The Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös has lived in Germany, France, and Holland, and worked closely with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez. In 2004, he returned home to Budapest.
His primary motivation was the theater. Going to plays abroad, he told me, “you understand the words, but not always what’s behind them. My wife and I can only do that in Hungary.” As a teenager, Eötvös composed incidental music for the stage. Spoken theater was one of his first artistic passions.
Perhaps it’s logical, then, that of Eötvös’s compositions his operas are the most famous and widely performed. His music is mysterious, granular, at once perfumed and rigorous. Sitting down to listen to his reading of Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America,” however, I found myself almost anxious. For me—and many other gay Americans—the text is a kind of Bible, providing not answers but consolation. Does Eötvös’s opera do it justice? Yes, in large part. Eötvös’s music deploys noise and microtones with sophistication, and has a certain modesty: Kushner’s text is always easy to understand. And yet key scenes, such as a heartbreakingly desperate and awkward hookup in Central Park, are cut, and the heat of anger and sex, moral pathos and resistance that permeate the play are missing.
I met Eötvös one morning at the modern apartment he uses when in Berlin. Out of the living room window, I could see the characteristic roof of the Philharmonie.
VAN: You started working on the opera “Angels in America” in 2000. What about the subject appealed to you?
Peter Eötvös: So it usually takes four or five years from the planning stage to the premiere of an opera. The part of that which takes the longest is choosing the text. At the time, Tony Kushner’s play was new, but it was making waves. I had already worked with Jean-Pierre Brossmann, the artistic director of the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, on my opera “The Three Sisters.” It was important for him that we take on something with similar potential for success. In the end we decided on “Angels in America.” My wife, Mari Mezei, wrote the libretto. It took her nearly two years. The play is over six hours long, the opera only two.
At first, I wanted to cast Barbra Streisand in the role of Harper Pitt. [A Mormon valium addict whose husband, Joe, is a Republican law clerk and a closeted gay man—Ed.] It almost worked—almost being the operative word. [Laughs.]
Did you and your wife have any doubts about taking on the very gay subject matter of “Angels in America” as a straight couple?
Absolutely not. In the ‘70s, I was working at the electronic music studio in Cologne. My colleague Jim, who was American, died of AIDS. So I was in very close contact with someone who was affected by the disease.
But the gay theme wasn’t the main one, for me. I actually think the most interesting part is the strength that Prior Walter finds. [Prior Walter gets AIDS, and his boyfriend, unable to deal with his impending death, leaves him.—Ed.] He imagines an angel, who gives him commands, so that he has a task. And that prevents him from dying. For me, that’s the main theme. It doesn’t necessarily have to be AIDS, it could also be about cancer. Prior Walter is a hero of mine.
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Why did you decide to cut so much text? “Tristan und Isolde” is also around six hours long including intermissions.
That wouldn’t have worked in this case. I wanted to leave the political aspect of the play out of the opera. There’s a lot about… is it Nixon or Johnson? I don’t even remember what president it’s about.
That’s right. In general, I compose operas with the goal in mind that they’ll eventually become part of the repertoire. Monteverdi’s operas have survived 400 years. [Laughs.] And so I hope that my operas will also be performed a hundred years from now.
As you just saw, I couldn’t even remember Reagan. If you ask the younger generation what they think of Reagan, they’ll just say, “Who?” [Laughs.]
But aren’t Reagan’s policies during the AIDS crisis extremely important for the plot of “Angels in America”?
Theater is different. You’re working with words. You can shape the text so that it helps explain a given time period. But in 50 years we will know very little about Reagan. On the other hand, a character like Roy Cohn is present in every epoch. In opera, the words can only carry the plot in general, between the visual and the aural elements. They’re the spine of the work, but not the flesh, not the esprit.
Your piece “Intervalles-Intérieurs,” for small ensemble and tape, was composed in 1974 and revised in 1981. Do you revise your pieces often?
Constantly. As long as I’m alive. [Laughs.]
What are you revising now?
“Reading Malevich.” It’s an orchestra piece that was premiered at the Lucerne Festival last summer. In his Suprematism 56, the painter Kazimir Malevich worked with blocks of form and color. In my own piece, I found that there was too much action within a single block. The conception was completely wrong. I wanted to translate optic color into sound color as literally as possible, but my orchestration was too individual. So I’m recomposing the original block.
I think of my compositions as my children. Someone once asked me what my favorite piece of mine is. I said, “Would you ask me to say which child is my favorite? It’s impossible. You can’t say, ‘I prefer this one, because it has three feet or five ears.’ That would be ridiculous.” And so if my pieces are my children, I have a responsibility to take care of them. As long as I feel that they aren’t whole, I continue to work on them.
What do you do when you realize that you don’t like something in your piece during the rehearsal phase before the premiere? Do you have time to change things?
No. As a conductor, I know that wouldn’t make sense. When the musicians have their parts, you can’t touch things anymore. I just have to make do with it. The most I can do, if I’m conducting, is cut things.
That reminds me of a nice story. The Berlin Philharmonic had commissioned a cello concerto from me, with Miklós Perényi as the soloist. In the first rehearsal, I could see that Miklós was playing, but I couldn’t hear him. The orchestra is too loud, I thought. I asked, “Could you play softer?” So they played softer. I still couldn’t hear Miklós. I said, “My mistake, the orchestration is too heavy.” I started cutting, having fewer and fewer instruments play, so that I could hear Miklós. I was so embarrassed, thinking, “The composer shows up, he’s conducting, and the entire time he’s correcting his own piece?” When it was break time, I apologized to the orchestra. But the musicians said, “No, don’t apologize! On the contrary, it’s fascinating to see how a composer thinks.” I was saved. [Laughs.]
Since 2010, Hungary has been governed by the authoritarian right-wing populist Viktor Orbán. Has that caused anything to change in the music scene?
Thankfully not in music. Culture is somewhat protected—it’s more problematic in the sciences. All across Europe, orchestras are being shut down, but not in Hungary. Some have even received increased funding in the last several years. My Peter Eötvös Contemporary Music Foundation works with the Budapest Music Center, for example. In the last 20 years, the BMC has published some 250 CDs of contemporary music and jazz, at times with government funding. It benefits from a kind of benign neglect.
In Poland, the theater is where most debates around art and politics are happening. Is that similar in Hungary?
Theater audiences in Hungary are not necessarily in the opposition, but they are very aware. They’re interested in what’s happening, and the theater gives them an excellent way of understanding it. For instance, the big theaters have started inserting little monologues at the end of plays that take a position on the political issue of the day. In a Shakespeare play, it might be three lines in Shakespearian language.
The problem is that there’s something new every day in politics. We are very active, but it’s so exhausting. It’s a shame. Politics have become the main topic of discussion in life. It really shouldn’t be like that.
Your compositions have a strong Japanese influence. There is even a “Japanese catalogue” within your works. When I listen to your music, I think I can hear this influence. Should it be audible?
For you or for me?
For me and other listeners.
I hope so. For me, it’s about what’s audible. I’m very sensual. I’m always interested in the tactile. In the 1970s, I went to Osaka with Stockhausen for six months, so that’s where the Japanese influence comes from. I was struck by the sound of nature, which is very different from here. Even Asian rain sounds different: it’s thicker, the drops are larger.
In your music I often hear glissandi which cover a lot of musical “ground” within short spans of time. That sounds somehow Japanese, to my ears.
I’m glad to hear that. You’re correct. It’s a little bit like in Japanese architecture or painting: it’s a different perspective, a different sense of space. I love world music so much because every little corner of the earth has its own sound world. Gamelan or Gagaku are incredibly rich musical cultures. My goal isn’t to take their sounds and put them into my works, but they have expanded my sense of what’s aurally possible.
Similarly, I don’t want to simply extend the Second Viennese School. But, because I’m a conductor, I am tied to a certain repertoire. My career got started because, in the ‘70s, I was capable of interpreting the new music of the time.
What do you mean by capability: the ability to hear and correct in rehearsals?
The ability to hear, but also the interest in the music. Mainly the interest, in fact. ¶
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