Opera companies throughout the world are staging Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle this year to fete his 200th birthday on May 22, but Hungarian Jewish conductor Adam Fischer is having no part of it during his “Wagner Days” festival in June.
Fischer, who launched his festival in 2006 in the Bela Bartok concert hall at the Palace of Arts in Budapest, will have a new “Meistersinger von Nurnberg”, rounding out productions of pretty much all the major operas in the Wagner canon.
But he told Reuters in an interview that he has steered well clear of the “Ring” this year, because of a hair-raising experience in 1983 when he was a young conductor.
That was another Wagner anniversary year (marking his death in 1883) and Fischer was conducting a “Ring” cycle in Germany when one of the singers for “Das Rheingold” was taken ill.
“We had a cancellation and we found that every opera house was doing Wagner, and it was as difficult to have a replacement as it would be for a concert on New Year’s Eve,” he said over coffee in the concert hall’s lobby, with a view of the Danube and the rolling hills of Budapest in the background.
Eventually a replacement to sing the role of the giant Fasolt was tracked down, but his native language was French, not German, making a bad fit with the rest of the cast.
Lesson learned: Fischer this year is putting on Wagner operas that do not require the specialised singers needed for the “Ring”, but will nevertheless show off the hall’s vibrant acoustics. The “Ring” will return next year.
Fischer said he was particularly pleased to be reviving a two-year-old staging of Wagner’s Knights of the Holy Grail opus “Parsifal”, conceived by two young women directors, Alexandra Szemeredy and Magdolna Parditka, almost as an oratorio, with the choir beaming their voices from three levels.
He said Wagner, whose experiments with acoustics reached their apex in his purpose-built opera house at Bayreuth, with its covered orchestra pit, had wanted the chorus to sing on different levels. This was pretty much impossible in an opera house, but could be done in Budapest.
“A VERY ROMANTIC ARTIST”
“He had that very strong will and imagination and knew much better than everybody else,” Fischer said of Wagner’s innovative spirit. “He was a very romantic artist.”
He was also a strident anti-Semite but Fischer, who is Jewish, draws the distinction that Wagner lived at a time when anti-Semitism was often manifested in social and cultural discrimination. Few could have envisaged the Nazi extermination policy - or that Wagner would be Hitler’s favourite composer.
While playing Wagner’s music still causes an uproar in Israel, Fischer said it also has disturbing connotations for Germans, as he discovered when a woman in the audience at Bayreuth told him afterwards she had become dizzy during his conducting there of a performance of Siegfried’s funeral march.
She said the funeral march had been played on the radio in wartime when the names of the latest German military casualties were announced. As a young girl, she and her mother had listened breathlessly to find out if her father was among them.
“I hope that for the next generations, this music will be free of these associations,” Fischer said.