Festival gift for Wagner fans in China

Festival gift for Wagner fans in China
Wagner's operatic piece The Master-Singers of Nuremberg highlighted the 18th Beijing Music Festival. [Jiang Dong / China Daily]

Erl is a small village in the northern part of Tyrol, Austria, which is more renowned for its cows than for double bass. But every summer, opera lovers - especially fans of the German composer Richard Wagner - from all over the world flock to the village for its Tyrol Festival, which is conducted by maestro Gustav Kuhn.

"It's my personal dream to launch my own festival. My credo is to create a production from the music, from the musical idea of the composer, respecting his work and dealing with it to fulfill the composer's wish," says the 70-year-old Austrian conductor, adding that audiences return every year to the distinctive Alpine surroundings of the small village with 1,500 inhabitants, some cows and two festival halls.

The "Wagnerians" in China can savor the festival's essence because Kuhn is in China this month with the whole cast, 280 members in total featuring orchestras, singers and chorus.

From Oct 9-11, they performed at the 18th Beijing Music Festival, in the Chinese capital's premiere of two Wagner operas: the only comic opera piece of the composer, The Master-Singers of Nuremberg and a love tragedy, Tristan and Isolde. From Oct 16-18, he will stage Wagner's four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung in Shanghai.

In 2014, Kuhn and the festival made headlines by giving that entire four-opera cycle within 24 hours, which the conductor says challenged both the orchestra and the audience.

Based on characters from the Norse sagas and the German epic poem, The Song of the Nibelungs, the libretto and music were written by Wagner over the course of 26 years, from 1848 onward. During the upcoming performances, the four operas, including The Rhine Gold and The Valkyrie, will be presented on four consecutive days.

Kuhn adds that this is the only festival in the world presenting Wagner the way the German master had envisioned it - by having the orchestra on stage and the singers acting in front of it.

"For the audiences, the easy way to understand the mysteries of Wagner's incredible works is to listen more," says Kuhn, who staged Wagner's 10 greatest operas at the same festival in 2012.

"He is just a genius. He is a man who had to struggle a lot with his social and political environment, but a real genius. That's it.

"Every time I conduct Wagner's pieces, I feel like I am having a conversation with him. If I could have a real talk with him, I think I would ask many detailed technique questions about his works," says Kuhn.

"Music is the voice of the composer. I think that Wagner and I share some similarities. For example, we go through similar inner struggles about making music, the tears and the laughter. It takes years to finish a work and because sometimes the idea goes left or right, we always have to stay focused."

Kuhn came to China in 1996 for the first time and he was invited by Chinese conductor Yu Long to conduct Wagner's last opera, Parsifal, during the Beijing Music Festival two years ago with the China Philharmonic. He was impressed by the Chinese musicians, noting that music is a bridge that bonds two cultures together.

"Twenty years ago when I was in China, I could never imagine the country would develop so fast and have so many great musicians today," he says. "I think opera will become an important part of a new Chinese culture."

A native of Salzburg, Kuhn began his musical career by studying the violin and piano. He says that he was a born music producer but "people told me that conducting is my best talent".

With teachers such as Hans Swarowsky and Bruno Maderna, Kuhn studied at universities in Salzburg and Vienna, earning degrees in composition and conducting. He was awarded a doctorate in philosophy and psychopathology in 1970.

Besides Wagner, one of Kuhn's biggest obsessions is riding his motorcycle: He bought his first Harley 45 years ago and now owns four of them. "I enjoy the speed and the freedom. The sound of the motorcycle, for me, is as great as Wagner's music."