Lothar Koenigs

Lothar Koenigs | WNO’s Music Director | Interview

Conductor Lothar Koenigs was born in Aachen and studied piano and conducting in Cologne. From 1999 – 2003 he was Music Director in Osnabrück, Germany. Since 2003 his guest engagements have included the Vienna State Opera, the Metropolitan Opera New York, Munich, Dresden, La Scala, Hamburg, Brussels and Lyon in a wide repertoire ranging from Mozart to Berg, with a particular emphasis on the operas of Wagner, Strauss and Janáček. He worked for the first time with the Orchestra of Welsh National Opera in January 2005, and was appointed to the position of Music Director in 2008, with effect from the beginning of the 2009/10 season. In 2010 he conducted the company’s highly acclaimed new production of Die Meistersinger which he also led in a televised concert at the 2010 BBC Proms.

He spoke with Steph Power about his passion for German opera, WNO and Alban Berg’s Lulu between the opening and second nights of the significant new production at the Wales Millennium Centre. The production runs in Cardiff until 23rd February before touring to Birmingham, Llandudno, Southampton, Milton Keynes and Plymouth.

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Steph Power: Lothar, you joined Welsh National Opera as Music Director in 2009 and I believe the first production you conducted as Music Director was Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Now you are conducting a new production of his complete Lulu.

Lothar Koenigs: Yes, and WNO was the first company I think to perform Lulu in the UK.

Yes, the British première of the two-act version in 1971.

Lothar Koenigs: I think the company always had an edge and renown to be very curious and adventurous in doing new things – if you think who has been here over the years, with Peter Stein and so on. I’m really happy we have Lulu directed by David Pountney, following a wonderful production of Wozzeck a few years ago by Richard Jones. And we will follow Lulu with Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron in 2014 in the summer. You know I think it would be a sin not to programme these pieces when you have such a great company, such a chorus. Of course, extra people will be needed for the large chorus of Moses und Aron, but we have such a strong foundation here – it’s a dream for me to do these pieces with this company. I hope that people do realise that there is something really going on here, that we invite all the people of Wales to celebrate this!

Is your aim partly to bring us the heart of German and Austrian opera?

Lothar Koenigs: Yes, of course it’s very close to me, and I’m conducting many other composers, including Janáček too – I love Janáček. But of course I became Music Director to conduct Meistersinger, Tristan, Lohengrin, Lulu and Wozzeck and hopefully some more Strauss – and so this is very exciting.

And Henze too?

Lothar Koenigs: Yes, and I think this is a very nice opportunity as our seasons now have themes; it will be very exciting to have Manon Lescaut by Puccini alongside its opposite, Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude – because somehow they have the same story. Maybe Henze looks at it with more modern eyes and so the theme gives them both a great context.

So you are setting up a dialogue between the two operas in each case?

Lothar Koenigs: Yes and also with the concerts, which are part of our themed seasons. So we will have Lohengrin to celebrate Wagner’s two-hundredth anniversary in 2013 and we also have a view on Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring which was premièred a hundred years ago – I think it’s fantastic!  I’m not wanting to ‘educate’ people you know, I just want to show the richness of this music and this period. After Wagner, you have Mahler, Zemlinsky, the Second Viennese School, Stravinsky, Bartók – and the same explosion in art and literature – it’s endlessly fascinating.

I was wondering, with Lulu in particular, what you find to be the biggest challenge of the score – or perhaps the unique challenge of the score – from the conductor’s point of view?

Lothar Koenigs: For me the biggest problem is the third act, which Berg wasn’t able to complete before he died. What do you think about this version by Kloke that we are using, may I ask?

I like your cuts to the Paris scene, which I’ve always felt Berg would have revised – I just can’t see how he would have left it as quite such an ensemble of perplexity, with so much going on and such thick textures. He was too much of a dramatist at heart, I think, to leave it like that, ultimately. But with the final scene, I’m not so sure as you omitted the Quartett. I’m going to have to see it again!

Lothar Koenigs: Yes, we did but, you know, Berg never wrote the Quartett, he just wrote Alwa’s line. All the other vocal lines there are by Cerha.

Yes, Cerha did embellish what Berg wrote there.

Lothar Koenigs: You know with both versions, I don’t want to judge. I think Cerha worked for twelve years on the third act and did a brilliant job. People complain about the Paris scene, but we have to realise that the first almost 300 bars are original Berg – so if the music is not so good it’s not Cerha’s fault, it’s Berg’s! But you know you said you’re sure he would have revised it; I’m sure he would have revised the first and second acts as well. Because you know, the theatre scene in Act 1, especially at the end with Schön and Lulu – it never stops! If you look at how perfect Wozzeck is, where no one note is too much – and Berg wrote a letter to Webern saying not only about the third act but that ‘I think I should start again from the beginning’.

He did, yes. And certainly, looking at Wozzeck as you say and also the Lyric Suite and the Violin Concerto – the way he worked, so meticulous, so detailed, and his obsession with tightness of structure – these pieces were so perfectly constructed that for Berg not to have gone back over Lulu wouldn’t make sense.

Lothar Koenigs: Yes exactly, I agree. So I’m sure he would have revised Lulu. And do you know, with this new version of the third act, I am sure this is not the end of the matter! Somehow this also doesn’t work – but just to do two acts and to miss the music of Geschwitz at the end! We can’t miss this music – we can’t miss the Negro or Jack the Ripper!

I agree! But how to do the third act? It’s a dilemma.

Lothar Koenigs: A dilemma, yes, but there were big voices like Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Webern – all of them said it was possible to finish the piece although they didn’t want to do it themselves. And we, as Berg admirers, we have to accept that the Paris picture music is not his best! I think in the end, to compose an almost three hour piece on one twelve-tone note row, it’s really staggering. And it’s good to know about this serial aspect too. But I think as the performer, you put the serialism away and just make the music – I think it is important for the audience to know that they can expect an overwhelming, sensual evening, with the music as well as with the show. I have to confess I would never sit at home listening to Lulu on CD. And it’s fantastic to read the score and marvel at what Berg did but I think at the end you have to go to the theatre. It needs the stage you know, the same with Wozzeck – and even more so with Moses und Aron.

Yes, Berg didn’t just write the music – let alone some exercise in serialism – he wrote an extraordinary piece of music-theatre which has to be seen! What is it like to conduct such an intensely emotional piece?

Lothar Koenigs: I think Berg’s music is so human; you suffer so much with this as well during Lulu! You know, it’s hard – but on the other hand it’s so natural. And, talking of technical difficulty, everyone was panicking about how difficult it would be, but now they’ve discovered it’s completely natural to play!

Is that because Berg writes so well for the instruments and voices?

Lothar Koenigs: Perfectly, yes – it’s just a matter of becoming familiar with his sound-world, I think. That’s where one should really forget about it’s being twelve-tone music because at the end it’s very Romantic music. He was so smart with his tone rows but – the Interlude before the theatre scene after the Monoritmica –  I mean, it’s really late Mahler! But it’s so brilliantly done, if people can just be open to it, and I think anyway the approach to Berg’s scores is always very Romantic.

It strikes me that you have a particular sensitivity to the extraordinary colours of Berg’s sound-world; in bringing those through with the orchestra.

Lothar Koenigs: Oh thank you. Well, you know, the musicians as well, they have to listen to each other and then they understand; if you don’t play this music kind of very pure, it’s the worst music in the world, but if you can bring these colours and voices out – suddenly it’s a universe! I strongly believe in this. In Wozzeck, Berg uses the whole orchestra I think just two or three times, but for the rest, it’s almost chamber music. It’s a little different in Lulu but still the players really have to listen to each other. He used Schoenberg’s score markings of Haupstimme and Nebenstimme to indicate main voice and accompanying voice, but I think this was to help at the time when he wrote the piece as it was all so new. Today I think it’s very obvious what’s the main voice or what’s accompanying voice and I think we just have to trust the score. And on the one hand, Berg was such a control freak – he even composes how exactly Schön has to write down what Lulu sings at ‘Sehr geehrtes Fräulein’! It’s ridiculous but also charming!

He notates in detail so many aspects of the action – every asthmatic breath of Schigolch!

Lothar Koenigs: Yes, it’s all written down. And, on the other hand, we are working on The Cunning Little Vixen, this chaotic score of Janáček’s! If you look at how Janáček puts things together, you realise he often uses different notation for the same tempo or rhythm and so you somehow have to help the score. But I think with Janáček, you listen for three to five seconds to his music and you know it’s Janáček! This is his genius and his music is so honest. And of course, if I think of Strauss, he was just brilliant in his scores – the instrumentation, everything is perfect – but it doesn’t speak to my heart in the same way. With Janáček, each note, even if it’s a screaming high violin or piccolo, it speaks so directly to the heart.

But with Berg, in terms of control and detail, he even adopted what Schoenberg did in Pierrot lunaire in asking for Sprechstimme for the voice at times, meaning half-sung or ‘sung speech’. But, I have to say, I don’t believe in it. I think half-singing, even with the way the notes are written, it doesn’t work somehow.

In Pierrot it’s different in a way because the Sprechstimme suits the poems and Schoenberg’s setting, especially with the smaller ensemble, but, yes, difficult in a big score like Lulu – is it intended to be an effect do you think?

Lothar Koenigs: Yes an effect perhaps. Still it’s not satisfying though – at the end, you either sing the pitch or you don’t sing the pitch. But maybe this comes from the way actors spoke at the time – at least in Germany – the way they declaimed everything. But I’m not 100% convinced by it.

It’s always intrigued me that Meines Mannes is spoken. This is the first time we hear Lulu show who she might be but she doesn’t sing, she speaks.

Lothar Koenigs: Well, I think maybe the spoken dialogue is another aspect of the way Berg uses colour overall. But also, if you think of the first dialogue between the Painter and Lulu, there, they just talk in an everyday manner about ‘oh die post ist da’ and so on. So I think this is part of Berg’s wanting somehow to include what was new at the time – like with the film interlude you know.

So the dialogue is intended to be very naturalistic as if from the theatre?

Lothar Koenigs: Yes, very matter of fact.

I was intrigued by the Wanderer image in the production, alluding to Wagner’s Siegfried, and which puts Schigolch into the dramatic centre in a way I haven’t seen done before.

Lothar Koenigs: Yes, this image has a very personal source. And, at the end, we don’t know who Schigolch is. What’s his relationship with Lulu? Is he her father? Did they have an affair? Was she abused by him? We don’t know – and the same with Schön. What is their history, Lulu and Schön? Again, we don’t know – but to think of Wotan and Brünnhilde, yes, it’s very clever. And also in the production, during the Filmmusik when Lulu has been taken away, the other characters become old – this refers to Freia! So when Lulu is gone –

– Ah, of course, yes, everybody ages! Because Lulu is the spirit of eternal youth – in a way, like Freia, she keeps everybody young.

Lothar Koenigs: Yes! We had been struggling to make sense of the less interesting music that comes after the Filmmusik and before Lulu returns from prison. Then we realised that, when Lulu comes back with her fantastic ‘O Freiheit’, everything changes – that’s the release! In a sense, that’s when we get the music back; only with her return.

Speaking of personal sources and references, with the many subtexts that Berg composed into his scores about himself and the people in his life, I was wondering whether that informed your preparation of Lulu or whether you put all of that aside?

Lothar Koenigs: Well of course I read a lot about it, but I have to say when you do this piece you can put a lot aside – but you shouldn’t put away Hannah Fuchs [with whom Berg had an affair]. I think he was so attached to her and Lulu somehow – and it’s there, like it’s in the Lyric Suite. I think you can’t put Hannah Fuchs aside even if Helene [Berg’s wife] always ignored this!

And, again, with the Violin Concerto, of course he was mourning the death of Manon Gropius [the eighteen year-old daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius], but he also broke off writing this passionate score of Lulu, with all that meant to him, to compose the Concerto.

Lothar Koenigs: Yes I agree and you know it’s really sad that even biographies from the seventies or eighties just ignore Hannah Fuchs. She’s not really mentioned you know. The same with his child, with Albine [who Berg fathered with a serving girl when aged 17 ]. I think we just have to accept that maybe he suffered a lot that he didn’t have children with Helene – but we don’t know!

There’s such a huge story there with Hannah and others – and it’s all in Lulu.

Lothar Koenigs: Yes and I think also – this is not just my opinion but others have also said this – that Lulu was the last Romantic opera. You know, I really can’t think of another Romantic opera that’s been written after that. No. That’s it – Lulu was the last.

That’s quite some thought – very poignant. Lothar, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis