The Opera Questionnaire: Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg

The Opera Questionnaire: Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg

I first met Holger by chance, at one of the intersections of the opera blogosphere, where we struck up a conversation about ornamenting in da capos. Soon after, we connected on Facebook, and it turned out that he happens to be married to one of the best mezzos of today, Ann Hallenberg. I rarely use the word ‘community’ because very few groupings deserve the title, but there is no better way to describe what formed around Holger and Ann on Facebook: something of an international community, and much more than virtual, of music lovers, musicologists, singers, instrument players, opera buffs, YouTubers, curtain-callers, CD nerds, and just general art- and conversation-loving good people. Its benevolent COO is Holger, who with his knowledge and good humour keeps the many conversations going. Scores are being sleuthed and mailed, recordings compared, stuff dug out from musical archaeology, curtain call photos shared, stories traded, composers gotten to respond to questions within minutes. (Truly. Once Holger posted a Hillborg thing sung by von Otter with some questions, and within minutes the composer himself responded in the comments.)

What I admire in him and Ann is the disregard of the idea of ‘branding’ in art. Many of the singers and musicians today, when they use the social media, are extremely branding-conscious. They see themselves as brands, and they communicate with people as brands would. The Hallenbergs are exactly the opposite. They are both being themselves on Facebook. A breath of fresh air, that. Here’s to many more years of the inter-continental music friendships, and of the non-branded communication among people! Which might as well start with Holger’s take on the Opera Questionnaire.


Holger1The work (or the scene) that is most likely to make a teen intrigued by opera?

It must be something which is close to the culture they are usually surrounded by: Loud, violent, fast and explicit. (Teenagers who don’t consume such stuff ARE most likely already intrigued by opera.) So the answer is Salome, isn’t it?  Or Rossini.

The opera (or the scene) with which to intrigue a pop-music-savvy adult?

None! It’s a lost cause. Unless something dramatic happens to them. I’d be happy if I got some of them to see South Pacific.

And a film buff?

That would probably depend on what kind of films this person likes. A lover of romantic comedy: La Cenerentola; unrealistic action movies: any Verdi will do; historical drama: La clemenza di Tito; horror films: Zandonai’s I Cavalieri di Ekebu; artfilm-fans: Parsifal.

The best argument to use with opera traditionalists who argue that productions should be done the one “faithful” way and no other way?

Liz Taylor and Richard  Burton filmed Cleopatra in a faithful way and everything about it screams the sixties. Faithfulness is a fabrication. I recently watched a Zeffirelli video, which was very faithful, but unbearably boring! On the other hand side are too “fanciful” (and powerful) stage directors a dangerous tendency in today’s opera business. Generally I think there are too many bad productions around. We need auditions for stage directors.

Have you ever been moved to tears at the opera?

No. I’m very hardened. I always see the story as a vehicle for the music, not vice versa. But strangely, I am moved by perfection.

Have you ever nearly dozed off at the opera?

Not often. But I remember I slept through large parts of Das Rheingold once. No intermission to revive the spirits. But that doesn’t say much against Wagner, I also slept through an Aerosmith concert.

What kind of behaviour by the fellow audience members do you easily tolerate and what kind inevitably distracts?

I tolerate silent listening. Nothing else. Apart from the obvious distractions, I don’t like the routine clapping after each aria in baroque opera. (Btw: The singers hate that too!)

Name three performances about which you always say to your friends, “You had to be there…!”

Il Trovatore in Hannover, staged by Calixto Bieito

Il trionfo del tempo in Zurich, the magical jump-in evening that was my wife’s international breakthrough

Zimmermann’s megalomaniac Die Soldaten in Amsterdam. You see something like that probably once in a lifetime.

Your choice of arias or segments that illustrate how well opera understands love and desire.

Baroque opera in general! Why has it had such an amazing renaissance during the last decades? Because it understands so well the whole human being. While Classical and Romantic operas have rather predefined roles (the villain, the innocent, victimized girl, the honourable cavalier, etc.) the characters in baroque opera are much more “modern”, and much closer to how we see relationships and life in general. Nothing is simply good or bad. The whole complex being is there, with love and hate, jealousy, despair, hope, disdain, irony. And everything is neatly packed into arias not much longer than an average pop song. There’s real life in those artificial characters, heightened by some stunning music.

Your choice of segments or arias that show that in effect opera is as political as art gets.

Holger2I must admit that I am not entirely at ease in this one. You know I take opera very seriously. So seriously that I have dedicated my life to it. So seriously as a professional soccer-player takes his job. Yet there are millions of people who think that both soccer and opera are the most ridiculous things on earth. And in a way they are right. We are talking essentially about entertainment, and not about the NATO peace forces. While we are discussing if we like the latest “Ring” at the Met, students are risking their lives in the streets of Istanbul; politicians in Washington or Berlin are discussing how to save Greece. Or Detroit. Most certainly I agree that there have been operas (both individual performances and libretti) which have been a catalyst for various political developments, as there have been soccer matches. (In general, sport is much more politically charged than opera). And one could argue that it is impossible to write anything that hasn’t political aspects. If you decide to write a novel about lesbians in Toronto you are making political and sociological statements. If you decide to write a lovestory set in Berlin 1960, it will automatically be political. When Verdi describes the suffering of Violetta he describes a society that forces her to her death and thus makes a political statement. But the point I would like to make is that political issues are not an a priori part of opera. They are there, no doubt, sometimes by purpose and sometimes through our interpretations. However I would argue that literature and plays have been much more appropriate tools to transport a political message than opera, and I think they have historically had the function that has cinema today: they reach the masses. Opera, on the contrary, has from the beginning been an elitist art form. Initiated by some Florentine noblemen who wanted to recreate the way ancient Greek drama was recited, and getting it all wrong. From there it made its way to the courts in Italy and France. And we must not forget that the even the public operas in London at Handel’s time were nothing more than playgrounds for the members of the Royal family and crucially dependent on their funding, despite ticket sales. And the famous public baroque opera in Hamburg existed as a proof that the wealthy merchants could accomplish the same as all the Counts and Dukes around them. It’s the same today: opera is an art form which has never been able to sustain itself only from ticket sales. It has always needed the goodwill of sponsors and politicians. Opera is way too expensive to maintain, so it needs a public and political will to thrive. That in itself is the most powerful political statement I can find in opera. Opera is in my opinion an anachronism that is still there because it is so spectacularly removed from realism (people sing!), modesty (it’s so expensive) and actuality (we are still watching works 300 years old). If an opera was simply political we would ignore it as soon as the political system it represents has outlived itself, as is the case with thousands of “revolutionary” plays and novels. But we are still interested in opera from 1800. And that is because opera generally is focused inward (toward the personal), instead of outward (toward the sociological). We are not watching it as a museum piece, but we get involved emotionally. If Wittgenstein said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, the opera’s answer is “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must sing”: opera’s ability to transcend individual feelings (bound to the fictitious situation) to universal and timeless emotions through the magic of music is the reason that we are and will always be fascinated by this, the most extravagant, most wonderful and most magnificent form of art.

The Met in HD – overall good or overall bad?

Bad. I don’t want to see if Netrebko had brushed her teeth before the show. Singers are looking their most unflattering when they are singing, and I don’t want a close-up during a top C, not even on Jonas Kaufmann. Plus, the Met in HD making worse our society’s unhealthy focus on looks. And I couldn’t bear if the person next to me started munching popcorn during the show.

A composer that never ceases to amaze?

Handel. For me he is the most human, the wisest and most compassionate composer. And the most cunning, and the cruelest. I was assistant to the stage director Michael Hampe for a while (a very “faithful” stage director, by the way), and in one rehearsal he leaned over to me and whispered: “Handel, this bastard! He is looking for your heart, and when he has found it he puts a knife in it. And then he turns it slowly.” Yes, he does that.

A work that keeps revealing new and new layers of meaning and pleasure each time?

Usually, I don’t care so much for the new layers and meanings. For me it’s sufficient that it sounds good. That will be the reason why I listen to it again and again. It is more a singer’s interpretation that makes me discover new things each time I listen. But to answer the question dutifully: I would say Monteverdi’s operas.

Imagine I’m an opera house or a funder. Pitch to me three new opera commissions.

I’d suggest a play, a long poem and a novel:

Anders Hillborg sets Sarah Kane’s disturbing play Blasted.

James MacMillan sets – if he dares – Charles Algernon Swinburnes’s erotic masterpiece, the long poem Anactoria, adapted into a staged dialogue for two women. His sensual, charged music should be perfect.

-The old Finish master Einojuhani Rautavaara crowns his fantastic career with a monumental opera on Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I couldn’t think of a better composer for that.

Born in South-Western Germany, Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg studied musicology, literature and philosophy at the University in Karlsruhe. He worked as a dramaturge at several German opera houses, and after that as an agent to singers in a large German agency, but after nine months threw in the towel. Married to mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg and currently living in a large house in the Swedish countryside where he is running a small but ambitious music publishing house, Edition Gran Tonante, which edits only previously unpublished large-scale vocal works, often commissioned by baroque ensembles. Manic collector of CDs. Interested in poetry, 20th century literature, gender issues in art, soccer. Find him on Facebook here.



5 thoughts on “The Opera Questionnaire: Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg

  1. Wow. where to start with how great, refreshing, thought provoking and bloody funny this is. Lydia you’re a goddess for bringing this to us.

    “We need auditions for stage directors” – oh yes please!

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