Reality Check With High Hopes at the Opera


Szilveszter Ókovács

Photo by László Emmer

No mass demonstrations are expected, nor is it likely that people will attempt to storm the building at the reopening of the Hungarian State Opera on March 12 next year. The above-described events did happen, though, when it put on its first performance, and furious fans gathered to express their anger that they didn’t get tickets.

General director Szilveszter Ókovács speaks with the Budapest Business Journal about how the Opera is gearing up for the realities of the 21st century. Excitement over resuming operations at the epic venue after a break for renovations lasting nearly five years is understandable. The occasion will be marked by a three-day star-studded musical feast featuring, among others, Placido Domingo showcasing his excellence in conducting this time.

“The building got a complete face-lift, but what really makes a difference is the stage tech upgrade,” says Ókovács. “All that was built in respects the original design of architect Miklós Ybl, but everything will become faster, quieter and more grandiose.”

COVID left its mark on the institution. In pre-pandemic times, about 30-50% of the audience were from abroad, but now they are practically gone. Therefore, the goal is to make up for some lost revenues by having six shows per week with a super short summer break. Pricing must also be adjusted to changing circumstances. A decent ticket would cost around one hundred euros.

“We heavily rely on our revenues, so prices must reflect this necessity,” notes Ókovács, adding that Hungarian guests will also be targeted with repeat customer deals.

Those that prefer enjoying their culture remotely will have online broadcasting and on-demand services at their disposal. This should rather be the exception, though.

Immersion Therapy

“Immersion is key in this genre. You’ve simply got to be there for the real experience,” the general director says, adding that there’s a lot to look forward to. “This year and next alike, the season will feature up to 80 titles, an exceptionally large selection, from one of the most active operas in the world.”

A new addition is the Eiffel Art Studios, a multipurpose facility that opened in the fall. The 22,000 sqm venue not only hosts a theater hall that holds 400 guests, but it also functions as a workshop, arts warehouse and rehearsal center, a rarity even for global standards. The weekends are for welcoming the young with shows tailored to their taste and offering site visits. (Your correspondent can say from experience that the availability of Ischler, a dessert, at the buffet is a factor for kids too, just as it was back when he frequented the Opera matinees.)

“This is home to contemporary Opera and ballet, which simultaneously addresses black-belt opera fans and those not fond of the typical opera toolkit. It’s not a rival to the Opera, but a complementary sister institute,” Ókovács says. The District X location might be far from downtown, but that also has advantages: finding parking spaces is not an issue and the neighborhood benefits overall.

Ókovács is aware that his organization cannot turn back time. “Supporters of Gluck and Piccini used to get into fights with chair legs to show their passion about their beloved genre. In the 1955-56 season, the Opera and Erkel Theater drew one million guests in total. Those times are gone. By rewrapping our message, we will be happy if we manage to get 300,000-400,000 spectators and 10,000-15,000 kids to the Opera and Eiffel every year, respectively. But it’s still a large audience, which could fulfill our mission. We believe opera is bound to thrive in the future.”

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of December 17, 2021.

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