The Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási will be conducting Rusalka at the Bayerische Staatsoper from 14 May, but his international career, and wide-ranging repertoire, will soon see him taking off again, to various Italian cities, to London, Madrid, Seville, and Budapest in his beloved homeland.
Nánási was more rooted in one place from 2012 to 2017 when he was General Music Director of the Komische Oper Berlin – a city that he now calls home – but he is accustomed to hopping around the globe.
Travelling a lot has accompanied me my whole life. During my studies I was constantly commuting between Budapest and Vienna, later between Vienna and Munich etc. Sometimes that gets tiring, of course, but I always try to take the maximum of everything positive with me.
I love meeting new people, new cultures, new cities, and of course, if you've grown fond of some places, it's all the nicer to return there. This also applies to work – nothing is nicer than returning to a theatre where you enjoyed working, and it is great to see a beloved ensemble again and to embark on a new musical journey together.
He embarked on his lifelong musical journey at a young age.
My parents had a collection of Italian opera recordings, the famous Teatro alla Scala series with the greatest interpreters of their time. I was around five years old when I discovered among them a Tosca recording with a portrait of Maria Callas on the cover. I asked my father who this beautiful lady was. His reply was, “She's not just beautiful, she can sing quite well too, would you maybe like to listen to it?” I said “yes” and that's how it all started.
Nánási has maintained an important bond with Italian opera throughout his career, and early next year he will be conducting Verdi's I vespri siciliani at Teatro San Carlo in Naples, though he also will be conducting Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer at the Royal Opera House in London, and the composer's Tristan und Isolde in Seville, as well as Halévy's La juive in Frankfurt. Earlier this year saw him conducting Bizet's Carmen at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Puccini's Tosca at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. A stimulating mix.
He has a notable symphonic repertoire too and in the immediate future he will be in Palermo for a Strauss and Brahms programme, Mahler's 5th in Bologna, and recently he was in Modena conducting Dvořák and Brahms.
I've been conducting regularly in Italy for years and I feel a strong connection to the country in general and to its musical culture in particular. As I've mentioned, my love of classical music mainly began with Italian opera. Also, I love the natural, intensive, passionate way of making music of the Italian musicians. They are highly professional but not in a dogmatic way, they allow their private feelings and spontaneity, which is also essential for my understanding of music. I think that's wonderful, and we get along really well.
However, the end of this year sees him with the Verdi Requiem in Budapest, where it all started. Nánási was born in Pécs, but when he was 12 the family moved to Budapest, and he later attended the city's Béla Bartók Conservatory.
I feel deeply connected to Bartók's music – these are my musical roots. But not only his music, but his journey through life as a citizen of the world, his human greatness and highest moral integrity, which makes him a yardstick, a role model for openness and humanity that prompts me to perform his works as often as possible, including his somewhat less well-known ones.
It was Bartók's music that created the opportunity for Nánási's Met debut in 2019 when he conducted Bluebeard's Castle.
When I went to Vienna after the conservatory in Budapest, I first had the opportunity to deal with the music of Kurtág and Ligeti, which was also a very instructive experience, and it showed me further dimensions. But Bartók remains my musical foster father and a role model for life.
Nánási married a Hungarian composer, Veronika Ágnes Fáncsik, who also attended the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna.
On one of the first days of my stay in Vienna, I attended an opera performance at the Vienna State Opera, like all students at the time, with a cheap standing room ticket. There was always a fight for standing room back then.
A girl wanted to grab the same spot. At first, I tried very politely to defend the place in my German, which was still very broken at the time, and so did she, in her broken German. The discussion grew louder and less polite until, without realizing it, we were suddenly shouting at each other simultaneously in Hungarian. Of course, the whole thing ended in a big laugh and got even funnier when it turned out that we were both studying at the Vienna Music Academy.
They have collaborated on many projects when he has conducted her compositions.
It is her music that I have dealt with the most out of contemporary Hungarian composers. Her music combines Bartók's traditions with the influences of her mainly German-Austrian contemporaries in a very natural way. Despite the many influences, she is incredibly authentic, no note in her music is accidental, everything has something to say, nothing is an end in itself. Her music always develops from within.
The composer he is currently absorbed with is Antonín Dvořák with this weekend's opening night of Rusalka in Munich.
Rusalka is one of my absolute favourites.
Brahms said about Dvořák: “He has more ideas than all of us put together”. And that's how it is. He treats the orchestra like a treasure trove, brimming with colour and rhythmic ideas, but never too much. Rusalka is a heart-breaking story that leaves no one indifferent. The infinite sadness of the ending is something I have to recover from every time. The challenge is, despite the sometimes brutal reality, not to lose the poetry.
Nánási speaks several languages, but although the Czech Republic and Hungary are almost neighbours and both part of that group of landlocked Central European countries, Czech and Hungarian are very different languages.
Of course, the language is always a big challenge. For languages that I don't speak fluently, I work with language coaches who must also have a music education, which is very important as there are often fundamental differences between spoken language and sung language. In any case, it is amazing to observe the persistence of such great composers as Dvořák or Janáček, to what extent the words determine the tempo, the character, the rhythm of the music.
A week after he leaves the podium in Munich he will head off to Palermo's Teatro Massino in Sicily to conduct Strauss's Four Last Songs with soprano Asmik Grigorian, as well as Brahm's 4th Symphony. Nánási says that the intense process of preparation is something he really enjoys.
Nothing is more beautiful than being alone with the composer, so to speak, and getting closer to him, trying to unravel his deepest thoughts and feelings. The type of study of the score varies depending on the level of difficulty and the composer, and this involves a great deal of preparatory work: studying letters, contemporary documents, biographies, various analyses, etc.
This preparatory work requires a lot of time, which I always try to take, otherwise it doesn't really make any sense to me. I have to be able to completely immerse myself in the music, or I can't identify emotionally with the feelings that the music hides.
A week after the Palermo concert he will be in Bologna. But travelling is not a problem for him and something he does even when he's not obliged to.
I love extreme nature. Last summer we made an amazing Greenland trip. I have seen so many beautiful places during my career but this one is unique, with spectacular nature I have never seen before; it's like a different planet where you feel so lucky to experience that beauty, mostly untouched by people. The light is very different from here and it is so special to see the ice blocks with the plant life in one picture. I still feel that incomparable scent of the air in my nose. For sure I will return there as soon as I can.
We're planning an Africa journey next time, which will be a logistical challenge – crossed fingers we can make it happen.
And when he's not in planes, trains, theatres and rehearsal rooms, what does he do?
Watching tennis is a really big hobby of mine, actually since I was a teenager. The best thing is when I'm conducting somewhere and there happens to be a big tournament taking place at the same time, like when I conducted The Magic Flute at the Paris Opera a few years ago and we were able to attend the Roland-Garros [French Open] final with Rafa Nadal. That was really special. He has such an aura on the court. Besides him, I particularly enjoyed watching Serena Williams and Roger Federer, from whom I also have an autograph, and from the younger generation, I am most fascinated by the dynamic game of [Carlos] Alcaraz.
I love Dixit.
It's a board game with cards, a fun guessing game that we play with all our friends, and it's a mandatory programme at our parties… in addition to Gulyás soup and Hungarian pancakes!
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.