György SelmecziGyörgy SelmecziGyörgy Selmeczi’s opera Byzantium was premiered at the ’Bartók +’ Miskolc Opera Festival on the 14th of June at the Miskolc Summer Theatre. We made the interview with the composer before the premiere.







The Programme of the Opera Festival says you wrote your opera Byzantium especially at the request of the festival. But as I know, you have been working on it for many years.  

There is no real contradiction here. The idea of writing Byzantium has really been on my mind for about ten years. I already had a considerable quantity of drafts, when Gergely Kesselyák, the director of the Festival contacted me. We have a very good professional friendship, and we are keeping an eye on each other’s career, so he knew what I was working on. It was because of this request, that at last I decided to finalize my opera. I have several other projects going on, I am working on two other operas, and Byzantium became the most urgent to finish only due to the request. The conception of this work was followed from the interest I always had in Ferenc Herczeg’s particularly powerful play written in 1904. I have always admired his capacity for visions, thanks to which he could already see that large mass of problems Europe was concerned, and has been concerned about, until today. It is the story of dissention and betrayal in Europe, the opposition perceived between Eastern and Western Christianity. The story of how the inconsistency of the modern Christian world gave wide scope for the entering of Muslim values or other values from outside Europe. For me it is also especially important, because the problems mentioned have not lost anything in topicality, what is more, they have escalated in a certain sense. At the time of the birth of this drama these questions only concerned the intellectuals, but today the people in the street, as well. In addition, the drama, the collision of the personal fates are also incredibly important, of course. The story takes place on a single day. It is the day of the fall of Byzantium, the 29th of May, 1453, when the Ottoman Empire completely took Byzantium with an ultimate attack, causing an unimaginable massacre and destruction. The symbols of this day are also momentous: the Hagia Sophia, one of the biggest Christian church turned into a mosque in a single day. The resistance and the moral filth, which the Byzantine society had been drawn into, contradicted each other to such an extent, that the end of this could only be a failure, which determined the future of the whole of Europe.

Scene from ByzantiumScene from ByzantiumThe Programme of the Festival also says that a new national opera has been born. I suspect, that composers never start composing with the intention of writing a national opera.

Yes, this is an exaggeration of the marketing, raising a smile. I would never say that about my piece. What is more, the opera does not even have any Hungarian characters. Of course, there is no doubt, that national operas were always created in the perspective of history. Every Central and Eastern European country produced its national opera in the genre of historical operas – just think of the birth of the Russian national opera or ours -, that is to say, national operas were created by them. I was also looking for those musical tools, which help me integrate the tradition, left to me by the historical opera repertoire, but at the same time speak the language of our time. Because this work was undeniably born in the spirit of that 21st century attitude of opera performances, that I find so important. And which, I think, can have a great future, and by which a real reformation can be achieved in the social position of opera.

Who wrote the libretto?

There are two authors, Zsuzsa Kapecz and me. But the base of the libretto was done by my son, who is an excellent dramaturgist and a literary historian. It was him, who created that historical-philosophical background, which makes this work justified. Because, regardless of its fictional nature, there is also an attempt for a kind of a historical credibility behind it.

How much is left from Ferenc Herczeg’s original words?

Not much, but a lot from its structure and dramaturgy.

The story is set in Byzantium. Can Muslim music also be heard in your work?

Yes and no. The musical language is as Byzantine as, for example, it is Japanese in Madama Butterfly. I tried to place some defining features, that refer to the location and the historical moment. So, some typical sounds, or rather, ’sound-ideals’ of the Muslim world do appear, but there are sounds taken from the Renaissance, namely the all-European Renaissance, too. For we have some information, that Byzantium – at least on the level of the aristocracy - was quite open to those Western European Renaissance forms, which were mediated by the people – merchants, mercenaries, among others – arriving from the West. This way these defining features arc from the Western European Renaissance to the imagined, distinctive sound of the Ottoman Empire.

Historical operas have a great tradition, it is enough to mention the name of Händel, Rossini, Verdi or Erkel. How much did you follow these traditions in your music, how did the great predecessors influence you?

Sometimes, some kind of an archaistic intention does appear in this opera, just like in my previous works. I call – a bit maliciously - the musical language I use a post-puccinian language, which strongly aims to use those generally accepted operatic tropes, by which the respectable audience feels an opera to be an opera. I would like to pay attention to the audience eagerly, and to write an opera-like opera.

Does it mean, for example, that there are closed numbers, arias, ensembles in Byzantium?


It is a rewarding work for the singers, too.

Obviously. It is also my serious intention, that the singers should feel fine, but at the same time the role should be a challenge for them, and it should be an important moment in their career to sing in this opera. There are several big roles in my work, almost none of them is a minor one.

On the other hand, it might make it more difficult to perform the opera frequently.

That is true. Anyhow, at the premiere there will be a wonderful cast. The company was working amazingly devotedly and with pleasure, so I hope, that it will be important for them, as well, to maintain the piece in the repertoire for as long as possible. [The opera will be on at the Opera House of Cluj-Napoca from September – ed.].

Did you choose the singers yourself?

We have chosen the singers together with director Gyula Szép and conductor Gergely Kesselyák.

György SelmecziGyörgy SelmecziCompared to your previous operas – Siren and Spiritualists – how different is the music of Byzantium?

The musical language of this work is obviously akin to my previous operas. A subject occupies me for a long time, I collect and pile up the materials. This is exactly why the changes in my professional life can be identified in my finished works quite easily. I accept it, and show up the stylistic changes with pleasure. When an opera is ready, by then lots of things have already changed in my style, in my compositional method, sometimes even in the musical language I use. In the case of Byzantium a new material has been added. It was inescapably dictated by the subject, Herczeg’s dramaturgy, what I took very seriously and tried to keep. The roles and the characters also influenced the language of the opera. Because when I started the orhestration, I already knew the cast. So the final forms of the vocal parts were written knowing more or less the strenghts and the weaknesses of the artists.

You have mentioned that you are working on two other operas. What are these operas?

One of them has the title The knight of Virgin Mary. It is a comic opera about the people of a village, who try to consecrate their church to Saint Ladislaus, who is not a saint yet. However, as he is not a saint yet, the people of the village decide to do several miracles, by which (Saint) Ladislaus can become a saint. The title of the other opera is I was Carmen. It is about a famous, but already retired primadonna who used to sing the role of Carmen in those days, and the actors playing Escamillo and Don José were both in love with her. As in the old times duel was forbidden in Spain, they ’decide’ during the performance, in the relevant moment of the third act, and the murder is done. It is an extremely strange story, which is presented in the reminiscence of the great diva. The libretto is based on Géza Szőcs’ play Pandó and Martinek.

When will they be premiered?

I am requested to finish both, but it remains to be seen whether I can meet the deadlines. I teach a lot, conduct and write, as well. Hopefully the operas mentioned can also be premiered in the next 2-3 seasons.



Balázs Csák