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California guy gets comfy in Bavaria

At his new opera post, Kent Nagano is taking risks and thriving -- but he'll always love home.

July 21, 2007|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

MUNICH, GERMANY — The posters of Kent Nagano on the side of the Bavarian State Opera are curious. One is a severe close-up of his face, pores and all, unsmiling, stern. Another is the same shot with "Hier bin ich gern" plastered over him in blocky red letters, like war paint. It translates: "I'm glad to be here." He may not look it, but in fact he is.

The company is, at present, midway through its annual Opera Festival, which began at the end of June and runs through July. It packs into one month 18 opera productions, two ballets, eight concerts, additional jazz and avant-garde events, art exhibits, children's programs and lectures.

The festival brochure is no brochure but a hefty 239-page book. And after you get past the photographs of happy throngs in front of the National Theater, of excellently tailored and coiffed audiences in the lobby, there is a casual but more conventional photo of Nagano, in crewneck sweater, looking very serious, very determined, his long hair long streaked with gray.

With this festival, Nagano is finishing his first -- and by most measures hugely successful -- season as the Bavarian company's music director. This is the job he left his post as music director of Los Angeles Opera to assume, and the predictions I kept hearing from opera professionals both in L.A. and abroad was that Nagano was courting disaster.

The German press, Bavarian politicians (who have a fat hand in the company's financing) and Munich's sophisticated patrons jealously guard the city's long and famous opera tradition. Nagano wasn't expected to get even a honeymoon in what had been Hitler's favorite city.

At lunch at his hotel down the block from the National Theater on the fancy Maximilianstrasse, the conductor is just back from rehearsal. He is wearing jeans in a restaurant where business suits are more common and service is deferential. The night before, he conducted "Salome," the opera with which he chose to begin his tenure here last fall.

It was a daring move. Although Richard Strauss' ever shocking work had its premiere in Dresden in 1905, Munich feels proprietary toward its native son, a former music director of the company. "Did you happen to look in the pit?" Nagano asks me, wondering if I'd noticed that the orchestra plays from Strauss' 1907 parts, with annotations from his performances. "I figured I might as well begin with 'Salome.' If they were going to kill me, let them get it over with."

Nagano did not play it safe. He cast Angela Denoke -- a German soprano who made a strong impression in a kinky San Francisco production of Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust" a few years ago but was unknown in Munich -- as the opera's eponymous sex-crazed teenager. He commissioned German composer Wolfgang Rihm to write a 35-minute, philosophical, difficult-to-penetrate curtain raiser, "Das Gehege" (The Enclosure) about a woman and an eagle. And he invited movie director William Friedkin, with whom Nagano had worked at the Music Center, to direct.

Denoke finished her "Dance of the Seven Veils" topless and surprisingly remained so for the concluding half-hour of the opera. She was lewd, smooching not only the severed head of John the Baptist but also everyone in sight. The gentlemen seated around me peered intently through their opera glasses.

The applause for Denoke, who also happens to be a powerful singer and a riveting actress, was thunderous. The applause for Nagano, who got a mesmerizing clarity and shimmering beauty from the orchestra, was equally so. The performance had proved startlingly good, utterly fresh and convincing.

A Californian of Japanese heritage, Nagano is, for Munich, an exotic, which can work both in his favor and against it. He has the advantage of the novelty factor, and the city itself is cosmopolitan and even has liberal pockets these days. He treats people with great respect, and he drives expensive sports cars very fast -- two traits that go over well in Bavaria. But out in the less-tolerant countryside, Nagano says, he can be made to feel distinctly unwelcome entering into a provincial guesthouse.

No matter. Nagano almost sounds like a member of the tourist board when he praises the area. He is not just the State Opera's music director but also general music director of Bavaria. The company doesn't have a general manager at the moment -- Klaus Bachler is to start in 2008 -- so Nagano is also interim State Opera director, in collaboration with three other managers.

And the first thing he reminds me of when I ask how he feels he fits in to such a traditional place is that the true nature of the tradition is often revolution. Munich became an opera town early in the 17th century, while the art form was in its infancy. "The history of European music was never the same after Wagner's 'Tristan and Isolde' had its premiere in our house," Nagano also points out. The administration that preceded him, headed by Peter Jonas with Zubin Mehta as music director, often put on provocative productions.

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