hvg.hu BI Art’s task is to hold up a mirror even if it is awkward to look at it – believes Iván Fischer whose opera entitled The Red Heifer on the blood libel of Tiszaeszlár will be performed at the Vígszínház on 23 and 24 June. According to the conductor and composer, this 19th century story kind of shows what splits this country in two, and is more topical than ever. Interview.
hvg.hu: You said the issue of the Tiszaeszlár blood libel is receiving increasing attention in Hungary today. This is also backed up by the fact that a Jobbik MP specifically quoted this 19th century story in Parliament two years ago. How risky is it to stage an opera on this issue in Hungary today?
Iván Fischer: A politician’s opinion should not be considered particularly significant. Feelings, prejudices and false legends forming in people’s minds are much more important, and when I was speaking of a “topical issue”, I rather thought of something like this. That how easily people get suspicious and angered when suspecting evil – and how easily they accuse someone. The most grotesque part of the Tiszaeszlár trial is that there really were some who truly believed this absurd charge. Why would it be risky to compose an opera on this? Art’s task is to hold up a mirror even if it is awkward to look at it.
hvg.hu: Current political powers have considered you an “enemy” up until now saying you spread a bad image of the country abroad. How was the stage performance in Millenáris received last autumn? Didn’t these opinions get more intense?
IF: I don’t think they look at me as an enemy. I often find that they appreciate the work I and my magnificent and internationally celebrated orchestra do to represent Hungarian culture throughout the entire world. The President of the Republic recently attended one of our concerts in Belgium. State subsidies given to the orchestra are also reassuring and stable.
I don’t think this has anything to do with my opinion of social issues in Hungary, I follow developments with some concern, and if necessary, I do express my opinion on them. I would like people to thoroughly consider my ideas and thoughts because I work for the benefit of the country when I draw attention to the dangers inherent in nationalism and racism. The Red Heifer was received fantastically well. The New York Times praised it on its front page, and many countries reported on it. I have received countless messages of congratulation from those who saw the premieres in October. They dwarf the few far-right and hostile articles that are not even worth mentioning.
hvg.hu: A recent survey by Medián revealed an “anti-Semitic feeling” in one of every five Hungarians (this ratio was around 10 percent in the 1990s). Could an opera trigger some kind of change in opinions? Lajos Parti Nagy said that the piece is primarily about peace with one another and forgiveness.
IF: That’s right, it is about the boy who was talked into bearing false witness and his peace with himself. This is a long, speechless scene with only music, no words or singing. We hear what goes on in the boy’s head. I particularly like this scene because the audience has time to think. I don’t want to reorientate or influence anyone. Not at all. But if someone wants to rethink their earlier views, here they have the possibility to do so. Changing your views is a deep, slow and internal process, it is everyone’s private matter. It is all about a 14-year-old, disorientated and evilly manipulated boy striving to cleanse his soul; if someone in the audience feels something similar, then it is already a great success.
hvg.hu: You and Miklós Erdély came up with the idea to compose this piece thirty years ago. Why exactly did you start to realise it now?
IF: I have always felt that the Tiszaeszlár story was the essence of what splits and divides this country into two and pushes it into trouble. Miklós Erdély was a magnificent and prophetic artist. When he directed the film entitled “Version” in the early 1980s he felt this, but anti-Semitism back then was swept under the rug. He liked my opera plan very much, in particular that Hungarian folklore and Jewish tunes should sound together. It is a great pity he got ill and we didn’t compose the opera back then. I put the idea aside because I thought it didn’t make sense without Miklós Erdély. Now I have started to focus on it again because all this mess appeared from under the rug.
hvg.hu: You said it was a grotesque piece. How can such a severe story be grotesque?
IF: The story is rather ridiculous, for example, the lynching mood of the crowd, which switches to unconscious respect upon Kossuth’s words, but they don’t focus very much on what he says. It is particularly grotesque that everyone has an opinion and do not let themselves be influenced by facts.
hvg.hu: Recently there has been a serious debate in Hungary as to whether the theatre could be a political theatre? What do you think of this? Is The Red Heifer a political piece?
IF: I don’t know what this means. There have always been pieces created on important social issues, for example, Baumarchais’ Le nozze di Figaro or Brecht’s Mahagonny. In addition, all directing concerns current issues, and if any doesn’t, which means it fails to deal with pivotal questions of our era, then it is uninteresting. The theatre is a mirror, though sometimes a distorted one, but it is still about us. This is not politics; this is the essence of theatre.
hvg.hu: To what extent is The Red Heifer an opera, and to what extent is it theatre music? Since the music is ornamented, explained and narrated with Gyula Krúdy’s original prosaic texts.
IF: The Red Heifer is a relative of the genre which was developed by Kurt Weill and Brecht in the 1920s. Simple pieces of music follow one another, and the plot is a series of episodes. I naturally consider Brecht’s genre opera too, and much more modern than the conventional one at that, but let us call it music theatre if you like. I compiled the text from Gyula Krúdy and Lajos Kossuth’s quotations.
hvg.hu: On June 23 and 24 the Vígszínház hosts The Red Heifer. Don’t you think that this harms the chances of current director Enikő Eszenyi to receive the theatre’s managerial position for another term?
IF: As I said, the piece has nothing to do with politics, only with fundamental social issues.
hvg.hu: If there is a dignitaries list, who does it include? Do you invite, say, Attila Vidnyánszky, Imre Kerényi, György Fekete or possibly members of the government?
IF: Absolutely. It would be an honour if members of the government attended the performance.
The Red Heifer at Vígszínház
The production directed by Tamás Ascher and Kriszta Székely will be performed again by artists of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, guest soloists, actors, singers, dancers and the third-year acting class of the University of Theatre and Film Arts.