- Reading time
- 5 min.
He’s just 38 years old, stepped away from his ambition to become a bus driver thanks to Georg Solti, and will soon make his La Monnaie debut as conductor of The Nose. In between rehearsals, we looked a little more closely into the mirror with Gergely Madaras.
It’s 1 p.m. on 31 May. How do you feel?
Good. Maybe a bit rushed, though. We had the first scenic rehearsal with the choir today, and it’s a solid chunk of this opera: there's the pronunciation of a difficult text at a fast pace, lots of repetitions, a complex rhythm, and non-evident stage direction on top of that. When that first comes together in the rehearsal room, you soon get a healthy dose of chaos. But that’s the beauty of opera: at the beginning of the rehearsal period, you stare at one big mess, which gradually takes on its shape and structure.
How do you manage such chaos?
I start from the important idea that opera is a collaborative art form. Everyone forms a small piece within a larger mosaic, and must constantly sense things with their figurative antennae: when is it my turn to give it my all? When do I step back a bit to let another protagonist come to the fore? At the moment, we are still rehearsing without an orchestra, so as a conductor, you know that at the moment there is no point in focusing too hard on the accuracy of the choir’s musical performance. That happens more when the orchestra also joins in. Then you see all the puzzle pieces falling together: everyone suddenly feels a lot more confident about their place in the performance. We cannot always focus on everything at once, so it is important to realise where and when you can do your bit.
How do you deal with the position of power you have as a conductor? This production of The Nose challenges leading figures and their status symbols.
Of course, I have to make decisions. People expect me to have ideas about the musical phrasing, the orchestra sound, the colours, and then to live up to them. With some, my choices will be in good taste, with others not so much. But that’s not the point: it’s how you communicate those decisions. I always try to justify my interpretations to the singers and the orchestra well, make it clear to them why something will produce a successful result. I want them to be part of a joint story, because I need them to make the sound. Each orchestra musician and singer is an equally important ally in the realisation of the intended interpretation, which makes that the inherent hierarchical structure is no longer a pain point. This is still not obvious even today: they still exist, the tyrannical conductors who impose their single-minded vision on the orchestra without question.
For me, then, The Nose is more about the persistent idea within certain power structures that whoever has no status simply does not matter. There’s an expression in various languages, including Hungarian, that some people "can’t see beyond the end of their nose”. This is taken quite literally in this mise-en-scène: the ‘long-nosed’ men of power do not take their ‘short-nosed’ fellow humans seriously. In this way, The Nose holds up a painful mirror to us: how quickly do we get too full of ourselves when we are in positions of leadership, and as a result neglect others?
How important is such a mirror for a conductor?
A conductor cannot function without it. As an artist, you have to constantly ask yourself: where am I in my life, what do I want to do, and what is my destination? Moreover, I see my immediate environment as a mirror. The way a singer sings or a musician plays is not only a manifestation of their inner self, but also a reflection of my conducting style. When I sense that someone is struggling with a particular passage, it is important to realise that this is oftentimes not the result of their incompetence, but rather their effort to try to change and do it ‘my way’, as opposed to what would come naturally from them. Then it’s my turn to rethink the way I am trying to achieve my goal – and it must result in a compromise. Every instrumentalist and singer is different and in a different stage of life, so it is my job to sense how to get the best out of them at that point. Funnily enough, this is why I never practise my conducting in front of the mirror: there is no point if my gestures aren’t directed at a specific person or situation. Therein also lies the collaborative nature of operatic art, and music in the broader sense.
Constant self-reflection is needed for a conductor because the higher you fly, the less honest feedback you get in your professional environment. People are more afraid to insult you or cause conflict. It is then very easy to assume that you will not be criticised because you are – for better or worse – omnipotent. Thankfully, I have a close circle of confidants, like my friends, trusted colleagues and family, who help me to keep my feet on the ground.
So apart from being a conductor, you are also a family man. What has the experience of fatherhood taught you?
I have a dream job, but also one that is tough to combine with a family life. I’m travelling for over half the time. When I do get home, I completely turn off the switch of my professional life and am 100% present for my wife and my two daughters. Taking them to school, making their lunchboxes, helping them study the violin, cooking… I do it all. That made me realise that quality over quantity is important; it’s not about how much time I spend with my family, but how we spend it. This realisation also helps me when I am in front of an orchestra; it’s not the rehearsal time, but the way we rehearse that matters.
Also, my children have such an admirable sense of wonder about everything we adults take for granted. A small slope they can run down, a dog that walks past, a long forgotten toy they find again … things like these can make children so happy. This often makes me realise that besides chasing ambitious dreams and always just preparing for the next big engagement, I should focus more on the present in order to live and enjoy it to the fullest, and feel more content about what I have already achieved.
And that’s quite a bit thus far. You’re only 38, but you already have quite the career under your belt. What were the most defining moments in your career?
Experience has taught me that we always realise career-turning moments retrospectively, not when they happen. This is why I take every encounter, situation, and commitment equally seriously, as we never know what will open a new door. As a student, I always thought that that one masterclass or that one meeting with an important conductor would be the most significant moments in my career. But it doesn’t actually work that way; quite the contrary. A good example is my participation in the conducting competition in Besançon. I made it to the final, but narrowly missed out on victory. It felt like I had missed the opportunity of a lifetime, but nothing could be further from the truth: it was there that I met Daniel Weissmann, director of the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, who offered me a job here in Belgium. Above all, I believe in the people around me: in the end, they are the ones that truly determine my course.
Yet it seems like this job was fated for you. Did you always want to be a conductor?
I played folk music on the violin from a young age, then studied classical flute and composition, and when I was eleven, I attended a rehearsal of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by the late Georg Solti. He had the incredible power to blend the voices of each individual musician into one shared, stunning sound. I immediately knew: that’s what I want to do when I grow up. I then abandoned the idea of becoming a bus driver, a job that had intrigued me because I loved the idea of picking up different individuals and taking them to the same destination together. But isn’t that kind of what I get to do now as well?