Semantics. The performance of The Marriage of Figaro that comes to the Edinburgh International Festival this summer isn’t a semi-staging, exactly. Iván Fischer says he hates the terms “because ‘semi’ suggests something half-hearted” and this 64-year-old Hungarian conductor does not do anything by halves. The phrase ‘concert staging’ has also been floated, but any notion of regular concert formality would be misleading on this one.
Fischer’s treatment of Mozart’s opera, which he both conducts and directs, sees characters wandering among the orchestra and reaching for costumes suspended over the stage that transform them from man to woman, aristocrat to servant. “I like the idea of them being a messy crowd,” he tells me. “A chaotic household where class boundaries are blurred.” With orchestra, conductor and singers all together on stage, his idea is that musical hierarchies will also become blurred.
For Fischer, music and politics have an intricate relationship. He founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra as a free-market alternative to state-controlled culture in 1980s communist Hungary. “I’m not appointed by any politician,” he explains, “and that was a novelty for Hungary. We were case study for how a different kind of institution could survive — a model of how to penetrate a competitive international market with very limited financial resources. People in Hungary thought it wasn’t possible, but we survived. We survived all the regime changes, all the financial crises.”
The BFO didn’t just survive. Three decades later, it’s one of the best orchestras in the world, with a sound so warm, so vibrant and colourful, that it is one of the few ensembles still instantly recognisable when you turn on the radio. One major benefit of putting the BFO on stage for Figaro is the chance to revel in the plush and deeply charismatic sound this orchestra makes.
In recent years, Fischer has been tackling various Mozart operas as double-duty director and conductor. The night before our interview in Budapest I went to see his take on The Magic Flute, another ‘concert staging’ (or should that be ‘staged concert’?) with a story-book animated backdrop like some kind of pre-teen goth fantasy. It looked pretty bad, but the sound of the orchestra — which spent the night wandering from pit to stage and back again — was breathtaking.
“It really is nothing to do with ego or arrogance,” Fischer says about his decision to direct operas as well as conduct them. “I get that criticism all the time but I don’t really care. What concerns me is the unity of music and theatre.” He speaks of “a norm in today’s opera world where directors feel a responsibility to be innovative while conductors are like high priests of conservative values, doggedly sticking to the score.” By taking on both roles, he aims to make what he calls “an organic opera performance where theatre and music express absolutely the same thing.”
We’re speaking at his home in the Hungarian capital — a handsome old house on the Buda side of the Danube, not far from where Bela Bartok moved out to the leafy suburbs in the early 1930s. Fischer answers the door barefoot and ushers me into the kitchen where he makes coffee and discusses the best local bath houses (his favourite is the oldest and simplest, Rudas). He’s relaxed, unhurried, full of jokes; he spends a good 20 minutes showing me various Chinese instruments he is currently learning to play. When we eventually settle down in the living room to talk, he pushes a box of Mozart-themed chocolates towards me — “one of those presents people always bring me from Vienna,” he says with an amused shrug. Later, his mobile phone goes off with the swooping sound of an ondes Martenot . “My Messiaen ringtone!” he beams, delighted that I noticed it, and jabs at the phone to make it play again. “Let me show you the app!”
Back in February when EIF’s new director Fergus Linehan announced his inaugural classical programme, he described himself “drawn to people who are having interesting conversations about how classical music and opera can work in new ways.” Among the names he mentioned were pianist Jeremy Denk, soprano Barbara Hannigan, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, director Barrie Kosky — and Fischer.
Yet the notion of Fischer as a classical music pioneer is a bit of a paradox. His musical heritage is old-world, bred on core Austro-Hungarian repertoire. The way he stages concerts is often eccentric, but his actual interpretations tend towards the traditional. And although the BFO structure was a novelty for communist Hungary, today it looks archaic. All decision-making power ultimately rests with Fischer, whether that’s repertoire choices or hiring and firing musicians. Players put up with the lack of democratic process because the results are generally so good.
I ask about current Hungarian politics and Fischer lets out a long sigh. “Look,” he replies, “we have a problem in Hungary. Expectations were that we would join Europe and become more Westernised, but that hope couldn’t be fully fulfilled. It became clear that if you want to succeed in the West you have to be competitive. That’s difficult if you have to compete with subsidised French farmers or better developed technology in Germany, so it was easier for politicians to turn East to autocratic systems where connections mattered more than competition. The country is hesitating between trying to make it in the West, which is hard work, and falling for easier but more dangerous models in the East.”
Where does the orchestra fit into that dichotomy? “We are completely in the competitive model. I started the orchestra in 1983 with the basic philosophy that if we want to do it well, if we want an enthusiastic orchestra where music matters, the results will happen. We took things seriously from the beginning. It is possible, and I would love to see many Hungarians follow this example. But it’s not easy.”
Another paradox: the idea that Fischer’s stripped-back opera productions are a ‘new’ take on the genre. “I have simply cut down visuals in order to harmonise with the music,” Fischer says, and he references centuries-old production models. “Too much distraction is not good. For me it’s not necessary for the singers to run around a lot during an aria. Recitatives can happen in real time, but time stops in arias when somebody describes a mood, a feeling, an urge. This division of normal time and stopped time was a clear duality in Mozart’s age, so what I’m doing now — cutting down to carefully guide the listeners’ concentration between seeing and hearing — well, it’s not so different to what performances looked like 200 years ago.”
Is there also a more prosaic financial factor at play here? One of Linehan’s major conundrums is how to fund opera, a vastly expensive art form, within EIF’s multi-arts portfolio, and Fischer’s approach is low on costly props and sets. Is his incentive to strip-back partly about allowing opera to become more manoeuvrable? If it is, he won’t admit it. He says it never crossed his mind to create budget opera, but instead stresses that he wants his productions “to speak to all kinds of people. Many generations have said, ‘let’s do only the essentials and it will speak to a new audience’ — think of Brecht and Weill in 1920s Berlin. My main concern is getting the right balance between seeing and listening, but I also hope the approach will engage people who are puzzled by the present trend of complicated director’s opera. All those concepts and twists can be alienating. Simplicity, letting the piece speak for itself, is what will open the mind of new audiences.”
“Look,” he continues, “it doesn’t really matter if you have a performance with many props or nothing at all; it doesn’t matter how minimal or rich the arsenal of tools. Figaro is a play — I’ve seen very successful performances with one chair. It’s the human aspects that matter. If you put on a hat, then it is fully staged.” He laughs. “But now we’re back to semantics!”