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 internet resources!

Here is that conversation . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    We will talk mostly about your favorite subject... I assume that music is your favorite subject?

Leopold Hager:    Yes, this is true. [Laughs]

hagerBD:    Even at this date, is it continuing to be your favorite subject?

LH:    Yes, absolutely!

BD:    Good.  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 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 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?

LH:    Absolutely.  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?

LH:    Yes.

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 one-act!

hagerLH:    Yes, this is the baby of the German operas.  [Both laugh]  Zaide is also German.

BD:    Wasn
t that was the precursor to Entführung?

LH:    Yes.

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?

LH:    Yes.  Oh, absolutely.

BD:    So even Mozart developed in his career?

LH:    Yes, very much so.  He starts where others end.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Was Mozart divine?

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?

LH:    [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 to Mozart?

LH:    Yes.

BD:    When you’re doing Mozart, is it good to get away from it a little bit and do other repertoire? 

hagerLH:    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 sidefrom Wagnerit’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 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 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?

LH:    Yes!  Absolutely!

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.

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?

LH:    Absolutely!  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.

hagerBD:    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 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 operas we have had in this century.

BD:    [Surprised]  Really???

LH:    Yes.

BD:    That is high praise.

LH:    For me, Lulu is not of the same quality as Wozzeck.

BD:    Wozzeck is better?  

LH:    Yes.  Absolutely!

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of opera in composition?

LH:    No.

BD:    [Again, quite surprised]  Not at all???

LH:    No.

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.  [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

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?

hagerLH:    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 good.

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.

LH:    Yes.

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 alert?

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?

LH:    Yes.  Absolutely.

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 no Holländer???  

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.

hagerBD:    Do you get everything right on a recording?

LH:    Yes, I think yes.

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 straightjacket?

LH:    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 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?

LH:    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 I wouldn’t agree.

BD:    You don’t have final say???

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 transform you.

BD:    Is it you that has changed?

LH:    We all do, I think.

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?

hagerLH:    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.

BD:    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.

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.