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Nagano Leaves Munich

Kent Nagano has been the GM of the Bavarian State Opera since 2006 when he entered a house without a Intendant, following in the footsteps of the much beloved Zubin Mehta whose comforting presence, if not always artistic inspiration, didn't seem to difficult an act to follow. A few pin-point successes aside, it never felt that Nagano had truly arrived in Munich; the press quickly decided not to like him, which allowed most of them to ignore even the stand-out performances Nagano did turn in. Intendant Nikolaus Bachler and Nagno were said not to gel, either. The decision of Nagano to announce that he would leave the field is at the same time a decision for Bachler to stay and pick a music director of his liking. (If the meddling politicians agree with his choice, that is.)

Angesichts der kulturpolitischen Entwicklungen der letzten Monate in München – am Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz und bei den Münchner Philharmonikern – und deren Folgen sowohl für den Ruf dieser Institutionen als auch für den der Stadt, habe ich mich entschlossen, für eine Vertragsverlängerung als Generalmusikdirektor der Bayerischen Staatsoper nach dem Sommer 2013 nicht zur Verfügung zu stehen. Mit dieser Entscheidung möchte ich den Schaden, der durch eine Personaldiskussion entstehen und der zu hausinternen Spannungen und Verwerfungen führen kann, von der Staatsoper abwenden.

Beauftragt durch das Bayerische Staatsministerium für Wissenschaft, Forschung und Kunst habe ich mich als Generalmusikdirektor in den Dienst der Staatsoper, unseres Orchesters, unseres Chores und unseres Publikums gestellt. Ich habe für diese außergewöhnlichen Kollektive in den reichen und wunderbaren Spielzeiten der letzten Jahre eine hohe Achtung sowie eine tiefe und aufrichtige Zuneigung entwickelt.

Die kulturelle Prägung Münchens, seine Tradition und Atmosphäre sowie besonders meine Kolleginnen und Kollegen haben es mir erlaubt, als Künstler zu wachsen; sie haben mich stark beeinflusst und waren und sind die Quelle meiner künstlerischen Inspiration. Sie sind anspruchsvoll, sachkundig, flexibel und neugierig und unterstützen meine künstlerischen Visionen freundschaftlich und enthusiastisch. Dafür bin ich sehr dankbar.

Mit meiner Entscheidung, für eine Vertragsverlängerung über die Laufzeit des derzeitigen Vertrages hinaus nicht zur Verfügung zu stehen, möchte ich verhindern, dass meine Kolleginnen und Kollegen, die Öffentlichkeit und die Stadt München einer Atmosphäre kulturpolitischer Spekulationen und Spannungen ausgesetzt werden, die letztlich allen Beteiligten Schaden zufügen und der noblen, einmaligen Tradition der Bayerischen Staatsoper, dem Ruf Münchens und seiner Gesellschaft nicht gerecht werden.

With my heartfelt appreciation and dedication,

Kent Nagano

München, den 6. Juli 2010

English Translation (jfl)

In light of the cultural and political developments of the recent months in Munich – at the Gärtnerplatz State Theater and the Munich Philharmonic – and their consequences for the reputation for these institutions as well as for the city of Munich, I have decided that I will not be available for an extension of my contract as GM of the Bavarian State Opera beyond the summer of 2013. With this decision I wish to avert any harm from the State Opera that might be caused by a protracted succession debate and the subsequent in-house tensions.

Appointed by the Bavarian State Ministry for Science, Research, and Art, I have worked in the service of the State Opera, our orchestra, our choir, and our audience. I have developed a deep and abiding affection for this extraordinary collective in the event- and wonder-ful seasons we have had together.

The cultural imprint of Munich, its tradition and atmosphere and especially my colleagues have afforded me the opportunity to grow as an artist. They have greatly influenced me and were the source of my creative inspiration. They are demanding, knowledgeable, flexible, curious, and have supported my artistic visions with enthusiasm. For that I am deeply grateful.

With my decision against a contract extension I want to avoid that my colleagues, the public, and the city of Munich are exposed to a situation of cultural-political speculations and tensions. Such a situation would impair all those involved and would not do the unique tradition of the Bavarian State Opera or the reputation of the city of Munich justice.

With my heartfelt appreciation and dedication,

Kent Nagano

München, July 6th, 2010

Let’s parse the statement:

First of all: Letting Nagano take the initiative in this allows him to lay out the situation in a way that suggests it is he who chooses not to renew his contract beyond 2013. As if, let’s be honest, that had ever been his to decide. Or even much of a viable option. It wasn’t; anyone with half a toe dipped into the operatic waters of Munich knew well enough that Nagano was not the man of choice for Nikolaus Bachler, that he had not connected with the audience in a particularly meaningful way, that he didn’t perform the music dear to the orchestra’s tradition with the enthusiasm they would have preferred.

Nagano, dubbed “the Californian Fridge” by the more disgruntled elements in Munich’s opera crowd, hadn’t been one for eliciting raw emotions from the orchestra; his Strauss was often coolly flowing (not seldom mistaken for glib), too coolly for the Strauss-towners. His Verdi, never mind Puccini, didn’t satisfy the Italophiles among the crowd and administration. Munich thinking itself the northernmost Italian town, and Nikolaus Bachler being a fan—of Verdi in particular—noted with slight dismay. His Wagner didn’t conform to comfortably held stereotypes about Wagner, either. None of that should have come as a surprise when he was hired, though.

The cosmopolitan Californian’s cool and reserved style, musically and socially, never quite fit the Munich scene and despite demonstrative applause and standing ovations at the recent performance of Don Giovanni, he wasn’t enthusiastically embraced by the audience and less so critics. Klaus Kalchschmid, who wrote about Saturday’s Don Giovanni in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that the overture was shapeless and that tension was lacking throughout, suggests that it’s no wonder that someone who has a hard time with Mozart or Tchaikovsky also has a hard time establishing a broad fan base.

But it wasn’t really his opera conducting—in any case often superb, such as his thrillingly well executed Wozzeck—that spelled doom to a prolonged Munich career, nor his concert repertoire conducting, which I thought rather more wanting, despite positive outliers and great outings on CD. It was a clash of personalities with the Intendant who had not chosen Nagano in the first place.

Nagano is a quiet guy, not prone to take charge for the sake of taking charge. And Nikolaus Bachler, on the other hand is a wily mover and shaker, who laps up and thrives on a healthy degree of conflict, who charms and schmoozes, and likes decisiveness and being decisive. Sitting next to him in press conferences, Nagano looked like a school boy, timid and intimidated—even though he can be quite tough behind the scenes. (The situation is exactly the opposite of the Munich Philharmonic, where a larger-than-life Christian Thielemann had to be seated two places apart from their mousy, cowering Intendant, so that the latter wouldn’t look too pathetic.)

A considerable mistake of Nagano’s, I think, was that he insisted on answering questions in his execrable, faintly spoken, often unintelligible German. Bad German is, consciously and subconsciously, taken as a sign of weakness (and worse) by any German. Thus limited by language, his answers seldom addressed the actual question. The contrast to the former actor Bachler, who exceeds at communication and keeping pesky journalists down with rebuttals that are well beyond the writers’ intellectual or verbal capacities to counter, only made Nagano look worse. No one likes a wimp. He should have insisted, as the boss, to answer questions in English. If the local jornos didn’t like: “Tough. Go learn a second language.” Alas, he stumbled on… and never got to communicate his strengths sufficiently, never got out of the defensive, never forcefully showed Munich why he was so good for them. Which he could well have, because he was good for Munich.

The Munich opera audience is a continental, conservative, stuffy crowd, easily pleased with reoccurring favorites and gossip, and dispiritingly uncurious. They do go along with racy productions, because they love the faux-outrage afterwards, and they like to self-congratulate themselves for enduring the occasional audacious programming. A few journalists are apparently of the opinion that Salieri would constitute adventurous-rewarding programming; perhaps because they liked Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. But enthused individuals apart, en gros the audience is not really interested in exploring the repertoire-greats that are beyond those already established 80 years ago or not German. Strauss, Wagner, the Italians we already have—why would we need more? When Nagano brought Poulenc’s Dialogue (superbly performed, excellently staged, warmly-efficiently conducted), it was considered downright radical, certainly novel stuff; one of the greatest operas of the 20th century… yet unknown here, just as most of Britten’s œvre isn’t on opera goers horizons, or Stravinsky or Prokofiev or Shostakovich. Nagano was—or could have been—the man to do that. To the extent he succeeded he probably wasn’t given due credit.

In any case, the seven years (still a considerable artistic reign, in these short-lived days) under Nagano were a gain for the opera and for Munich. To have had him was good; to have him move on is just as good. More inspired playing from the orchestra certainly can’t hurt in the future—and there was one conductor, already approached and openly suggested as the ideal successor, who did just that: inspire them to consistent world class performances. The young man, like Nagano formerly with an opera job in Berlin (but at the Komische Oper), conducted Jenůfa in Munich and charmed everyone from the Intendant to the janitor, musicians, administrators, assistant producers, audience, and critics alike. Even those who didn’t like Barbara Frey’s subtly-generous production fell instantly in love. (In my recap of the Summer Festival I wrote of the second run of the production: “
Kirill Petrenko elicited, again, the most emotional performance from the Bavarian State Orchestra I've heard this season: seething, harrowing, and placid in turns.”) It is clear that Bachler, was he to stay at the opera (his contract, too, runs out in 2013), was not going to do it for another couple years with Kent Nagano, but someone who better matches his artistic vision, is more enthusiastic about embracing repertoire that Bachler, too, would like to see championed. And because this is Europe, where opera is socialized, the politicians are important, too—no matter how little they know of the subject; no matter whether they could tell Rossini from Monteverdi or not.

High level appointments like the MD of the Opera are the one field where the Cultural Apparatschiks get to enjoy a hint of the glamour of the arts; where they can mingle with people who actually know the business, hoping, perhaps, that a little will rub off. The Nagano-Bachler mess was the making of two successive CSU ministers; Hans Zehetmair (exceptionally competent and cultured, but not knowledgeable of opera), then Thomas Goppel (a teacher-cum-lifetime politician). Now a dentist will call the shots (which has the potential for a great insider joke); Wolfgang Heubisch from the FDP (the alleged classical liberal party that loves subsidizing art because its rich clientele loves subsidized art—incidentally also nicknamed the “Dentists’ Party”) will have to be made to look as though he came up with the brilliant plan to hire Kirill Petrenko. (Behind the scenes, at all times, was and remains Toni Schmidt, the undersecretary in the arts ministry with cultural ambitions.) Bachler, surely a politicking genius, knows so much and will allow Heubisch’s ego to be thus stroked if that means the opera can take the right conductor under contract… i.e. if he, Bachler, can get his way. It should suit Munich well enough, since this means that the actual decisions can be taken by someone who is well enough equipped to make a good decision.

Not all critics in town agree that Bachler’s contract should necessarily be renewed, though. Citing Bachler’s controversial brand of aesthetic decisions for the opera house, musicologist, professor, and journalist Dr. Klaus Peter Richter thinks that having made the future of the Bavarian Opera an either-or situation where one of the two, Bachler or Nagano, would stay on, was yet another mistake. He wouldn’t mind seeing a fresh start on both positions, seeing Bachler’s weaknesses chiefly in his desire to make opera more interesting by adding ever more extra-musical stimuli and life-style glitz, a strategy Richter says will necessarily exhaust itself sooner or later and doesn’t bear satisfactory results.

An editorial writer at, a local arts website, cites all the productions he didn’t like in evidence that Bachler should be looked at critically. A fair enough point, but tragically undermined by the patently absurd suggestion that the minister (!!!) should tell Bachler how to get more satisfactory productions onto the stage. (Satisfactory presumably meaning that they please the author in question.) Such naïve faith in the government to dictate great art, one might point out, hasn’t been so freely admitted for many decades in Germany.

In any case, Nagano’s ‘decision’ to rule out the extension of his contract is the first move in this game of politico-operatic chess, letting the king-who-wasn’t exit the board reasonably gracefully before he is check-mated in a messy game of attrition that Nagano was never going to win. What is nice that on his way out, he not only tries to save face, he also takes a well deserved dig at the incompetence of culture-politics in Bavaria and Munich. The Gärtnerplatz-story is too much inside-baseball to comment on here; but the Thielemannaffair cruelly exposed the ineptitude of city clerks playing with their culture-toys. His early exit strategy, perhaps coming at the suggestion from above, now spares us the look behind the scenes of such appointments… which is like being spared to watch sausage being made, before eating it. In this case, we’ll just wait for 2013, close the eyes, and enjoy the music. Until then I pray that Nagano will get to waken Munich to a few 20th century opera gems that, on its own, it would be too lazy to bother with. Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortileges (coupled with Zemlinksy’s Der Zwerg) and Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise in the 2010/11 are a good, ambitious, start to go out with an educational bang. 


Anonymous said...

I guess Mr.Nagano has more important things to do than to fight with local politicians in Bavaria, who have a very limited scope. Who could succeed him ???
Maybe Noseda, or Jurowski, Metzmacher ???? All three are perfectly qualified for the job, but are they willing to get involved with local burocracy ?
Probably not.

jfl said...

None of the above... but will have the answer on WETA in a few hours.