According to the composer, it is an honour to be pigeonholed as an “enemy of the people” (szombat.org)
Why did you think that the Tiszaeszlár trial is crying out for an opera?
This story goes back thirty years. My friend, the writer, fine artist and film director Miklós Erdély and I got the idea in the 1980s that we would write an opera adapting his film entitled “Verzió” (Version), because this story is the essence of the whole chaotic thinking that prevails in Hungary. Of course, many people have already adapted this theme. The novel by Gyula Krúdy is fantastic, and Judit Elek made a beautiful film about it too. We were captured by its emotional overtone, grotesque world, madness, unreality and moving atmosphere – which are actually the criteria for an opera as well. Then Erdély passed away, and I set the plan aside for a couple of decades, but it kept coming back. Now that I have finally managed to write it, I dedicate it to his memory.
The trial in which Jewish people from Tiszaeszlár were accused of having ritually murdered a Christian peasant girl, Eszter Solymosi, became the ground for battles between Hungarian political powers. Is it possible that something similar could happen even today?
This is unlikely in such a primitive way. But otherwise, it happens continuously. Two kinds of will are fighting in Hungary: one is the desire to belong to the West. This was represented by Kálmán Tisza and the citizens of Budapest 130 years ago. Paranoid men from Szabolcs county, who grimly held on to traditions, fought with them, and wanted to protect the country against Jews as a result of national fervency. This was the background to the Tiszaeszlár trial in 1883. The fact that such a crazy witch hunt began in Hungary based on an unbelievable blood libel and superstition created a sensation throughout Europe. Every European newspaper published reports on the trial in Nyíregyháza. When the innocent Jews held on remand for a year were acquitted after dragging their names through the mire, riots shook the country. Budapest was in a state of siege for a week. It reminds me eerily of the tempers that have got out of control since 2006.
What was the motive for the Tiszaeszlár blood libel?
The political bias of the time met primitive bias. The Jewish wave of immigration triggered repugnance since the villages in North East Hungary were engulfed by people fleeing from Russian and Polish pogroms. They were poor, spoke Yiddish, and didn’t speak any Hungarian. Amidst this atmosphere, a rumour immediately flew around the village that the missing Eszter Solymosi must have been murdered by the Jews because they need to put Christian children’s blood in the matzo. Even the county leaders believed this nonsense originating from the Middle Ages, and they waged something of a war against Europe. Back then, just like today, we began a battle against the entire world. In my opera, football fans are yelling and screaming in the county courtroom. As if they were sitting in the stadium, blowing vuvuzelas and chanting football songs. There is something inexpressibly grotesque in it, just like in the fact that poor Móric Scharf, the trained crown witness, was betrayed, and then he testified at the trial that through the keyhole he had seen his father and his companions kill and ritually sacrifice the peasant girl.
Is it a country-specific opera, or could it also create a stir abroad?
I don’t want it to create a stir. The finale of the opera doesn’t imply this either. It is rather about psychological processes, Móric Scharf’s in particular. Let us put ourselves into the shoes of the 14-year old boy, who is forced, tortured, threatened, betrayed and used as a tool in order to condemn and hang his innocent father and companions. After the accused were acquitted, he moved back to his family. What could have happened on that train trip when he was sitting in front of his father for the first time after the case? We know that the father tried to rescue him from this role all the time during the trial. It must have been terribly difficult to become a man again after being used as a tool. Even today, 130 years later, we can see how difficult it is for people to face their former deeds, to contemplate how they were once made a scapegoat. Unfortunately, many people defiantly preserve their hatred, which they then dredge up 100 years later in a new wave.
What is it that troubles you most with regard to public life?
The spread of malignant anger that bears no relation to reality. The fact that the paranoid nationalism, which is now spreading, teaches children to feel scared and as if their country were threatened by domestic and foreign enemies. People are impatient, and it is frightening to see how tolerance is gradually decreasing towards those who think or live their life differently.
Are you scared too?
In this sense not at all, but I watch the increasingly unreasonable anger with great uneasiness. A raving mob marched into the courtroom the other day where the trial of policemen on duty during the 2006 riots is taking place. It was exactly like Nyíregyháza in 1883. A bunch of football fans turned their backs in the stadium last year while the national anthem of Israel was played, after which half the country lamented that we were severely punished. Finally, we had no choice but to play against Romania behind closed doors. A logical and appropriate reaction to this would have been to say: it was such a horrible thing to do that there is no punishment which would be extreme. Just like the way it is unacceptable in the world that spectators shout down from the stands: “the train to Auschwitz is leaving”.
But the politicians, the current leaders of the country are also responsible for it.
Two can play at this game. Politicians say what the people want to hear. People in turn are incited by the politicians’ silence. If an earnest statesman had spoken up in this matter, similarly to Kossuth, who once protested against the Tiszaeszlár trial from Turin, this would certainly have calmed the emotions.
The Festival Orchestra is now thirty years old. Have you ever felt that you are unable to work in such an atmosphere?
The thought has never even occurred to me. I am completely immersed in this particular opera just now, so I can only answer from this point of view. The lawyer, Károly Eötvös, also went to Nyíregyháza, as he felt he must do something to prevent this craziness from emerging triumphant. I understand him, I also feel that valid thoughts must be protected. We can’t let aggression dominate against scapegoats and imaginary enemies. There are enough reasonable people in the country who would like to live in a normal European state. They are in the majority, no matter how loud the followers of Istóczy and Ónody are. Győző Istóczy was the name of the anti-Semitic party leader who was applauded by men at the time. And Géza Ónody, MP from Tiszaeszlár, was one of the instigators of this show-trial in Szabolcs county.
It is nevertheless easier to handle when you spend the better part of the year abroad.
It's not. As soon as I leave the country, a hundred out of a hundred foreigners observe in horror what is happening in Hungary. Just like in 1883. And when I come back, I am confronted with rabid and vague thoughts, which people do not understand abroad. I told everyone that someday I would write the whole thing in an opera. It's now done.
Why do you feel the psychological need to write and direct an opera, when you are an acclaimed composer of worldwide reputation?
I don’t want to trot out the cliché that as a composer I’ve accomplished everything I could. I’ve always been interested in expressing myself in music. And in this regard I don’t see any difference between conducting and writing or directing an opera. Of course, it felt like a release when fifteen years ago I realised that I could move forward with my own music. I found a suitable technique for it, the sound collage. Ever since then, I’ve been writing pieces in this style. I am not a conventional “modern” composer, who helps improve the language of music. I prefer to write music out of existing impulses. Today’s listener is surrounded by all types of music from Monteverdi to Kurtág to hip-hop. This mix is the language of my music.
Is it the same psychological need that many famous instrumentalists have when they want to conduct?
You’d better ask them, but it must be similar in some way. The question is, what is their motivation? This is what occupies and fascinates me.
Does it fascinate you to a greater extent than conducting?
The two are bound together by one thing: I don’t like to tell the same joke twice. What appeals to me is creation and innovation. It doesn’t matter if it is compiling a programme, presenting a piece in a new light, or writing a new composition. The psychological root is the same.
Did you write before, even if only for the drawer of your table?
I tried a lot in my twenties, in a completely different style. I got stuck, I gave up. Then I conducted for a couple of decades, and started again before the turn of the century.
Would you want to write a three-act opera as well?
Yes, and I’ll certainly start writing one. I love theatre, and the opera is not exactly my style. The Red Heifer is more like theatre music. Sometime around the Second World War, something broke off, despite the fact that Brecht, Kurt Weill and their contemporaries invented a new genre: songs that make up theatre music. If this terrible caesura, the war, hadn’t come, their endeavour might have borne fruit.
Aren’t you afraid that with this opera you are going to be pigeonholed as an enemy of the people?
I’ve already been one for a long time, just like Lajos Kossuth, Endre Ady, Béla Bartók or Mihály Károlyi and many of the great Hungarian thinkers, who are considered enemies by the snarling mob in the courtroom in Nyíregyháza or football hooligans in stadiums. It is an honour to be pigeonholed like that.
“Politicians say what the people want to hear. People in turn are incited by the politicians’ silence”