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Cultural Diplomacy: Magyar-Made Music Goes Abroad

A. S. Ivanoff 2018.12.12.

The international attention to things musical from Hungary has been occurring a bit more than usual this year. For one thing, the country’s celebrated 92-year-old composer György Kurtág’s long-awaited first opera, “Endgame,” made its successful debut at La Scala in Milan last month, to elevated acclaim.

Not only were Kurtág and his opera featured in two full articles in the New York Times — one before and one after — but the entire Hungarian State Opera and Hungarian National Ballet performed in New York’s Lincoln Center for two weeks of performances from Oct. 30 to Nov. 11th. Here, they also earned the Times’ press coverage before and after.

“Mario and the Magician”. Photo by Attila Nagy/Hungarian State Opera

In Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theatre, 350 members of this company presented four evenings of opera, three performances of classical ballet and modern dance, and two gala orchestral concerts (the second of which was held in Carnegie Hall and featured Placido Domingo as conductor.) This 2018 residency was the official New York debut of these Hungarian artistic forces (and under the leadership of Szilveszter Ókovács), even though many Hungarian musical artists, individually, had performed there throughout the last century.

Königin von Saba (The Queen of Sheba). Photo by Attila Nagy/Hungarian State Opera

Reviewers found the repertoire evocative: “In an era of homogenized international opera, the distinct national flavor of the Hungarian State Opera’s November 2 Königin von Saba (The Queen of Sheba) was both remarkable and welcome” said Opera News. “…[A]n enthralling showcase of the talents of the company, wherein the artists powerfully brought to life the methods, and madness, of the directors and crew” was how Operawire.com assessed the double-bill of Vajda’s “Mario and the Magician” and Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” both staged and directed by Péter Galambos.

“Bluebeard’s Castle”. Photo by Attila Nagy/Hungarian State Opera

Two articles paid close attention to the Tamás Solymosi’s Hungarian National Ballet troupe’s performance of Mikhail Messerer’s staging of “Don Quixote:” Backtrack.com gave a detailed analysis, and Balletfocus.com singled out numerous soloists and even comically mentioned the presence of “a live donkey and horse, with no stage incidents.”

“Don Quixote”. Photo by Attila Nagy/Hungarian State Opera

The Financial Times of London chimed in with an eloquent summation of the opening night performance of Erkel’s “Bánk Bán,” pronouncing it “a fine impression” of Hungary’s beloved national opera, and concluded with: “If the rest of the tour is as good, the company will nicely polish its international image.” (The opening night festivities were also marked by the attendance of President János Áder and Katalin Bogyay, Hungary’s ambassador to the United Nations.)

“Bánk Bán”. Photo by Attila Nagy/Hungarian State Opera

Americans are not generally exposed to this much cultural information about Hungary, but one factor that escaped discussion was the fact that Budapest would have such a thing as a government-sponsored Opera — a category that doesn’t exist in the United States. American performing arts institutions are non-profit organizations that depend on public and corporate dollars for support. It is news then, to New Yorkers that high culture like opera, symphony, and ballet in Hungary are not only state-supported but, as the company demonstrated in New York, artistically sophisticated.

David H. Koch Theater, New York. Photo by Attila Nagy/Hungarian State Opera

Additionally, this unprecedented residency can easily embody the most elegant rank of diplomacy that a small Central European country could offer the West. Aligned with this premise was the New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini, who noted that “[Viktor Orbán’s] government has been providing enormous support to the opera and ballet companies. He sees culture as a means to achieve prestige and assert national identity.”

LOL by Hungarian National Ballet. Photo by Attila Nagy/Hungarian State Opera

Since the repertoire choices presented at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall largely focused on content that was connected to Hungarian history and its singular musical styles, these performances helped Americans interpret what they perceive to be “Hungarian” — aside from any political reportage. The artful stratagem of shipping an entire company across the Atlantic to show off their cultural wares may serve to soften the political hard news by offering both effective and affective arts experiences.

The Gala concert. Photo by Attila Nagy/Hungarian State Opera

And topping off those memorable artistic experiences were singers Ildikó Komlósi, Eszter Sümegi, Andrea Rost, Zita Szemere, András Palerdi and Boldizsár László; conductors János Kovács, Gergely Kesselyák, and Balázs Kocsár; the many splendid dancers; and pianist József Balog, who stepped in at the last minute in the gala concert on Nov. 5 to replace Gergely Bogányi on his eponymous instrument to blaze through Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Fantasy” with enough flair and fire to capture any and all American hearts.

featured photo by Attila Nagy/Hungarian State Opera

Fact

Szilveszter Ókovács, General Director of the Hungarian State Opera, sums up the experience and results of bringing the company to New York: I mean this with all my heart: we Hungarians simply returned to the USA! This is the country where our leading musicians once had great effect: (conductors) Hans Richter, Anton Seidl, Frigyes Reiner, György Széll, Jenő Ormándy, Antal Doráti, Ferenc Fricsay and István Kertész all had careers in the USA. They represent several generations and all had an impact on the musical life of America. (In this tour,) we re-introduced Goldmark’s Queen of Sheba, we showed a new staging of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, we premiered Vajda’s Mario and the Magician, and we are delighted that our ballet company’s performances were judged by international standards and were not deemed ‘lightweight’ — these are our wishes come true.