David Pountney

David Pountney in Conversation

Welsh National Opera continue their themed seasons this summer with new productions of Schoenberg’s epic, unfinished masterpiece Moses und Aron and the opera that heralded the onset of Verdi’s creative maturity: Nabucco. The heading is ‘faith’ , so, of course, it is a contentious one, with clear contemporary resonances.

On the eve of the eagerly anticipated Moses und Aron first night at Cardiff’s Wales Millennium Centre (24 May), Wales Arts Review is proud to publish the latest conversation between WNO Artistic Director and CEO David Pountney and Steph Power. Here they explore various aspects of faith in relation to Moses und Aron and Schoenberg himself, but also in relation to Verdi and the twinning of the two operas.

Moses und Aron is directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, conducted by WNO Music Director Lothar Koenigs, and features Sir John Tomlinson as Moses. Nabucco is directed by Rudolf Frey and conducted by Xian Zhang and opens at the WMC on 31 May.

David Pountney is also directing a double bill, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ , at WNO this summer under the ‘British Firsts’ heading. The programme will comprise the UK première of a new version of Debussy’s La Chute de la Maison Usher by Robert Orledge, and the world stage première of Usher House by Gordon Getty. It will open, again at the WMC, on 13 June.

Steph Power: This summer will be a particularly enticing season at Welsh National Opera. I wonder if we might talk about the ‘faith’ theme, especially in regard to the Schoenberg? Moses may have been in the desert for forty days, but it’s nearly forty years since Moses und Aron was performed in the UK – it was 1976 when Deutsche Oper am Rhein took it to Edinburgh!

David Pountney: And it’s nearly fifty years since it was staged at Covent Garden, in 1965! I looked out my old programme of it the other day. I’ve even got it here actually.

To me it’s an extraordinary opera – an opera about ideas as much as anything – and an interesting contrast and yet complement to the Verdi. How did the ‘faith’ season come about?

Like all these things it was a mixture of serendipity and of fitting a rationale behind it. When I first came to Welsh National Opera, Lothar [WNO Music Director, Lothar Koenigs] flagged up his interest in doing Moses und Aron and I thought this was a sufficiently mad project to be taken quite seriously! I had to find somewhere a production that we could actually manage with our resources here; I did one myself in Munich about six or seven years ago, and there’s no way that that could have been put on at WNO because it used the full resources of that company, with dancers and extras and God knows what. Because obviously you can go in that direction.

But I found this production in Stuttgart which I thought was very intelligent and interesting, and which actually doesn’t use anything except the chorus. It was an ideal solution for us and made it possible to even think of doing the piece. Interestingly enough, if I’d programmed it in two years time we would not be doing it; that is to say you won’t see anything like this again in the next five years because of the way the funding situation is developing. So, opportunistically, I seized the right moment before anyone could notice that this was basically impossible!

Well, I salute you! What’s your view of the opera’s subject?

I actually have a rather controversial view about Moses. First of all, I think Moses is completely wrong. And I think it’s behoven to every intelligent, liberal intellectual person to resist and defy Moses with every ounce of your body and soul and mind and intellect! Because I think his prescriptive insistence that he knows the answer to whatever your faith might be is something quite horrific. And of course, to some extent, the same could be said of Schoenberg too – they’re a pair of arrogant bastards really! We have this rather sentimental idea that you’re supposed to admire or like the people you write about or put on theatre about. Actually I don’t think that’s true at all, it’s a rather naïve view. So it doesn’t belittle my respect for the originality of what Schoenberg achieved – or, indeed, even possibly what Moses was trying to say. I just don’t like being told by anybody that this is the only way to do it. And both men are, to some extent, guilty of that.

The interesting thing about Moses und Aron is that, because it was left unfinished by Schoenberg, we’re allowed to get away with a pseudo-tragic view of the piece because it ends up with Moses in despair saying, ‘O word, o word that I lack’. So we think, oh gosh poor chap, he’s struggling with this and so on. But of course that was not what Schoenberg had in mind; that was the ‘ending in doubt’ of the second act. In the third act, let’s not forget, Moses orders the murder of his brother Aron. [Schoenberg wrote the libretto for Act 3 but never set it to music despite his oft-stated intention to do so. Sometimes it’s performed as a spoken text following Act 2, though not by WNO in this production.] So he becomes a murderer actually and he then leads a march – and I use that word advisedly – of the Israeli people into the promised land. So Moses is a violent fundamentalist. To me he belongs up there with all these nutters capturing schoolgirls in Nigeria!

But do you think that Schoenberg – because I’ve pondered this myself – is actually more sympathetic to Aron in the piece than has often been painted? Or, to put it another way, is there at least room for Schoenberg to show any doubt of Moses? Perhaps it would be a self-doubt in part, as the parallel between Moses and Schoenberg is obvious; Schoenberg too struggled to deliver a ‘message’, so to speak, in serialism, and he became a sort of pariah figure for many beyond his own circle. Indeed, as far as the Nazis were concerned, he was a symbol of ‘degeneracy’.

Sympathy towards Aron is not something that I have perceived. It is of course true that Aron has more beautiful music but that’s part of the way in which he’s characterised by Schoenberg. It’s very instructive, in terms of Schoenberg and Moses’ intentions, to go back to the play that Schoenberg wrote prior to writing the opera.

Der Biblische Weg? [1926-7]

Yes. In the play there is a single character called Max Aruns who is obviously Moses and Aron in one person and who is essentially a Zionist. Actually, what the play is partly advocating is a kind of nationalist cult of physical fitness and aggression on behalf of the Jews. It’s a period in which the cult of nationalist violence – of a self-help vigilantism – was widespread; with the Nazis of course, but with others as well. For example, the Sokol movement in the Czech lands was a movement of physical fitness and health, and those people went around beating up Germans in the Sudetenland – which was part of the reason for the Germans protesting that they were being mistreated. And sometimes they were; it was not the case that the Germans were always the aggressors in this period. And Schoenberg really embraces this idea of vigilante nationalism on behalf of the Jews. Well, you could say that if everybody else is getting fit and punching noses then you’d better be armed in the same kind of way! But it’s interesting that he did advocate Jewish participation in such a movement.

I wonder if, from what you’re saying, and regarding the issue of image and representation of the divine, there’s an interesting subversion in the opera of the Nazis’ conflation of Judaism and modernism? Whether in some sense Schoenberg actually accepted that equation but turned it on its head to show, contra the idol-worshipping Nazis, that it’s the ‘worship’ of images that causes ‘degeneracy’ – not modernist values that do.

Yes, that’s his view. It seems to me an untenable view that image and representation necessarily leads to degeneracy, but that’s Moses’ view.

And to an extent Schoenberg’s? – That is, if one views serialism as a step away from representationalism and towards pure abstraction as some have argued, and as some later serialists tried to do?

Is it? I don’t think so. Serialism in itself is only really a technique to decide which notes to write down. If you want to represent a storm, or a cow mooing as Richard Strauss might have done, there’s nothing to stop you doing that within a 12-tone structure.

No indeed, as Berg did, and Henze and many others.

Yes. I’m sure you could point to lots of moments in the score of Moses und Aron where he’s choosing a particular colour in order to emphasise a point in the story, which is a kind of representationalism. So I don’t think you could really say that serialism of itself rules out or is in conflict with representation of non-musical ideas.

No, I agree. But that charge, if you like, of ‘abstraction’ – even of mathematical obsession – has pursued Schoenberg with regard to his 12-tone works; even though he said of serialism – apropos Moses und Aron as it happens – that you ‘use the method, but compose as before’. Is there something here too about Moses being a response to Parsifal? I’m thinking about Wagner’s attempts to represent the divine in that last opera: it seems interesting that, in Moses, Schoenberg uses serialism – the method he devised to organise pitch material in the wake of the breakdown of tonality from Wagner on – to argue for a taboo on images of the divine? If that makes sense?!

It does but I don’t get it. Surely, just to back track to what else Schoenberg said, he found himself using language that today we would identify immediately as being fascist language. He said ‘I think I have found a musical system that will guarantee the supremacy of German music’. Firstly, it’s interesting that he saw himself as a German composer – which he was. He’s basically implying that what was laid down by Bach had ensured the supremacy of German music for three centuries, but that what was laid down by Arnold was going to ensure that supremacy for the next three centuries! In which prediction he’s thankfully been proven to have been entirely wrong!

But it’s so fascinating that he would even think of the concept of supremacy in musical terms – that that would even occur to him as an idea. Vorherrschaft is the German word [literally pre-dominance, supremacy] and of course now it’s a word that nobody would use because it was totally tainted by the Nazis. But he used it and, even more importantly, he thought it.

So, there’s an irony here for Schoenberg, in terms of the taboo on divine images that Moses tries to instil; because Schoenberg himself has not only taken the legacy of a basically representational aesthetic on board, but he sees himself as in the vanguard of working for it to endure?

I suppose the point is that Moses, like Schoenberg, is a visionary who comes up with a new idea. But, ultimately, Moses is going to be prepared to murder the person who might compromise this idea – which is quite a frightening thought!

It is!

Going back to the point that you made about Aron – it would be very interesting to know how much this read to people at the time, in the early 1930s – but of course the concept of the demagogue became one of the catastrophic legacies of the Nazis. Because that’s the reason why, after the Second World War, the whole idea of writing anything popular became anathema; the taste of the people was associated with demagoguery. It was considered that if you pandered to the tastes of the people you were actually going down a fascist path. And I don’t know the extent to which Schoenberg identified Aron as a type of Goebbels.

The propagandist.

The propagandist. But he’s certainly playing that role isn’t he?

Yes indeed.

Of course, that really led to the whole catastrophe of post-war modernism, which led music off into a complete cul-de-sac for half a century, out of which we’re just emerging, with some relief!

Blinking in the light, perhaps!

– and with a substantially alienated public! Anyway, that’s just speculation really.

But what an interesting contrast to Verdi’s Nabucco, which embraces the popular – with Verdi himself in his day being so beloved of so many people, in stark contrast to Schoenberg’s later experience. Of course last year’s bicentenary of Verdi and Wagner led many to re-examine notions of a difference in sensibility between Italian and German opera, but it seems to me that, with Moses und Aron and Nabucco, it’s there and writ particularly large!

It’s colossal!

And it’s ironic too, given our conversation, that Mussolini did so much to try and popularise Verdi as a freedom figure.

Yes. Va pensiero [the famous Chorus of the Hebrews in Nabucco] was more or less adopted by the fascists as a second national anthem in Italy.

Going back to Moses und Aron, what does it mean to stage an opera that is effectively about – at least in part – the impossibility of images? Is that part of the challenge of putting it on? Although it seems to me that, despite Moses’ anguish at lacking the words to deliver his message, Schoenberg did find the words – that is, in those two acts at least, he managed to get something written and staged and voiced.

Yes – and surely Aron would point out that Moses’ despair was just as much an image as his own fluency and ability to demonstrate.

And the Voice from the Burning Bush is a hugely dramatic image.

Exactly. As is Moses’ gesture of breaking the tablets of stone. That’s showmanship too! And later, in the uncomposed third act, you could point to the execution of Aron as a very powerful image – pour encourager les autres!

So the opera is actually full of contradictions, right from the start.

Fundamentally, yes.

That in itself is interesting in terms of the spirals of contradiction and paradox that religious fundamentalists rely so much upon. Interesting that no such thing happens in the Verdi! There’s far more clear cut good and bad in Nabucco, with resolution thereof – though he’s still tackling very knotty issues at some level.

Yes – and there’s also the issue that fundamentalism, or your view of it, depends on which side you’re looking at it. For instance, Zaccaria happens to be the person who is able to lead his people – a bit like the Polish Pope [John Paul II]. But actually, if the Polish Pope had not had to lead the Poles to freedom from the communists, he would probably have been seen as a rather grumpy, right-wing religious fundamentalist! He acquires heroic status because of the situation that he was in, but actually, in terms of doctrine, he was quite a hardliner in fact. If you talk about his views on abortion, or women’s right to decide whether to have children or not, he comes over as a much less sympathetic figure than if you talk about his resistance to communism or to Soviet power and so on.


I think if you met Zaccaria on another piece of territory, in another narrative, you might find that he was just as unpleasant as any other such figure.

So that issue of leadership becomes one, again, of representation – even of propaganda. There’s something about the tantrum that Moses has in the opera when he smashes the tablets.

Also an image of course, as we’ve said.

Exactly. For me that’s one of the most shockingly revealing parts of the piece – for what happens in that moment to Moses’ absolute mission to impart God’s Word? Somehow the personal ego asserts itself when the chips are down – and that’s very revealing about the nature of leadership and the will to power.

Yes. I guess the one thing that you could say in criticism of putting Nabucco under a title of ‘faith’ is that I’m not sure in the end that faith is the subject of Nabucco. It’s as much another of Verdi’s family dramas isn’t it?


And it’s got another of Verdi’s very powerful father-daughter conflicts or situations [as in Rigoletto for instance, most famously], with Abigail discovering that she’s illegitimate and blaming her father for that – which drives her to do all kinds of monstrous things.

Nabucco has also been painted as a very political opera in the sense that the oppressed Hebrews are often taken as a metaphor for the Italian people under the subjection of Austria. But I wonder how much that’s in retrospect; how far Verdi really was in his day a figure directly associated with the Risorgimento, and whether the opera’s story is more to do with his being a brilliant dramatist?

Oh I think he knew perfectly well that that would pull the right strings. He was a good theatre man and I think he knew what was going to stir people’s emotions – and that was a very powerful topic, even without it necessarily being identified with Garibaldi or the Risorgimento specifically. The opera is part of a big subject for the whole of Europe in the 19th century, which is the issue of national identification – right up to the point where the King of Egypt feels he has to commission an opera in order to establish the fact that Egypt is a grown-up nation; to have the opera tell the story! [The then Khedive of Egypt, Is’mail Pasha, later commissioned Verdi to write Aida.] Which applies all over Eastern Europe too of course.

I wonder if there is a faith aspect in Nabucco that happens to resonate with Schoenberg personally – which is the issue of religious conversion? [Schoenberg converted to Lutheranism as a young man and then back to Judaism upon having to flee Germany pre-war.] At least, your twinning of the two operas has got me thinking about that. Conversion is very powerful in the Verdi within that context of nationhood and imperialism and subjugation; the idea that one side in a conflict only really knows it has won when the other side accepts its God.

Right. Yes, it goes together with imperialism, with insisting that everybody thinks like you do. So it’s a decidedly illiberal agenda. Which is part of why I have problems with Moses himself, because I feel that those are all things that people should decide for themselves.

Moses is a very angry man somehow, as depicted in the opera. He’s angry with God for wanting him to be His mouthpiece. He knows he can’t do it, but approaches Aron with extremely bad grace – and immediately starts disagreeing with the way Aron wants to set about the task. So it’s not a straightforward case of ‘Moses loves God, Aron loves the people and ne’er the twain shall meet’, but all those very human emotions of anger and despair are very much part of the opera.

And I suppose jealousy too. I think Moses is quite jealous of Aron’s abilities and plausibility.

Yes – that contrast between Moses’ Sprechstimme [or sung-speech] and Aron’s eloquent bel canto is very powerful. And it’s interesting that God, through the chorus at the beginning, as the Voice from the Burning Bush, uses both Sprechstimme and song.


The chorus has a tremendously powerful role in the opera – and it’s very hard!

And they’re doing very well I think, too. That’s really the point of doing it here at WNO – to showcase the WNO Chorus.

Yes, I see that. Nabucco too is famous for its choruses – including, of course, Va pensiero. Another thing common to both operas in a way, seen in part through the chorus/crowd scenes, is the notion of cultural destruction. In the Verdi, there’s the destruction of the Hebrew temple, and then of the statue of Baal – another image.

Your saying that reminds me that you can see, in relation to Verdi’s life and career, how relatively primitive Nabucco is. Because there is no music for the destruction of Baal.

No! It slips through doesn’t it, without being ‘set’ by him.

Yes. And so I’m reminded of the fact that the attitude of the composer to a scenic event in Nabucco is the same as it was for Handel. When, in Xerxes, the bridge across the Hellespont collapses, there’s no music. Maybe the harpsichord does a kind of rumble or something – but there is nothing otherwise; the composer didn’t see it as his job to depict that kind of thing. In Nabucco, Verdi hasn’t quite noticed yet that the grand opéra has emerged in Paris, where people are beginning to compose all kinds of scenic effects: moonlight and thunderstorms.

Representing the image in music even!

Yes! And later on of course, with Verdi, when you think how he deals with the opening of Otello for example, he gets right in there. But he was writing in a different world in Nabucco.

And from that point of view also, it’s an interesting opera to twin with Moses because of the simultaneous dryness and yet huge expressivity that Schoenberg puts into that piece. He really goes for it with the Golden Calf music. I take it you’re not going to have people running through fires in that scene, as he writes in the score?!

No no! But I’m not sure I should give away the solution to all that! The fact that Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito in Stuttgart came up with a rather intelligent way of dealing with that scene was what made it possible for us to do the production!

No, don’t give it away! On the surface you look at those massive forces that Schoenberg employs and you think, this is epic opera, but it’s an opera as much about one man’s inner torment as it is epic on a grand scale like the Verdi. But again, the Verdi is also, as you say, a very personal drama.

Well you can see that as a parallel. Moses is about two brothers and a lot of the driving force of at least one side of the story in Nabucco are the two sisters and their very hostile relationship to one another.

Yes. Schoenberg seems to me to have been actually very interested in human relationships and the difficulties of, I suppose, being in the world. But he was caught in a bind because, on a personal level, he craved love and acceptance, but as a true modernist artist, he didn’t want either!

I think he wanted to be admired.

Yes – perhaps not ‘loved’. Revered.

Revered, yes. There’s another dreadful quote from him isn’t there? Something like ‘all art should be created cold’.

And yet his music wasn’t created cold. At least, I don’t think so!

It isn’t cold necessarily, but it may have been created cold – or the process may have been so. There’s another strange thing that is interesting to look at between the two pieces: I don’t think it’s any insult to Verdi to say that he actually cultivates simplicity. I think that’s very often what he meant by his concept of parola scenica [literally, the ‘scenic word’]; just the right, pithy way to bring a situation clearly onto the stage. But Schoenberg sets off what I think was a disastrous tendency in 20th century culture, of cultivating complexity – very often for its own sake.

You think so – even in Moses und Aron?

I think there is a kind of intellectual arrogance which is saying, if you can’t demonstrate utter mastery of an over-complexity, you’re not really qualified. I don’t think you can necessarily point to a bar in Moses und Aron and say look, you could have written that a lot simpler and got the same effect. But you can say that of the music of a lot of his followers.

Oh yes, that’s very true!

And so he established something – and maybe he shouldn’t be blamed for what less talented people did afterwards – but he established a kind of rule of thumb that complexity was important.

Perhaps there’s an arrogance in his using just one note-row as a basis for the whole opera in the way he did? In the sense of ‘look how I can write all of this music out of twelve notes arranged just so’? At any rate, that’s potentially rather fundamentalist in itself isn’t it?

It is, yes. But of course Bach would have done the same.

Perhaps without the self-consciousness?

Yes, without the self-consciousness.

Well thanks for talking with me David. I suspect I’d better let you go because you’ve got a rehearsal!

Yes I have. I can’t remember whether I’m rehearsing the simple piece or the complex piece! Because that’s quite an interesting contrast too! Getty’s piece is one of extreme simplicity you could say. He’s a tremendously nice man and very knowledgeable about opera. But I rather floored him the other day by saying that his piece was in the tradition of Dargomyzhsky. He’d never heard of Dargomyzhsky, which is fair enough – most people haven’t. But what Dargomyzhsky did – I don’t know whether you’ve heard of Dargomyzhsky?

Yes I have, he was a Russian composer, but carry on!

He created this idea of permanent recitative really. That is, that the function of the music was simply to illuminate the text and only under exceptional moments should the music rise up and say something on its own. And of course this technique was very influential on all the ‘Russian-Russian’ composers. By that I mean obviously not on Tchaikovsky, who’s the opposite; the ‘non-Russian’ composer. But on Mussorgsky in particular. This was very influential, and established this whole pattern of concentrating on the speech and reserving outright musical expression for very significant moments. And that’s basically what the Getty does. It’s just a very nuanced, careful handling of the text. Whereas the Debussy of course immediately gets into a sort of wallowing hot tub of misty perfumes and bath oils! So that’s an interesting contrast as well!

Yes it would be! I gather you’re doing a new version of the Debussy by Robert Orledge?

Well, it’s a version Robert Orledge did five years ago or so. We premièred it in Bregenz [an opera festival in Austria where David is Intendant], which is how I know it.

Well, I look forward to it, as well as to the Schoenberg and the Verdi. Thanks again for talking with me.

Thank you – it’s important to have serious discussion!

Illustration by Dean Lewis