INTERVIEW: Oliver von Dohnányi
McCaw Hall, Seattle
This month Seattle Opera welcomes Maestro Oliver von Dohnányi to the stage in his SO debut conducting Leoš Janáček’s Katya Kabanova, which is set in the Pacific Northwest in the 1950s. A native of Trenčín, Czechoslovakia, (now Slovakia), von Dohnányi was born into a family whose name has become synonymous with the best in classical music making since the late 19th century.
Equally versatile in operatic and symphonic repertoire, von Dohnányi has garnered conducting awards from prestigious competitions practically since his debut in 1979 with Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra in Bratislava. Here he shares details about his astonishing musical background and training, and his thoughts about Czech opera.
EM: Maestro, we’re very excited about your debut here. How has it been so far?
OVD: Generally speaking, very good. Wonderful cast and great orchestra. A lack of rehearsal with the orchestra, but as you know it’s a common situation in the States. It’s a big difference if you are playing or conducting something familiar like Traviata or Magic Flute and Janáček, with an orchestra for the first time, without their knowing the piece beforehand. It’s written in a very special mode. It needs time for even the best orchestra in the world just to have time to swallow it - to read it and see how the structure is, the connections to other instruments. You can’t skip this and we have just two readings, one walking rehearsal, not a sitz, with the stage, no sets, then directly to dress rehearsal in costume with lights and orchestra dressed in black, practically a performance with a full house - students, seniors, friends. It’s not enough time for an opera like this.
EM: I do agree, Maestro.
OVD: It’s not a lack of knowledge or problem with the opera house, but financial possibilities. As I said, the orchestra is excellent but I have the feeling I’m just whipping them through the score without taking care of small details, which I usually do. This kind of work is crucial for an understanding the music, especially for the first time. Now, after two performances, everything is going better.
EM: I know from playing Jenufa at the Met how difficult this music is in every way. To play a piece like Katya with an orchestra that’s not familiar with it must be difficult.
EM: Yet, what a great opportunity for them to learn music that’s in an entirely different mode from what they’re used to. And a treat for the audience to hear it.
OVD: And I’m so happy the houses have been close to full - people are interested in this. I was afraid it wouldn’t be so well attended but it is.
EM: Seattle audiences are sophisticated, attentive and very serious about their opera. I’m glad the houses have been close to full. You come from a long line of musicians. Do you feel you were destined to become a musician or conductor?
OVD: The Dohnányi family is one family, one “genes spring” but the connection is remote. Not as direct a branch of the family as Christoph von Dohnanyi, who is the grandson of Ernest (Ernö von Dohnanyi). My Grandfather’s grandfather and Ernö’s grandfather were brothers. That is where the family tree splits. There were many musically gifted persons in our Slovakian family who were not in the higher professional levels. My aunt was a teacher in a music school, and my father was a very good pianist but a lawyer. My niece and daughter and my wife are singers. But it’s not a direct connection with the more famous musicians of the past with that name.
EM: What inspired you to pursue music when you were younger? Was your mentor Václav Neumann a big influence on you?
OVD: Definitely. I was sure from the age of three-and-a-half I would be a musician. My aunt, the piano teacher, used to teach children in our big family house, which my grandfather built in Slovakia. I was always listening to them, wondering how they were doing it and trying to play and repeat what they played. One day my aunt heard me and thought one of the children had remained there and was playing. Then she saw me and said, “Would you like to try?” and I said, “Why not?” So we tried and since then I was interested in music.
EM: So that was the beginning for you.
OVD: Yes. Since then I studied piano and violin.
EM: And conducting came naturally after that?
OVD: Yes, it was quite natural. I’m not this kind of conductor with a “black past,” which means [Laughs] I wasn’t “bad” I must say! I was winner of the International Kocian Violin Competition in Czechoslovakia, which made my professor “best professor of the year,” and I was entitled to have some concerts and was on my way to becoming a very good violinist. Then one day the famous Russian violinist Leonid Kogan came to Bratislava. At the time he was violin professor at the Conservatoire in Moscow, which was the best school in Russia. S went to play for him and said, “I would like to study with you.” He said, “Yes, come in September, I’m taking you.”
OVD: The problem was, it was the Socialist era - you were not able to go by yourself, you had to ask official permission. As I’d won the competition, at my middle school I became quite popular. When I went to the director and said I was going to Kogan he said, “No, no you have to remain for the next two years. We’ve invested our work in you and now we have to keep you here as somebody who is popular.” I said, “No way, Kogan told me he’s taking me in his class.” He said, “Do what you want.” I went to the Office for Foreign Studies Abroad. They had received a letter from the Conservatoire saying they couldn’t recommend my studying because I was too young and inexperienced. I was 18.
EM: How disappointing.
OVD: I spoke to my professor who said I should stay at middle school. But I said, “I want to make progress. I’m going to Prague. As a conductor.” There were 15 persons applying and only one place. It’s a special system of study. There are more professors than students on the conducting faculty. I took the train to Prague – I’d never been there before – and found my way to the Academy of Music. In the third round of three days of exams, the redoubtable Professor Klíma, music director of the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra, tested me along with other applicants. He played 3-4 examples on the piano, which I wrote down, I conducted with piano, and so on. At the end he came to me and said I was chosen. But… he had the letter from the director of the Conservatoire saying I was too young. I said “Okay, I’m going home.” He tore up the letter and said, “We didn’t receive anything. You are in.” That’s how I started my studies.
EM: What a great story.
OVD: Václav Neumann was a professor but he wasn’t often there teaching, being very busy traveling as a conductor and music director of the Czech Philharmonic. But the experience of studying with him was enormous and I took a lot of the musical and human parts of his conducting.
OVD: This is very strange in my life. At home in Czech Republic and Slovakia I usually conducted Verdi, Puccini, but also Smetana, Dvořák, Janáček. Abroad I conduct mostly Czech repertory, but in Britain mostly French repertory. In Russia I conducted more contemporary music than classical, but now it’s balanced. I started with Philip Glass, then Mieczysław Weinberg, and now I’m doing Onegin, Rigoletto, La Bohème, Carmen and Flying Dutchman. It’s difficult to say what is really my usual repertory – it is so huge. I started first as conductor of the Slovak Radio Orchestra when I won the competition for the job. I have a lot of experience in contemporary music because in radio we had to do a lot of new music for recordings.
EM: Do you feel it is important to introduce new opera repertoire?
OVD: I like contemporary opera. I’ve introduced the music of Philip Glass to Russia, his early opera Satyagraha. My recording of Memento Mori with the Prague Symphony, by my friend, Czech composer Juraj Filas, won an important Salzburg TV Festival prize. Recently I did the Russian premiere of Weinberg’s Passenger, which David Pountney discovered, in 2006 in Bregenz. I did it in Russia in the Yekaterinburg Opera House, it was a huge success. It started a huge demand for Weinberg’s music. Gergiev became interested in Weinberg’s second opera, The Idiot, based on Dostoevsky’s novel. Bolshoi did a conference on Weinberg’s work and invited us to perform at the theater, with Pountney and other important people connected to Weinberg, including his family. It was a big experience for me.
EM: It’s good that you are able to promote music you believe in, especially for audiences in this country to learn about composers like Weinberg.
OVD: This is very important because opera houses are mostly based on “ABC” operas – Aida, Bohème, Carmen. I’m doing Weinberg, which is “W” [Laughs]. Maybe Zandonai might be the next. But seriously speaking, it’s very important to see more than the 30-40 operas usually played. For example, Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, a great piece, not often played, is fantastic. It was also played in New York, with Roberto Alagna.
EM: What draws you to the Katya Kabanova besides your affinity for your own native music? Does Katya have any similarities to any of the more traditional operatic heroines?
EM: So the circumstances are different.
OVD: Exactly. If you didn’t know the circumstances you might say it was 30-40 years difference, but it’s not.
EM: The tragic ends certainly are similar. What do you think of setting the production in the 1950s? The societal pressures on a woman of that time, the traditional role that could be stifling, was maybe more so here than in Europe. There was no escape.
OVD: It really works. I was surprised at the beginning, setting it in America. The first words of the opera, “Everyday I’m looking at the Volga River,” probably don’t work. The rest works perfectly because it’s exactly the same kind of social situation, the necessity to behave somehow in an unpleasant situation and all the pressures from the people, the society around you, leading to where you don’t have any other possibility than to kill yourself. It’s the same as Butterfly. I think it works very well, and I love the costumes. I’m a very big fan of (director) Patrick Nolan. I like his work.
OVD: This is the question. Of course it’s easier with an orchestra that’s done it before or has it in repertory. But if you have the time, it’s very good to do it. We didn’t have enough time but I think the orchestra was making huge progress during the first rehearsal. It’s difficult but they are managing very well.
EM: You also will be conducting one of Wagner’s first attempts at opera, Das Liebesverbot, in Buenos Aires. As I'm currently developing a lecture about Wagner’s early operas, I would love to know your impressions of this work.
OVD: I did it in Trieste 3 years ago, a co-production with Leipzig and Bayreuth.
EM: Wagner's 200th anniversary year.
OVD: Yes. Wagner’s family didn’t allow it to be played in the Festpielhaus just because Richard Wagner said it wasn’t good. But it was a huge success in Trieste. People love it because first it’s very good music, excellent, even if Wagner said it wasn’t good. And it’s a funny, “comic opera.” Of course when he wrote it - I think he was 26, a Kapellmeister in a small opera house in Germany - he heard a lot of different music - Meyerbeer, Weber. You can hear echoes of music from other operas in his music. But why not, he was just starting, doing an excellent job. The score is already very good.
EM: So already he was a master orchestrator.
OVD: Yes. He shows the qualities that we see in his later work.
EM: The seeds of his future greatness. I hope to see the work here someday.
OVD: Well, you have to speak to Aidan [Laughs]. I’ve recommended to him some other great Janáček operas, and of course my beloved Rusalka should be done here, because it is the masterpiece for the whole family, from ages 3 to 93 - a beautiful fairytale and the kind of great opera where excellent orchestras like yours are absolutely the priority. In Rusalka the orchestra is crucial. I love this opera so much - I know every single note in the piece. I dislike insensitive cuts in Rusalka. I usually play the entire opera, just some small cuts recommended by Dvořák. But - especially in America, we might have to do some cuts, just because of overtime.
EM: Tell us about Canticorum Iubilo.
OVD: That’s a good question [Laughs]. It’s a small ensemble, mostly chorus, the origin of which is from my student time at the Prague Academy of Music. In my second year I became music director of the Charles University Ensemble. Charles University in Prague is the second oldest university in Europe, and one of the most important, with several thousand students, obviously many of them excellent musicians and very good singers. After their studies they didn’t want to stop singing and continued, often at one of the friends’ houses. They felt they were good enough to do more, and asked me to do a concert, but not on a professional basis. I worked with them a bit and saw a huge potential for the future, so we started to build repertory and won the biggest national choral competition. It was a huge surprise because nobody knew about us at all. We started doing regular concerts and recordings. I’m still working with them, after 38 years. Now there’s a second generation of original members – children and even grandchildren. We’re like a family.
EM: A labor of love and close to your heart.
OVD: When I started I thought it would be for a year. Now it’s become part of my life.
EM: Where are you headed after Seattle?
OVD: After a week home in Prague I go to Yekaterinburg, a new production of Rusalka with 29-year-old Czech stage director Tomas Pilar - very talented, chosen by renowned Forbes Magazine as one of the most influential Czech persons under 30. Then to Buenos Aires for Das Liebesverbot, New Zealand doing Carmen, Magic Flute in Yekaterinburg, Huguenots in Budapest. And so on.
EM: Thank you so much, Maestro, it’s been a pleasure.
OVD: Thank you very much.
Katya Kabanova continues through Mar. 11 at McCaw Hall.
Photo credits: Seattle Opera, ArkivMusic
Erica Miner can be reached at: email@example.com