Conductor  Ádám  Fischer

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



               [The following biography is from Fischer's official website]

fischer Dynamic initiative and diversity characterise the creative work of the world-renowned conductor Ádám Fischer.

He is the founder of two international festivals where he has found an artistic home.

Under his direction, the Wagner Festival in Budapest has established an excellent reputation in the more than ten years of its existence - with opera productions at the Palace of Arts, including Wagner’s Ring cycle as their centrepiece performed on four consecutive days every year.

The Haydn Festival in Eisenstadt was founded in 1987 and has established its reputation as a renowned centre for performing the music of Haydn. At the same time, Ádám Fischer founded the Österreichisch-Ungarische Haydn Philharmonie for the festival. In the many years as their Principal Conductor he set new standards for the interpretation of Haydn's music. The recordings of the complete Haydn symphonies which have received numerous awards are a testimony to this achievement. He retains close links with the orchestra as their Honorary Conductor.

Ádám Fischer‘s most recent project for the forthcoming seasons is to dedicate himself to the complete works of Gustav Mahler which he will perform in concert and record live on CD together with the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker whose Principal Conductor he has been since 2015. He is also Artistic Consultant to the Tonhalle concert hall in Düsseldorf where he has initiated a human rights award which will be presented every year at a specially organised human rights concert.

Ádám Fischer has a close relationship with the Danish Chamber Orchestra in Copenhagen, whose  Principal Conductor he has been since 1998, an artistic partnership which has found its expression especially in a highly acclaimed and award-winning recording of Mozart’s complete symphonic work. This successful collaboration is now being continued with a Beethoven cycle.

At the Wiener Staatsoper, which has been one of his artistic homes since 1973, Ádám Fischer has conducted several new productions and as many as 26 different operas. In the current season besides his Vienna appearances he will also join the Wiener Staatsoper for guest performances of Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni at Hamburg´s Elbphilharmonie and the Tonhalle in Düsseldorf.

With an extremely wide repertoire of German and Italian opera, Ádám Fischer has appeared for more than thirty years at all the leading opera houses worldwide including the MET in New York, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Covent Garden in London, the Opéra de Bastille in Paris, Oper Zürich and La Scala in Milan, where he will return this season for new productions of Ernani and Gianni Schicch.


A guest at the Bayreuth Festival for many years, he was elected Conductor of the Year by the German magazine Opernwelt in 2002 for his performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle.

In the concert hall, Ádám Fischer regularly appears on the podium with the Wiener Philharmoniker (2019 subscription concerts at the Vienna Musikverein and a concert tour to London, Amsterdam and the Carnegie Hall New York), Wiener Symphoniker, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (2018 at the Rheingau Music Festival and the Beethovenfest Bonn), the Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg (Mozart matinees at the Salzburg Festival) and in collaboration with all the leading orchestras worldwide such as the Münchner Philharmoniker, Bamberger Symphoniker, Tonhalle Orchester Zürich, Orchestre de Paris, London Philharmonic, Chicago and Boston Symphony Orchestras, NHK Symphony Orchestra.

After studying composition and conducting in his home town Budapest and in Vienna with the legendary Hans Swarowsky, Ádám Fischer first took up engagements as a répétiteur and Kapellmeister which led him to Graz, Helsinki, Karlsruhe and Munich. He was General Music Director in Freiburg (1981-1983), Kassel (1987-1992) and Mannheim (2000-2005) before returning to his native Budapest as Artistic Director of the Budapest Opera (2007-2010).

Two Echo Klassik Awards for the recordings of the complete collection of symphonies by Joseph Haydn (Österreichisch-Ungarische Haydn Philharmonie), an International Classical Music Award in  2015 for a recording of the complete collection of Mozart’s symphonies (Danish Chamber Orchestra) and the Grand Prix du Disque awarded for the recordings of Goldmark’s The Queen of Sheba and Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle document the wide range of his work in his extensive discography.

Ádám Fischer is an Honorary Member of the Wiener Staatsoper and the Musikverein für Steiermark in Graz. He is a recipient of the Order of Dannebrog which was given to him by the Queen of Denmark and has been awarded the honorary title of professor by the Austrian Federal President. In 2018 Adam Fischer was awarded Israel´s prestigious Wolf Prize honouring him as an outstanding artist and strong supporter of human rights.


This interview with
Ádám Fischer was held in November of 1981, when he was in Chicago for a production of Macbeth featuring Piero Cappuccilli, Josephine Barstow, Paul Plishka, and Frank Little.  The stage director was Nathaniel Merrill, in settings by Nicola Benois, lit by Duane Schuler.  [Links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]

s English was quite good, but especially in his exuberance to express his ideas, sometimes his words would get jumbled up.  I have done my best to sort out what his was trying to say, but I have left in a bit of his original phrasing where it is both charming and effective in getting his ideas across.

At the time of the interview, I had started contributing material to Wagner News, the magazine of the Wagner Society of America.  I mentioned this, so that is where we began our conversation . . . . .

fischer Bruce Duffie:   I understand you have conducted some Wagner performances?

Ádám Fischer:   I did my first Tristan in January, and we are planning in Freiburg to make a new Ring, which will open with Rheingold on December 25th of this year.  I am the Opera Director in Freiburg, and the Principal Conductor of the symphony orchestra, which is a very interesting job.  I’ll return there immediately after this six weeks in Chicago.

BD:   Is it difficult being a Music Director in one city, and then getting offers from all over the world?

:   All conductors do it if they are Opera Directors.  You cannot sit at home.  They are calling me always, and what shall we do when somebody’s sick?  You cannot just do what you want.  There is a substitute in Freiburg for me, an assistant who is a very good friend of mine.  His engagement is that he should substitute for me if I’m not at home.  But somehow the people who want to complain about what he says because they don’t believe that it’s right until I say so.  In the case that they don’t reach me, they do what he says, so the best thing is to be in my hotel room [laughs] and everything goes on.  That’s in Freiburg, and there we do the Ring.  But I don’t say we
‘do’ the Ring.  We are simply planning the Ring, and June ’84 should be the Götterdämmerung.

BD:   One per year?

:   Not exactly because we have
seasons, and the seasons start in September and end in June.  We will try to open the next season in September with Die Walküre, and the very last performances should already be Siegfried, just to be ready for the full Ring in 84.  But if not, everything is open because there are different problems with the ticketing.  If there is a production, we have to sell it to the people who are buying ten tickets for a season for every for every Monday.

BD:   On subscription?

:   Subscription, that’s right.  So because of the subscriptions, and because all of them should have a production, I doubt that we can do the last two operas of the Ring ten times to get it through all of these subscriptions.  We cannot do two of them together and have them come to the same performance.  There are many more people in Freiburg who’d like to see Siegfried than times we are able to perform it.  It costs too much money but, it’s planned now.

BD:   How many performances of the operas will you be doing?

:    Rheingold we will do ten or twelve times this season, and Walküre maybe the same, but the problem starts with the last pieces because they are too long, and the technical people who work on stage don’t stay so long.  That is because they have a limited time to work.  But these are the problems, and I’m sure we will somehow get things aligned.

BD:   Will you be conducting this Ring?

:   I do everything.

BD:   What kind of casting will you have?

:   They are mostly singers I engaged in Freiburg for the whole season.

BD:   Are they mostly young singers?

:   Yes.

BD:   How do you get a young singer to learn the role of Siegfried?

:   [Laughs]  Well, Siegfried is something else.  I don’t know who we will hire.  Maybe that will be a guest.  We are planning Janice Yoes.  She’s an American, and she sang my Isolde in Graz.

BD:   She sang Brünnhilde in Seattle.

:   I hope that she will confirm the dates for Walküre, but I actually don’t know because I haven’t been at home for six weeks now, and they are negotiating for that.  So it goes on...

BD:   I can see the problems of you being away.  You can’t be on in the negotiations and confirm things.

:   Yes, but of course I can’t do everything.  I can say let’s do this, this, this, this, and then they do it.

BD:   Do you select repertoire at the house, and decide which operas will be done?

:   Yes, that’s my decision, my responsibility which operates, but I cannot do something which the public does not want, because somehow the public has to come, too!  For instance, I cannot do a new production of The Magic Flute since we had another new production just two years ago.

BD:   How do you balance the standard works with the new works, and the novelty works?

:   We are a group there, and so I don’t want to decide alone.  There is an Überspielleiter who is a stage director, and we have an Intendant who is the head of the whole theater, because this theater doesn’t only play operas.

fischer BD:   You also do dramatic plays.  Do you do ballet, also?

:   Yes, but ballet belongs to me because I’m the Music Director of the opera.  But he’s the head, so he decides.  He did, for instance, Woyzeck (the play) by Georg Büchner last season, so we should not do Wozzeck (the opera) by Alban Berg.  That is the other point which we have to follow, but I always say that we have to do productions for which we have good singers.  We did a very good Abduction from the Seraglio at the beginning of this season because I had the people for that.

BD:   You had the sopranos and you had a bass?

:   Yes, the bass was not the best, but I had two very good tenors.  I had a very good ‘buffo’ and a very good Mozart tenor, and two coloratura sopranos which both were good, and we had no baritone...

BD:   Sure, Abduction has no baritone!  [Both laugh]  Going back to this idea of the plays and the operas, I would think it would be interesting to see the play, the Büchner, and also then the opera of Berg.

:   Yes, but he did not want it.  Maybe it’s possible that we can do it, but I’m not sure.  I don’t care very much about this because I wanted to concentrate on being an Opera Director.  It’s called a Generalmusikdirektor in Germany, which is not exactly the same as an Artistic Director of an orchestra.  For instance, Dohnányi is Opera Director and Intendant at Hamburg, but Hamburg doesn’t do anything else but opera.  I’m the Generalmusikdirektor, and I want to concentrate on everything that we do.  Whatever we do must be good, so if they wish to do what my colleagues wish to do, such as Fidelio, or whatever, then I’d never say,
“No, I don’t like it.  This idea would be good for the public because they know better what the public wants to do.  I only say that we can’t do something because there is nobody to fill the role in our company.  That’s more important for me.  I would like to do Wozzeck, and I would like to do other new works.

BD:   What about Lulu?

:   Lulu is a question because we don’t know which version we should do
two acts or three acts.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  Really???  I didn’t think there would ever be any question of it now.

:   Frederich Cerha finished the whole thing, but there are some theaters which still do the other version.  Then it’s always a problem if somebody gets sick, and we are trying to get a guest for it.  What if she knows the other version?  So there are problems with it, but I would do it if the public would like it, and the orchestra would like to do it.

BD:   Do you think the opera public is really ready for Lulu?

:    In Freiburg, in any case, they are much more into the modern works.  Perhaps some parts of the public don’t like it, and you never can tell which parts, but there are a lot of students from the university, and they would like it.  Or perhaps, for the students it would be too much conservative!  [Both laugh]  There is a new direction in the Freiburg theater that I don’t like.  They want to have very, very modern stage directing, which I hate.  I feel it’s much better to do Wozzeck than to do Aïda with a modern staging, which is what we did and where we had a big fight.  I walked out at the performances.  It was terrible!

BD:   I often wonder who has the final say
the stage director or the musical director?

:   Whoever is more powerful, of course.  If there is a process, I can tell you how to judge what they would say.  Everything acoustic is my responsibility, and everything optic is his responsibility.  I can say he should not let her sword fall because that’s too loud.  I can forbid it, but if he has someone take off his clothes and sing the aria nude, then I cannot say anything against it because it’s optical.  The fight began because he wanted to have a movie with pictures of Hitler and Mussolini and Nazi soldiers during the Grand March in Aïda.  I said that’s something I would’t do.  It was a huge scandal because he has his rights, and he said,
Without this movie, I don’t give my name to this production.  Then we cannot do the production, and that would be the financial end for the theater, because to invest money for a production and not to be able to bring it out and to sell it, the politicians would have been forced to retire.  There was another problemwe could not just cut this ballet music because the public has a right to have it.  If they want to come to Aïda, and if to buy a ticket, you have to do it.  Also, one part of the chorus had to change clothes during this part.  We did not have 150 men in the chorus, so one part of the male chorus had to come back later as the Ethiopians.  At the beginning there were Egyptians everywhere.  There were fifty men for priests, and then twenty other men for Egyptians, so we could not lose these seven minutes from the performance.  So I walked out of the performance!  The orchestra also walked out because they were very much with me.  The whole ensemble was with me.  The connection of this music to Hitler was so against my feeling, that I hated it so much.  I don’t conduct this production anymore, but that was the opening night, my first performance as Generalmusikdirektor, and his first performance as stage director of the opera, so of course the newspapers were full of it.  But everybody was with me.  He said he should not be so conservative.  [Laughs]  I’m not too conservative, but that question has nothing to do with it.  That’s why I say let’s do Wozzeck, and let’s do Lulu, and let’s do some other new work.  That’s honest.  But to advertise this Aïda, and have this production, that’s not honest.

BD:   Did the public like the production or not?

:   Ha!  They were crying, and screaming, and shouting
Aufhören, which means stop.

fischer BD:   Does Freiburg commission any new works?

:   We have a new opera every year, or a first production.  I was not there, but last year we did a first production of the opera Untergang der Titanic by Wilhelm Dieter Siebert (1931-2011).  It’s funny...  The public is always on the ship, and there is a ball at the end for the public.  They are dancing, and suddenly there comes a sharp noise, and everybody has to run out of the theater.  The last act is done in the parking lot.  [Both roar laughing]  I’ve read through the music once because I didn’t conduct it myself.  That was an idea of this Intendant who wanted to do it, because he liked the performance in Berlin very much.  That’s very modern for the opera public, and they want to have something like that.  This season we will do The Nose.  Do you know it?

BD:   By Shostakovich?  Oh yes!

:   Then next season we will do a work by a Swiss composer.  They asked for this opera, and that’s going to be a world premiere.

BD:   When you prepare a world premiere, is that more difficult that preparing a standard work?

:   More, yes, of course there are a lot of problems which you don’t have if a work has already been performed.  In an established piece, you have the music for the orchestra, you know exactly how difficult the parts are for the singers, and you know what is going to happen.  With a world premiere, you don’t, but it’s a little easier because you have the composer, and you can work together.  I can tell him, for instance, that a singer hasn’t got as much deep sound, so you should change it for him, and he does it.  It is the sense of composing.  Mozart composed exactly for the voices of his singers.  That’s why it’s so difficult to perform now.

BD:   Is it wrong to rely too much on the printed score, even for a standard work?

:   Oh, sure.  That’s why it’s a hard question.  I believe that the performance is important.  Earlier in my career, if the singer did not have the right sound for an aria, I formed it for our performance.  But it is not always good because you have to find a way to solve it.  For instance, it is sure that the Queen of the Night was meant for a soubrette, but I would not dare to change it.  When Toscanini did it in Salzburg in 1937, he transposed it down, and let it be sung by a dramatic soprano.  The aria the had her sing an E-Flat instead of an F.  I would not have done it, but I’m sure that he was right somehow.  He did real theater, but this added freshness.  You have to always decide.

BD:   You have to solve things, and maneuver each production?

:   Yes.  I won’t tell you where, but once, where a musician in the orchestra couldn’t play his instrument soft enough, I changed the instrumentation, and gave it to another instrument.  This sounded very good, but one should not do it too often!  [Laughs]

BD:   Take it away from the trumpet, and give it to the oboe, or something like that?

:   It was the oboe and clarinet, but it was such a big difference.  I did it, and there are some things which speak for it, and some which are against it, and you have to decide yourself.

BD:   Would it be different doing it Freiburg instead of, say, in Berlin or Vienna?

:   It is a bit different, but not as much as one would imagine.  I’m doing a new production in Vienna of The Bartered Bride this season with the Vienna Philharmonic [DVD shown above].  You asked about preparation, how I prepare myself is the same.  I have to learn it exactly, and I have to prepare myself for other difficulties.  It may be that the orchestra in Vienna can accompany the singers better.  They can play softer than Freiburg because they are, I think, the best orchestra for opera in the whole world.  I should not ask too much from an orchestra which cannot realize it, because then it becomes upset.  You have to know exactly how much you can ask for, and not more.  But it’s more than one would think, and I feel the Freiburg orchestra can realize much more than another conductor would think that they could, and they become better because I ask.

BD:   Is it mostly a young orchestra?

:   Yes.  There are a lot of young musicians there, and it’s a beautiful city to live in, so there are musicians who come to Freiburg just to live in Freiburg, and they don’t go to better orchestras.  It is a very nice city.

*     *     *     *     *

fischer BD:   Let us go back to your Tristan in Graz.  Did you enjoy that production?

:   Yes, and I will do another three performances this season.  It was a very, very good production.  It was full of small mistakes, but it had an intensity which I don’t have very often, because everybody was working very hard on it.  It meant something for the orchestra and for the singers to do Tristan, and everybody did his best.  Something came out which they did not think was possible.  So, not only me, but the orchestra was very good.  The Graz Opera is suffering to be in the shadow of the Vienna Opera, so that was a great day for them.  The critics wrote everywhere that it was a very good performance, and some said better than the Viennese...

BD:   It must make you feel very, very proud.

:   It was not as good, if you were to listen to the tape, but as a performance, maybe yes because it had an intensity.  Everybody was better that they really are, and that’s something that I don’t think I can do with The Bartered Bride in Vienna.  I will do my best, but...

BD:   Is the intensity different for Wagner?

:   No, the intensity is just for the musicians who take part in this performance, to give the feeling of doing something special, because all of them were enjoying Tristan and not just being a simple accompaniment forever.  For Tristan, everyone was practicing, and on the evening this feeling is not so easy to get out.  If a conductor can get out this feeling, that is the best thing because then it’s going to be a good performance.  In Vienna, with The Bartered Bride, I don’t know if they take it so seriously.  For the Vienna Philharmonic, either The Bartered Bride or Tristan is on their list because they do know everything.  They can play everything.  They have no technical difficulties for anything.

BD:   They’re very professional.

:   Yes, professional, but they like to play it, too.  I would not say ‘professional’ in a bad sense, because there are other orchestras in Germany
which I don’t want to namewho are professionals, but they don’t like the profession.  They play their instruments well, and they play everything, but the Viennese love to make music.  I did such a beautiful Fidelio there.  It was incredible.  I jumped in for somebody, and they played so beautifully.

BD:   Do you enjoy conducting?

:   It depends!  Sometimes no, and sometimes yes.  To conduct a good concert and a good performance leaves a very good feeling afterwards.

BD:   Which do you do better
the opera or the concerts?  Or, which do you enjoy more?

:   It depends of course.  An opera performance is more difficult.  It depends much more on things which I have no influence on.  If a singer has no voice, it can be bad.  At the concert, I feel that’s much more in my power, and my role is more interesting than opera.  But a conductor has to start as an opera conductor to learn how to work with your hands.  That’s the profession itself
to get an optimum sound out of an orchestra by using only your hands.  Then, you can use that later in the concert.

BD:   There used to be a tradition of all the great conductors coming from the opera house.

:   Not all the great conductors, but many of them.  That’s why I think they become great conductors
because they started in the opera.  It was not everybody, but Solti and Karajan and...

BD:   Bruno Walter?

:   Of course, Bruno Walter.  In his generation everybody had to do it, but now it’s not everybody.  They can become very good without opera experience, and I don’t say that’s a rule because maybe it’s possible one can learn by doing just concerts.  I don’t say that to keep the ensemble together is difficult, because it’s not.  What is difficult is to get out through your hands the sound of the orchestra.

BD:   There are more rehearsals for an opera than a concert, right?

:   Not really, because the opera is much longer.  If I have a concert, it’s four rehearsals.  I have six rehearsals of four hours each together with the singers for this Macbeth.  The orchestra had read it once through, and then once with the stage director, and that was it.  I am forced to show what I want, and do what I can, because it is not enough if the musicians just concentrate.  All conductors can do it two different ways.  Either they show or they say, and it’s much better to show because it saves time.  But this feeling you get only in the opera, and only if you have conducted a hundred performances.  It comes very slowly, and that’s how these great conductors learned.  The greatest art of conducting is that you give an attack and it sounds the way you want it, and that’s possible only after having conducted so much with good orchestras in the opera, because the opera has to be more flexible than the concert.  You cannot always be in the same tempo because the singer might be tired and then he takes breaths.  So we have to follow, and the opera orchestra needs this flexibility.  They have to be present in the evening, and that’s why they have to follow the beat of the conductors more than a concert orchestra.  You have much better contact with this.  If we do a Haydn symphony, or a Mozart symphony at the concert, the beat of the conductor is not so interesting.

BD:   It’s fairly straightforward?

:    Yes.  You can give a little bit of intensity, but not change the beat itself.   If I do Mahler, then, of course, the conductor has to be present in the evening.  But to be present, that one learns from the opera.

BD:   How is this orchestra here in Chicago responding to you?

:   I think it has done a very good job, and I’m proud of it.  They play well for me, and they balance, too.  It is also good how they start a piano with the strings.  They have a very good sound, and I did not have to change it too much.  It did not come immediately at the beginning because they did not know me, and they did not know how to react.  But it comes, and is now better than the opening night.

BD:   Each performance is better?

:   Yes, because they know the opera better.  If you play Tosca or Rigoletto, everybody knows it, but Macbeth they don’t.  They have to have heard it several times to be flexible, to be together with the stage.  If the tenor makes a ritardando in a familiar piece, they would not play too early this because they know there are many ways with the tenor aria.  But in Macbeth, no, because they don’t know what has to be done.  So, it was not as secure at the beginning, but now they know it, and they are following the stage much better.  The most important thing that a conductor has to do is to get the musicians to listen to each other, and react to the stage.  If they listen to each other, they play chamber music with each other, and then it becomes a very good production.  Then you can say that should be louder, or less loud, but that’s an artistic thing.  To get them to make chamber music with each other, and how you reach that point is another question.

BD:   How do you like working in this bigger house?  I assume the Civic Opera House here in Chicago is bigger than Freiburg.

:   Do you mean the audience?

BD:   Yes, the number in the audience, and also the size of the stage.

fischer ÁF:   Yes, it’s bigger than Freiburg, but not bigger than Vienna or Munich.  I was working a lot in Munich last two seasons.  I lived in Munich and I led sixty performances.

BD:   Does the physical size of the house affect the way you rehearse and perform?

:   I don’t think any more so, because I did a lot in huge opera houses.  They are different sometimes but all opera houses are different.  Sometimes the house is huge, and yet they hear each other much better than in a smaller house because the acoustic is better.

BD:   Do you ever do opera-in-concert?

:    I did a Trovatore in Hungary, but it was not good.  Sometimes we have to do it because they have not enough time to rehearse, and the public would not come more than twice, so it would cost too much.  Sometimes rarely-performed operas get to be performed in concert, and that is not bad, but somehow I have something against it.  It’s not the same as in the theater.

BD:   What about recordings?

:   Hopeless!  [Laughs]  They are never the best thing, but they are necessary because there are so many people who buy them.  So, we have to do them because it’s interesting, and people like them and get acquainted to this or that opera.  Then they like it, and then it’s good, but somehow an opera has to be performed in the theater because it belongs there.  It was very difficult to do the Queen of Sheba recording [shown at right] because we did not have everyone there all the time.  So, I could not do it from the beginning to the end because the singers were not available on the same days.  In January we did a couple of scenes, and the rest were done in May, and it was all put together.  For me it was very, very difficult because when I have to an accelerando, it could be a faster tempo in May than that which I conducted in January already.

BD:   What’s the role of television?

:   The Bartered Bride is going to be broadcast in July on television.

BD:   Is that a help or just a gimmick?

:   It’s good advertising, and a good commercial for the opera because people who cannot allow themselves to get into the opera can enjoy it.  That’s very, very important for other people to listen and look at it.  It’s not only the rich ones that can buy the ticket, and they go there to bore themselves.  Other people would like to be there and cannot get in, so it’s a very good thing, and a democratic thing, and it makes opera very, very popular.  But a good television performance is also not the same as sitting in a theater.  Of course, it’s much more perfect.  I did a television production of Barber in Hungary five or six years ago.  I looked at it this summer, and the director had said it was a big success, but I didn’t like it.  My conducting was bad and I was ashamed of it!  It should be taken off!  [Laughs]

BD:   What about opera-in-translation?  [Remember, this interview was held in 1981, before supertitles were being used in the theater.]

:   Very good question!  There are a lot of things for and against it.  I would be very much against it, but I think some operas should be translated.  They should be understood.  Of course, people don’t understand it sometimes because if you don’t understand the soprano, why sing it in translation and not be able to sing it right.  That’s not a good solution, but I cannot imagine Figaro or the Barber should be done only in Italian.  However, it makes no sense if the public probably doesn’t understand it.  On the other hand, I can tell you nobody does things in translation in a big opera house, because if somebody is ill and a guest is called, what can we do?  The guests sometimes know it in another translation, and then there are a lot of rights connected to the editions.  It presents a lot of difficulties, but people should understand what is going on.  It’s a very hard question.  You can decide on every production and for every public differently.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What’s the place in the opera world today of unknown works of, say, Meyerbeer, Marschner, Lortzing
works that are not standard?

fischer ÁF:   Like The Queen of Sheba?

BD:   Exactly.

ÁF:   As I see it, people come to the same operas in Germany because the houses play every year always the same repertoireCarmen, Rigoletto, Tosca, Butterflybecause people come for these.  They want to do some new works, so they’re always searching after such works.  But they discover that most of them are not so good.  It’s very interesting to look at ones that have been a great success in 1810, but it’s not that they could stay in the repertoire because they’re so good... at least it’s not very often.

BD:   It’s good to hear them once in a while, but not every day?

:   Yes.  We did L’Africaine by Meyerbeer in Graz...

BD:   There was a time when Meyerbeer was done all the time.

:    ... and I was negotiating with somebody about The Huguenots.  It’s very difficult to perform.  For these romantic operas you need very, very good singers.  That is the case for The Queen of Sheba, too, because you need a tenor and a soprano, both of which don’t exist anymore.  The roles are so difficult to sing.  Samson and Delilah is the same.  There are two or three tenors in the whole world
such as Cossutta [who was singing it in Chicago during this period]who can manage it because it’s difficult.  [Also in the Chicago cast were Yvonne Minton and Tom Krause, conducted by Jean Fournet.]

BD:   Would you ever do Samson in Freiburg?

:   I don’t know.  If I had a very good tenor and a very good alto, why not?  But these are the romantic operas.  The operas of the nineteenth century are written for stars, so you should not perform them just to perform the operas, but to give these very good singers an opportunity to sing something interesting.  Don Quichotte [which was also being done in Chicago during this period] is the same.  If you have Ghiaurov, then you should do Don Quichotte.  But without him there’s no sense, because musically it’s not so good.  It gives an opportunity to perform.  [Also in the cast were Lucia Valentini Terrani, and Donald Gramm, conducted again by Fournet.]  For instance, Don Quichotte hasn’t been played much since Chaliapin, because Chaliapin was Chaliapin.  But with another bass, it makes no sense to perform it.

BD:   What about early works
Monteverdi, Cavalli, etc.?

:    They do these very often in Europe.  They are now starting to do them with original instruments.  It has been a revolution performing Monteverdi and these old operas with Nikolaus Harnoncourt.  For Harnoncourt, it’s not important to do them with old instruments.  This is not a basic question, but he tries to have the traditions of interpretation and style.  The mistake is that we read the notation of this style like you would read something in English but it was written in German.  The Monteverdi notes had another meaning.  If he writes a C and then an E, it meant for the singers to do a cadenza, or to sing it in a way where they did a portamento.  If Wagner would have written the same notes, it would have meant something else.  Different theoretic professors at the universities were corresponding with each other about what it should be, and Harnoncourt was the first one who realized it. 

BD:   Do you do any old operas in Freiburg?

fischer ÁF
:   I don’t dare to do very much.  We haven’t decided yet for the next season if we should Orlando Furioso by Vivaldi, or Idomeneo by Mozart.  If we do Orlando Furioso, that’s a baroque opera, but I would be a bit afraid because I haven’t studied this old style very long.  Maybe it’s not good for me to do it.  Maybe I should just let somebody do it who understands it more.

BD:   [Trying to be helpful]  Ask Harnoncourt?

:    No, another Harnoncourt!  [Laughs]

BD:   Does this become part of the idea of balancing a season
doing a few operas of each style?

:   What we do in Freiburg is we have our modern line.  That means every year something new.  We do something classical from the twentieth century, so that’s why we do Wozzeck next season, or why we do The Nose this season, which are not world premieres, but from the twentieth century so-called classical works.  Then we do Wagner, and then the rest.  We do Bohème next season, and this year we did Aïda, and The Abduction from the Seraglio.  There has to be a work with smaller forces, so if we do a big ensemble like Aïda, next season there is Die Walküre, which means a big orchestra but no chorus.  It’s difficult to perform, and the next production has to be easy to perform.  That’s why we do Abduction, and next season maybe Barber or Don Pasquale, which are small, and we can rehearse together.  There’s a part of the public who goes to Wagner, and another who goes to Rossini, and at the beginning of the season we can serve both parts.

BD:   Is there any public that goes to all of it?

:   I think so, yes, the subscribers.  They come to all performances.  I don’t exactly know, because we hired somebody last year who has to look at it.  His work is to say who is coming, which part of the public, and how we could get more out of this part of the public.  But our public relation is not done so professionally like in America.

BD:   Is opera too much of a business?

:   It is a business like any other.  How do you mean?

BD:   Is it too much business and too little artistic?

:   [Thinks a moment]  It should not be like that.  It has a business side and it has an artistic side, but it is not so that the more business the less art.  We have to be realistic about it, and everybody feels it should be much more art.  But we have to live with this business, and we have to find out how to get more art out of this business.  I’m going to conduct Otello in December in Munich, and then Fidelio in January, and there is a danger now that the chorus will go on strike as they did for Lohengrin in Cologne last week.  What should we do?  Ironically, I did a version of Rusalka, and I cut out from the second act the marriage scene because it was too long.  Now, unfortunately
or fortunately if you wantthe chorus has nothing to do in Rusalka, which is now unique because they cannot go on strike for that opera.  So, there art comes out against business, but I did not do it for that reason.  I did not know when the strikes are going to be, and I don’t want to have trouble.  I didn’t do it for that, but now it’s very practical.  The manager is very happy about the chorus having nothing to do in Rusalka.

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BD:   You’re Hungarian?

ÁF:   I’m Hungarian, yes.

BD:   Tell me about Hungarian operas.  Are there some good ones, either old or new?

ÁF:   The old Hungarian operas are not great, but people have performed them here.  They copied Verdi, and they are very popular in Hungary because the text and the stories are Hungarian.  We have our own operas, but they’re not so good.  Erkel (1810-1893) is well-known, but I doubt if his works ever have been performed outside of Hungary.  But the people there love them, of course.

Ferenc Erkel (November 7, 1810 - June 15, 1893) was born in Gyula to a Danube Swabian family, a son of Joseph Erkel who was a musician. His mother was the Hungarian Klára Ruttkay. The libretti of his first three operas were written by Béni Egressy. Beside his operas, for which he is best known, he wrote pieces for piano and chorus, and a majestic Festival Overture. He acquainted Hector Berlioz with the tune of the Rákóczi March, which Berlioz used in The Damnation of Faust. He also composed the music of Himnusz, the national anthem of Hungary, which was adopted in 1844.

He headed the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra (founded in 1853). He was also the director and piano teacher of the Hungarian Academy of Music until 1886. The Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest was opened in 1884, of which he was the musical director.

As shown below, he has been honored on several postage stamps.


BD:   Why aren’t they done elsewhere?

fischer ÁF
:   I don’t think people would understand them.

BD:   [Citing two I had heard on recordings]  Wouldn’t the Chicago public enjoy Hunyadi László, or Bánk Bán?

:   The Hungarian public loves them, but I have never seen that they have been performed out of Hungary.  Of course, Bartók is very popular, especially the three pieces he composed together
Bluebeard’s Castle is the first, then The Wooden Prince, and The Miraculous Mandarin at the end.  He composed them together for one evening.  That is what he wanted.  He would be very against it that we performed them separately because it is one story in three different formsman and woman, and the conflict about them.  So, it was very important for him to be together.  But business against art, he was not too practical, and he did not know that many years after his death, the ballet company is something else, and opera is an opera company, and the managers have many difficulties putting ballet and opera together in one performance because of rehearsal time and schedules and everything else.  It’s very difficult, so they don’t do it.  That’s something Richard Strauss never would have done, because he knew exactly the technical demands of the theater.  Ariadne is a very good opera for a theater artistically, as well as from the business side.  Artistically, as it’s a fantastic work. He has very good big roles, so all the singers are satisfied, and without a chorus so there no strike possibilities!  [Laughs]  It has a small orchestra, so small opera companies can do it, and most of the people who do anything in the first part have nothing in the second part, which that means that the stage director can rehearse twice a day, and everybody has a half-part of rehearsal time.  That’s a very good idea, and nobody else would think of that.  That is what Bartók did not know.  I would love to do these three together because that’s somehow very classical Hungarian.  It is one opera, one ballet, and The Miraculous Mandarin is not really a ballet but a pantomime.  This was not ballet for him, but it’s performed always like a ballet. 

BD:   If you didn’t have to worry about budgets, or casts, or audience, or anything, are there a couple of operas that you would like to do?

:   I don’t worry about it because the budget doesn’t interest me.  As an opera director, yes, but as a conductor, no.  I like to do an opera only if the possibilities are there.  I love Don Giovanni but I would never like to do it without a good Don Giovanni.  Then it’s not good, and that’s why it connects to the budget.  But an opera that I haven’t done yet and I would love to do is The Magic Flute.  That’s the only Mozart which I’ve never done. But I will do it in ’84.  I’d love to do Parsifal once.  That’s an incredible work.

BD:   Why?  What is special about Parsifal?

:   The colors of the orchestra, which are not easy to get out.  It’s not an opera, it’s something between opera and oratorio, and one needs to form it as an oratorio and not let it be boring.  That’s a very difficult thing, and I think I could do it.  The possibilities are very different from Verdi operas.  It’s not so difficult to keep the public’s interest in Trovatore, but for Wagner it’s more difficult.  I did a Tristan, which for me has a strong drama, but it was a musical drama not an opera.  The drama, the feelings, and everything belong to a drama, and what you want comes out from the music.  It cannot come from the stage.  They don’t sing about it, they feel about it, and that is the responsibility of the conductor.  In Verdi, the responsibility from the conductor is the same, but in Wagner it doesn’t depend so much on the singers and on the stage.  The orchestra has a bigger responsibility on the whole in Wagner.  The conductor is responsible for the whole, but the orchestra is more important in Tristan, and the stage is less important than, say, for Aïda.  Parsifal is something between a Mahler symphony and a Verdi opera, so I would love to do it.   Maybe I will do it sometime.

BD:   Would it make a difference to you to do it at Bayreuth with the covered in orchestra?  [Note: Fischer would conduct The Ring at Bayreuth in 2001-4, and Parsifal there in 2006 and 2007.]

:   [Thinks a moment]  We thought about doing it in Freiburg, but I don’t think we will do it.  The theater has to be built like Bayreuth.  Bayreuth has the best sound for Wagner because it was made by Wagner.  I don’t know if other theaters should follow his plan because they are not built like that.  If one could build a theater exactly like Bayreuth, that would be good, but you couldn’t do any other operas except Wagner if they’re built like that.  That would be interesting, though.

BD:   [Noting the time, which had flown by]  Thank you for coming to Chicago.

:   That’s all right.  Thank you.


© 1981 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 11, 1981.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB 1986, 1988, 1992, and 1998.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.