Ask someone to name a Hungarian composer, and they will probably say Liszt, or at a pinch, Bartók. Ask them to name a Hungarian opera and—assuming they can—it will likely be Bluebeard’s Castle. But scratch the surface, and the art form’s history in what was for decades the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s junior partner is a lot richer than is commonly known—as evidenced by the Hungarian State Opera’s current New York residency.
From Kodály to more obscure composers like Jenő Hubay and the émigrés Lehár and Goldmark, whose Queen of Sheba once graced the Met, many have left their mark. Then there are modernists like János Vajda, composer of Mario and the Magician, Péter Eötvös with 11 operas to date, and Kurtág, who at 92 will see his first opera premiere at La Scala this November.
Not bad, since—not counting Haydn’s Italian-cum-German works written for the Esterházys—Hungary has no real operatic history before the Romantic period. If József Chudy’s 1793 Prince Pikkó is generally considered the first Hungarian opera, such works are mostly derivative of German and Viennese singspiel. No, it took the indefatigable Ferenc Erkel, known as the father of Hungarian opera, to nail his country’s musical colors to the mast.
Born in 1810, the following 83 years saw him compose the national anthem, become known as the man who introduced Berlioz to the Rákóczi March, a tune the latter would use in his Damnation of Faust, and even find fame as an international chess champion. Erkel led the Budapest Philharmonic, which he founded in 1853, and directed the Hungarian Academy of Music until 1886. But it was as the composer of ten operas, all on national themes, and as the first music director of the Hungarian Royal Opera, that he left his greatest legacy.
Hungarian opera had started to take wing in Pest, where in 1822 József Ruzitska’s Béla’s Flight fired the national consciousness with its verbunkos themes and a popular aria reflecting the “groans of downtrodden Hungarians”. The Pest Hungarian Theatre opened in 1837, to be renamed the National Theatre three years later. Although a political football, kicked around by opera lovers and its detractors, it was there Erkel scored his first successes with Bátori Mária (1840) and the immensely popular historical epic Hunyadi László (1844). His acknowledged masterpiece Bánk Bán triumphed in 1861 (its hit aria, Hazám, Hazám (My homeland, My homeland), has even been sung by Plácido Domingo).
When the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy of 1867 placed too many competing claims on the National Theatre’s resources, Erkel was at the forefront of those lobbying for an independent venue for opera. The plan for a State Opera House was put out to competitive tender, with Miklós Ybl’s Neo-Renaissance design winning hands down. A cross between a grand national theatre and an intimate court opera, the architect was under diplomatic pressure to make his 1200-seat jewel box smaller than its cousin, the Vienna Court Opera. Nevertheless, built primarily with Hungarian materials with the odd bit of Carrara marble thrown in, most—including Emperor Franz Josef I who attended its 1884 opening and, unu-sually for him, remained in his seat all the way to intermission—felt it exceeded the Viennese house in beauty, taste and acoustic design.
Perversely, Erkel’s works, which frequently celebrated Hungarians chafing under an oppressor’s yoke, were now deemed too ‘patriotic’ for an Austro-Hungarian opera house, but by 1888, when the country celebrated his 50th anniversary as a conductor, the by now national treasure was presented with a wreath by the Opera’s new director, Gustav Mahler.
The later 19th and early 20th centuries saw the State Opera go from strength to strength, and while the works of Wagner and Puccini gained in ascendancy, ‘local’ talent was also championed, particularly by director Nicholas Bánffy who staged Bartók’s ballet The Wooden Prince in 1917 and premiered Bluebeard’s Castle the following year.
In 1911, the opening of the 2000-seat ‘People’s Opera’, now known as the Erkel Theatre, gave the company a welcome boost in creative capacity, and today the Hungarian State Opera regularly gives over 450 performances a year of a staggering 60 to 70 operas. In 2016 and 2017 it was lauded as the ‘busiest opera company’ in the world by classical music website Bachtrack.
Next year will see the opening of The Eiffel Art Studios, a redesigned 20,000 square-meter former train and railway carriage workshop, which will include the new 400-seat Bánffy Stage alongside much-needed set and costume workshops. In the meantime, their first ever residency in the Big Apple gives American audiences the opportunity to explore four distinctively national operas—Bánk Bán, The Queen of Sheba, Bluebeard’s Castle, and Mario and the Magician—presented by a company, which can uniquely claim to have the blood and music of Hungary coursing through its every vein.
Clive Paget is a freelance arts writer, critic, and Editor-at-Large for Australia’s Limelight Magazine. Formerly a theater director, he was music theater consultant at London’s National Theatre from 2002 to 2007.