Q & A: Kasper Bech Holten, Director of Schumann's Genoveva at Bard SummerScape

Classic Arts Features   Q & A: Kasper Bech Holten, Director of Schumann's Genoveva at Bard SummerScape
Robert Schumann is certainly celebrated as a composer for the voice, but not as a composer of operas. He wrote only one: Genoveva, for which he provided both music and libretto. Perhaps that was a problem, for the piece has had a stage career one might describe as ... er, less than successful. An article in last Sunday's New York Times (July 23), while acknowledging that much of the music was quite beautiful, referred to Genoveva as "the unloved opera" and a "perennial flop." The paper also gave us one tiny but telling taste of the libretto: the heroine's immortal line, "Avant, ignoble bastard!"

So if anyone is braver than Leon Botstein, artistic director of the Bard SummerScape festival, for deciding to present a full staging of Genoveva (the first in the U.S., in fact), it's Kasper Bech Holten for agreeing to direct it. In the following interview, conducted by Alison Ames of 21C Media Group, Holten,the 33-year-old artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, talks about what attracted him — to directing opera generally, and to a work long considered by many to be un-stageworthy.

What is it especially about Genoveva that made you accept Bard's invitation — were you familiar with the work beforehand? Now that you know it, will you approach it in a "non-historical" way? I ask because of your interesting [Wagner] Ring ideas on your website, and the wonderful photographs of your staging.

I have always found it interesting to get challenged. I did not know Genoveva, but I thought it was interesting that Schumann had written an opera. It is a challenging piece for a director, but it is also wonderfully operatic with its wild German high Romanticism, and it reminded me of a mix between Lohengrin and Freisch‹tz.

Do you have what you could describe as a general philosophy about directing opera and, if so, how does it apply to Genoveva?

For me opera is about trying to make people cry. The opera house should be the emotional fitness-center of society — a place where you go to use your love-muscle, your hate-muscle, etc. Genoveva is so wildly dramatic, moving and fascinating, if you want to express all this instead of looking for realism in it.

Schumann's Genoveva seems to get very strong reactions from people. Liszt was a great admirer of it, which is one of the reasons Bard has decided to mount this production; he considered it one of the best operas of his time. And conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt has recorded the work and has come to its defense when critics and performers take the work to task. What is this opera all about?

The more I get to know it, Genoveva is a dream of love that turns into a nightmare. It is about obsession — what happens when you are obsessed with love. The main character is really Golo, a character much like Alberich: who thirsts for love, but cannot have it and turns into a terrible caricature of himself.

What should we tell a reluctant critic or editor who asks "Why would I want to drive all the way up to Bard to see this opera, and write a review?"

First of all, because you will have millions of chances to review Rigoletto or Nozze di Figaro, but you won't come across Genoveva very often. So if you have any curiosity, that should already make you come! But also because we will try to make it a wild, intense music-theatre experience, using the romantic wilderness of the text instead of excusing it.

What got you into directing and when? Did you — like James Levine — do theatrical stagings with puppets as a child?

I did, actually! I saw Carmen when I was nine at the Royal Danish Opera (where I am now artistic director), and I was completely sold! I listened to the record over and over again, started dragging my parents to opera ever so often (they both work in finance), but at 12 they started to just let me go to the opera alone. At around the same time, we got a toy theatre and started off by doing Lohengrin, but from 12-14 I actually put on the WHOLE Ring cycle in the toy theatre — using Karajan's recording as sound track. For G‹tterd‹mmerung I even entered the whole Danish translation in my computer and timed it all, so we had our own titles for the audience! But still: My poor family, who had to sit through the whole Ring ...

When did you first get going professionally?

At 18, I decided to give it a go and I started working as assistant director to people I admired. Very soon, I was lucky enough to get a chance to direct a chamber opera. And since then, it has moved really fast. But if anybody had told me 15 years ago that I would now have directed the whole Ring in a new opera house [the Operaen in Copenhagen] for the Royal Danish Opera — where I would be artistic director — I would just have laughed.

Your enthusiasm for directing is contagious. What is it about this job that you find so appealing?

For me, directing is an incredible way of working: Your whole job is about inspiring other people — the singers, design team and finally the audience. I find it so rewarding to be able to make my ideas grow in other people's mind. What a privilege!

Do you have any further dates in the U.S. beyond Genoveva at Bard?

Not yet. Right now I'm looking forward to doing a number of interesting projects in Europe, including Maskarade [by Carl Nielsen] in Copenhagen, La traviata in Stockholm, Elvis Costello's first opera, Secret Songs, and Don Carlo in Copenhagen, Lohengrin at Novaya Opera in Moscow, and Le nozze di Figaro in Vienna and Copenhagen.

The award-winning Danish stage director Kasper Bech Holten is now Artistic Director of the Royal Danish Opera. His first project in the United States was a critically acclaimed production of Ligeti's Grand Macabre for San Francisco Opera in November 2004. He returns to the U.S. this summer to oversee the first staged production in America of Schumann's only opera, Genoveva, which opens at the Bard SummerScape festival on July 28, 2006 (additional performances July 30, August 2, 4 and 5). Information is available at http://summerscape.bard.edu/.

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