Marko Ivanović: opera has always been a multimedia genre

Marko Ivanović

Opera performances are generally not crowd pullers, but the new opera Enchantia, which premiered in January 2012 at the Prague National Theatre was sold-out in a matter of weeks. Families with children of all ages literally swarmed to the opera house eager for a glimpse of the magic land. Directed by Petr Forman, one of the twin-sons of famous Miloš Forman, and composed by Marko Ivanović, Enchantia became a phenomenon disproving the view that opera is a dead genre. Composer Marko Ivanović is JPs guest on todays One on One.

Marko Ivanović
Marko Ivanović is a young composer and conductor with Czech and Serbian roots. Since his early twenties, he has won countless music awards. Based in the Czech Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Pardubice as chief conductor, he doesn’t seem to be limited in his composing career. In January, along with director Petr Forman, they introduced us to the enchanting world of the Magic Book, good Unicorns, Gryphons, helpful Mermaids and bad Cockatrices, a world where a girl named Penelope walks hand in hand with a cowardly Parrot and friendly Toad to save the magic world; a world inspired by Gerald Durrell’s book The Talking Parcel.

Marko, what inspired you to choose this particular book?

“We spent about a year researching many, many titles, and we found this particular book, very useful and very interesting and very challenging for turning into an opera.”

Your choice was certainly right. I know, the opera performances were sold-out way in advance. Did you expect such a success?

“We hoped it would be, but we were still surprised and pleased. I spent three years of my life working on it and I am very happy that the audience liked it. Especially, because this is an opera for families, for children and their parents, and it’s always a bit of a challenge because, you know, a young audience is very tricky in some ways, and it is very difficult to catch and hold their attention. Especially, when we are talking about an opera which lasts approximately ninety minutes. We had no idea when we planned it how it would work and during the first performances we were very excited and curious as to how a children’s audience would accept the performance.”

'Enchantia', photo: National Theatre
People live their lives faster nowadays. Your opera is ninety minutes long, which is approximately as long as an average movie. Do you think this is the future of opera? Don’t you think the conservative opera audience will be disappointed by its reduced length? I mean, there are two or three hour long operas…

“Of course. This particular opera was created for families, for children. We had to keep in mind their limitations, their shorter attention span. Generally, in the recent history, we could find many experiments with the length of opera. We witnessed a very interesting title called Einstein on the Beach by Philipp Glass which lasted approximately five or six hours. On the other hand, we have very short operas, for instance by Mauricio Kagel. It’s very difficult to say what is the real future of opera because for many people opera is a very traditional type of music, type of drama, they imagine Verdi and Wagner as some kind of leaders of the style, but for me opera is basically every artistic piece which combines music and drama in some kind of balance. And this artistic direction is for me, very open to the future. Opera will always interest a very specific kind of audience but now also a wide range of people. So opera in this wider meaning of the word has a future but of cause not in the way many people now imagine opera should sound like.”

For a composer and a conductor, how important is the multimedia aspect, the visual part?

Marko Ivanović
“I think today it is much more important than it used to be but we could find in the history of opera, in some periods of its development, there was less or more stretch on the visual side. Today, of course, the visual side is dominant in opera. Also in the traditional operas when we read the reviews in the newspapers, we very rarely read anything about the conductor’s work or anything relating to the art of composing. The main focus of reviews is on what we see, the directing, the costumes… As a musician I’m a little sad about that, but that’s the reality. We are surrounded by movies, by TV, and we are much more focused on the visual side than our parents or grandparents. But opera was always built on a struggle between the visual side – between drama – and between music. Today it is a very big task for all creators of opera how to make what Wagner called “gesamkunstwerk” – it means work which combines many media. Opera is a multimedia genre from its beginnings. It was built in the 17th century as a multimedia artistic approach.”

Somebody who is listening to our interview, right now, might think that the opera world is embedded in some kind of a capsule. I think, by Enchantia you broke it. Right?

“Our intention when we wrote Enchantia was exactly what you now said – we wanted to open the world of opera to people who never went to the theatre, or saw an opera, to show them some basic rules about it, how traditional opera works. We used the storyline of The Talking Parcel as a basis for this. We decided to create an enchanted world – Enchantia. The audience is actually drawn into that world, which existed before they came in, and will exist after they leave the theatre. This world has its specific rules, which are the rules of opera. It means, actors and people who live in that world don’t speak, they sing instead, some of those people when they are moved by some strong emotion they suddenly stop acting and they sing their songs, arias, they want to express themselves by arias. This different kind of behavior is what we want the audience to accept and so maybe prepare young audiences for some other operatic pieces, in their future lives.”

'Enchantia', photo: National Theatre
Let’s hit on another note. You became a father, recently. I remember, when my sister was little, she would listen to music when she was trying to fall asleep, at night. Her favorite was the Lion King movie soundtrack. Would you want your kid listen to Enchantia before falling asleep?

“Well (laughing), it’s very difficult, I have been a father for just fourteen days so we have some other duties to do before I can ask myself these questions. But, of course, I would feel very pleased if my kids liked my opera. I have a niece and when I wrote the opera, I dedicated this piece to her. I’m just a little bit worried that my own kids aren’t angry because of that. My task now is to write an even better piece to dedicate to my own kids.”

Your artistic range is quite wide. Besides conducting and composing, you also cooperate with various artists, like Jarek Nohavica, for instance. Can you tell our listeners what your main line of work is?

“I’m a conductor and composer, and I’m lucky that I don’t have to choose between these two so I compose and conduct. I am Chief Conductor of the Pardubice Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra. I cooperate with many orchestras and choirs and theatres around Czech Republic, mostly. I compose music for theatre, movies and operas, and also I arrange music. When I speak about myself, I simply say I am a musician. That’s it.”

What about your future plans? Maybe, to sleep a little bit more…?

“It’s already the middle of summer so I slept enough. The big task in front of me is now a conductor’s task – we are making a new contemporary opera by Vladimír Franz called War with the Newts based on a story by Karel Čapek. It’s an interesting title, an interesting composer and I think it will be interesting and challenging work. So that is one of the biggest tasks in front of me. As a composer, there are some plans I don’t want to talk about, right now because they are still just in my head and in the heads of people who want to realize them. Hopefully, next year I will start to work again on some bigger work.”

Marko Ivanović
The opera will be directed by David Drábek, and possibly you may find yourself cooperating with the future Czech president. How do you feel about that?

“It’s very funny. I know Vladimír Franz from school because he is also a professor at the Academy of Music. We know each other very well but we have never cooperated. I am very curious about it, we have our first meeting, next week, so we will see.”

Has your wife ever inspired you in your composing?

“My wife is a very good adviser to me. She’s an actress, a singer and songwriter but in a different style from mine. She is a folk song writer. She has a very good ear and I like her opinions. Mostly, everything I write, I show first to her. She gives me her opinion on it, and I must say she’s a very good adviser to me. That’s the kind of inspiration that I really need because when you are immersed in something too deeply – when you write, when you devote a lot of time to something then you simply loose this kind of overview. You need somebody with fresh sight to tell you what they think. I really appreciate this about my wife.”