Kent Nagano: ′Opera is community′ | Music | DW | 22.09.2015
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Kent Nagano: 'Opera is community'

Conductor Kent Nagano tells DW why opera is relevant to you, and which hot-button topics are on this season's program in Hamburg. From Munich, he's now at the help in a city plagued by a delayed concert hall project.

After seven years in Munich with the Bavarian State Opera, star conductor Kent Nagano is moving north, but staying in Germany. Starting this season, he is succeeding Australian conductor Simone Young at the helm of the Hamburg State Opera, in addition to being principal conductor at the Philharmonic State Orchestra in Hamburg. In an interview with DW, Nagano reveals his plans for the coming seasons.

DW: Mr. Nagano, what are your feelings now, moving from Munich to Hamburg?

Nagano: For me as an American, it is an honor to go from one very strong music tradition to another. The Munich operatic tradition dates back to around 1600. People speak of the "house gods" in Munich: Orlando di Lasso, Mozart, Wagner, Strauss. They were important crossroads in music history. With Hamburg, it's no less so. Buxtehude, Schütz, Telemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the Mendelssohn family, the presence of Brahms and Mahler…It's a very different, but equally profound tradition.

So I'm going from a central part of a great continent to a northern German harbor city. As such, Hamburg has always been a gateway for influences from abroad and a place where German culture and ideas have gone out into the world. Harbor cities are special to me. I come from San Francisco and lived and worked in London. My wife comes from Kobe. And in Hamburg, it's very special for me to smell the salt air again.

Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Photo: dpa - Bildfunk

Reminiscent of a ship's sails: the Elbphilharmonie

Right on the harbor in Hamburg, there's also the Elbphilharmonie, a subject Germans are tired of hearing about. With cost overruns and the opening of this spectacular new concert hall postponed for years, it has a mostly negative connotation at present. Its planned opening in January 2017 will fall in your tenure. What is the significance of this new establishment?

Yes, the Elbphiharmonie has been controversial, but its success will depend on how well the hall functions for the community. The acoustic will of course be a defining characteristic. But a concert hall is also a place where a community's collective identity is formed. It need not be an old, traditional structure. Some modern sites have immediately served the function. This one is already a striking, dynamic statement, an impressive work of architecture.

What upcoming events on the playbill of the Hamburg State Opera and its affiliated orchestra would you like to draw our attention to?

We have been working closely to try to insure that opera is perceived as something that is very relevant to our life. So we chose a surprising piece for the season opener, "Les Troyans" by Hector Berlioz. With the Hamburg connection, we were searching for a piece that had to do with a harbor. And when we chose this piece last year, headline issues included the conflict in Ukraine and the crisis in Afghanistan. Conflict, brutality, oppression, war and refugees are themes in "Les Troyans." Little did we suspect then that these issues - particularly displaced persons - would be so predominant in the news today.

A scene from Written on Skin, a new opera performed in Munich. Photo: Wilfried Hösl

Nagano is an advocate of contemporary opera, here with a scene from 'Written on Skin' from his time in Munich

The other works of the season were also chosen with topical themes in mind. Rossini's "William Tell," for instance, is about brotherhood, freedom, human rights, and individual identity. These are really 21st-century themes! The final work of the season is the "St. Matthew Passion" - and of course, Johann Sebastian Bach is always relevant.

2016 will see the world premiere of Toshio Hosokawa's opera "Stilles Meer" (Quiet Waters). It's an artistic depiction of the disaster at the nuclear reactor in Fukushima, about man confronting nature, about his carelessness and underestimation of his effect on it. Now, with the global climate crisis everywhere in the news, the choice seems even more pertinent. In a reference to Fukushima, where robots are being used to clear out the radioactive damage, the stage presentation by Oriza Hirata makes a reference to the use of robotics.

Kent Nagano. Photo: dpa/Frank Leonhardt

Nagano says he appreciate cities on the water, like Hamburg

Are you preaching to the converted with these choices of program, or are you and your colleagues making concrete efforts to reach out and acquire new listeners?

Well, opera is an art form, but it is also collaboration, partnership, people, community. We must make sure that all parts of a community feel that the opera house belongs to them, especially the next generation. We've all had access to the great works in the repertory. But we also know that for many in the younger generation - like my daughter's classmates (she's a teenager) - opera has no importance at all. It doesn't really even exist for them. We need to make them aware that opera is there to serve them, too. This is a worldwide challenge.

And I must say that on the opening night, with "Les Troyans," we saw many, many young people in attendance. We had the façade of the opera house illuminated, and had a live simulcast with thousands of people watching. That was very heartening.

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