›Der goldene Drache‹

A Conversation with Péter Eötvös

In 2010 the play ›Der Goldene Drache‹ (›The Golden Dragon‹) by Roland Schimmelpfennig was invited to the Berlin Theatre Meeting and elected Play of the Year at the critics’ poll of the journal ›Theater Heute‹. In short episodes, Schimmelpfennig portrays the dark side of a globalised world, of exploitation, greed and brutality.He tells the story of the Asian fast-food restaurant ›The Golden Dragon‹ and two Chinese siblings who are illegal immigrants and struggling to survive. Now, Péter Eötvös, with whom the Ensemble Modern has enjoyed a partnership going back to the early 1980s, has chosen this story as the basis for his new musical theatre work together with the Ensemble Modern. On June 29, 2014 the Ensemble Modern will perform under his baton at the work’s world premiere at the Bockenheimer Depot; six further performances will be conducted by Hartmut Keil in July. Further artistic partners for the project include stage director Elisabeth Stöppler, set designer Hermann Feuchter and costume designer Nicole Pleuler. Roland Diry (RD) from the Ensemble Modern spoke to Péter Eötvös (PE) about the forms and effects of musical theatre today in general and about his approach and setting of the libretto for ›Der Goldene Drache‹.

RD: We have known each other for more than 30 years. Originally, I only knew you as a conductor, then, increasingly, as a composer; a perfect organiser too. Now there is also the Péter Eötvös Foundation ...
PE: Three functions remain constant: composer, conductor and teacher. Teaching is very important. It is a kind of family tradition. My grandfather was a music teacher; he played various instruments and taught them all: violin, double bass. I think, cimbalom and clarinet, too. Probably that was due to the fact that he taught in a small town and tried out all the instruments. Music is music. He also conducted choirs – he truly was an all-round musician. My mother was a pianist and a passionate teacher. She taught many hundreds of students; during the 1950s and 60s she also accompanied many violinists. I grew into this atmosphere of teaching. One day – I was twelve years old – my mother asked me to take over a piano lesson. I enjoyed teaching very much, even at that early age. However, from the very beginning my main interest was in composing. At the age of four or five, I could write music, earlier than letters. I loved drawing those little plum-shaped note heads more than anything else – at that time, it was a great event for me. I drew as many note heads as I could; it was like a child’s game. I had perfect pitch even then, and it gave me great joy that I was able to sing the note I had just drawn and compare it to the piano. For many years, I also sang in the children’s choir, and I was the »pitch pipe«. At the age of five, I started to play the piano, and the teacher I had at the time introduced me to Béla Bartók’s music very early on.

RD: Then you studied at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest ...

PE: Yes, in 1958 Kodály accepted me at the Academy; I was four years younger than my colleagues. The exam was very difficult, but apparently I managed to do well. On the other hand, I have to admit that I did not know exactly what I was doing. After all, my mother had told me it was a high school entrance exam, and I asked: »But why do I have to play the piano there?« – »Because it is a music high school. You have to play the piano too, to show them what you can do.« And only after I had been accepted, she told me: »Well, now you’re at the Academy.« – »No, I’m in high school!« – »No, no, that was the Academy already!«

RD: A good trick ...

PE: A very good trick. She was an excellent pedagogue. In the beginning, at 16 or 17, I was very active as a composer, but in the area of incidental music. I worked for many theatres, wrote a lot of film music – I thought it was wonderful.

RD: Are there still scores from this period?

PE: Some, and some recordings too. My film music compositions exposed me to studio recordings, microphones, loudspeakers. I heard everything I composed via the cinema screen; that felt completely normal to me.

RD: This means that early on, you invented your music to complement images?

PE: Yes, images and situations. There was always a story line that was accompanied by music or prepared by music. It has remained that way – I have very little contact with so-called »pure« music ...

RD: Do you think this is the reason for your affinity for opera?

PE: I think this is a direct extension of my earlier work for the theatre. In between, I spent a very long active period as a conductor during which I simply had no time to compose. My first opera was ›Drei Schwestern‹ (›Three Sisters‹); its premiere in 1998 was a great success, not only in musical terms, but also regarding the libretto. Since then, I have written seven further operas.

RD: What did you find particularly fascinating about the libretto for ›Der Goldene Drache‹? And how did you work on it?

PE: I first saw the play in Budapest in Hungarian, staged by a brilliant director. The problem was understanding which of the different roles were played by the same actor. There are only five performers, and each of them plays two or three different characters. This double role-play is also the attraction of the piece. Later, I saw a different production in Vienna, directed by Roland Schimmelpfennig. I found that one much more dry and inaccessible. I myself worked through the libretto during a two-week cruise, understanding how often one person appears, which roles are associated, and I was certain that music can help to recognise a character. To me, a libretto always consists of an idea of how I can develop it in music. That has to do with its length and number of words; it depends on the consonants and vowels. It is very good if the composer – as was the case here – is allowed and able to put together a libretto himself, because then the music arises immediately in his imagination.

RD: What exactly interests you about the plot?

PE: It will be a comical and dramatic opera, since the story appears to be light-hearted on the one hand, but also has great depth on the other. It is about immigrants, the situation of illegality; a subject that is always very topical. There is an immigrant whose tooth hurts him, but he has no papers, is in the country illegally, and cannot go to a doctor since he does not exist. And this Chinese immigrant, the small boy, finds a place at a restaurant while he is looking for his sister who arrived before him and has disappeared. The tragic element of the piece is that the audience sees both of them on stage, but they never meet. They are very close, but until the end, they know nothing of each other. This difficult fate is ever-present. In the end, the little boy dies, followed by a wonderful monologue, the water journey: his corpse is thrown into the river and goes on a long, northward journey in the sea. It is borne away by the water, fishes eat its flesh, and it takes two years for the skeleton to arrive in China, where it says: »Now I am home; what a shame that all that is left of me is bones.« This transformation from naïve reality, from the toothache, to the point when it says »I am nothing but a skeleton«, is the great quality of the piece. The tooth symbolises pain, being at the mercy of others, hopelessness. Only a stewardess reacts to the tooth with sensitivity, but even she throws it into the water in the end.

RD: When you saw the play in Budapest and Vienna, did you spontaneously imagine sounds, for example regarding the instrumentation or possible vocal lines?

PE: In the case of ›Der Goldene Drache‹, I would not say so. There was no immediate association while I sat in the theatre, but afterwards it developed more and more. Actually, the Viennese performance was more of a negative influence; I thought the plot was too complicated, too sober, too unwieldy, and that its structure was too complex to turn it into an opera. Now that I have assembled the libretto, however, I see the text’s advantages. It is an ideal travelling opera, as it requires only five singers. These five singers are constantly changing roles, which is interesting for the audience, as the roles are very different. The many comical elements in the text appeal to the audience through their humour, and therefore it is possible to give the dramatic passages great depth, since they will be followed by a lighter moment. I have reduced the ensemble to a very basic instrumentation, fourteen musicians plus two percussionists. That allows me to create a very colourful performance.

RD: You have now mentioned various aspects of the libretto. There is the social element, the interpersonal, the quotidian, the emotional element, and – mainly in the embedded fable of the ant and the grasshopper – also the animalistic, instinct-driven. This ›Golden Dragon‹ exists everywhere in society, in the world. Where do you see yourself in society?

PE: At the moment, we have severe social problems in Hungary. In society, I have the role of an observer, which does not mean that I am disengaged, but I am not a street fighter. In my operas, I deal with widely-discussed subjects, for example homosexuality, women’s liberation e.g. in ›Angels in America‹ and ›Paradise reloaded (Lilith)‹, or with exorcism in ›Love and Other Demons‹, and artistically I have definite positions.

RD: And now for a very different question: in an orchestral score, the composer can notate his ideas with relatively clear symbols. In the case of an opera, there is a whole other level that needs to be shaped. In this genre, how do you as a composer give the artists the clearest instructions possible?

PE: My problem is that my ideas as a composer are too precise. This happens because I am also a performer – a conductor and musician – and want to determine everything, down to the minutest details of articulation. If I think or write two or three notes, I know immediately how I want them to be performed, meaning that I have composed the interpretation as well. The first question is whether the written communication is precise enough. The next question is whether the artist will implement it in the same way I have imagined it. A singer’s voice has to be treated completely differently than instruments. In the area of dynamics, I only specify whether I imagine the situation to be soft or loud. The executed dynamics depend on the given moment; they arise during rehearsals.

RD: In this context, what makes an opera production special?

PE: In opera, there is not only a conductor and the artists, but also a stage director. I give directors a relatively high amount of verbal instruction in conjunction with my musical ideas. If they were ignored or realised against the musical tendencies, that would result in a contradiction on stage, which could confuse the attentive audience member. One of the most difficult elements of world premieres is that they should strive to represent what has been written down. A change or conceptual change of perspective is only possible after the third or fourth production.

RD: If we consider the various levels – for example, a text, its production as a play and then as a film. Would you agree that opera corresponds to the level of film?

PE: I would go a step back, to an audio play. Let us assume that a playwright writes ›Der Goldene Drache‹, which is then turned into an audio play. We hear this audio play, having the liberty of imagining a physical reality for these persons. The next level would be the theatre stage. The liberty we had in the case of the audio play is now already curtailed. Dialogue is combined directly with action, movement, colour and persons; what we hear is once further removed from the original text than the audio play version, because certain things have been concretised by visual elements. An opera, then, would be the next level. Once added, music has the ability to evoke a certain emotional state in the listener. This means that I create music predicting the emotional state in which I will observe the action on stage. I do not describe the stage, but I create a certain emotionalstate in the audience.

RD: You influence the listener.

PE: Absolutely, yes. Every tiny detail concerns me when I compose: lights, spaces, movements. Music is the sum of these elements. To me, the basis is not only the libretto, but the entire literary source. The music reflects the complete plot, which allows me to shorten the dialogues in the opera version. A major part of what plays can only express through words is already present in music. The action on stage always requires a certain direction, a clear sequence of events.In a film, cuts make it possible to jump immediately into a different set and a different situation. Today, we can allow ourselves to occasionally employ cuts resembling those in film on the opera stage as well. For example, I try to give musical shape to camera angles on the opera stage – a broad landscape from afar, »au premier plan« up close, even zoom effects.

RD: Dear Péter, thank you and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!