Dr. Virág Főző © László Emmer

From Hungary, With Love

As Johann Strauss’s beloved opera Die Fledermaus comes to the NCPA this month, Dr. Virág Főző, Deputy General Director of the Hungarian State Opera, talks to Aishwarya Bodke about artistic collaboration across borders.

At an opera conference in Beijing about five years ago, when Mr. Szilveszter Ókovács, Director General of the Hungarian State Opera and Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook, Chairman, NCPA, explored the idea of a possible collaboration between the two houses of performing arts, they discussed everything from their shared love of opera and the growing appetite for Western classical music in India to the prospect of bringing down a fully staged production to Mumbai, all the way from Hungary. What wasn’t factored in was the role that the pandemic was to play in the plan. Inevitable delays later, the dream has finally come to fruition and the conversation between the two visionaries is now a cross-cultural partnership celebrating artistic ties. The Hungarian State Opera (HSO), along with the Symphony Orchestra of India, will present Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus at the NCPA this month. An opera in three acts, it is one of the composer’s most performed pieces and an absolute favourite among the audience.

Dr. Virág Főző, Deputy General Director of the HSO, spoke to us about the collaboration during her recent visit to the NCPA. She gives us an insight into the rehearsals, challenges that come with putting up an opera halfway across the globe and more.

ON Stage: After five years of extensive restoration of the opera house—two of them consumed by the pandemic—international collaboration and tours are being pursued with renewed vigour. How does a performing arts organisation plan its roadmap after tough circumstances?

Dr. Virág Főző: During the pandemic, like most organisations in the world of performing arts, we resorted to the online medium. We did open-air shows as well. Several international performances had to be delayed or cancelled. We took the time needed [for the restoration] and it has all worked out. Our tours to Kuwait, Israel and Russia, and more recently, San Diego, were met with success. We have international tours lined up in the coming years as well.


OS: How did the decision to perform Die Fledermaus come about?

VF: People usually think of opera as a serious, sorrowful and dramatic form of performance. This holds true for a part of the audience in Budapest as well. So, we decided to go ahead with an operetta that is light and funny. Die Fledermaus is full of surprises, humour and delightful music. What makes it all the more special is that the Hungarian State Opera has a time-honoured tradition of performing the operetta. Mr. Ókovács and Mr. Suntook agreed it would be the correct choice. A few years ago, we performed Die Fledermaus on our tour in Japan and they loved it. It will certainly serve as a great introduction to opera to new audience members as well.


OS: This is a colossal collaboration, in scale as well as the number of people involved. Tell us a little bit about the cast and the musicians.

VF: It is indeed a colossal ensemble with about 200 people in the orchestra and 180 in the cast. The concertmaster, along with the musicians, will be the first ones to arrive as they have to rehearse with the SOI. Ten soloists will be accompanying them as well. The cast will follow soon. For now, we have been interacting through online sessions and DVDs sent back and forth, so everyone is very eager to be here.


OS: How are preparations coming along halfway across the world?

VF: Rehearsals back home are in full swing; nearly everything is planned and set in motion. Die Fledermaus is a dynamic three-act opera with a huge cast. Its fully staged production involves a massive set and requirements for technical assistance. Two containers with sets, props and at least a hundred costumes are on their way, crossing the ocean as we speak. It is interesting to note how two different cultures get to know each other better during the process. Die Fledermaus has many scenes with unique dishes. Since we are coming to a different place that most of us are unfamiliar with, amusing discussions arise about making arrangements for eggs or fried chicken here at the last minute.


OS: What is the vision that guides these artistic collaborations?

VF: Artistic collaboration across borders invariably fosters cultural exchange. Familiarising audiences with Hungarian history, culture and art remains the principal idea behind our endeavours. The opera has been a significant part of Hungary’s rich cultural capital. Ferenc Erkel’s Bánk Bán—one of the pieces we will be performing at the NCPA—is a crucial addition to our international tours. It chronicles the story of the assassination of Queen Gertrude, wife of Andrew II in 1213, and is one of the most important pieces of both Hungarian drama and opera. The compelling tragedy has been an integral part of the repertoire in Hungary since it was first performed in 1861. We have taken it to venues in New York and South Korea and can’t wait for Mumbai to witness the concert. We would also love to get some traditional Hungarian meals here for people to try. It will be different and special.


OS: This is your second visit to the NCPA. How has your experience here been?

VF: It has been a pleasant journey with the NCPA. I found the way of working here extremely professional. Despite the distance, there have been no communication barriers between the teams. It is lovely to be able to meet the people you have been interacting with through screens and computers, several thousands of miles away. Our technical crew accompanying me on the visit would second that the infrastructure and equipment here are excellent.

The Hungarian State Opera will present Die Fledermaus on 12th, 14th and 16th October and a concert performance of Bánk Bán on 15th October at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre.

This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the October 2022 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.