Kent Nagano on opera:

"the original virtual reality"


© Paul Korenhof, November 2022


Ever since Kent Nagano (*1951) started his career as assistant to Sarah Caldwell at the Opera Company of Boston, opera has played a central role in his career, but the international attention for the young California-born conductor got its strongest stimuli by activities outside the musical mainstream. Some of the essential events in this respect were concerts of music by Frank Zappa in London (1982) and the request by Olivier Messiaen to assist Seiji Ozawa in 1984 in Paris at the world premiere of Saint François d'Assise. The latter also led to a strong relation with Messiaen and his wife Yvonne Loriod, while Nagano's own conducting of this opera during a concert performance in Utrecht (1986) was hailed as a major musical event.

A focal point in his long and multifaceted musical career was Nagano's musical leadership of opera companies in Lyon (1988-1998), Los Angeles (2001-2006), Munich (2006-2013) and Hamburg (from 2015). Here and elsewhere he conducted a variety of works from the standard repertoire as well as a remarkable amount of contemporary operas, many of them as world premieres. Among these works are Dusapin‘s Il viaggio, dante, Henze's The Bassarids, Saariaho's L'amour de loin, Alice in Wonderland by Unsuk Chin, Tre sestri by Peter Eötvös, The Death of Klinghoffer and El Niño by John Adams and Lessons in Love and Violence by George Benjamin.

During a meeting in his office in the Staatsoper Hamburg, where he will be residing until 2025, Kent Nagano was more than happy to discuss his relationship with opera as an art form, its current place in our society and what he sees and expects from the future of music theatre. Starting point of our conversation was the place of opera over the centuries as part of its musical and social surrounding, and the differences he experienced himself in the cities where he held a position as chief conductor.

@ Sergio Veranes Studio

Different traditions
"Now I have been closely connected with opera companies for more than four decades and during that time I realised more and more that there are quite strong differences between these houses, in Europe as well as in the US. And of course those traditions reflect their social surroundings, the urban area and the community in with they serve. Just as each region and each community is different, it stands that each opera tradition would and should be different. And usually the differences that I feel as a musician - but that probably are also felt by the public - depend to a large part to the composers that have been tight to the house."

"In Lyon I felt a strongly French orientated atmosphere that had started with Jean-Baptiste Lully who really built a great tradition and at the same time also wrote music that still survives until today. And the tradition in Munich is very well known, the ties with Orlando di Lassus, the emergence of the roots of opera in the late Renaissance and early Baroque, and later the presence of Mozart, of Wagner, of Strauss, to name a few. That, for example. created quite a different tradition from that started by Lully."

"In Hamburg we also have a musical tradition which is born out of a long line of influential composers who have worked here, even if they were not always active in the opera. Here we had Buxtehude, Bach, Telemann, and maybe for the opera tradition Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the Mendelssohn family and Johannes Brahms. This line of great composers created a strong and very influential musical tradition that in different ways reflects the wonderful depth and richness of what we could call the European repertoire of today, and that inevitably had its effect on the opera."

Opera in the 21st century
"All the various lineages or traditions have a shape upon the responsibility and the leadership of a house. In this age of information and the technical revolution of the social media, part of our discussions here in Hamburg is more what we can use for today's context that helps us to carry the existing traditions into the future, rather than trying to absorb a certain sameness from every place in the world. Tradition is great, but it is not and should not be only a perspective towards the past. There is a difference between a museum which preserves and cherishes great cultural moments, and a living tradition that it is continuing to revolve and to develop to go forwards. Therefor - and if possible - we do every year at least one commissioned opera that is thought of within the framework of this particular house.

@ Staatsorchester Hamburg

"When, for example, I started here in 2015, with George Delnon as intendant, our first commissioned work was Stilles Meer by Toshio Hosokawa, and that was commissioned in relation to the functioning of Hamburg as a 'Hafenstadt' for Germany. At the same time the title is referring to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, in Japan, where the fury, the might and the force of the tsunami created problems of an epic level. Hamburg also had terrible confrontations with nature and in that way, even though the specifics in Japan were about a misfunctioning of an atomic installation we do not have, the basic theme of humanity confronting the power of nature is a universal one that also is remembered as a threatening presence here in Hamburg."

"We were also part of the commissioning body for Lessosn in Love and Violence by George Benjamin, his most recent opera and an extraordinary work. Time will tell, but I suspect it will be considered a masterpiece. And for us in Hamburg it had a quite significant meaning too, as we have a hanseatic tradition. Hamburg was a 'Freistat', but that was not always automatic. Over the years the city has fiercely defended its independence and although it has been occupied by imperial forces, for example Napoleon, the Hamburger have always managed to maintain their freedom. That tension between a ruler or a ruling class and freedom is an underline subtext of what we find in the work of George Benjamin and once again it is a work that touches the own situation of this city."

"For the next year another work is on its way. I cannot tell the title of the name of the composer yet, but the basic theme is corporate corruption. In this city we have enormously successful international enterprises and like any enormous corporation they are not immune to the forces of temptation and corruption. This opera will deal with a specific form of corporate corruption that has a long range of implications and of course can cause the rise and fall of very well known figures. But this theme is also universal. At some moments we may feel it as a theme tied to Hamburg, but what makes it important is that it is a theme that is universally relatable."

"That is the thinking behind the way we try to support the evolution of opera into the future. And I hope our children will inherit the tradition and give it a new chapter. However, this does not mean that I try to limit myself to a certain extent to the contemporary repertoire. I study, support and try to perform actively the entire tradition of opera. To me the question is not so much whether an opera is contemporary or from earlier centuries, because each area is in my repertoire, but rather whether the work has superior quality. The real issue is the quality of a work and of the work somehow stands above time and fashion."

@ Antoine Saito

Part 2: The role of opera in our life

"Many works that enjoyed an enormous popularity, are so closely tied to their own time and the problems or fashions of that period, that they lose their relevance for another time. In fact you could say that of most works and they become more and more titles for entertainment. There are only very few works that enter into the exclusive category of being important for all times, for instance Fidelio . These are the works that really interest me. Who can deny that Beethoven is in some ways one of the most relevant communicators?"

"But of course my own attitude towards opera is supported with my personal involvement and my interest in historical performance practice. Especially since I began working with Concerto Köln, now about ten years ago, that last element has become a sort of research process, an actualisation of the vision of the composers within the context of the 21st century."

"Of course working with a living composer is different from working with a score from the past. If a interpreter has a question, he can easily communicate with someone who is still alive, but usually the composer's intentions are clear. At least most of them, because a composer can also write instinctually or from a spontaneity that makes it less easy for him to explain what he means. Apart from that I think I have been very fortunate to have contact with some of the greatest composers and to help their work enter the repertoire.
Boulez, Penderecki, Messiaen and Henze, to name only a few, have transformed the 20th century from something we have thought of as difficult into one of the most colourful, deep and important extensions of our repertoire. Their music is universally accepted and played regularly now. On the whole I think there are not really so many works I have really premiered, but once again I have been very lucky that so many of these works have established themselves as great repertoire, such as the works of Kaija Saariaho. To me that is a very optimistic sign as we look towards the emerging works of the 21st century."

The modern stage
"Of course I cannot say that I am always happy with the production of an opera, but producing is a collaborative venture. There seems to be a trend that is now going on for several decades, of enhancing the theatrical, the visual aspects of opera and in itself that is very interesting. A fact is that a composer depends upon an interpretation, although he will also tell you that the inspiration that allowed them to write a piece, is something quite personal. What inspired Messiaen is different from what inspired Henze or Adams, but most composers agree that once a piece has been completed, its life depends on the interpreter and the public. Without them the work cannot really live. It can rest on a shelf, but it is not really living without the participating of the interpreters and the public, and in that sense for opera are essential - all interpreters, the producers too!"

© OSM (Season-launch-photos)

"Indeed, sometimes a production can be difficult for me as I, being a musician, look at an opera as the score a composer wrote together with a librettist. That is how the repertoire is passed on from century to century, but nowadays the theatrical aspect has got a strong priority. The actual performance is not only a vehicle for the music anymore, but opera has become 'Musiktheater'. In relation to this problems may already arise when the theatrical priorities are working against the musical priorities. Singers may be placed fifteen meters from each other, or singing in the wrong direction so that it becomes nearly impossible to understand the text, or to feel and hear the colours and the articulation they are bringing into their interpretation. It may also happen that the singers do not hear the orchestra well enough, so there is no real contact between stage and orchestra anymore. And I must admit that in my experience the problems can even be further intensified, if the person responsible for the stage direction has no knowledge of music."

"For centuries opera has been one of the most popular art forms, just because it brings various disciplines together, but making the music to a sort of 'Begleitungsmusik', like a movie with an accompanying sound track, is not what opera is meant to be, at least historically. The real danger comes however when just one particular element in the drama becomes emphasized and has a strong influence on the way the theatrical interpretation is developing. Of course, you can use dramatic counterpoint very effectively, but if it is not done well, then indeed you can feel antagonism rather than really effective counterpoint."

Metaphor for life
"To modernise the setting in itself is nothing new, but the question is: is it done with integrity, does it have 'Inhalt'? When it is only superficial, it is no longer an artform, bur it becomes divertissement, entertainment. I am not saying that this is somehow not valuable, but it is different from the multi-dimensional character, the existential dimensions of profound and deep artistic expression. It serves a different part of our human lives. We need divertissement too, we really do, all of us, but we also need to have access to other dimensions between the concrete three dimensions that we live in today. And we can only reach them through the ideas of beauty and timelessness given to us by profound artistic experiences."

"Luckily some of the directors I have the closest contact with, are musicians themselves and base their interpretation upon the opera as a whole, on the music the libretto and the relation between these two. Opera is meant to be a live interaction and one of the closest metaphors for the life that we have - and life is politics, drama, emotion and conflict, but life is also beauty and love, and all of these aspects come together on the stage. That is why I love to call opera the original virtual reality."

"Everyone thinks that virtual reality is something recently conceived or discovered, but going into an opera house can already make you enter a different world - at least if the performance is a good performance. Then you can be taken into a different world and if are you not, something is not functioning well. You don't have to spend billions to fly to outer space to enter a different world. Already when coming into a great performance you can be transported into a different world, also an exciting world where you may meet exciting people. To me this is the original virtual reality!"

© Anne-Zeuner/Salzburger Festspiele 2018

Part 3: Wagner Readings

(A concert with Concerto Köln in 2011 became the start of a fruitful collaboration that was followed by his appointment as Honorary Conductor in 2019. In the meantime discussions had led to the start of the 'Wagner Readings' with Kent Nagano as Artistic Director: extensive studies of the scores of Wagner's music drama's as well as the original way of performing them. In 2020 this resulted in a series of concert performances of Das Rheingold , but until now the eagerly expected follow up with Die Walküre has not yet been announced.)

"I am very happy you mention this project as it is a little different from other historically oriented research projects. From the start it was not only a theoretical study, but a practical project in which musicologists and interpreters are carefully working together. The musicologists produce a new score as an indication of how the music should be performed, and after that we at Concerto Köln form a workshop to try to implement the suggestions of the musicologists while closely working together with them. This is completely different from isolated scholastic working followed by a separated performance to realise as good as possible the indications offered by the new score. And for Das Rheingold it meant that it started with four and a half year of 'Musikwissenschaftlich' studying and that the complete result will only be published next year."

Reference material
"This is why the process took so long and of course we are depending on the work of the musicologists, but now we are planning Die Walküre in about one year's time and we hope to realise Siegfried and Götterdämmerung within the next five and a half years. And when the project is finished, we hope that we leave something behind, some substantial reference material that the next generations can use."

"The main point of our work is to come very, very close to what Wagner's intentions were, what his priorities were, the type of voices he heard in his mind, what he expected of wanted from the vocal technics, and how this technics would apply to the rendering of the text, how the instruments at that time really sounded like, when in the heart of the industrial revolution the construction of the winds and the brass changed radically, and with it: what did the world sound like, how did Wagner deal with the diapason with a group of nationally assembled musicians? Why did he chose to perform in some countries and not in other countries? Why did he chose a special singer for a special role?"

"One specific question was for instance: what did Wagner expect for a portamento? Was it from the lower note to the upper? Was it the way of approaching the upper note? Was it slow? Obviously that also depended on the context. For this we tried to analyse preserved notations about the fingering of the string players in the time of Wagner, about the position of the hand, and we tried to see from the finger position what shift would be used to go up to the upper note. So it is a kind of forensic work why the project has taken so much time, but on the other side, it also illustrates why it is so fascinating to come close to what is was that Wagner had in his imagination."

With Olivier Messiaen (private collection)

"From being a student of Olivier Messiaen, it is clear to me about Messiaen what he had as priorities and what he was thinking, but it is also clear that he expected the interpreter and the public to approach his music from their own context, not from that of the composer. A question asked so many times during interviews was: You are a devout catholic. Do we have to be a catholic too to understand your music'?' And Messiaen's answer was always the same. He said: 'No! The inspiration for my music is my inspiration, but the completed work is something for the public to approach for their own context. Each composer depends on the interpretation of his work by others, he depends on the feeling that someone is responding from what he takes from the score."

"In this sense we are not attaching any exceptional value or importance to the Wagner project. The driving force behind our work is the fact that for every interpreter and for every member of the public it is important to have a clear access to what the composer's intensions were, and in what direction his imagination went. And then they can go from there and interpret what they feel for themselves.

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