by Roderick Conway Morris

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Peter Jonas at the Munich Opera

By Roderick Conway Morris
MUNICH 26 June 1996


Eyebrows were raised when Peter Jonas, whose startling productions at the English National Opera where he was general director until 1993 had made him one of the most controversial managers in British music, was headhunted by Munich's Bayerische Staatsoper, which had a reputation for musical excellence but staid and stolid staging.

The Bavarian capital has, however, always seemed to thrive on a kind of insoluble, Manichean, even schizophrenic, struggle between the forces of reaction and innovation, and nearly three years on from the time that Jonas first took up his post as Intendant (artistic and administrative director) of Munich's State Opera, his contract has been renewed, meaning that he will remain at the helm until 2003.

'I can't say there haven't been some abrasive reactions to my presence,' said Jonas. 'Munich is a city very concerned with the prettinesses of life, and a lot of people feel that to defend a small, pretty city, with small pretty art traditions, is a social virtue. And I understand that - after all, it's a very nice place to live - but there are some who regard any questioning of the status quo is something they have to really fight against. There are not so many of them, but they're very vocal.'

English-born Jonas, now 49, is the son of a German Jewish refugee father and Jamaican-born mother of Scottish and Lebanese parentage. Tall, casually-dressed, informal and affable, he was speaking in his office at the opera house the morning after a performance of Handel's 'Xerxes', directed by Martin Duncan, with sets and costumes by Ultz (the production will also figure in the month-long Munich Opera Festival in July). 'Xerxes' is a classicly unorthodox Jonas presentation, set in a slightly nightmarish, garishly tasteless milieu suggestive of an unholy mix of Ceausescu's Romania and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, with a series of odd-ball prefabricated sets constructed and dismantled before the audience's eyes by a troupe of downtrodden, shaven-headed, slave-laboring drones.

There is a superb line-up of singers led by a dazzling Ann Murray (in drag as Xerxes), Christopher Robson, Yvonne Kenny, Kathleen Kuhlmann and a deliciously saucy Frances Lucey (as Atalanta), backed by the impeccable but lively Staatsoper's orchestra and chorus. To Jonas's obvious pleasure the show, which contained moments of genuine hilarity as well as entrancing music, had been received with stormy applause and repeated ovations, even from some of the older and potentially crustier spectators.

Quite why the Bavarian powers-that-be had lighted on him has remained as much a mystery to him as anybody else, said Jonas. 'I am answerable directly to the culture minister, who also happens to be the deputy prime minister, so a politician of considerable weight. And, in fact, when I came here for the first time to talk about the job, I was rather disconcerted to see that he already had a file on me in front of him on his desk, and I asked him: 'Does the Bavarian Government have a Bavarian Secret Service, too?''

With 37 opera productions and 17 ballets a year, Munich is easily one of the world's busiest houses. Next year's budget will be around 130 million DM, a little over 70 million of which is made up by state and city subsidies. 'The subsidy is high, but as we do so many performances, as a proportion of our overall budget it is actually the lowest of any German opera house,' said Jonas. And, although the cost of unification and the general economic situation were taking their toll, the Munich opera has yet to feel the effects that some other houses are experiencing in a down-turn of audiences, as a result of which there has been no increase in ticket prices since Jonas arrived, and the hope is to keep it this way for at least another year.

Although Jonas believes that cuts in subsidies are almost inevitable in the future, he is clearly enjoying a break from having continually to justify receiving state aid at all: 'The English have always tended to value country houses, horses, dogs and cats more than opera houses and symphony orchestras. England does nevertheless have a hugely rich and varied artistic landscape, but for the general population it's far more important to maintain, say, Blenheim Palace than to keep opera and classical music alive. In Germany, on the other hand, there still seems to be a consensus that performed art is a vital part of society and worth sustaining. So, whereas, here one certainly debates how much subsidy is justified, you don't seem to have to debate the very validity of the thing you're trying to nurture and protect.'

Jonas has equally found contrasts in working practices. 'We often think in England of Germany as more rigid and hierarchical, but actually in my experience the chains of command there are much more closely observed than here. And, although nowadays, we've come to think of our management as frightfully lean, we're far more over managed. There's also a lot less bureaucracy to deal with and - I don't know if this is just Munich or not - but in many ways I'm far more 'hands-on' here. I'm closer to what's happening on stage, and if there's a problem or a crisis, I'm expected to go downstairs and deal with it myself,' he said.

After taking a first degree in English Literature Jonas did a second one in Music, taught and performed before going into management and, despite his promotion of flamboyant stagings, even his critics have had difficulty faulting his acute attention to musical quality. 'Finding such a strong musical tradition here has been a tremendous advantage. The orchestra and chorus are so wonderful that just about all one could say was: 'Carry on!' This has allowed me to devote more energy and investment of time into addressing, if you like, the visual, dramatic and technical ecology of the house, to bring these areas up to the level of importance and achievement of the musical side.'

'But above all it's been essential to emphasise that new productions really are a chance to reinterpret, not just to re-present, and that's more problematic. There would be nothing surprising about this in London or Paris, and it's not that this house has not put on revolutionary productions in the past - but it's principally known as a theater of representation, not interpretation.'

'Fortunately opera is so much part of the life of this city, that if you keep the programme relatively attractive, relatively balanced and you don't alienate too many people with your wild productions - or at least the people you alienate are replaced by new people - I think one can make them feel that a visit here can guarantee them something either traditional or adventurous, but hopefully something that will always be interesting or provocative in the best sense of the word,' said Jonas.

So far the new Intendant's enterprise has turned out to be a success to judge by the booming box-office. 'There's always been a terrific box-office here, so I can't claim to be the new messiah, but this season we're going so well that, for example, whereas for the Festival we have taken about 5 and a half million DM in the last two years, this year we've already taken over 6 million DM and there are still tickets left, and whilst in the normal season the monthly receipts have been about 2 and a half million, in May it was over 3 and a quarter million. And even unconventional productions like 'Xerxes' have been sold out.'

'I'd like to be able to say that the new element is young, and though that's part of it, I think the point is that we've managed to achieve a wider interest in the opera house in general. I think quite a lot of people who are artistically curious and cultivated in that rather Munich way, who go to the theater and to exhibitions but who did not find a conventional production of, say, 'Traviata', at all their cup of tea, and previously wouldn't have wanted to sit through four hours of anything, have actually been attracted by works not from the mainstream of the repertory.'

One of the first productions to achieve wide attention and acclaim after Jonas came to Munich was a daring version of Handel's 'Julius Caesar in Egypt', to which 'Xerxes has, in a sense, been a follow-up. 'Handel was largely ignored in West Germany, although still done in the East in recent times, but like almost every other opera practitioner of my age in the Anglo-Saxon world I am a Handel fan,' Jonas said. 'For my generation Handel was an absolute gift for music-theater, because Handel himself always updated. He did everything in contemporary clothes. He didn't ape the ancient world at all, he just took themes from it and set them in the London society of his day. So you had a kind of composer's imprimatur to be radical.'

Handel productions, said Jonas, are now spreading 'like a benign rash' all over Germany but much of the initial inspiration for this type of music-theater originally came from the post-war German opera renaissance, which was then subjected to irreverent doses of English irony and humor. Quoting from his friend and collaborator at the ENO, David Pountney, Jonas added: 'It's as if we took this amazing machine, the great Mercedes, put Wellington boots in the back, drove it through the mud, put a few dents in it, and drove it back to Germany again.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024