Oksana Lyniv has arrived in Bayreuth, giving her six weeks to rehearse Richard Wagner’s piece The Flying Dutchman with an international ensemble.
On July 25, she conducts the premiere which opens the famous Bayreuth Festival. The conductor met DW reporters Gero Schliess and Anastassia Boutsko during a rehearsal break.
DW: You have already had a moment to discover the legendary orchestra pit of the festival theater, what did you think?
Oksana Lyniv: I like it, I can see the stage well and I can conduct standing, I’m just at the right height – this pit was after all tailor-made for Richard Wagner.
… Which measured only 166 cm. How does conducting in this space work for your older colleagues?
It depends, maybe some are sitting. Basically the pit and the whole orchestral apparatus are very special – the seating arrangement is also very different from a conventional hall.
A few weeks before the festival, relaxed Oksana Lyniv in Bayreuth
You run the “Flying Dutchman”, a first production on the Green Hill. What is your approach to this work?
For me, that always means immersing myself in the life and spiritual universe of the composer. To prepare for this work, I visited, among others, the town of Meudon near Paris, where Wagner worked on the opera when he was a young man, very poor, unsuccessful and disappointed by the Grand Opera flop.
From the first bar of the Dutch, you hear this youthful anger, this urge to “show everyone”. It clicked for me. This work cannot be perceived and interpreted from the position of the mature Wagner.
This is where Richard Wagner lived in Meudon
As a young woman, you also fought in a profession which is still a field dominated by men. And you did it in Ukraine, which is more of a patriarchal society. Was it difficult to assert yourself? And how has that shaped you to this day?
When I started studying to become a conductor, I was the only woman in Lviv middle school. Over and over I was told, “Why do you want this? This will never work.”
But I felt attracted to the job. What attracted me was never the podium of the conductor himself, standing in front and telling everyone which direction to take.
It was and still is about the music, the works of the composers. Conduct Tchaikovsky’s Sixth or Puccini’s Tosca, Wagner the Valkyrie or Mahler’s symphonies – it was really important to me, it really intoxicated me, and it always encouraged me to keep going.
Let’s talk about what the whole world is talking about right now: You are the first woman to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival. How important is this to you?
The fact that I am a woman does not Flying Dutch to mark more easily or more difficult. The fact that I, a woman, can stand on the podium here is perhaps a symbol of our time.
Of course, I hope to set a positive example. It would be important not only for me personally, but also – if you want to have a high vision – for the world and for the future.
Uncomfortable workplace: the orchestra pit of the Bayreuth theater
You seem very determined when leading. There is no doubt that you are the boss. Should a female driver be stricter than a male driver?
No, she doesn’t need to be stricter. Woman or man, I think it’s basically the same thing. It is the personality that always plays a key role for a conductor.
How would you describe your personality?
The precise realization of my musical ideas is important to me. There have to be good reasons for this not to happen. I am always open to compromise, the opera would not work otherwise, but the idea of the composer, the form of the work must not be compromised. At the same time, I am very self-critical and I also suffer a lot.
Lyniv loves to wear folk outfits
Perhaps your personality can be of use to you at the Bayreuth Festival, an institution steeped in traditions and well-established structures. Do you have respect for, or are you perhaps even in awe of such a task and such an institution?
There is no fear. It’s hard to describe. Bayreuth is a very special world, a world apart, a truly magical place. It’s not just about showcasing great works with top artists.
This is the total work of art of Richard Wagner, his “Gesamtkunstwerk” and his philosophy.
You can feel the incredible and titanic energy with which he has taken the art of opera, if not all music, in completely new directions. He opened the doors to new music.
There is something Buddhist about it: to make a pilgrimage to this place, you first have to leave your daily life and take up a challenge.
Do you remember your first visit to Bayreuth?
Of course, that was in August 2013. Kirill Petrenko conducted The Valkyrie and I was allowed to attend the performance because I had been invited to be his assistant at the Bavarian State Opera. I traveled from Lviv to Bayreuth for this one performance.
When the lights went out, it was pitch black. You couldn’t see the driver, but you could smell the waiting of thousands of people all over the world.
Suddenly the orchestra started to ring, and you couldn’t determine where the sound was coming from. It sounded almost mystical, as if it emanated from the earth. Even now, I get goosebumps when I talk about it. I don’t know of anything that could be stronger. For me, it is one of the most important experiences in life. For us musicians, Bayreuth as “Gesamtkunstwerk” is a kind of religion.
You are working with an international team on “The Flying Dutchman”. How German is today’s Bayreuth?
In fact, our Dutchman, John Ludgren, is from Sweden, Asmik Grigorian, who sings Senta, is of Armenian-Latvian origin. Dmitri Cherniakov is from Russia, I am Ukrainian. Musicians from over 30 nations make up the choir and orchestra. I think Bayreuth is just as international as the whole world of music, maybe even a little more.
In 2017, you led the Campus Project of Deutsche Welle and Beethovenfest. What role has this project played in your career?
A very important event – mainly because supported by the Deutsche Welle, the German Federal Youth Orchestra and the Beethovenfest, it led to the creation of a new orchestra. The Ukrainian Youth Symphony Orchestra (YsOU) celebrates success after success. This orchestra and the idea of reconciliation associated with it are central to me as a Ukrainian.
Ukrainian conductor in Bonn in 2017
When you step onto the podium in Bayreuth, you will be wearing one of the beautiful outfits that have become your hallmark – an utterly feminine variation of the conventional conductor costume, with a wide, almost Cossack belt. Off stage, you shine with brilliant folk costumes. How did you find your style?
My conductor’s outfit is a kind of armor. I must feel totally safe. But it must also be elegant and above all comfortable so that I can fully concentrate on the music. Since my state exams, a costume designer from Lviv, who also works at the Lviv Opera House, has designed my stage outfits. As for the belt, it reminded me of a Japanese kimono. Otherwise, it is very practical: it helps you keep your posture.
As for traditional costumes, I am an avid collector. Ukrainian folk costumes, “vyshyvankas”, are more than just clothes. They are the soul of the people, each region, each place had its own color, its own pattern of embroidery. I wear them everyday and for festive occasions. They help me stay connected when I’m abroad.
“Kultur 21” / Arts21 “-” Meet the artist “has a special edition with Oksana Lyniv on July 30th.
This interview has been translated from German