Each of us a king or queen

You titled your first season with the phrase "Each of us a king or queen." Why?

"Every Man a King" is a quote from a text by Dezső Kosztolányi that has accompanied me for many years. It refers to the dignity of every single human being, the uniqueness and multiformity inscribed in every human being. Our societies are still very divided, phenomena such as racism and xenophobia still all too present. It is necessary to work on understanding between opposing positions, on recognizing and respecting otherness, on acknowledging the other. Because even if the other is not like us, we have much in common: "If you differ from me, my brother, you enrich me," as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said. This contradiction can inspire us and sensitize us to different perspectives, because we are all different, we are all human beings.

With the premieres of your first season, you seem to be focusing on contemporary music, with an emphasis on works from the 20th and 21st centuries. What are your intentions here?

Are 20th century works still contemporary, or are they already part of our music-theatrical heritage? The music of the past hundred years is much more accessible than we often think. I believe the distinction between music of the past, the aptly named "classical period", and contemporary music is not so crucial. For me, contemporary is everything that surrounds us today. All music that we hear hic et nunc is contemporary, whether it is by Claudio Monteverdi or Georg Friedrich Haas. Moreover, 20th century opera in particular is quite significantly inspired by great literature, whether by writers of earlier times (Büchner, Wedekind, Gogol, Leskov, Bernanos) or from the collaboration of composers and writers on original new operatic creations – as with Hofmannsthal and Zweig with Richard Strauss, with Auden with Britten and Stravinsky, with Cocteau with Stravinsky and Poulenc, and many others. This specific meeting of music and text has undoubtedly enhanced the universal scope of the works.

Nevertheless, works from the past hundred years are only marginally represented in the mainstream opera repertoire.

And that is why we want to promote them! Krzysztof Penderecki's The Devils of Loudun or Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes are true masterpieces to be discovered or rediscovered. Like Aribert Reimann's Lear, of which the Bayerische Staatsoper has just presented a new production. In the 20th and 21st century works we will be showing, there is a very strong and intimate relationship between music and theatre. The human being is the central theme. That's why they are so exciting.

And what about the great repertoire?

Of course, the repertoire remains and is indispensable. At the same time, I want to bring works to the stage that resonate with our reality today. So the new productions reflect the diversity and wealth of literary and musical cultures, put an emphasis on the 20th century. Germany has the immense advantage of having repertory theatres, of which Munich is perhaps the most emblematic. The repertoire must contribute to enrichment, it must not ossify or freeze in repetitive loops: "What you theatre people call your ‘tradition’ is your comfort and sloppiness," Gustav Mahler admonished us. I am very happy we can enrich the repertoire of the Bayerische Staatsoper with new works, some of which are rarely performed, because this means that audiences can have more frequent access to them, can appropriate the works and enrich their personal opera culture. If we want a wider audience to have access to opera, we must offer it a wide and varied range of works – from all periods and styles. In this sense, repertoire can enable and build diversity. Easy access to "unknown masterpieces" is a wealth we want to offer audiences.

What is a masterpiece for you?

A masterpiece transcends history without aging, because in every age it has something to say and to experience. A masterpiece tells a story, conveys emotions, offers aesthetic pleasure, and stimulates thought – in this way it reaches a universal level. Since the earliest days of mankind, people have wanted to pass on their experiences, to record them, to put their signature to them. The history of art and culture is, in fact, the history of human speaking to human. Prehistoric frescoes, Romanesque tympanums, sculptures and stained glass windows in churches and cathedrals were among the first forms of culture accessible to all. Some of these artistic formations were the only access to the Bible for the illiterate, which at that time in the Western world was the basis of knowledge and general thinking about the world. For me, in a way, this is also the function of theatre and opera today. I don't want to be the caretaker of a mausoleum that preserves a tradition, but I want to nourish and enrich that tradition. This season is about celebrating the human, our humanity in all its facets, glorious and terrible.

 Is theatre obsolete these days?

If it were, I don't think we'd be here to talk about it. At times opera has been reduced to mere entertainment, brilliant but superficial, quickly seen, quickly heard, quickly forgotten, a theatre of consumption and representation. For my part I believe the theatre must animate society, that is, give it a soul and transmit values, a meaning. Art has an emancipatory dimension, culture can move us forward, liberate us. One of the goals of theatre and opera is education, a cultural, spiritual and social development ‒ to make people more sensitive and open. Culture is indispensable for life and for the harmonious development of a society. That is why I want to root the opera more deeply in the city, opening our doors wider, connecting even more with the outside and being present in many ways. All this while upholding and developing the excellence of the Bayerische Staatsoper.

Opera is a complex and elaborate art form. Does it still correspond to an age in which "lean" and "fast" are the order of the day?

I believe that in view of the problems and complexity of our world, people cannot find ready-made answers through opera, but ideally will find ways of reflection and contemplation. We need more points at which to grapple with this complexity, avoiding simplification through canned solutions. Many populist regimes want people to believe that the answers to the world's problems are simple, want to see reality in black and white. This is the opposite of democracy. I am convinced that one of the central tasks of opera is to reflect and even help shape tomorrow's world to be bigger, more open and more diverse.

The theatre as a forum or a piazza?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if opera were a meeting place open to all of society? In a society fragmented by individualism, after long months of lockdown, I believe we need places that make possible encounters that would not exist elsewhere, between people who would never have met without the possibility of the theatre. Opera can become this forum where all layers of society meet and talk to each other. The more colourful and diverse it is, the more enriching it is. Theatre is a legacy from ancient Greece. At that time, theatre was a festival to which citizens were invited and where they were called together. The theatre had a spiritual, religious and political significance ‒ a "stage dedication festival" in the literal sense of the word.

You advocate the idea of a broader and more diverse audience. Do opera and audience diversity go together?

For me, diversity is a very fundamental requirement, and excellence cannot be achieved without openness. For this I don't want to replace one audience with another, but to broaden the audience. Everyone has their own idea of what is legitimate or not, beautiful or ugly, good or bad, and that idea evolves throughout life. Likewise, each individual's understanding of culture is not fixed, but evolves with age, depending on their particular social background and personal experiences. Theatre must be able to respond to this individual range. I don't think much of the idea of, "cultural evangelization," a conversion or instruction of, "those out there". On the contrary, the process must begin with a look at ourselves ‒ we need to open up as an institution.

How do you want to open the house?

I want us to become more welcoming. The way we communicate is a key factor, as is the way we welcome people into the house, the programming, the ticket prices, and the way we support our audiences. To do this we need to question and evolve our practices and our proposals.

How exactly?

This is specified, for example, in the development of our Offstage 360 department, in our new projects such as the September Festival or the Ja, Mai! festival. This is our future, a future full of dynamism in which we do not want to compromise on quality. I want us to constantly challenge ourselves. This influences the selection of artistic teams that bring a fresh perspective, appeal to today's audiences in their complexity, arouse curiosity for new encounters, and run the risk of conflict. If we had to surround ourselves only with people who are like us, it would certainly be more comfortable in the short term, but more boring in the long run. We need to move forward without sacrificing excellence or good occupancy. But attendance figures alone are not everything. We must constantly ask ourselves which audience we are reaching and touching with which works, with which artists and with which requirements. It's not about simplification ‒ complexity is a fact of the world, not an option to cultivate or not. Human beings are complex. We cannot think without making connections between things. Opera, in its combination of diverse artistic fields, reflects this complexity in an exemplary way. The "productive irritation" that lets us learn something new about ourselves is wonderful. But it doesn't work if we start from the premise of having to satisfy. And the "productive irritation" will be greater the more diverse the audience is.

Do you listen to music differently with people who bring a different level of experience?

I've had the experience that you hear things alone the way you want to hear them, but that in the company of other people you perceive things that you wouldn't necessarily have noticed on your own. These are beautiful discoveries that you also make while reading or watching. Have you ever discussed a book, a painting, or a piece of music with someone who revealed facets you wouldn't have seen or heard on your own? Such dialogue is a gift. Beyond debate or contradiction, it is this dialogue that makes human experience fruitful – or, as French writer Nicolas Boileau put it, "from the clash of ideas, light shines".

Biographie Serge Dorny