It was a great challenge and an instructive task - interview with Zoltán Balázs

Heinrich Marschner’s piece, The Vampire will have its premiere at the Opera Festival, Szeged, in the production of Opera de Rennes. We’ve talked with the director, Zoltán Balázs, about the possibilities of this romantic piece and the experiences during the rehearsals.

The author was Weber’s coeval and even co-worker, and as in The Marksman, supernatural appears in The Vampire as well. How much did this determine the directing?

We’ve put the plot in a Japanese environment. In a highly stylized, minimalist, a highly romanticized samurai world, in which everything can be found from the original mysticism and feelings, but somehow the Japanese, the Orients have a slightly different relationship with blood, death, love, murder, friendship, schizophrenia, than us, the easy-going Europeans. It’s not that a piece can’t be put on stage in Scottish boots, with misty white smoke, a Walter Scott kind of setting. But I thought that showing symbolically the inner qualities and events are what's important, not the protagonist running around in vampire fangs and robe.

And without thinking about it, you’ve put the whole story in a Japanese environment?

Yes. Definitely. The Japanese environment completely covered me the romance and its counterpoint, the cold sense, puppetry, the world of the dead, after all, vampires are halfway between the living and the dead.

Based on the relationship between mortals, immortals and the dead it could have also been an ancient Greek world...

It is interesting you mention this, because that is also there, represented by the choir, which, like in the case of the Greeks, very often have a dramaturgical role, their response is not just simple narrative. In the performance, the choir members are constantly changing, if they have to, they will be dancers or hunters. They are changing their duality just like a vampire.

Is duality, the contrasts dominating the whole directing?

Absolutely. It is a dualistic story. Alongside the vampire is his old companion, Edgar Aubry, who, according to the story, represents nothing but good, love, but contrary to his promise he reveals that Lord Ruthven is a vampire. So the struggle it’s not just between the two characters, but also in Aubry, because he has to save his lover, who is a victim on the vampire’s list, but he has to break the vow, which at that time was a very serious sin.

As for the “vampire singer”, I have to say, he is “very much from there” based on his photo.

Yes, he is a vampire without a mask on. He knows it too. He just entered the room, and everybody looked at me, they knew I’ve found my vampire. I said, let’s wait for the voice, but luckily that was good too. And he is not good only for these reasons, he also has a demonic soul besides his demonic look. He is an eastern man. Syrian. That's exactly what I’m interested in. The otherness. Being Syrian is also “otherness”, like being Hungarian, male, female, black, or a vampire. Vampirism is an isolated, very unwell, lonely state. That’s what's important in it. And he represents all of these for me.

In spite of his exclusion, the vampire is not sadly different but it’s a creature, who is a threat. Does this singer also have to make sure that his character doesn’t come off only as a negative figure on stage?

Yes. I didn't want to see a suggestive vampire with a strange look, the requirement was his presence. For example, in Nosferatu, what it’s beautiful in Kinski’s acting is not that I feel that “I am a vampire, I suck everybody's blood, and you will never get me”, but to feel the horror, that dawn is coming and he would like to stay among the living, but he must retreat into the darkness and he is heartbroken, that he can only communicate with women only as a vampire. He has no chance to sit and talk to her, to touch her, lie down beside her, there are no natural, human, life-like moments. Because he does not live but he is not dead either. This is insanity, he is trapped between the two shores. In Marschner’s opera, the vampire has an aria in which he says he killed his wife and daughter. This is also insane. I gave the singer, Nabil the instruction, that every time he will have another victim in front of him, he should always see his wife in it.

In Coppola’s Dracula movie, the count is looking for his onetime love in all of his victims. In your directing two victims are played by one singer. Did you think about this parallel?

Yes, that’s it, what the Coppola movie also formulated. The goal was the same. The mirroring. Not only did I want to depict the metamorphosis of the battle between the vampire, Ruthven and Aubry, but I also found it important that the women’s rebirth, re-killing are also continuous in this piece.

Did you get this opera as a task or did you choose it?

We’ve selected it with the director of the Opera House of Rennes together. It has been an old, cherished dream of his. Because it has never been played in France or here.

Did the director leave you with what you will get out of it?

Absolutely. He could have turned down the plan when I’ve presented it to him with drawings, mockups, how I imagine the show, but he approved, he was very happy and satisfied.

To what extent were the Rennes people used to such a symbolic staging?

Not much. But they were extremely open, attentive and committed. They are amazingly prepared. It did not happen that if I asked something they would not do it in half a second. And it was not just the performers who did so. The set is a stylized version of a Japanese courtyard, with four huge doors in a large white wall. If they would not make this the way they did, with hairline cracks, noiseless door openings, then it wouldn’t be worth it. I haven't experienced such a thing in Hungary. Here somehow there is always some dirt left, it’s always like, that is almost like that, but it will do. And then you have to fight for it, not to be “almost like that”.

Aside from the fact that you didn't have to fight in Rennes, what else was different in the working method?

In opera, you can only rehearse 5-6 hours per day. After the sixth hour, the iron curtain is pulled down. This is not new to me, because I work very accurately at home as well, but with my team, I can work on details for days. Here, this was not the case, everything had to work with the precision of a clock. And it worked, we made it how we wanted it to be, no compromise was needed. It was a great challenge and an instructive task. I think that it is every young man's dog duty to direct an opera because this is the queen of the arts. It knows everything that can be integrated theatrically, musically, in movement and fine arts. I've never been part of a musical production like this before. I am very happy that I could do it on a big stage abroad. And I hope it's not the last I got to do it.

SzJ, Café Momus
Translation by Brigitta Erőss