Director  August  Everding
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


In many ways, the internet is a fascinating tool, and as we streak from its infancy toward its absolute domination of the world, we find the widest variety of material.  For instance, in looking up the subject of this interview, I not only found the opinionated (but unsigned) biography which appears following the text and which chronicles much of his creative work, I found this little tid-bit:

"German opera director and administrator who headed the Hamburg and Munich State Opera companies and also directed
at a number of international venues, presenting both traditional and contemporary works; his success in Munich was
such that he was considered the “artistic king” and was put in charge of all the city’s subsidized theatres.
(b. Oct. 31, 1928, Bottrop, Ger.—d. Jan. 27, 1999, Munich, Ger.)

An interesting turn of phrase, but perhaps accurate in its own way.  He certainly was a major figure in his realm, and gave his thoughts and ideas everywhere he went.  I happened to enjoy all of his work in Chicago, and was pleased to see that he would be doing this or that in coming seasons.  The Windy City was fortunate to have Everding for several productions, and one that was revived several times was The Magic Flute.  It was at the time of its original staging in the fall of 1986 that I had the chance to speak with the director following a rehearsal.  Here is what was said that evening . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  Do you direct differently for different publics in various cities?

August Everding:  If this question means that I follow the taste of the public, then I have to say absolutely no.  But if you ask me whether I use different ideas in different cities because of the cities, then I have to say yes.  For example, when I did Salome for the first time in London, I knew that it had been done before by Peter Brook in a very special way.  Therefore I thought I had to do it another – my way, but another way in order not to over-do it.  Or, if I do an opera in Vienna, I know that in Vienna they don’t like so much production.  There, in Parsifal I did a very modern second act and did not follow their taste at all.  Sometimes you have to do it contrary and sometimes you have to follow them a little bit.  In Munich, my Tristan, which I did also at the Met in New York and in Vienna, was done in a different way and they didn’t like it at all and it was not a success.  In all the other cities, Tristan was my success.  Therefore, it’s so different in all the cities.

everdingBD:  When you do Tristan in several cities, is it the same stage setting?

AE:  No.  Very different.  This Magic Flute here in Chicago was done first in Savonlina in Finland with my friend Martti Talvela who asked me to open his festival.  [Names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD]  We didn’t think it would go, but now it’s in its 15th year running the same production.  It’s a very simple opera, very different from all the others, and people who never go to the theater come from all over the country.  Then I did it in Munich and London, now in Chicago, and I do it with a different set.

BD:  Do you re-think it every time?

AE:  Yes.  And that’s interesting.  I have new staging and had written a new book for this Magic Flute in Chicago.  You know a director has to do homework; it’s a must he should do it.  I had done several different things, but sometimes I came back to an earlier version because it was right.  The movements were right and I repeated those parts here, but it’s not a repetition of the whole production.  Beyond that, the design is changed, the singers are changed, and they force you to do a new version, too, because you can’t force them to do exactly what you have in mind.  So, if you see my production in London, some things you’ll say, “Oh that’s the same,” and other things you’ll say, “Oh, that’s new.”

BD:  So if an opera house asked for a duplicate of an earlier production, you’d say no?

AE:  I’d say no.  Or, if I had the same cast, we could repeat it.  However, I would also decline if the settings were not those I’d used before and collaborated with the designer.

BD:  Do you only do new productions now?

AE:  Yes, only new ones or revivals of mine that I’ve done previously.  There will be changes because of the different casts, but you have to stick to the basic plot because the lighting must be the same.  There is no time to re-light the production for a revival.  And if you are content with a production, why not repeat it?  If you are not content, you can change it a bit.  In this country, it’s better – they always invite the director back.  In Europe, it’s just the assistant who does the rehearsals from the book.  But, of course, a production here will be done a few performances and then brought back five years later.  In Europe, a work stays in the repertoire for many years in a row.

BD:  Shouldn’t there be more different operas done rather than the same ones year after year after year?

AE:  I think so, yes, but we have the repertoire system in Europe.  In my house in Munich, we have in the repertoire 62 operas.  I don’t do all 62 in one year, we do about 40, but we have about 340 performances a year.  There are only three days we don’t play: The first of May, Holy Friday, and Christmas Eve.  And in August we have vacation.

BD:  You’ve done some premieres.  Are they more difficult than the established works?

AE:  Yes.  Difficult and easier because no one has seen them before!  I’m the “Generalintendant” of four theaters.  Each house has its own director, but there is a supervisor who makes the long contracts and I’m in it for Munich.  That means the opera house, the straight theater, the operetta and musical house, and the famous Cuvieller Theater, and an experimental theater.  And I’m allowed by my contract to do productions abroad.  It’s a lot of work.

BD:  So how do you decide which operas you’ll do, or which requests you’ll accept and which you’ll decline?

AE:  I come from straight theater.  I was running a straight theater for 10 years and had been with it for 20 years when, in 1966, the director of the Munich opera (Mr. Hartmann) offered me Traviata.  I have to confess that being in the straight theater, I hated opera.  Not hated actually, but we were so modern and did all the new American plays, so opera was of no interest.   But he told me that he wanted a young and brave director – I now know that 8 others had turned him down!  But he told me it was Teresa Stratas and Fritz Wunderlich (his last production before he died), and Hermann Prey.  I did it with Joerg Zimmermann (who did this Chicago Magic Flute).  It was my first opera and it wasn’t a flop, so it started.  Then they invited me to do Tristan in Vienna with Birgit Nilsson and Karl Böhm conducting.  That was my first Wagner at all.  Learning the score was a big challenge for me.  Then I started to do opera productions all over the world, and it was mostly Wagner.  I fell in love with Wagner.  I was born in 1928 so that means my relationship to Wagner was not the best one.  We saw how he was abused by the Nazis, but I fell in love with Wagner and did it all over the world.  Then I began to do Mozart.  Also new operas, and now I’m going back to the straight theater more and more.  In Munich I just did Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe, and so on.  And I’m teaching at the University of Munich.  What I always try to give my pupils is the idea that today, a skillful director has to know all medias.  Not just this, but he has to know opera and film and broadcast, and all.  More and more, all the medias have gotten involved with each other, so I try to teach something in all the branches.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Let’s talk a bit about Wagner.  Have you done all 10?

AE:  No.  Tristan, Lohengrin several times, last time in Australia and that was something.  They’d not had it, or just a concert version.  That was in Melbourne.  The chorus was not a professional, but they were so excited by doing the Wagner in German, and they knew their score and they knew the text, and they were burning to do what I said.  They were teachers and dentists and doctors, but they were much more intelligent than most of the professional choruses in the world.  That was very special for everyone and the rehearsals were very intense.  I liked it very much.  But I’ve never done the Ring.  It’s been offered to me very often, but I never dared to do it.  It’s the same with Shakespeare – that will be my last work.  For those, you have to know a lot about life and about theater and about human beings and love and hate and all.  But I’ve been offered to do it in Warsaw and I will do it beginning in 1988-89.  It will be their first Ring in German and will have all Eastern European singers, so I’m working on the plans now on the nights here when I’m free.  I’ve seen the Chereau Ring in Bayreuth, and you may know that I was the third director invited who was not a member of the Wagner family.  I did Flying Dutchman and Tristan.  Wolfgang Wagner saw my Tristan in New York and asked me to come to the Green Hill.  I like working at Bayreuth, it’s like a monastery.  You’re there for 8 weeks and you just stick to your work.

everdingBD:  Is that too much concentration?

AE:  It is very much but not too much.

BD:  Can any opera – Wagner or others – get over-rehearsed?

AE:  A good question.  I liked very much Walter Felsenstein, who was for all of us in those times a revelation.  What he said for music-theater, not for opera but in music-theater, was so right and so good.  What he did was over-rehearse.  He rehearsed the acting so much that the singers couldn’t sing in the end.  That shouldn’t happen.  But it shouldn’t happen the other way where they only get a musical training and not action and reaction.  That’s not good.

BD:  So you strive for a balance between the music and the drama.

AE:  Sure.  If it’s an opera, you can’t divide the text and music.  That is a unit.  It’s like a cake – once it’s baked you can’t take out the yeast.  It is one unit.  I hate my colleagues who direct with a little text-book of just the play.  You have to do the opera.

BD:  Then can I assume you don’t like a lot of the modern trends in stage-direction in opera?

AE:  No, it was good that a lot of the young directors came to opera from the straight theater because that was fresh, young blood.  They over-did it sometimes, and I have my guilt as well being an intendant.  I invited two or three directors that did things people hated.  The public whistled and booed, but it was good that opera didn’t go to sleep.  Young people went to the opera for the first time to see these things.  In Munich, you have to first give a bow to Mozart, Strauss, and Wagner.  They are the three saints.  Then, you have to do unknown operas and also new operas that are commissioned.

BD:  Is it right that the public expects each new opera to be a masterpiece?

AE:  We used to have 11 new productions a year.  Now we have 4 because of reductions in time and money, and they expect a masterpiece each time.  You can’t stand a flop.  I commissioned Giuseppe Sinopoli to do an opera because I knew he was a composer as well as conductor.  We did the work and it was a flop, but I’m proud of giving him that commission.

BD:  I just met him a few days ago and when I asked him about his compositions, he didn’t want to talk about it.

AE:  It’s a wound, but it was a good production and he conducted it.  So we’ll wait a couple years and try it again.

BD:  Do you enjoy modern music?

AE:  We are all brought up with classical music.  It’s good, but I’m a parent now and I try to have the youngsters grow up with modern music.  If you grow up with it, you will enjoy it.  But if you just get it when you are 20 or 25, that’s not the good way to get in touch with the art at all.  You have to grow up and live with it.

BD:  What do you say to those who decry opera is dead?

AE:  On no!  Opera is more alive than ever.  The critics say every year that it’s dead, but that’s good for us.

BD:  What’s the role of the critic?

AE:  A very important role.  My colleagues say they don’t read the reviews, but they do.  I have a system.  After a premiere, I’m so vulnerable that I don’t read them because they may hurt me.  But I’ve been involved with the work for a year or more before the opening night.  I’ve read it and re-read it and discussed it day and night.  Then to read in the paper from a man who has listened to the work once that it was a nice production but it’s a shame that the director didn’t read the score!  So I don’t read them right then.  But half a year later, my secretary gives me the reviews and then I can learn very much.  When I did this new Magic Flute for Chicago, I read the reviews from my production in Munich.  There were two or three things that were good for me to know, so I avoided problems.  One thing that is very important for a house that you don’t have here in the United States is the “dramaturg.”  You don’t even have a term for this position.  He’s a learned man from the university – not a practicing director, but a theoretical man.  It’s good to have him there to be a sort of Holy Ghost looking after the interest of the playwright.

BD:  How closely do you work with the conductor?

AE:  Mostly they come so very late that you cannot work with them very much.  Having just a week is not enough time.  But there are times, such as here in Chicago, when the conductor is there earlier, or even from the first blocking rehearsals.  Usually I like that very much.  On the other hand, a few conductors will interfere and say I cannot do this or that because the singer will be facing the wrong way and will kill the music.  So it can be either good or bad when they are around early.

BD:  Is opera art or is it entertainment?

AE:  Oh don’t divide that.  Art is entertaining.  I was an assistant to Bertold Brecht during his last years, and he said, “Opera is a luxury, but a luxury that is worthwhile living for.”  Sometimes opera must be offending as well.

BD:  Do you yourself ever do something that is contrary to the stage direction?

AE:  Yes.  If the composer would have written it today, then he would have changed it.  Or, if it’s so old-fashioned that I don’t understand the contents any more, I have to change it.  I don’t change the text or the notes, but there is much discussion about this all over the world.  If you break open the words and smell what is inside them, you’ll discover something new.

BD:  So you look beyond the words to the spirit behind them and the meanings that are implicit.

AE:  I try to.

BD:  Do you feel that opera works well on recordings?

AE:  It works well, but it’s not enough.  It has to be seen.  Even if you have a videotape, it’s only a part, it’s not the opera.  It’s good as a souvenir but it’s not the performance because you as a spectator have the opportunity and the freedom to look where you want to look and to select the picture you want to see, even if the director is trying to get you to observe something else.  With the video tape or on TV, you don’t have that chance.  And with the gramophone records, I’m finding more and more that the public is getting a bit bored by the over-technical perfection.  They see how neutral it is, and more and more they are waiting in the opera house for mistakes.  Some are waiting to boo the tenor, and that’s bad.

BD:  Is an opera a contest?

AE:  Yes.  Sometimes it’s a shame that it is, but it’s good that the media is there because they don’t do any harm to us.

BD:  Is it easier to direct big, famous singers, or not-so-famous singers?

AE:  It’s very easy to work with great singers.  Sometimes the not-so-great singers behave in such a way that you have to ask that they not do certain roles with you.  Because of all the debating and discussions, it’s getting now to be more difficult to work with actors in the straight theater than with singers in the opera.  Singers are happy when they get direction.  We always blame the singer for doing this or that, but they need to be told what to do with their gestures.  If there is no director to tell them, what can they do?

BD:  Do singers ever come to you with ideas?

AE:  Yes, they do.  Some are very good and others I don’t accept.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Back to Wagner.  When you’re doing The Flying Dutchman, do you prefer it in one piece or three?

everdingAE:  One piece, no intermission.  What I don’t know is which ending to use.  We call it the hard end or the weak one.  I think the hard ending is better, but the weak one has them both going to heaven.  That’s what’s so amazing to me about Wagner – he didn’t only compose the music and the drama, he composed the direction.  If you really listen to Wagner, you can hear in his music what the actor has to do.  He has to walk; he has to stand; he has to wait; he has to breathe.  If you really listen
and you have to learn to listen to the musicthen you’ll find the direction in all of it.  I think you have to change the designs; they are old-fashioned.  I’m convinced that Wagner today would have worked a lot with films.  You can hear it.  Wagner was great because he was a bastard.  He behaved so badly, and now being involved with the Ring I see it more and more in the texts.  We used to laugh about some of the things, but more and more I see it’s a very good text.  The actions and reactions are wedded to the music.  You can’t split it all.  It’s one recipe.

BD:  But he wrote it all together.  In most other cases, you have text and music brought together from separate minds.

AE:  Right.
BD:  How do you view the end of the Ring?

AE:  It should end with a question.  The audience should have a question mark.  I can answer the question with light.  I would not have people onstage.  Perhaps it would be a new sunrise, or the end of our world. 

BD:  Is there any opera you’ve done more than all the others?

AE:  Yes, Tristan, and I’ve stopped doing that one for five or six years.  As I mentioned, I’m going to do more straight theater, and I’m doing a film.  I’m booked for several years.

BD:  Let me ask about Parsifal.  Is it a sacred work or just another opera?

AE:  It’s a sacred work.  It’s wrong to do it as if it was a religion.  For Wagner it was a sort of religion.  He thought sometimes that Christ and Wagner could be the same.  Parsifal is more, and therefore you can do it any time of the year, not just on Holy Friday.  The mixture of philosophy, theology, music, text is more than in other works.  That always touches me.

BD:  Should there be applause after the first act?

AE:  You never should forbid the public to do it.  You shouldn’t tell them only to come in tuxedoes, or not to come in jeans.  If you are that good and touching, they won’t applaud at the end of that act.  Let them applaud and others will shush them.  

BD:  You don’t mind fistfights in the audience?

AE:  Not a bit.  Wagner has experience with that as you know!

BD:  Do you mind booing at the end?

AE:  I don’t mind, but if they want to boo me, I know something that would hit me and hurt me – silence.  When they boo, I can think they are damn fools, but silence would cause me to go home and cry.  Wieland Wagner, the big hero today, was always booed – in Bayreuth and all over.  I remember being in Vienna for the Salome and he got big applause.  He came back after the curtain calls and asked what was wrong!

BD:  One more – Meistersinger.

AE:  That is something I did in Munich and I would like to do abroad.  There are parts that are so German, and the fight at that time against Meyerbeer.  Having written such an overture and to keep going with even better music, that is a miracle.  For others, there would be enough material in what Wagner has in the prelude, but then he starts and develops and becomes all this, but it’s very very German.  For me, it’s overwhelming.  You were asking about critics.  In my version of this opera, Beckmesser (Hanslick) is chased offstage in the last scene, but then after, when Sachs is crowned, he goes off and brings Beckmesser back and sits him down.  That’s my statement against critics.

BD:  Was Wagner portraying himself as Sachs or as Walther?

AE:  Wagner was portraying himself as Sachs.  His wish was to be Walther, but he never was like him.  It’s Sachs.  I saw a production that made Sachs up to look like Wagner with the beret and everything.

One of the most influential directors of opera in post-war Germany, August Everding was also an extremely competent administrator, holding positions at the Hamburg State Opera and the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where he became General Intendant of all the Bavarian state theatres. In 1984 he was considered for the post of general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, but withdrew when he realised that in New York he would not exercise the complete artistic control to which he was accustomed at home.

At a time when German opera houses were often dominated by "conceptual" directors, Everding was an unashamed traditionalist, which did not mean that his productions were lacking in ideas: on the contrary, his work was always full of original touches, but they were invariably used to further the dramatic impact of an opera. Having begun his career in the spoken theatre, he took it for granted that the plot of a drama, however complicated, should be expounded with clarity, and his opera production were always models in this respect.

everding August Everding was born in Bottrop in 1928. Too young to take any active part in the war, he studied piano, philosophy, theology and dramaturgy at the universities of Bonn and Munich. He served his apprenticeship in the theatre under Hans Schweikat at the Munich Kammerspiele, of which he became artistic director in 1959, and manager in 1963. His first operatic production was of Verdi's La Traviata, which he directed for the Munich State Opera in 1967. Later that year he - metaphorically speaking - plunged in at the deep end, staging Tristan und Isolde in Vienna. This was a very successful attempt at a very difficult opera, and though he was still engaged at the Kammerspiele, offers came flooding in from the opera houses of Europe and America. In March 1968 Everding worked for the first time in Hamburg, directing the world premiere of Humphrey Searle's Hamlet (later to be seen at Covent Garden, though not in Everding's production). Later that year he returned to Munich for Carl Orff's Prometheus, which had been premiered some months earlier in Stuttgart. Then in 1969 he was invited to stage Der fliegende Hollander at Bayreuth, a signal honour as he was only the third director not belonging to the Wagner family to work at the festival during its entire history. With designs by Josef Swoboda, the production was much admired, and the same team returned to Bayreuth in 1974 to stage Tristan und Isolde. Meanwhile in autumn 1969 Everding went to San Francisco to direct La Traviata, and in June 1970 he made his London debut at Covent Garden with a production of Richard Strauss's Salome, in which the staging, Andrezej Majewski's marvellously colourful designs, the conducting of Georg Solti and the performance of Grace Bumbry in the title role all contributed to its huge success. Unfortunately Everding did not return to Covent Garden until 1979, when his staging of Mozart's Die Zauberflote was equally successful. The pantomime aspects of the opera were much in evidence, while the bogus Egyptian priests became believable 18th-century savants and men of letters. Everding began his enduring association with the Metropolitan Opera in 1971 with Tristan und Isolde, which was particularly admired for being the first production to use the full technical resources of the Lincoln Center house. He returned to New York in 1976 for Lohengrin; in 1974 for Boris Godunov, a production later seen in both Chicago and San Francisco; and in 1985 for Khovanshchina. Nineteen seventy-three, when he left the Kammerspiele, was a particularly busy year: Parsifal at the Paris Opera was followed by one of his greatest triumphs, Die Zauberflote at the Savonlinna Festival in Finland, which was repeated almost every year until 1993. At the Salzburg Festival that year he staged the world premiere of Orff's De temporum fine commoedia ("Drama of the end of time"). In the autumn of 1973 Everding went to Hamburg as Resident Director of the State Opera. The four years he spent there were among the most fruitful of his career. Having already staged Salome in Hamburg, Everding chose Strauss's Elektra as his first new production, surprising everyone by his fidelity to Hugo von Hofmannstal's stage directions in the text. This production was taken to Paris. Next he tackled Khovanshchina, 10 years before he staged Mussorgsky's epic in New York. After revivals of La Traviata and Tosca, in 1975 he directed Verdi's Otello, with Placido Domingo singing the title role for the first time. That year a disastrous fire (started by a dismissed stagehand) destroyed sets and costumes for 54 of the 59 productions in store. During his last two seasons in Hamburg, Everding staged a superb Parsifal, with brilliant Art Nouveau-style decors by Ernst Fuchs, which remains my favourite of all his productions. This was followed by Lohengrin and Der Rosenkavalier. After an interlude in Salzburg for a baroque piece by Stefano Landi, Il Sant'Alessio, Everding took over as Intendant of the Bavarian Opera in Munich. A new Lohengrin was followed by Die Zauberflote (the Covent Garden version was a recreation of this) and a curiosity, Das Labyrinth by Peter von Winter, whose libretto, also by Emanuel Schikaneder, is a sequel to that of Die Zauberflote. During his years in Munich Everding directed Die Meistersinger with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Hans Sachs; Mozart's Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail and Mitridate, re di Ponto; Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au Bucher; another new Tristan; and Orff's Die Bernauerin, staged in the courtyard of the Alter Hof in July 1985 to celebrate the composer's 90th birthday. In 1983 Everding was appointed General Director of the Munich state theatres, which include the Nationaltheater, the Theater am Gartnerplaz and the Staatsschauspiel. Certain of Everding's detractors saw this as a polite way of pushing him upstairs. Whatever the truth, during the last decade of his career he worked a great deal elsewhere in Berlin, Cologne, Dusseldorf and Zurich, as well as Chicago, Sydney, Buenos Aires and Warsaw. Invited by Robert Satanowski, the Music Director of the Theatr Wielki, Warsaw, to stage Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, with a mixed cast of German, American and Polish singers, Everding together with Satanowski achieved a magnificent result in only two years, 1988 and 1989. No complete Ring cycle had ever been staged in Warsaw before; the orchestra, the public and many of the singers were totally unacquainted with the work, but Everding's dramatic instinct and his ability to clarify even Wagner's most abstruse ideas triumphed. After his success in Warsaw, in 1992 Everding began to build up another Ring cycle, this time in Chicago, where the Ring had last been performed in 1930. Spread over four seasons, the production took longer than in Warsaw to complete, but in the spring of 1996 three cycles, designed by John Conklin and conducted by Zubin Mehta, were performed and rapturously received by the audience. Everding's job was when he died was as artistic director for the German display in the Millennium World Fair, to be held in Hanover in 2000.

August Everding, theatre and opera director and administrator: born Bottrop, Germany 31 October 1928; married (four sons); died Munich 27 January 1999.

Copyright 1999 Newspaper Publishing PLC
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on September 3, 1986.  Portions were used on WNIB to promote performances at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1993 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 1988 and published in Wagner News in October of that year.  It was slightly re-edited and posted on this website in September of 2008. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.