hello, dear Serge!” Serebrennikov said, still invisible. Seemingly satisfied, Dorny left the room as quietly as he had entered.

More than “The Nose”, which opened on Sunday and airs on staatsoper.tv, was taking shape that evening: the production is a sign of things to come at the Bavarian State Opera.

Its reputation as the opera capital of the world has been preserved and enhanced by leaders like Peter Jonas and his successor, the much-loved Nikolaus Bachler, who left home this summer. Dorny and Jurowski aspire to maintain their legacy, while expanding the company’s stable of artists and repertoire – starting with “The Nose,” written in the 1920s but never performed before at the State Opera in London. Bavaria.

“There are going to be new sounds, new colors and new tones – but in a kind of continuity,” Dorny said in an interview. “You should never fill an empty box with the same thing as before.”

Some clues as to what to expect from Dorny’s tenure in Munich can be found in his nearly two-decade transformative journey as the leader of the Opéra de Lyon in France, which included prominent commissions from Kaija Saariaho. and Peter Eotvos, in addition to rarities, innovative covers of standards and additions to the 20th century repertoire.

“In the history of music since ‘Orfeo’,” said Dorny, “there have been around 50,000 to 60,000 tracks, and something like 80 are being played. In order to keep an art form alive – so that the opera is not a mausoleum – we have to expand it. “

New productions in Munich this season include “The Cunning Little Vixen” by Janacek, “Peter Grimes” by Britten, “Les Troyens” by Berlioz and “The Devils of Loudun” by Penderecki. Dorny teased a future staging of Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” and said that a Brett Dean premiere, on Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, will take place in the 2023-24 season. Jurowski said he would like to work with Olga Neuwirth and Mark-Anthony Turnage, among other composers.

Jurowski added that he “consciously avoided the repertoire of Kirill Petrenko”, his predecessor as musical director and the shy star of recent Munich history, who regularly received stronger standing ovations than even the most famous singers. of the house before his departure to become the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Traveling to Munich from his home in Berlin, where he also conducts the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jurowski has his own musical identity. A champion of twentieth-century opera, as well as of composers from his native Russia, he is less known for the classics of Verdi and (Petrenko’s specialty) of Wagner. He said he was happy to hand over titles like “Il Trovatore” and “La Forza del Destino” by Verdi and “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin” by Wagner to guest conductors.

He would however like to conduct Verdi’s “La Traviata” – but only with the right team, as he sees it as “a Chekhov piece with music”. The same goes for “Aida”, which he called “Ibsen with elephants”. (He will do this as long as there are no elephants.) Despite his distaste for early Wagneres, he would be interested in a “Flying Dutchman” on period instruments. And he would like to collaborate with the Bavarian State Ballet, perhaps to commission a new choreography for “Swan Lake”, “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker” by Tchaikovsky.

Joining the traditional Munich summer opera festival this season will be an earlier event – called Ja, Mai (Yes, May) – focused on contemporary music. It will include three new productions of works by Georg Friedrich Haas, 68, from artists including directors Claus Guth and Romeo Castellucci and conductor Teodor Currentzis.

“This will be an annual event,” said Dorny, “where we are galvanizing all of our energies at this very moment when we can give our full attention to this repertoire and this new work.”

“We want to make sure,” he continued, playing on the French word for “last”, “that a world first is not a world last”.

The public in Munich has always been a game; before the pandemic, the company sold on average 98% of its capacity. Opera lovers have also been drawn to famous singers who have made the State Opera their home, such as Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros and Christian Gerhaher. In an interview last summer, Kaufmann said: “We now envision a perhaps less future, shall we say, writes.”

But Dorny has no intention of ignoring the stars of the company’s final years. “You’re talking about some of the great singers statesmen,” he said. “At the same time, we also have a responsibility to imagine the future, to avoid dead ends. It is important that we create the stars of tomorrow.

To this end, he plans to highlight all of the residents of the house. Dorny – who in interviews was invariably a diplomat, opening any discussion of the past with phrases like “It’s not meant to be critical” – said that too often stars have been invited for lead roles, relegating singers internal to minor roles. . He would prefer “a sort of middle way”, leaving room for distinguished guests while favoring the ensemble, which he wishes to populate with promising voices such as soprano Elsa Dreisig and baritone Boris Pinkhasovich (currently in “The Nose” ).

If there was one story Dorny didn’t want to talk about, it was her time in Lyon. During lunch in his office, he gestured to a stack of boxes and said, “It’s there, still closed, but I don’t necessarily need to unpack.

Daniele Rustioni, principal chef at Lyon since 2017, who will lead the new “Trojans” in Munich next spring, described Dorny as someone who “works nonstop” and seeks “super committed” employees.

“I saw this in the conductors,” said Rustioni. “Riccardo Muti really lived in the theater, and when I met Tony Pappano he was the first to come in and the last to leave. But I had never seen that with general managers until Serge.

But Rustioni believes Dorny’s hard work has paid off. “He left the theater in good shape,” said Rustioni, “and you don’t need me to say he put Lyon on the international map.”

French critic Christian Merlin also said that Dorny had “brought an international reputation” to Lyon. “He rejuvenated and modernized it. He establishes a relationship of trust with the audience, which allows people to open up to other repertoires or aesthetics without the reluctance of ordinary conservative lyric audiences. The opera house has regained its place in the heart of the city.

Unlike Lyon, however, the Bavarian State Opera is a repertory house; it presents several works at the same time, and with more rotation. Such a volume, said Dorny, makes it easier for the company to occupy a central space on Munich’s cultural scene – and makes it more crucial to live up to that potential.

He and Jurowski have known each other since the late 1990s; both had posts in Britain and worked together at the Glyndebourne festival there. “Right now it’s a very good relationship that we need to develop and explore even more,” Jurowski said. “But as a starting point, we start on the same artistic platform of a vision.”

This extends to the State Opera Orchestra, which Jurowski described as “Munich’s oldest and most traditional, but also the easiest and most open-minded”. For them, playing Strauss and Wagner is “like a thing to squeeze”, he said, but he also knows that they are ready to experiment, like when he led them six years ago. in “The Fire Angel” by Prokofiev. This production was produced by Barrie Kosky, a recurring collaborator of Jurowski – including on a new staging in Munich during the ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ pandemic, which will return next spring.

In an interview, Kosky called Jurowski “the most dramaturgical conductor,” someone who begins working on a production with lengthy discussions, precise text readings, and constellatory approaches to interpretation. (They were originally recruited to conduct the Bavarian State Opera together, but Kosky, who ends his term at the Komische Oper in Berlin this season, decided to become independent instead of running another house; after “Rosenkavalier” they will come together for a new production of “Die Fledermaus.”)

Kosky, who described Jurowski as a charming cross between an El Greco monk and a Dostoyevsky character, said: And he infuses all that, this curiosity for the world, through music. “

Jurowski said his preparations for “The Nose” involved many conversations with Serebrennikov – especially in person, whenever Jurowski was in Russia for work – long before rehearsals began. “We completely agree,” he added, “with regard to this production,” in which the hapless protagonist is portrayed as being the only one with only one nose, while everyone wears grotesque masks adorned with several of them. Serebrennikov’s staging subtly raises political questions like the one German critic Bernhard Neuhoff posed in his review of the premiere: “Is it normal to be human when everyone is inhuman?”

Speaking by phone after the opening night, Dorny said what Jurowski and Serebrennikov achieved together was “powerful”: a production that offered a new visual and metaphorical take on the play and a “pretty definitive” musical performance. . He was pleased with the sustained applause from the audience, but even happier to hear them discuss the opera afterwards.

“It’s a very good opening piece for the Bayerische Staatsoper,” said Dorny. “You shouldn’t just go out and forget what you saw, but take it with you – let it stay with you. This is what I would like to achieve. “