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"It Makes Me Unhappy When Nothing Happens": An Exclusive Interview with Nikolaus Bachler - Part 1

By Jens F. Laurson
16 Jul 2009

Nikolaus Bachler
photo by Christian Kaufmann

As this year's Munich Opera Festival enters its home stretch, we offer a 2-part interview with General Manager Nikolaus Bachler. The Austrian-born impresario has been making waves since his 2008 arrival and, as you will see, he pulls no punches in conversation.


**

Nikolaus Bachler knows why he moved the Munich Opera administration's offices to the new building behind the opera house. When he started his new job as the Intendant, the general artistic and managing director of the Bavarian State Opera last year, he came in saying:

“People have to go new ways. Literally. For 30 years they were used to taking the elevator to the 5th floor of the old building… now everyone doesn’t know where to go. That was strategically done, and it’s very creative, in a way.”

I cast my eye around Bachler’s spacious corner office overlooking—through two floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows—the plaza in front of the former Royal Stables to the English Garden and reckon that he couldn’t have been too displeased with some of the side-effects from achieving this creative confusion.

“There are other changes, too” he continues, “but they’re all, though necessary, basically symbolic. Changing the design, replacing a few people in strategic positions. But truly leaving your mark, if you can call it that, is only possible with time. You need time to really change something. The way I see it, you have to create change by how establish your way of behavior. How you talk to people, how you foster discussions, how you influence a working environment, how open it is, how much or little hierarchy there is. This kind of habitat, the mycelium beneath the mushrooms, is what you have to work on. Because that’s where real change lies. And that was, if you wish, my success at the Burgtheater for all those years. And it’s already working here, too. All the singers who come to the house suddenly feel that things are different. Different behaviors, different reactions to problems, etcetera. That way, and only that way, you — or I should say I — can leave my mark."

*

"You put something else in it and it explodes or something beautiful comes out or it falls together… and that’s the process."

Our conversation, English with spurts of Austrian accented German, lasts shy of an hour and is liberally speckled with laughter. Laughter with Bachler always sounds part self-satisfied, part boyish-glee; the excitement with which a post-Christmas kid might speak of its new electric train set. The analogy of the opera being his toy isn’t too farfetched.  For Bachler, “theater is not a job. Well, it’s a job, also. But I’m 18 hours here. I live here, practically — and most of them — the opera’s employees—live here. The opera house is my — and those people’s — life.”

“A theater director has to have two abilities: One is that he has to be a seducer with a very good intuition. I think the main thing in my job is to have good intuition. The second thing is: The better your network, the better you can do your job. You have to have a special connection with, and a special knowledge of, people to develop things with them. The more people you know, the more major artists are in your life, the more give and take of inspiration there is. It’s works like in a big kitchen. You have twenty pans. One starts to cook when you’re not expecting it, one gets cold, one you put aside—but suddenly you take it back again, you put something else in it and it explodes or something beautiful comes out or it falls together… and that’s the process. Wondering if something could be good.

"Let’s say I’m having dinner with [Angela] Gheorgiu and [Jonas] Kaufmann and we start to talk and at night I lie in my bed and start to think: is having them in a Traviata together a good idea? For us? For them? This is how you find and create. And the beautiful thing is, coming back to the kitchen: even if you take the best ingredients, it could always turn out nothing. You always retain this surprise element. Same as in painting or any other arts. You can’t lift your brush to the canvas knowing you’ll create a masterpiece. You cannot be sure. That’s what keeps it alive and magic in a way.

“Sometimes it turns out that you think: I don’t understand it… or it’s completely different than how I… not how I see it, because it doesn’t matter how I would see it… but how I understand it or how I find it strong or truthful. Basically my opinions are very different from a lot of other theater directors and that’s why you’re not allowed to interfere as the Intendant. I hate nothing more than these kinds of theater directors who come in late during the rehearsals and, like plumbers, try to fix things by bending a pipe here or tightening a screw there. Even if they think it changes anything, it doesn’t. The only thing you can do is to accompany it through the process and to be the ‘first spectator’ and give some feedback. Or be like a son who walks with his father (or vice versa) who says: Oh, look at this or that. I see this and this and this. And if they trust you, maybe it helps them. Because the only thing that matters is that it helps them. All I can offer is an outside perspective.

“You know… the funny thing about being an Intendant is that there is probably no company or work environment that’s more authoritarian than theater. There’s just one person in charge for everything: The Intendant. And there is no job where that power helps less than in my métier. That’s the contradiction. You run an absolutist regime… but you can’t just come in, like a CEO at BMW might, and make radical changes. You can’t change the strategy at an opera house, because you are depending on the talent of the people you work with.

"The only thing you can do is help them do their best. And there is no strategy for results. You can’t give orders. It’s a completely unbound process and you can only go back to the metaphor of the kitchen where you can lower or raise the heat a little and hope that something happens."

*

When I drift off topic and begin to extol the virtues of Munich, Bachler finishes my sentence more enthusiastically than I had begun it:

Culturally I don’t know many cities, certainly not that size, apart from Vienna…

“…not even Paris, not even London. I think no city in the world has, for example, three major orchestras and three major conductors in residence. In that sense I think it’s unique… for its size, for its proportions, and its history, also. That’s one of the reasons why I chose to take on the Munich Opera: Because it’s one of the healthiest places in that sense. It’s one of the healthiest opera situations in the world. Healthy in the sense of how the artistic process is connected to the response of the public and general circumstances. How politicians appreciate this house. How it gives back, how people are busy on a daily basis getting tickets for the opera. The latter is an especially good situation. Not primarily in terms of money, but in terms of energy. And there simply aren’t many houses in the world like that.

“And there’s a special relationship between the sponsors and the opera house. Here, in Munich, we can do certain things if we have a good relationship with the sponsors, but we are not dependent on them. The general system of state subsidies — at least as we have it in Germany — is the system that grants the most freedom. A sponsor gives his or her money, usually for a particular project to associate with. But a politician gives money on behalf of the general public - not just taxpayers — to support the institution as such. Since we are a public institution, as much as opera can be, it’s a process of equality.”

Won’t there be a time when politicians, less inclined to accept the importance of public funds for opera, will ask for hard-nosed accounts—beyond how opera does something great for humanity—on how efficiently the subsidies are spent?

“I actually embrace the idea of offering hard numbers in return for those subsidies. I used to get a lot of criticism for my expressing this opinion, actually, but I was always against the ivory tower attitude. My job is artistic production, but I’m also a business man. I [am responsible for] an enterprise employing about 950 people. If you consider their families, there are about two, three thousand people directly depending on what we do here.

“I think concrete numbers are a very good and easy thing. First of all it means for me how productive we are. Secondly, it shows how we spend our money not according to our income but according to what it gives to the city; what is generated. There’s the number of people who come to Munich specifically to see an opera. There’s how the whole institution gives life to a city, establishes its reputation and attractiveness beyond tourism. And then there’s how the institution gives back in the city in terms of indirect returns: Taxis, restaurants... and how much we can add to the identity of the city. The Oktoberfest and the State Opera probably are Munich to a fair number of people who live abroad and are interested in the city."

Does being dependent on private money and whims of sponsors, if not induce a chase to the lowest common denominator, at least inhibit the creative juices?

“Of course. We see that it does. I’m generalizing, of course, but it’s true that all the developments in opera take place in Europe. And all the developments from Europe come to the States ten, twenty years later. The big revolution at the MET in presenting works, all the work that Peter Gelb does, bringing in directors like Luc Bondy and Patrice Chéreau… those are the people who worked here 20 years ago. And it’s good that Gelb does that. It’s easier to sell now, it makes sense to the audiences, and he assures that the MET can survive. He couldn’t take a Martin Kušej production now. Subscriptions and bequests would be canceled all over the place. But in 20 years, Kušej will be an — albeit controversial — hit at the MET. Bob Wilson had to come to Europe to develop. This has nothing to do with the public, or the theater management, by the way. It has only something to do with the financing structure. Public taste, just as in the 19th century, is always being pushed by artistic developments. You might say that public taste is always behind its time.

“Quite understandable, really. Back in his time, people stood in front of a Kandinsky picture with incomprehension and dismay. Now they line up over night and around the block to see his paintings. There is nothing wrong with that, mind you. That’s our situation, our calling, even: to tickle people. And it’s also my job not to tax them too much. Take last night. We had a very good Traviata [with Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, Simon Keenlyside] where everyone cried and was caught in an Elysium and bliss. And no one thinks about how this was the biggest scandal of Verdi’s time, putting a prostitute on stage."

Tito Beltrán and Diana Damrau in the now-retired 2005 Rigoletto
photo by Wilfried Hösl
What constitutes failure of an opera for you? When you’ve gone through the process, chosen your artists, watch the premiere: what makes you unhappy?

"First of all it makes me unhappy when nothing happens. If nothing happens in the sense that it’s not going beyond the surface. When it doesn’t get to any point. Second thing is: if it is not daring. And third — most importantly — if the artists on stage don’t create a certain world which we can understand and which tells us something. And this is what I call 'Interpretation.' You create a certain world [in which to] set an opera that many of us have already seen five, twenty, thirty times. Why would you see Traviata again if a new production didn’t create something where we say: ’Oh, I hadn’t seen it like that.’"

Are there any underexposed operas that you’d like to see here, even if you may not get around to them in the next few years?

"I’d like to do most of the Verdi operas. Ballo. Simone. Rigoletto."

Are those underexposed, though?

"Well, most of them are not here, actually. There is no Forza at this house, there is no Simone, there is no Ernani… they’re actually not here. Rigoletto — yes, the monkey production (Doris Dörrie’s controversial 'Planet of the Apes' take on Verdi) — is not here anymore. And I would love do a new Mozart cycle of the Da Ponte operas"

What about 20th century operas? The Rakes Progress, The Love for Three Oranges?

"Well, as you’ve seen, we are doing some of that in the next season: Poulenc and Janáček. Of course we do this. And yes, they’re beautiful operas. But everyone does that. And everyone thinks they’re contemporary when they do a 20th century opera. I think you’re more contemporary if you have a really good direction of an 18th century opera.

"But for me, there are more interesting aspects to that than just looking at the opera itself. I put Jenůfa on, for example, because I had an idea for this fantastic cast [Eva-Maria Westbroek, Deborah Polaski, Stefan Margita, Joseph Kaiser, Helga Dernesch] and Kyrill Petrenko to conduct and so that’s the reason why I wanted a first season Jenůfa. I’m also looking forward to doing more from the beginning of the 20th century. All the Schrekers and the like. But the package has to be right. Aside, there was a flurry of those, just a few years ago....

 

Part 2 of this conversation now available.


Eva-Maria Westbroek and Stefan Margita in Jenůfa
photo by Wilfried Hösl




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