A New Era Takes Shape at the World’s Opera Capital
MUNICH — Serge Dorny quietly opened a door to the cavernous rehearsal hall of the Bavarian State Opera here one recent evening to see how Shostakovich’s “The Nose” was coming along.
Dorny, the company’s general manager as of this season, leaned over an open score for the work, an absurdist satire based on Gogol’s short story about a Russian official whose nose drops off his face and starts a life of its own. Then he took a seat to watch preparations for what would be the first premiere of his tenure, and the first to be conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, the new music director.
The singers were taking direction from Kirill Serebrennikov, who was shaping the production by video call — through messages relayed to his co-director, Evgeny Kulagin — because he is not permitted to leave Russia while on probation for corruption, a charge widely believed to be politically motivated.
Jurowski sat on a stool, conducting the cast and a nearby pianist. Every so often, Shostakovich’s unruly score would come to a halt as Serebrennikov interjected like the voice of God, booming through speakers but unseen.
During one pause, Dorny smiled into a webcam perched to give a view of the rehearsal space. “Hello, dear Serge!” said Serebrennikov, still invisible. Seemingly satisfied, Dorny exited the room as quietly as he had entered.
More than just “The Nose,” which opened Sunday and is streaming at staatsoper.tv, was taking shape that night: The production is a sign of things to come at the Bavarian State Opera.
Its reputation as the world’s opera capital was preserved and strengthened by leaders like Peter Jonas and his successor, the widely beloved Nikolaus Bachler, who left the house this summer. Dorny and Jurowski aspire to maintain their legacy, while also expanding the company’s stable of artists and repertory — starting with “The Nose,” written in the 1920s but never before presented at the Bavarian State Opera.
“There are going to be new sounds, new colors and new tonalities — but in a kind of continuity,” Dorny said in an interview. “You should never fill an empty box with the same thing as it used to be.”
Some clues as to what to expect from Dorny’s tenure in Munich can be found in his transformative, nearly two-decade run as the leader of the Lyon Opera in France, which included high-profile commissions from the likes of Kaija Saariaho and Peter Eotvos, as well as rarities, innovative takes on standards and additions to the repertory from the 20th century.
“In music history since ‘Orfeo,’” Dorny said, “there have been about 50,000 to 60,000 titles, and something like 80 are being played. In order to keep it a lively art form — for opera to not be a mausoleum — we have to widen that.”
Among the new productions in Munich this season are Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen,” Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” and Penderecki’s “The Devils of Loudun.” Dorny teased a future staging of Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” and said that a premiere by Brett Dean, about Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, would come in the 2023-24 season. Jurowski said he would like to work with Olga Neuwirth and Mark-Anthony Turnage, among other composers.
Jurowski added that he is “consciously avoiding the repertoire of Kirill Petrenko,” his predecessor as music director and the shy star of Munich’s recent history, who regularly earned louder ovations than even the house’s most famous singers before he left to become the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Commuting to Munich from his home in Berlin, where he also leads the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Jurowski has his own musical identity. A champion of 20th-century opera, as well as of composers from his native Russia, he has been less known for the classics of Verdi and (Petrenko’s specialty) Wagner. He said he is happy to cede to guest conductors titles like Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and “La Forza del Destino,” and Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” and “Lohengrin.”
He would, however, like to conduct Verdi’s “La Traviata” — but only with the right team, because he sees it as “a Chekhov play with music.” The same goes for “Aida,” which he called “Ibsen with elephants.” (He’ll do it as long as there are no elephants.) Despite his distaste for early Wagner, he would be interested in a “Flying Dutchman” on period instruments. And he would like to collaborate with the Bavarian State Ballet, possibly to commission new choreography for Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” “The Sleeping Beauty” and “The Nutcracker.”
Joining the traditional summertime Munich Opera Festival this season will be an earlier event — called Ja, Mai (Yes, May) — focused on contemporary music. It will include three new productions of works by Georg Friedrich Haas, 68, realized by artists including the directors Claus Guth and Romeo Castellucci and the conductor Teodor Currentzis.
“This will be an annual event,” Dorny said, “in which we galvanize all our energies to this very moment where we can give full attention to this repertoire and new work.”
“We want to make sure,” he continued, playing on the French word for “last,” “that a world premiere is not a world dernier.”
The audience in Munich has historically been game; before the pandemic, the company sold on average an extraordinary 98 percent of its capacity. Opera lovers were also drawn to the famous singers who call the State Opera home, such as Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros and Christian Gerhaher. In an interview last summer, Kaufmann said, “We are now looking into a future that is maybe less, shall we say, written.”
But Dorny has no intention of ignoring the stars of the company’s recent years. “You’re talking about some of the great statesmen of singers,” he said. “At the same time, we also have a responsibility to imagine the future, to avoid the cul-de-sac. It’s important that we create the stars of tomorrow.”
To that end, he plans to feature the house’s resident ensemble more prominently. Dorny — who in interviews was invariably diplomatic, beginning any talk of the past with phrases like “This is not meant to be critical” — said that too often, stars had been brought in for principal roles, relegating in-house singers to minor parts. He would prefer “a kind of middle way,” making room for high-profile guests yet prioritizing the ensemble, which he wants to populate with promising voices like the soprano Elsa Dreisig and the baritone Boris Pinkhasovich (currently in “The Nose”).
If there was a history Dorny wasn’t interested in speaking about, it was his time in Lyon. Over lunch in his office, he gestured to a stack of boxes and said, “It’s there, still closed, but I don’t necessarily need to unpack.”
Daniele Rustioni, Lyon’s principal conductor since 2017, who will lead the new “Troyens” in Munich next spring, described Dorny as someone who “works nonstop” and looks for collaborators who are “super committed.”
“I’ve seen this in conductors,” Rustioni said. “Riccardo Muti was really living in the theater, and when I met Tony Pappano, he was the first one coming in and the last to leave. But I’ve never seen that in general managers until Serge.”
But Rustioni believes Dorny’s work paid off. “He left the theater in good shape,” Rustioni said, “and you don’t need me to say that he put Lyon on the international map.”
The French critic Christian Merlin also said that Dorny had “brought an international standing” to Lyon. “He rejuvenated and modernized it. He established with the audience a relationship of confidence, which made it possible to open up people to other repertoire or aesthetics without the reluctance of the ordinary conservative opera audience. The opera house regained its position in the heart of the city.”
Unlike Lyon, though, the Bavarian State Opera is a repertory house; it presents multiple works at once, and with more turnover. Such volume, Dorny said, makes it easier for the company to occupy a central space in Munich’s cultural scene — and makes it more crucial to live up to that potential.
He and Jurowski have known each other since the late 1990s; both had posts in Britain, and worked together at the Glyndebourne Festival there. “At the moment it’s a very good relationship which we have to develop and explore even further,” Jurowski said. “But as a starting point, we’re starting on the same artistic platform of a vision.”
That extends to the State Opera’s orchestra, which Jurowski described as “the oldest and most traditional in Munich, but also the easiest and most open-minded.” For them, playing Strauss and Wagner is “like a press-button thing,” he said, but he also knows they are willing to experiment, such as when he led them six years ago in Prokofiev’s “The Fiery Angel.” That production was directed by Barrie Kosky, a recurring Jurowski collaborator — including on a new staging in Munich during the pandemic of “Der Rosenkavalier,” which will return next spring.
In an interview, Kosky called Jurowski “the most dramaturgical of conductors,” someone who begins work on a production with lengthy discussions, close text readings and constellatory approaches to interpretation. (They had originally been tapped to run the Bavarian State Opera together, but Kosky, who is concluding his tenure at the Komische Oper in Berlin this season, decided to go freelance instead of managing another house; after “Rosenkavalier,” they will reunite for a new production of “Die Fledermaus.”)
Kosky, who described Jurowski as a charming cross between an El Greco monk and a Dostoyevsky character, said: “He loves operetta, he loves literature and film and philosophy, and he comes into rehearsals with DVDs of art-house films from 30 years ago. And he infuses all of that, this curiosity about the world, through the music.”
Jurowski said his preparations for “The Nose” involved a lot of conversations with Serebrennikov — especially in person, whenever Jurowski was in Russia for work — long before rehearsals began. “We are completely d’accord,” he added, “in terms of this production,” in which the hapless protagonist is depicted as being alone in having just one nose, while everyone else wears grotesque masks adorned with many of them. Serebrennikov’s staging subtly raises political questions like the one the German critic Bernhard Neuhoff posed in his review of the premiere: “Is it normal to be human when everyone is inhuman?”
Speaking by phone after opening night, Dorny said that what Jurowski and Serebrennikov achieved together was “powerful”: a production that offered a fresh visual and metaphorical take on the piece, and a musical performance that was “quite definitive.” He was pleased with the audience’s sustained applause, but even happier overhearing them discussing the opera afterward.
“It’s a very good opening piece for the Bayerische Staatsoper,” Dorny said. “It should not just be that you walk out and you forget what you’ve seen, but that you take it with you — that it stays with you. That is what I would like to achieve.”