Conductor Leopold Hager
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Leopold Hager was born on
October 6, 1935 in Salzburg, Austria. He exhibited rare talent in his
youth, enrolling at the Salzburg Mozarteum in 1949, where he studied
organ, piano, harpsichord, conducting, and composition. His teachers
were Bernhard Paumgartner, Gerhard Wimberger, Cesar Bresgen, and Egon
Kornauth. Hager concluded his studies in 1957 and thereupon accepted
the appointment of assistant conductor at the City Theater in Mainz
that same year. Hager left Mainz in 1962, and for the next seven years
held brief but important conducting posts: from 1962-1964 he conducted
at the Linz Landestheater, in the 1964-1965 season he was conductor at
the Cologne Opera, and from 1965-1969 he worked as the general music
director in Freiburg. It was in the following decade that Hager made
his greatest breakthroughs. Chief conductor of Salzburg's Mozarteum
Orchestra and Landestheater from 1969-1981, he made his debut at the
Metropolitan Opera in 1976 with Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, at Teatro Colon
in 1977 with Wagner's Tristan und
Isolde, and at Covent Garden in 1978 with Le Nozze di Figaro. In the late
1970s Hager began recording the early Mozart operas for Philips with
some of the finest opera singers of the time. The complete edition
(five operas) was reissued by Philips in 2006.
In 1981 Hager accepted the position of chief conductor of the
Luxembourg Radio Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until 1996. Hager
was an eminently respected professor of conducting at the Vienna
Musikhochschule (now the Vienna University of Music and Performing
Arts) from 1992-2004. From 2005 to 2008 Leopold Hager served as Chief
Conductor at the Wiener Volksoper in Vienna. A versatile conductor, he
is a frequent guest of many of the world's leading opera houses
(Bayerische Staatsoper Munich, Semperoper Dresden, Metropolitan Opera
New York, Lyric Opera Chicago, Royal Opera House Covent Garden London,
Teatro Colon Buenos Aires, Paris Opera and Vienna State Opera) as well
has having appeared at the head of such orchestras as the Staatskapelle
Dresden, Gewandhausorchester, NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg, MDR
Sinfonieorchester Leipzig, Munich Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic,
Vienna Symphony, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, Czech
Philharmonic Orchestra, Accademia di Santa Cecilia Rome, Danish
National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, Orchestre
National de Lille, Bamberger Symphoniker, and the National Symphony
Orchestra in Washington.
Though it may be impossible to interview Mozart himself
— at least with our current time/space technology (!) — it
is a particular joy to have the opportunity to chat with a Mozart
specialist. One such is conductor Leopold Hager. His work
with the Amadeus canon in the theater and on recordings has been
revered, and is acknowledged as insightful and top-flight. But
this only reveals one side of his career, and, as noted in the
biography above, Hager is wide-ranging in his tastes and engagements.
He arrived in Chicago in the fall of 1999 for Die Fledermaus, and was gracious to
spend an hour with me between performances. Of the premiere, John
von Rhein wrote in the Tribune,
“In the pit, Leopold Hager, the seasoned Austrian
conductor who was making his Lyric debut, presided briskly and
affectionately over Strauss' inspired parade of memorable tunes and
sentimental Viennese waltztime. He enforced an authentic style
right down to the Luftpausen before the third beats. The
orchestra played spiritedly for him.”
After being warned that his English was very poor, he went on to speak
quite well and managed to make his ideas clear and
understandable. A few times he struggled for a word, but I was
able to help him out — either at the time, or now with
Here is that conversation . . . . . . .
We will talk mostly about your
favorite subject... I assume that music is your favorite subject?
Yes, this is true. [Laughs]
BD: Even at this
date, is it continuing to be your favorite subject?
Good. Since we’re talking a bit about Mozart, what is the secret
to doing his works?
secret of doing Mozart is to look to the second skin. What’s on
the surface is also
important, but you have to look for
the second skin. Then you will have the naturality of the
music. There are a lot of secrets. I’m
not sure that I know them, [both laugh] but one of them is to be very
interested in what is behind the note.
BD: Is it
ever possible to get everything out of
Mozart, or will he always be somewhat of a mystery?
LH: On this
level there’s always a lot of
mystery, but you can find things if you have the right
education and the right affinity for it. I was born in
Salzburg and I started in the Mozarteum, and my teacher, the most
important teacher, Bernard Paumgartner, was a fantastic
Mozartarian. He did the first Mozarteum in Salzburg. He was
the president of the Salzburg Festival and he formed these
really fabulous programs for the matinees of the Salzburg
Festivals. These programs began with a small symphony — twelve to
fifteen minutes in one movement with three different tempi. Then
he did a
concerto for soloist — flute, violin, clavier, etc. After the
intermission came some concert arias, which was very unusual at the
time when he started with this in the ’50s, after the war. Then
came a big
symphony. So there was the possibility for him to play a lot of
the early Mozart symphonies and concert arias for the first time.
Maybe they had been done in other places, but you need to
realize that for some of the audience, it was really the first
BD: Is it
good that we are bringing these
lesser-known works of Mozart — the
early operas and the early
symphonies — to the public?
Absolutely. We get to see the spectrum, why and how the different
Mozart come together. He did a lot of Italian things at the
beginning, and this is very interesting for us in Salzburg. There
was a lot
of Italian influence in Salzburg and in Vienna, even until now, and
remember that Mozart was only a second- or a
third-ranked composer. Salieri was the first. [Both
laugh] Not all the
early Mozart operas were from the Italian
court. Some were from some Hapsburg princess or someone else who
commission, but many were Italian, and it was very,
very familiar to him to do this in this way. All this
comes together for me in Idomeneo.
It’s the most
important opera in his development because everything is formed and now
he finds absolutely his personal style.
BD: So that
is the beginning
of his maturity?
LH: It is
good, but when he starts with the comic operas it’s very
interesting. The German operas, like Entführung or
Magic Flute start after Idomeneo. But one of the
first — Bastien
BD: Oh, the
LH: Yes, this is
the baby of the German operas. [Both laugh] Zaide is
that was the precursor to
BD: Should Zaide be done at all, or
should it be just left to the history books?
LH: Yes, it
should be, absolutely. [Sighs] It’s difficult to say.
It’s not really long
enough, but it’s important enough to do in an evening. There are
jewels in there. The opera
has not really got a beginning. There’s no overture, so we use
something else, and there’s no end. So this is the main reason we
are always a
little bit frightened. [Note: In modern performances, Mozart's Symphony No. 32, K. 318, which was
composed around the same time as Zaide
(and later used as an overture to Francesco Bianchi's La villanella rapita of 1784) is
often given as an overture. Completions of the opera may use a pastiche
of Mozart concert arias or, more popularly, music from Thamos, King of Egypt which is also
from the same period of Mozart's career.]
BD: So what
do you do about the ending?
LH: There’s a
small chorus on the beginning,
which is okay. Then you can maybe do it also on the
end, to make a clammer.
BD: Are the
well-known Mozart operas really greater than those of other composers,
and are the da Ponte
operas greater than the earlier Mozart?
Yes. Oh, absolutely.
BD: So even
Mozart developed in his career?
LH: Yes, very
much so. He starts where others
end. [Both laugh]
LH: In a
certain way, yes. For me, the Cassation,
KV63 is a very special piece. He was thirteen when he
wrote it. There is a wonderful fourth movement, but in the second
movement there’s a feeling that it’s
absolutely impossible for a thirteen-years-old boy to have this
spectrum of the world. You cannot explain this in a
normal way. When you say “divine,” I
would say this is on a much higher level.
BD: Do you
feel divine when you are
[Laughs] Yes. This is one of the most
beautiful feelings you can have, to conduct this wonderful music.
But “divine” is not a word I’d use.
BD: Is it
always special for you to return
you’re doing Mozart,
is it good to get away from it a little bit and do other
LH: This is
necessary sometimes. I had a quite good reputation when I left
the first time after having been chief conductor of the
Mozarteum Orchestra for twelve years. In this time we did all
these records — the young Mozart operas, concert
arias, and all the piano
concertos. So it was necessary. I went to
Luxembourg, to the Radio Orchestra there, because it was
necessary to get a little bit of distance and to do other
things. I was always interested to do others and I did a
lot of things, but the source of my work came from Mozart. I
am very grateful, because if you come from the romantic side
— from Wagner — it’s much more
difficult to find the right way to the
classical side and to Mozart. I have seen this a lot of
times. So when I went to Luxembourg, a new world opened to
me — impressionism. I have a big affinity for Debussy, for Ravel,
Fauré — to all this French repertoire, and also to the early
German Romantic such as Weber, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. In
a way, Mendelssohn has a little bit of the son Mozart. Also, he
died very young. He was a kind of Wunderkind.
BD: He had
those early symphonies that we never hear,
and then the mature ones.
LH: Yes, the
early symphonies. Only two or
three are really good, really on a high level, but pieces like Midsummer Night’s Dream or the Italian or Scottish symphonies, and Violin Concerto are
of a very high level.
conduct opera and you conduct
concert. How do you divide your career between those two?
LH: I started
a very normal career in the theater as assistant conductor and first
conductor, then principal conductor. So that
it was clear that the predominant area was the opera. I always
concerts, but not so much. Then when I had my first Chief
position, it was necessary. The General Music Director in a
German city is responsible for the operas and for the concerts.
It’s very equal. Then I had a lot
of possibilities to come to renowned orchestras, and I did more
concerts and more operas. For me there are two reasons for not
doing operas. The first problem is that it is usually done in repertoire — which, nowadays, is
not so good especially when the system is not really settled, like it
Vienna. [Note: In the repertoire
system, only a new production gets thoroughly rehearsed. After
that, the work is revived during several seasons with different casts
and conductors, and minimal (if any) rehearsal. The stagione system mounts each
production (new or revived) with sufficient rehearsals, then runs
several performances with the same cast and conductor before it is
finished for the season.] In Vienna you can do repertoire because the singers
two or three days before their performance, and you have this
fabulous orchestra. The repertoire of this orchestra is endless,
really fantastic. So this is
enough preparation. Normally I prefer to do the kind of stagione like here in Chicago or in
Buenos Aires, where you have the rehearsals with the orchestra to say
you’re thinking, even in a revival. You can bring your own ideas
to the performance, and this is important so that you are not just a
traffic cop. [Both laugh] That I don’t like. This is
first reason when doing opera — be careful. The second reason is
needs such a long time to be in a city — four,
five, six weeks to
make a new production, maybe with a stage director where do you not
agree. It’s very often like that because
even though there’s a lot of very good people, the main thing when you
come together with opera is that you have to respect the
music. You have to respect that the music is the first! You
have to respect that the atmosphere is coming from the orchestra.
You have to take it and not spoil it.
BD: So you
are the composer’s advocate?
BD: Is the
stage director, then, the librettist’s
advocate, or is he his own man?
LH: He is
mostly his own man. A lot of things are not of interest to
him. I said thirty years ago that we need people like
this. They renew the opera staging, but not in this way that they
bring all of their own
problems and social problems. They make a piece that nobody
recognizes what we have onstage.
they’re trying to say different things with
each opera. How much should we rely on what the opera says, and
how much should we bring our own new ideas into each piece?
take as an example, Rigoletto.
saw a production at the English National Opera in London, and the whole
thing was transported into a Mafia story. This is a good
idea. It doesn’t
matter if it’s the Duke of Mantua or it’s the
Mafia boss. This is not the question. The question
is whether all the relations in between are together with the
music. If I have an empty stage for some reason, I don’t need
everything onstage. One tree might be enough. But if
the relation in between the singers and the atmosphere onstage, with
the lights and so on is together with the music, yes. Everything
BD: So some
these new productions with new ideas work?
have to divise very strongly what is going on so it’s not against the
music and it’s necessary to make the piece in a new way.
impossible if the stage director refuses to do everything within what
the music says.
sort of dancing around
it, so let me ask the very easy question — what
the purpose of opera?
a moment] This is a good question, a difficult
question. It seems simple, but no. I think it’s a very high
kind of entertainment. But through the music, I
think it has to come to the emotions and not only to the brain.
This is very important.
BD: So it has to be
head and heart?
LH: Head and
heart, yes. In
the moment where a play consists of music it becomes a new
dimension. Then you have to split your way.
BD: So how
much is head and how much is
heart? Where’s the balance?
LH: It’s very
clear that in the moment
when you have music from such a quality like Beethoven in Fidelio, or
Mozart or Verdi or Wagner, then I think the balance is
absolutely on the side of the heart.
BD: So then
the newer works, perhaps Wozzeck
Lulu, are more in the head?
because there’s also maybe a little
strange music for some listeners. They might have difficulties to
bring it together. But also the music makes the atmosphere.
BD: Do you
conduct any modern opera yourself?
LH: Yes, I
did Wozzeck. I don’t
conduct Lulu. , but I do
others. For instance, five years ago in Vienna I
did a new production of Baal
by an Austrian composer Friedrich
Cerha. In my opinion this is one of the five most important
we have had in this century.
BD: That is
LH: For me, Lulu is not of the same quality as
BD: Wozzeck is better?
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of opera in
quite surprised] Not at all???
BD: Is opera
LH: Not dead,
but maybe in agony. [Both laugh] Why don’t we have enough
modern operas? This is also the reason for the way that the stage
director handles some of the old operas — they do not have new operas
to work with. This is a problem — we have
enough! I don’t know why. Maybe there are a lot of new
opera, but they
are not coming to performance because of all the Iintendants and other
directors who are careful with the money. They have to be — it’s
necessary to have a full house, especially in Germany and in
Austria because the state is the supporter and the money’s coming from
there. The politics have a lot to say; it’s not like here in
America where the sponsor can
say something — like what happens in Ariadne. [Laughs]
you’re working and rehearsing
an opera, you get everything ready for the opening night. Are you
still in control after the opening night, or is everything done for the
opening, and then the rest is just letting it run?
LH: When you repeat
a performance, it should always be improved more and more. For
instance, there are a lot of things in this edition we use here for
Fledermaus. I got a note
librarian asking me for details because the musicians are not sure
about things. They’re asking me to look in the score because
another mistake. Some mistakes are not hear-able; you can
only see them, but maybe it sounds better when
it’s played accurately. It might be a kind of note or it could be
a note in a chord which makes the chord not
BD: At least
they want to be
LH: Yes, and
BD: But each
night then, you make it a little better
and a little better?
try. Most things should be done on the first night.
BD: Is it
possible to over-rehearse a piece?
LH: Yes, but
I think probably not. Once I had too
much time, [laughs] but normally you have to see that you have
the legendary Felsenstein
productions where they would have six months of rehearsal for one
BD: How do
you keep the
third and the eighth and the twelfth performance fresh and sparkling?
depends a lot on the conductor and
some from the singers. In this aspect, the repertoire system is better
because when there’s a new singer, the orchestra will listen to them
they are very enthusiastic about them and then they play. In
Vienna, when a special singer is there, or a young
singer who is not renowned but it’s the first time, they say, “Oh,
LH: Yes, and
then they play! If an orchestra is listening to the singer or to
then you always have a better result. Also the conductor has
to come with the right mood for the piece. If you
come with a bad mood to Fledermaus,
when you start the overture it’s
very clear after four bars that this evening will be not so sparkling.
BD: So you
have to put the sparkle in right
BD: Are there
times when you go to the theater, and
you have to work hard to bring the sparkle?
LH: It’s a
kind of professionalism that you
have to have. Even if you have a bad day or get some bad
messages, you have to bring the same especially for the
beginning. I think this is very, very important.
BD: Is there
ever a performance where everything goes
LH: A hundred
percent? No, it’s not possible. It depends on more than 100
persons. In the orchestra there’s a lot of important
players. It’s a little
bit less demanding in the string section because there are ten or
twelve, and if
you are a little tired and you are not so intensive on this night,
it’s okay, it would be not so obvious. Then there are all the
singers. In the opera, it also depends on what is going
on with the lights and also with the technical things, the stage
mechanics. Sometimes it is not possible to
be together, because something is not there. The last time in
Vienna, when I did Flying Dutchman,
the door couldn’t be opened. The Holländer
couldn’t open the door to make his entrance.
BD: So there
was no Holländer???
no Holländer. We played six or
eight bars more and then we got to the point where
he should sing, so I had to stop! I waited, and then down went
the curtain, of
course. The director came out and said, “Okay, we did it 136
times and it was okay, but not this time.” But back to the
question, if you have 80 or 90 percent, it’s a
BD: Do you get
everything right on a recording?
LH: Yes, I
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] So that’s 100 percent?
LH: [Thinks a
moment] Ninety-eight. [Both laugh] I hate very much
to say it, but for me the
work with microphone and with the records and tapes is a quite
different thing. When I do a performance, it is very
leggiero — that means in a
good, light mood. We all concentrate when there
is no microphone, and if something happens I say, “Okay.” It’s
finished and I go right on. When I know there is a recording and
two or three such things
happen, my mood is influenced by these things and I’m
sure I go ten percent or fifteen down in my energy. I think too
much about these little things. So for me, concert and live
things should be
absolutely open, not like a... [searches for the right word]
BD: Not like
Yes! If I do something for taping or for a record,
then it’s different. Then I listen to the
result and I try to make a balance. It’s better, maybe, than in
hall where we were because the listener has a perfect reproduction on
BD: Does it
ever surprise you, what you hear coming
back at you from the recording?
Somethings, yes. I have to say, when
you do that there are some technical kinks in this stuff. One
time I heard something and I agreed, and then the technician goes into
his own kitchen and adjusts everything. Somethings I heard things
BD: You don’t
have final say???
mostly, but two or three
times, I had this experience.
BD: Have you
basically, though, been pleased with
LH: Yes, at
the moment, but I did records thirty
years ago which I would say the musical things are okay and also
maybe the spirit, but the times change, and tempi, which were good at that time
maybe now are too slow, or do not have the same feeling. But it
is the time transform you.
BD: Is it you
that has changed?
LH: We all
do, I think.
BD: We all
change and the world has changed?
world, yes. I am a part of the
other generation. But this is maybe an interesting point...
you do some recording in a church, with a huge acoustic and lots of
reverberation, then the
technique tries to accommodate this. But in the end, the result
is mostly too
slow because when you work hours and hours of sessions in such a
room, you will get used the room. Then you’re very astonished
when you hear the result. Also in the moment when you go and hear
tape, you are too much involved in the moment, so you have not the
should leave it for a few days and then come back to it.
yes. I will do a tour with the English
chamber orchestra when I come back to Europe, and I heard this
Mozart Serenade which I
recorded twelve years
ago in a church. I warned them that I would do some tempi
a little faster when I do it in a normal hall.
BD: Are you
at the point in your career that you want
to be, at this age?
LH: Yes. I
would be not
angry if it was more, but I’m very satisfied.
BD: Do you
like traveling all over the world?
LH: Yes, more
than my wife. We’ve
traveled a lot, and now we have a very nice home in the south of
Salzburg, in Hellbrunn, and a flat in
Vienna. I have to be four months in Vienna for doing
my evenings in the state opera, also doing concerts and for the master
classes in conducting. Then five or six months we are
traveling like this to Chicago, Buenos Aires, New York, and a lot of
cities in Europe. Then we try for two or three months to be in
house in Salzburg.
advice do you have for young conductors?
LH: I hate to
be a specialist. At the beginning of my career, it seemed that I
would be a specialist
in Mozart, which is an honor. But I try to do all the things and
have a big repertoire. My advice is not to go too fast,
and to take time to read the score. Look for, as I say, the
skin in a score, and try not to be too subjective. It
means at first you have to be very efficient to bring out everything
you believe that the composer wants. Then if
there is a space for own personality, that’s okay, but not to the
reverse way. Do not say, “I am I,
and I take this like a horse to ride the music.”
in the music, don’t put yourself in the music?
LH: Yes, but
to explain this better it is necessary to speak the language more.
the time and knowing that we were about at the end of our
conversation] [Reassuringly] Oh, your English was
fine. One last question — is conducting fun?
LH: It could
you’re very well prepared and you have a fine instrument — an
orchestra in which every problem is solved for the moment. There
maybe are problems during the performance, but they get solved and
prepared to have joy with the music. This joy should be one of
the big parts in life when you are a musician. This is a
privileged occupation, I think.
Absolutely. Thank you for coming to Chicago.
LH: Thank you.
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© 1999 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in the office suite of Lyric Opera
of Chicago on December 6, 1999. Portions were used (with
recordings) on WNIB in 2000. The
transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
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