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
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 internet resources!
Here is that conversation . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: We
will talk mostly about your favorite subject... I assume that music is your
Yes, this is true. [Laughs]
BD: Even at this date, is it continuing to be your
LH: Yes, absolutely!
Since we’re talking a bit about Mozart, what is the secret to doing his works?
LH: The 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
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 time.
BD: Is it good
that we are bringing these lesser-known works of Mozart
— the early operas and the early symphonies — to the public?
We get to see the spectrum, why and how the different styles of 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 gave a 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?
BD: Now that’s
an opera seria...
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 und Bastienne...
BD: Oh, the little
LH: Yes, this is the baby of the German operas.
[Both laugh] Zaide is also
that was the precursor to Entführung?
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?
BD: So even Mozart
developed in his career?
LH: Yes, very much
so. He starts where others end. [Both laugh]
BD: Was Mozart
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 conducting Mozart?
Yes. This is one of the most beautiful feelings you can have, to conduct
this wonderful music. But “divine” is not a word
BD: Is it always
special for you to return to Mozart?
BD: When you’re
doing Mozart, is it good to get away from it a little bit and do other repertoire?
LH: This is necessary sometimes. I had a quite
good reputation when I left Salzburg 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, for 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.
* * *
BD: You conduct
opera and you conduct concert. How do you divide your career between
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 did 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 is
in 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 arrive 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 what 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 the first reason when doing opera — be careful. The second
reason is that it 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
BD: Perhaps 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?
LH: Maybe take
as an example, Rigoletto. I
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 is okay!
BD: So some of
these new productions with new ideas work?
You 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. Otherwise
it’s impossible if the stage director refuses to do everything within what
the music says.
BD: We’re sort
of dancing around it, so let me ask the very easy question — what
is the purpose of opera?
LH: [Ponders 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 and
Lulu, are more in the head?
LH: No, 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
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 operas we
have had in this century.
BD: That is high
LH: For me, Lulu is not of the same quality as Wozzeck.
BD: Wozzeck is better?
BD: Are you optimistic
about the future of opera in composition?
BD: [Again, quite
surprised] Not at all???
BD: Is opera dead?
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 not 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.
* * *
BD: When 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 from the librarian asking me for details because the musicians
are not sure about things. They’re asking me to look in the score because
maybe there’s 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 as strong.
BD: At least they
want to be accurate.
LH: Yes, and that’s
BD: But each night
then, you make it a little better and a little better?
LH: I 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 enough rehearsal.
BD: There’s the
legendary Felsenstein productions where they would have six months of rehearsal
for one production.
BD: How do you
keep the third and the eighth and the twelfth performance fresh and sparkling?
LH: That 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 and maybe 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, what’s this?”
BD: They’re more
LH: Yes, and then
they play! If an orchestra is listening to the singer or to the soloist,
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 away?
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 right?
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
LH: There’s 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 good performance.
BD: Do you get everything right on a recording?
LH: Yes, I think
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 a
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 the hall where we were because the listener has a perfect
reproduction on his machine.
BD: Does it ever
surprise you, what you hear coming back at you from the recording?
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 I wouldn’t agree.
BD: You don’t have
LH: Yes, mostly,
but two or three times, I had this experience.
BD: Have you basically,
though, been pleased with your records?
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
BD: Is it you that
LH: We all do,
BD: We all change
and the world has changed?
LH: The world,
yes. I am a part of the other generation. But this is maybe an
interesting point... When 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 the tape, you are too much involved in the moment, so
you have not the distance.
BD: You should
leave it for a few days and then come back to it.
LH: Yes, 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 our house in Salzburg.
BD: What 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 to 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 second 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.”
BD: Find yourself
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.
BD: [Checking 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 be.
If 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 everybody is 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.
Thank you for coming to Chicago.
LH: Thank you.
[Vis-à-vis the recordings shown on this
webpage, see my interviews with Helen Donath, Teresa Berganza,
Thomas Moser, Robert Lloyd, Judith Blegen, Arleen Augér, and
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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
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with
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
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
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