March 31, 2010 / 11:30 AM / 9 years ago

Composer Peter Eotvos makes modern opera "angelic"

LONDON (Reuters) - “Contemporary” and “opera” are scary words, but when Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos writes one that includes the sound of car horns and slide guitars, his aim is to engage his audience from the minute the curtain goes up.

“My experience with the public is very positive — if you give them something interesting they are open to take it,” Eotvos, 66, said in London where his 2004 opera based on the 1970s AIDS play “Angels in America” was performed at the Barbican Center last week, garnering rave reviews.

It was one of six of his operas that will be staged by major companies this year, which puts the shy, professorial Eotvos, a onetime protege of the completely out-there composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, who believed he had come from the planet Sirius, in league with the likes of Philip Glass, John Adams or Kaija Saariaho for getting their operas staged and heard.

If other composers aren’t quite as successful, Eotvos thinks he knows why.

“Many new operas, in my observation, show not enough experience in the theater. The theater is something special — when you open the curtain, it’s another world and you must take the audience in there with you.

“‘Come, let’s play together’ — and this play-together feeling, that’s what theater needs.”

It also may be that Eotvos’s Hungarian background, and his fascination for all things American, which comes through not just in “Angels” but also a concerto inspired by the Columbia shuttle disaster, has allowed him to develop a musical language and style that are all his own, yet somehow familiar.

For someone growing up in then-communist Hungary, a closed- off country behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet bloc, America was “something very, very far away, another part of the world, we’d never seen anything like it,” Eotvos said, adding that when he was able to visit the U.S. in the early 1970s he found it to be “very big and very violent.”

“It was a place of extreme positives and extreme negatives, with a very large scale of possibilities” — in short, a lot like Eotvos’s music.

Here’s what else he had to say about why he likes opera, his composing technique — and that man from Sirius:

Q: It’s been said that when you compose, you write everything in one go, like Mozart. Can anyone really do that?

A: “The preparation time is very long, it takes three to six years before I start with the first note and everything must be ready to write the music — the singers, producers. I need everything fixed before I start because before I start the first note everything is decided, there is no chance to go backwards. This is normal for me, and I think it’s better when I am writing the pieces if I play and sing and hear it in my imagination.”

Q: You also have a conducting career, specializing in modern music, and you have written instrumental pieces, so why do you find opera, perhaps the most difficult musical art form, so fascinating?

A: “It is because of this mix of many elements, from the time of Wagner (19th century), that you can put practically everything on the stage. And we have many more possibilities, with film, television, these are new languages, and now with amplification we can take something very close to you. It is truly musical theater.”

Q: You wrote a piece that was a homage to Bartok, who is perhaps the most famous Hungarian composer. Is there something special about being Hungarian, for you?

A: “I think so because just to come from this culture, from East European culture, was to come from a very special place with a very different language and mentality. I wouldn’t say if it was good or bad but it’s different and we Hungarians are in the position to observe, especially in the Socialist era. For me that was a positive side, to be a little bit pushed down and to fight to have something that we need and observe the West European culture, how they do that. Today the difficulty in Hungary is the economy has become similar to West European and ...that’s the problem — we lost the possibility to fight for something because we are in it, there is no other side.”

Q: You worked with Stockhausen for 40 years. Did you ever think he was from Sirius?

A: “He told us this....but it is not important. It was not in reality that he was from Sirius, but in his mind and everything he created was in this sense. ...I know his music well because I created many pieces by him, I know every note. So this is not a good question — because I am ‘in’ this music.”

(The next production in the Barbican’s “Present Voices 2010” series will be “After Life” by a Dutch composer Michel van der Aa on May 15)

Editing by Paul Casciato

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