Q & A: Artistic Director Matthias Lošek On Contemporary Opera And The Haydn Foundation’s Forthcoming Opera Festival

By Alan Neilson
Photo: Andrea Macchia

Situated within easy reach of the Dolomites and the Alps lies the small Tyrolean city of Bolzano. Formally part of the Austrian Empire, it was ceded to Italy at the end of World War I, and despite Mussolini’s subsequent attempt to Italianize the town, it still retains much of its Austrian heritage, with a quarter of the population still German speakers. It also is home to The Haydn Foundation, which each year produces a full program of classical music concerts, including a small opera season, comprising four or five works, which it stages in both Bolzano and the neighboring city of Trento.

Although their opera program is only small by the standards of the major Italian opera companies, it certainly has a claim to being the most innovative and imaginative. Its core repertoire is contemporary opera, in which the commissioning of new works plays an important role. They have also developed a fringe opera festival to encourage younger artists. Not that any of this precludes the programming of more traditional work, just that they are given less space on the schedules.

OperaWire has reviewed a number of their stagings over the past few years and found their productions to be of consistently high quality, with both contemporary and traditional works given interesting and thought-provoking presentations. Nicola Raad’s production of Catalani’s “La Wally,” notable for its “emotional intensity and psychological insights,” and David Rusconi’s “Dionysos Rising,” with its “experimental forms.. …(which) engage(d) on a cerebral and emotional level… …made for an interesting and enjoyable evening,” both left strong impressions on the reviewer.

This season four operas are planned. All are contemporary works of which Thomas Adès’ “Powder Her Face” is the most well-known. However, rather than spreading them over the course of the year, they will all be performed in the month of March and presented as an opera festival.

Time, therefore, for OperaWire to interview Mattias Lošek, the company’s artistic director for opera. Lošek is a specialist in the field of contemporary opera, who has accumulated substantial experience over his career, including, among many other projects, a fruitful period as artistic director of Vienna’s contemporary music festival, WienModern.

How did you find yourself in the position of artistic director for opera at The Haydn Foundation?

In 2015, I was asked if I was interested in doing the job. At the time, I was working as the artistic director of WienModern, Vienna’s contemporary music festival, and my contract was due to end. Of course, I was interested, but it really depended on what they wanted from me. If they wanted a ‘normal’ opera program, then I wouldn’t have been interested. I was not interested in running an opera house, and I am still not interested. Their idea, however, was to present more contemporary works, and in Italy, there is no established venue for contemporary opera. So, I agreed.

I have been working mainly, although not only in the field of contemporary opera for about 30 years now, but when I started it was with baroque opera, which I find quite amusing now!

What is your underlying philosophy for presenting an opera?

Firstly, opera should be an entertaining art form. This has to be the starting point. The film producer Oliver Stone once said, “My movies have a message, but if people are asleep during the movie, they will not get the message.” On the other hand, I am not a big fan of opera being a museum or a red carpet art form. I mean I love the big premiers when the president or prime minister turns up. I love drinking cocktails, you can handshake and give interviews, but that is not what opera is about.

For me, opera is about emotion and about fantasy – although you don’t hear people using such a word as it isn’t sexy, it isn’t fashionable. You often hear people talking about the concept and technical terms to describe the music or the production, but it is emotion we are really speaking about. It is music, and if you can’t feel it, you can’t enjoy it, and then you will never understand it.

Opera must also mean something to people, whether it is “Lohengrin” or “La Bohème” or a new opera like those we do here in Bolzano. What I want is to do is explore what makes us tick, why do we do what we do, and how do we view the world and other people? I see art as a kind of mirror we can look into to find answers. I believe strongly in this! This is what I try to offer the audience. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t work. It is a risk, and it is my job to take this risk.

Opera is also about storytelling. Puccini knew that Verdi knew it, Mozart knew it. Sometimes people forget this. Contemporary opera it lost its way, especially in the German-speaking world, for a long time. It’s different now. I think people are now looking for a story. From the beginning,  man has sat around the campfire and told stories. Stories are the glue that binds society.

However, I don’t want to be a teacher, and this is why I am not a huge fan of pre-performance talks, especially for contemporary operas. It makes the audiences look out for specific things, and people can end up sitting in the opera waiting for this thing to happen, and when you ask them about the opera afterward they will say things like “Ah! I was trying to watch for what you talked about in your introduction.” The result is that they miss the whole thing entirely. For me, it is more interesting to read about a piece of art, including a new opera, after you have seen it. I just don’t want to tell people how it must be understood; let them see it first. Afterward, we can talk about it!

Does your innovative approach extend to performance locations?

Yes, but we need both theaters and innovative venues. We did a “Cunning Little Vixen” in a road tunnel, which was great. The production was by Daisy Evans, who first staged it in an old London tube station. It was about a homeless child, so that when you enter you see posters of missing children. If you need a tunnel, then use a tunnel, but I am not a fan of doing things just because it is sexy, because it is cool. I don’t like the idea of just doing anything you want, as long as it is not in an opera theatre or concert hall. I remember talking to the Austrian composer Johannes Maria Staud and he said to me that he would be very happy if his next quartet wasn’t performed in a factory. Concert halls and theaters are built for music, so we should use them. I like the normal venues, I am used to them and I don’t want to give them up. But if other venues are relevant to the production, why not?

Looking back over the past programs, you seem to mix contemporary opera with more traditional operas. During your tenure, you have presented a “Don Giovanni” and a “La Wally” for example. Is this what you want to do or is this something you feel obliged to do?

Obviously, contemporary opera is central to what we are doing, but from time to time, I do a traditional opera because I am a nice person.

Seriously though, I like to think in bridges. I want to build a connection between the present season and the next season. When I work on a concept, it isn’t finished with that production; I want to link it to the next season. So, for example, the “Don Giovanni” came about because when I arrived in Bolzano, there was a “Così Fan Tutte” already scheduled and therefore I thought, okay let’s do the whole Da Ponte trilogy. I like to leave a trail of bread crumbs. Some people find them, some don’t.

We don’t have the money to produce traditional operas as well as contemporary operas. So we have decided to bring in traditional productions when we need one. The only exception I made was actually for “La Wally.” When I arrived in Bolzano in 2015, my first thought was I must do I do “La Wally” here, we are surrounded by the Dolomites, and the Alps. I had a clear vision about the piece and when I spoke to Nicola Raab, the director, and Mirella Weingarten, the scenographer, I remember saying you have complete freedom to do as you want, but no snow and no avalanche. I want a concept without them. And they did a great job.

So yes, a mix of operas is what I want to present. There are one or two traditional operas I still would like to do, such as “La Boheme” for example, but I am still searching for the right concept at the moment.

We can perform a maximum of five operas each year, of which two are already fixed, a commissioned work and a fringe piece. It is difficult to choose the others. I often have to say sorry, but no. When I say yes to something, it also means I have to say no to other things. Money is obviously tight, but it is important to be true to what we are trying to achieve here. Even at WienModern, it was difficult to decide on which operas to stage and we had much more money.

I must say that I have been very happy with what we have been able to achieve.

How do you go about selecting a new opera?

The main thing when doing contemporary opera is to give commissions to composers. Otherwise, you’re not serious. Obviously, we can’t afford to offer a commission for every opera. It is too expensive, so we also bring in productions.

I am a person who needs to guide the commission. I don’t say okay, here’s the commission, see you in two years. I need to work through it with the composer and the librettist as it develops. I need this time. This means up to three, even four years, from the initial idea to the first night. This was how I was trained to do things, and it works for me. So although I started here in Bolzano in 2015, the first commission couldn’t be performed until 2017.

We decided to select composers which could connect with the three regions that are served by the Haydn Foundation, that is, the Sud Tyrol, Alto Adige, and Trentino. I wanted to work with the cultural soil of the region. I already knew two composers from the area: Wolfgang Mitterer from Tyrol and Manuela Kerer from Alto Adige. Then I discovered Matteo Franceschini from Trentino, a little while later. So I had three composers with whom I could work.

Then we have a “fringe” project. We invite people to send us an idea for a contemporary opera. They are free to send whatever they wish. A jury then chooses the operas we will stage. There have been three so far, and they have been a huge success. It is always very interesting because you really have no idea what you will get. It is a risk, but one I am happy to take. If it fails, it fails, but on the other hand, we give the creators the possibility of staging their work. It is a duty we have to younger people. This year the fringe production will be “Silenzio” by Anna Sowa with a libretto by Martina Badiluzzi. people. It is a very touching story about a lady who becomes a flower. It is very convincing and so innocent. I really hope it will be a success.

What has been the audience reaction to what can be considered to be challenging programming?

We receive many different reactions. Many are positive, but of course, there are some people who say they would prefer opera with nice music and nice scenery and don’t want to see “La Traviata” set in an art gallery. That is ok. Even some of my friends say they don’t like what I do. One of the main music journalists in Austria with whom I have a very good relationship, but who is not really a big fan of mine, said to me that he doesn’t really like what I do, but admitted that I did what I believed to be best. You can never please everyone. If that is what you want to do, then you should be doing another job.

Also, there are some people who have never been to an opera, as they think that it is not for them. They think it is too difficult, too artistic or have not been educated for it. So I have to find a way to persuade them. I managed to get my neighbor to come, and she had never been to an opera before. It was George Benjamin’s “Written in Skin” which is not an easy opera. Afterward, she was very pleased that she had had the opportunity. It is a magical experience for people to realize that it is for them, that they can cross that red line. This is the type of reaction that really makes me happy, more so than if I am congratulated by an aficionado, although I also appreciate that too.

Do you work with schools?

Yes. During the first lockdown, I did an online session with a school in Bolzano. I explained about what opera is, how an opera is produced, what my job is, and so on. But this only makes sense if the students do something themselves. So I gave them a project to do. They had three months to present me a concept for an opera. The teacher suggested something along the lines of Shakespeare or “The Iliad.” I said “No, no, please no. Let the students decide.” They produced five titles, including one based on a Hollywood movie, one about Coco Chanel, and one about Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” They produced 30 minute online presentations with music examples. I have to say that they were better than 50% of compositions I see from professionals. They were really excellent!

Just yesterday, I received an email from one of the students who asked me how she could continue with the project. It makes me so happy to see this. It is one of the best things of the job.

The forthcoming opera season consists of four contemporary works. Could you tell us something about them? 

Firstly, I want to say that love this season. We are presenting also the four operas as a festival, which makes it easier for people to follow us. It is easier to explain what you are doing. Also, if you try to present four of five operas over ten months in two cities, it is very difficult, especially for the communication department.

The first opera is “Toteis” by Manuela Kerer. This is our third attempt at staging it, as it was cancelled twice due to covid. We did manage a staging in Vienna, but it was in a smaller version, but it still proved to be a success, which means a lot if you know Vienna.

It is about an Austrian woman called Viktoria Savs who grew up in Merano in Alto Adige. During the First World War, she lost a leg during the conflict. Then, during the Nazi period, she embraced their ideology and became a heroine. For me, she is a prototype for generations still infected by the terrible shocking ideas of National Socialism, which led to one of the biggest catastrophes of Mankind. I struggle a lot with the history of my country. Austria always maintained it was a victim, and it took until the 1990s for it to admit its role.

We are telling a story of a woman who absolutely followed the wrong idea, and she never saw her error. Even up to her death in Salzburg in the 1980s, she never recognized the wrong path she took. Now, in 2015 and 2016, we can see right-wing parties re-emerging in Italy, France, and Austria again, like a phoenix. There is a huge danger growing in Europe and the USA of something like this happening again. Yet when I was growing up, such a thing appeared impossible. I never thought it could happen. History should never be forgotten! So this is the idea of the mirror; we can watch this opera and see how it reflects on our society today.

How exactly to portray the character was a very difficult question to deal with. The composer always says that she is not a fan of this person, but we wanted to be fair. We didn’t want to explain away what she did by saying, well, this was the time in which she lived, but nor do we want to point the finger. Rather, we try to view her from a distance and let people create their own opinion, and reflect on how we can be sure that these things will not happen again. What we are missing at the moment is tolerance and respect. Outsiders should not be outsiders because of their sexual habits or what they eat or their religion. With opera, we have a huge possibility to get a reaction from the audience because we are dealing with music, with emotion. What can bring out more emotion than music? So we are looking at this problem through the character of Viktoria Savs, and it’s a tricky thing to do. We want to offer up the idea that this was not destiny. Life does not have a single path, people have the ability to choose their own way. When we first scheduled the opera two years ago, we labeled the season “Angle or Demon?” It is a question, and this is the important point. We all have something of both within us, but at times some people reach a point in which they must decide, and it is up to that person to choose. No one else can do that for you.

In 2014, I spoke to Nicola Sani, and he told me about his new opera “Il Tempo Sospeso Del Volo” which is about the murder of Giovanni Falcone in 1992. I must admit that I am a huge fan of stories about the Mafia, although this isn’t the reason I am doing this opera. I am interested in how the mafia gets its power from images like honor and family, although in my conversations with Sani, he said that these images are a trap.

We decided to use the title “Falcone” rather than the original title because we want him to be the focus. It is now 30 years since the bombing and it is right that we remember him. I still have images of his assassination in my mind. I remember sitting with my father, watching the news about it. Falcone is not just an Italian figure, he is a European figure. He is larger than life, he is a hero who stood for a cause, and opera deals with the larger than life.

We need heroes and that is why I wanted to make it one of our productions this year.

The difference between Savs and Falcone for me is that Falcone followed an idea that exists deep within himself, within his soul, while maybe she is someone who followed ideas from other people.

The third opera is “Silenzio” which I have already talked about.

Lastly, there is Thomas Adès’ “Powder Her Face,” which I have been looking to stage for some time, and this production directed by Julien Chavaz, I think is excellent. When they first produced it in 1994, the opera caused quite a scandal, but this is now 2022, and the three minutes which caused the scandal are no longer so shocking and we are presenting it in a very funny way. I think the opera is an epic tragedy.

If you look at the presentations we have done here over the past six years you will see a theme of love and understanding for women running through them, such as “La Wally” and “Written on Skin.” “Powder Her Face” is another example. Maybe because I have a really strong mother and a strong wife, I am attracted to roles in which the woman is portrayed as strong. Women have been forced to compete in a society in which men hold the power. The world has been dominated by men, dominated for thousands of years, and look where we are! It is still male-dominated, and I don’t want that anymore. We need to change. Women need to participate fully. 

What are your future plans for the Haydn Foundation?

We have two commissions planned for 2022-23 and 2023-24. One is a very unusual view of “Peter Pan” by Wolfgang Mitterer with a libretto by Sir David Pountney, and it’s not an opera for children! I grew up with this story and I don’t see it as Walt Disney. For me, it is more like Charles Dickens. What does it mean to be a lost child? To be someone who doesn’t want to grow up? What is Neverland, and what does it mean that he wants to fly there? I invited David to consider this in the libretto, and he produced a very dark version. So it is going to be a very risky “Peter Pan.” Of course, you will see all the characters, like Wendy, Captain Hook, and Nana, but you will be seeing them in a different way. It won’t be the easiest opera, but it will be very interesting.

Then the second commission is from Matteo Franceschini, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” This is planned for my final season in 2023-24. It is special because it is about death, about art, and about living with art, which makes it is very important commission.


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