rock opera

“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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