“Stephen, the King” 30 years later

Sometime either at the end of the 1970s or early in the 1980s I had a visitor from Hungary, a middle-aged historian whom I would never have guessed would be an ardent fan of rock music. Yet she brought an album by a Hungarian rock group as a gift. The group was considered to be a significant anti-government voice; it was linked to Levente Szörényi and János Bródy, later composer and lyricist of István, a király (Stephen, the King).

It was in 1983 that István, a király, a rock opera, was first performed in Budapest’s city park (Városliget). It was an immediate hit. Today it is described as a “cultic” and “legendary” work that was intellectually and politically influential in the years following its first performance.

The story deals with the dynastic struggle between Stephen and his uncle Koppány and, through their struggle, with the transformation of late tenth- and early eleventh-century Hungarian society.

During the communist period it was customary to “read between the lines,” and to the popular mind Stephen’s story soon became an allegory of recent Hungarian history. To many Stephen was János Kádár, who realized that the country cannot go against the Soviet Union and the neighboring socialist countries, while Koppány was viewed as Imre Nagy, who represented the true Hungary and who at the end fell victim to outside forces.

In the years since the first performance of István, a király it became a favorite of the Hungarian right, especially since a few years ago a film based on the opera was released. The film’s director specializes in nationalistic productions of historical topics. Meanwhile Szörényi became politically identified with the right and Bródy with the left. So, when the thirtieth anniversary rolled around and the idea of restaging István, a  király came up, it was completely unexpected that Bródy and Szörényi not only got together but chose Róbert Alföldi to direct an entirely new production of their opera.

Alföldi is known for his avant garde productions. Both his political views and his artistic philosophy are anathema to the Orbán government. It was only recently that in a clearly rigged competition he lost his bid for a renewal of his appointment as the director of the National Theater. Szörényi, who recently expressed his misgivings about the Orbánite Kulturkampf, is a good enough artist to know that Alföldi’s talent and his opera might be a winning combination.

Szörényi and Bródy insisted that the new performance not be “historically accurate,” i.e. Stephen and his entourage shouldn’t be wandering around in late tenth-century costumes but should depict modern men and women. The Bavarian soldiers accompanying Gizella en route to becoming the bride of Stephen should be members of modern army, police, and anti-terrorist units. So, those who now object to the modern setting and blame Alföldi’s directing style are unfair. The authors of the opera wanted the modern setting. They had only one demand: Alföldi shouldn’t touch the lyrics or the music. Apparently, he didn’t.

The new production of the rock opera was performed in Szeged in an open air theater where most of the time around 200 people were on stage. On August 20th RTL Club showed it live on television. Just as in 1983, critics found symbolism in the new István, a király. Right wingers are convinced that Stephen is a caricature of Viktor Orbán. They also greatly object to Alföldi’s portrayal of the Catholic Church. One critic claimed that István, a király is perhaps the most “anticlerical” performance ever put on a Hungarian stage. The nationalists vehemently object to Stephen’s depiction who in Alföldi’s interpretation looks like a less than resolute leader who doesn’t even have a great desire to be king; he is under the thumb of his strong-willed mother, Sarolt. The view of Stephen as a king who manages to win over his domestic enemies only with foreign help doesn’t quite fit the historical picture most Hungarians have of their saintly king.

Meanwhile, Alföldi, who has given a couple of interviews in the last few days, claims that what he did was nothing more than depict true historic fact. He tried to get rid of the nationalistic pathos and the unhistorical interpretations that falsify history. Up to a point he is right, but surely the interpretation reflects Alföldi’s own worldview. When two bards arrive in an old Trabant, the message is clear: these two guys in their fifties with their old Trabant represent the past while Gizella’s silver Mercedes, which brings her from Bavaria, is the future. Which is the more attractive? I don’t think we get a clear answer. With that Mercedes also come soldiers, policemen, and commandos without whom the state couldn’t be maintained. Survival has a price.

The most controversial prop is a huge rusty crown into which eventually the people of the realm are herded. The cage-like structure is shut. There is no escape. Eventually, in the last moments of the play, the people inside begin to sing the national anthem, an act that jolted quite a few of the conservative and nationalistic critics.

The rusty crown-cage of Róbert Alföldi's rendition of István, a király

The rusty crown-cage of Róbert Alföldi’s rendition of István, a király

Yes, the performance is controversial but still 750,000 people watched it on television.  MTV at the same time aired a lesser known Ferenc Erkel opera called István király in which relatively few people were interested. I think that the official state television’s choice says a lot about the cultural preferences of the present government. A safe nineteenth-century historical opera that practically nobody wants to see.

In addition to the 750,000 people who watched the opera on television, the three performances in Szeged were sold out. It seems that the history of those turbulent years at the crossroads between the old and the new still has relevance today. But Viktor Orbán is not Stephen. If anything, he is Koppány.

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14 comments

  1. Eva: But Viktor Orbán is not Stephen. If anything, he is Koppány.

    I watched it also, no way VO is Koppany or Stephen. Stephen is reform. Koppany is the old ways, which later on (not in the opera) assumed the reform and took over through his offspring.

    If anything Vo is the lock on the gate that stop people progressing.

  2. Ron :

    Eva: But Viktor Orbán is not Stephen. If anything, he is Koppány.

    I watched it also, no way VO is Koppany or Stephen. Stephen is reform. Koppany is the old ways, which later on (not in the opera) assumed the reform and took over through his offspring.

    If anything Vo is the lock on the gate that stop people progressing.

    That’s very good.

  3. I loved it!! It has this Jesus Christ Superstar feel to it. Saint Stephen Superstar! Alfoldi turned the rock opera into a passion play.

    A mirror shown to the present Hungarian society. It ridiculed all the nationalistic, clerical excrement tauri that is fed to the Hungarians by the latest generation of right wing loonies.

    In 83 we didn’t think Stephen was Kadar. Stephen was the messiah by then. The true Hungarian leader we have been missing and waiting for. Who we were willing to follow, even with sacrifices, to get rid of evil. Funny how the message changed after 30 years. Are you sure you want this guy?

    At the end, when Stephen becomes king, he goes like this “I want this nation to have a country. With you, my Lord, but without you!

    I never understood this “with you, but without you” thing. I don’t think even Janos Brody knew what the hell did it mean. But sounds cool. Kind of typical Hungarian pathetic nothing. It should go on our coat of arms. “Oh, God. We have no clue! Amen!”

  4. OT: On 168 ora there is an interesting article about how many Hungarians flee the country. According to Austrian data there are 62,000 Hungarians are currently employed there. London became the second largest “Hungarian city” after Budapest. While Orban is busy to make sure that his friends get the best deals from the land leases, from the tobacco shops, and from the EU founded projects half a million Hungarians from the 9.9 million does not seem to concern him to much.

  5. Some1 :
    OT: On 168 ora there is an interesting article about how many Hungarians flee the country. According to Austrian data there are 62,000 Hungarians are currently employed there.

    Gosh. When I last checked the Austrian employment (or, rather, social insurance) statistics at http://www.hauptverband.at some time in spring, the number (of Hungarian citizens employed in Austria, with a work contract sufficient for social insurance) was some 50,000. Of course, this number includes lots of commuters from Western Hungary, but it also excludes thousands of “illegally” employed people and others without official work contracts and insurances. (And the tens of thousands of Hungarians who already have Austrian or some other citizenship, of course.)

    Anyway, the growth rate (more than ten thousand in a few months, if the people at 168óra are using the same statistics, and, to my knowledge, that’s the only data available) is incredible. And it shows in the streets of Vienna – people obviously recently arrived from Hungary, looking for work (“sorry to disturb you, but I heard you were speaking Hungarian – we’ve just arrived and are looking for a job, can you help us?”) or even begging.

  6. I was there opening night, though I might have missed something as my Hungarian is…not great and there translation efforts were mostly okay, but had a few twitches here and there.

    That being said it was, in my mind, a very good production. The Church had a very ‘Dark Side- The Empire’ vibe to it. Darth Vader light saber red crosses do that. My own interpretation was that neither Istvan or Koppány is a clear cut representation of anyone specific- I believe the direction was attempting to be ironic.

    That is a lot of the situation came down to choices made by powerful individuals and groups; the consequences of those choices and so on. There were no ‘right’ choices, as right was based on perspective. A lot of trouble was put into emphasizing how outclassed Koppány and Co. were: A group of apparent wild people- the women reminding me of Maenad- with a bunch of pitchforks and farming tools surrounded by military figures in full tac gear sporting automatic weapons.

    But they thought that was the better decision for them.

    In the original production of Istvan a red cloth was quartered to symbolize what happened to Koppány’s body; in this production he walks off the stage himself. When next we see him he’s inside the cage, looking over Istvan’s left shoulder. (So no, not blocking progress)

    The irony comes from my own belief that Alföldi didn’t want the audience to stand up for the anthem. The anthem is begun by the actor who played Geza who’s outside the cage (Looking very grandfatherly which is odd as Geza’s historical reputation is anything but.) and then taken up by those inside- those who have made choices that result in being imprisoned and, again this is merely my interpretation, to sing along with them, to stand up in support of the anthem at that moment, is a tacit approval or acceptance by the people who embrace this helplessness thrust upon them.

    Either way, as an expat, I was enormously entertained.

  7. As it was discussed in the previous blog entry regarding “Stephen, the King”, the voices were not up to pair for a production that supposed to be opera. I am sorry, but it is hard to overlook. It is like putting on a ballet, like Swan Lake with the same actors as this performance. Yes, it could be very pretty, and can have many-many meanings, but in reality, it is a ballet.

    I do agree with Levente Szorenyi (the composer) about how Alfoldi sacrificed the quality of the music in order to deliver his dramatic concept.
    “For him the prose was important, so basically he sacrificed the world of the music in his prose concept approach, as at the same time the orchestra played certain parts in double pace, inexplicably, but I know that the specific singer does not have enough air to get to the end, and this is why this was needed.”
    Szorenyi in fact did like the staging and all, which I found boring and not so new. (New for this performance, but not new as far as theatre or Alfoldi goes.)

    The good news is that Zsolt Bayer will return his Freedom Prize as he was so offended by this performance (I guess he does not get out to much beside watching Uj Szinhaz and such quality productions.). It was Szorenyi who gave him the prize in 2004, so Bayer thinks that he does not want it no more. (Kindergarten 101). I just want to hug Szorenyi for sure.

    http://index.hu/kultur/2013/08/24/szorenyi_szidja_is_meg_nem_is_az_uj_istvant/
    http://hvg.hu/kultura/20130824_bayer_kiosztotta_szorenyit

  8. tappanch :
    The head of Orban’s praetorian guard, Hajdu has initiated changes in the rules when his troops can open fire in the future.
    http://www.magyarhirlap.hu/tuszdrama-idejen-nincs-telefonalas

    Do not forget that it was Fidesz who wanted police to use live bullet against the crowd in 2006. Of course later Fidesz and Jobbik dented (Orbanised) the story, and accused the then government with using “brutal force” against the likes of football hooligans.

  9. Some1 :
    London became the second largest “Hungarian city” after Budapest. While Orban is busy to make sure that his friends get the best deals from the land leases, from the tobacco shops, and from the EU founded projects half a million Hungarians from the 9.9 million does not seem to concern him to much.

    This is incredible (if true). There are certainly a lot of Hungarians in the UK these days (it used to be rare to hear Hungarian, but now we never go out without hearing it), but are there really more in London alone than in Debrecen?

    The French have a similar situation, where London is now effectively one of the major cities of France (although there has always been a thriving French community in London, so they come there out of choice, not to escape France). In fact, so many French now live in London that it has become a major factor in French elections, with parties desperate to get as much of the London vote as they can.

    Which makes you wonder – if London really is that Hungarian, could the same thing happen in Hungary? Could the UK (or Austrian or German) ex-pat vote one day be as important for Hungarian parties as it is for the French?

    I certainly see no signs of this at the moment, as (as has been pointed out on here before) it is actually very difficult for Hungarians to vote in foreign countries (my wife has to travel to the Hungarian embassy in London to vote, whereas her cousins in Ukraine have a postal vote). And, I suspect, the foreign vote isn’t going to be massively in favour of Fidesz, so they won’t be changing the rules any time soon.

  10. Some1 :
    As it was discussed in the previous blog entry regarding “Stephen, the King”, the voices were not up to pair for a production that supposed to be opera. I am sorry, but it is hard to overlook. It is like putting on a ballet, like Swan Lake with the same actors as this performance. Yes, it could be very pretty, and can have many-many meanings, but in reality, it is a ballet.

    Ah, that would be the fun. Swan’s Lake directed by Alfoldi. Odette the drag queen would be transformed into a real women by Rothbart, a catholic priest, and can only be a man at night where he’s forced to be on stage in a drag show … Courted by a confused gay, Jewish Siegfried. Odile, who would look like Gabriella Selmeczi, constantly munching on a dinner roll, would be Rothbar’s spokeswoman. Beautiful …

    You are right, but poking fun of the Hungarian myths by showing it with unusual visuals is priceless. The fun in this version is how can you sing the same songs as the “sacred” version of the rock opera and convey a lot more layered message about the sorry Hungarian reality. St Stephen is the typical Hungarian leader. He is the “It could have been worse … but hey, we survived!” type of guy. Like Janos Kadar. Can we ever produce a great man who lasts? What does it take?

    I loved in the Szörényi interview when he said he was thinking of Matyas Rakosi (the communist party secretary in the 50s) when he wrote the final song: “Our day has downed, Istvan is our leader …”. It really sounds like those mindless communist songs written for the “pioneers” (pint sized commies). This is such a kick in the groins of the right wing loonies. Yes, Alfoldi’s and Szörényi’s Saint Stephen has a lot in common with Saint Orban the 5th …

    I wouldn’t really hang up on the singing. Even Szörényi didn’t seem to be too upset by it. This can be corrected later. Yes, later. This should definitely be played in other theaters and abroad (pre-Trianon abroad) as well. Perhaps with different actors, with better lungs and better schedules that can accommodate a tour.

    I love that our chief nazi, Bayer returns his “Freedom Prize” when he doesn’t like a successful theater play. Thanks for the PR buddy!

  11. Mutt :
    Ah, that would be the fun. Swan’s Lake directed by Alfoldi. Odette the drag queen would be transformed into a real women by Rothbart, a catholic priest, and can only be a man at night where he’s forced to be on stage in a drag show … Courted by a confused gay, Jewish Siegfried. Odile, who would look like Gabriella Selmeczi, constantly munching on a dinner roll, would be Rothbar’s spokeswoman. Beautiful …

    Oh gush. My tears are rolling. What a site.

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