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Interview with Szép Gyula – the general director of the Hungarian Opera in Cluj-Napoca

Thursday, 15 June 2023 , ora 9.56

The Cluj-Napoca Hungarian Opera is the institution that has been invited to present a performance at the "Bucharest Opera Festival" event on Sunday, June 18th, 2023.

We are going to find out more details about the event from Szép Gyula - the general director of the Hungarian Opera:

On June 18, the Hungarian Opera returns to the Capital in order to take part in the Bucharest Opera Festival. Since you decided to participate again, what does this festival mean to you?

First of all, we are delighted to be invited and there was no question - not last year or this one -whether we would like to participate or not, since we wanted to go further with our performancesto Bucharest, and, for various reasons, we were not able to. To us, this is a unique opportunity for our work within the lyrical theatre world to be recognized in other parts of the country as well, not only in Transylvania. Last year, I told you that in 1860 the Opera came to Bucharest for the first and almost last time(if we don't take into consideration last year's participation in the festival). We hold withinour tradition a great desire to be in Bucharest, since it is a unique cultural centre. The two festivals, The Enescu Festival and the Opera Festival, are nonetheless well-received by the specialists and the general public.

As it was the case last year, the Hungarian Opera will present a coupé-performance, this time incorporating two titles by Béla Bartók: the "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" opera and the "Miraculous Mandarin" ballet. I would like you to tell us about this production of the institution that you are managing.

I have given a lot of thought to which work we should go with. Within our repertoire, there are approximately 60 opera, operetta, ballet and musical titles. I believe that choosing Bartok Bela was a good call, since he is a Hungarian composer, but he is also well-known within the Romanian society and the Romanian culture, especially dueto this work, the "Duke Bluebeard's Castle". The music comes from Transylvanian folklore, which also includes the Hungarian and Romanian ones. That is the reason why we decided to go with these two works which have been presented - for example, BlueBeard, for the first time in Budapest, in 1918, the Cluj nobleBanffy 's wish (we know that he was born in Cluj, he was the owner of the Bonțida Castle). In those times, he was the steward of the Budapest Opera and other musicians from that period thought of Bartok's music as unlistenable. Banffy had the courage to put it on the stage;he himself designed the costumes and the decor for its premiere. Bartok's works were very modern back then. The Hungarian Opera from the 50s has it in its repertoire, naturally in multiple interpretations. It is a difficult work; I could also add that it is not very popular with the general public, since it is not that easy. And yet, it is such profound music... and that libretto through which the author tries to suggest the difficult relationship between a man and a woman, and the way in which Bartok musically presents the innermost soul of Bluebeard, and the way in which the woman tries to go further into the soul of that very peculiar man,somehowsuggesting the reality intellectuals from the beginning of the 20th century lived in, a time when they were feeling extremely estranged (almost all the intellectuals living in that area). And this BlueBeard seems to be a man that cannot find a place he belongs to, he can only find loneliness. Judith, his last love and wife, tries to break into the innermost soul of this man, but ends up in one of BlueBeard's rooms instead, just like his other wives.

I would also like you to tell us about the surprise that you've prepared for the people living in Cluj. The 25th of May is known as the anniversary of the Romanian Opera in the municipality, and music lovers are used to seeing an interpretation of Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida" - the title that inaugurated the institution. This year, on the same date, the Hungarian Opera came before the public with a premiere of the "Aida" work, being the only lyrical theatre in Cluj at the moment which presents this performance. The surprise is even greater, since I am aware that you do not possess extensive artistic groups. Therefore, you considered an ambitious project, brought forth on stage at a significant date. How was it?

As of now, all of Verdi's works have been presented by the Hungarian opera ensemble in Romania; starting in 1854, if I recall well, with Attila, and continuing with all the others. However, since 1907 Aida hasn't been performed by the Hungarian collective. And that is the reason why, as you said, even though it is a thorough collective, we are not enough for Aidato to be put on stage musically and visually. In order to enact it properly, we are understaffed. Despite all this, we made this choice since it is not possible for Aida itself to be missing, as it is considered to be "the opera of all operas" in the world. It would not be possible to not even try, and so, we made an enormous effort musically and financially. We invited many colleagues from the Romanian National Opera, even the soloists from the Hungarian Opera, who did not get a role in the distribution of Aida, but offered their help with the chorus and all of them became choristers. We managed to amplify the performance visually and musically with over 20 people. We invited as a specialist a great filmmaker from Hungary, specifically, Gothar Peter, who has directed at least 80 featured films in his life, and in almost all of them, he was the visual thinker, he designed the scenic background. Musically, I would say that we managed to solve the problem on a very high level, under the guidance of the maestro Horvath Jozsef. And that is how I truly feel after the general public's reaction, that we managed to present it as a "great opera", even though we are not a great opera. However, our impression and the general public's one is thateach and every one returned home with the thought that they had witnessed a "true opera".

In the following period, what is next for the Hungarian Opera? Soon, there will be the closing of this season and, starting with this autumn, there will be the beginning of a new one, which will debut with what and when?

The next season is quite complicated. We are going to end this season with a symphonic rock concert, which pleases the public. This time, we are working with Hungarian rock songs from the 60s and 70s, which, we hope, will be the main focus of many other trips in the near and distant future, since it is possible that within the next season our main building will go under severe reparation, and the stage might be unusable for two to three years. That is why, until now, we have tried to come up with a few performances that are easier to travel with, where an orchestra pit is not needed, the orchestra being on stage instead. We have the Pagliacci, the Cavalleria, the Barber of Seville, and even PelleasandMelisande. The orchestra is on stage and with these performances travelling will be a lot easier.

We are starting the season once again with a trip to Bucharest, a premiere that has taken place in March. We are going to the Geroge Enescu Festival with Debussy - Pelleas and Melisande, under the guidance of the great conductor, Foster. After coming back from Bucharest, we are preparing for a short season in the Székely Land - Miercurea Ciuc, where we are going to hold five shows: an educational one - The Magic Flute, reduced to an hour performance for children; the Hungarian symphonic rock, a Hungarian singspiel - John the Valiant by the great poet Sándor Petőfi (we are celebrating 200 years from his birth this year) and after that, the Gül Babaoperetta (by Jenő Huszka), and a great opera by Erkel Ferenc - Hunyadi László, but for this one we are going to need to prepare for more than two weeks.

The most important premiere of autumn will be My fair lady. Lately, we have been a little behind with the operettas. We came up with even harder and greater ones. And the surprise, which won't be a surprise, but that is how I see it - a national premiere (I don't have all the details), La Gioconda by Ponchielli, in March next year. I hope that the builders won't evict us from the building until then. We are able to plan until this period of September and until April-March of next year. We have an extensive repertoire. Usually, we present up to 30 titles within a season, among which there are also great operas. We will be presenting Aida twice again in October and also some of Verdi, Puccini and Mozart's works and many other operettas. During the New Year, we are always performing a variety show that will also be available up to five-six times in January-February.

Our ambition is that during the next season we will be playing with more and more titles. If we won't be able to perform in our building for two years, then our public won't be able to see us, since we will be performing in other locations besides Cluj.

Interview by Florica Jalbă
Translated by Adelina-Maria Mănăilescu,
University of Bucharest, Faculty of Foreign Languages and Literatures, MTTLC, year I
Corrected by Silvia Petrescu