Jan Dvořák’s music exists stylistically, in his own words, “somewhere between Bach, Wagner and Dr. No”. In his works, he combines pop and rock with a penchant for Stravinsky and Boulez. Jan Dvořák is also a border crosser moving freely between different forms of musical theatre and expression.
Studied conducting, composition, music theory and musicology in Hamburg and Vienna
Since 2008: Co-founder of the music-theatre group “Kommando Himmelfahrt”
2015: Wins “Rolf Mares Prize” of the Hamburg theatres
2011-15: Musical director of the opera studies programme at Zurich’s University of the Arts
Since 2016: chief dramaturg of the Mannheim Opera
What three terms could best characterize your compositional style?
Three terms? I would say: ironic, pathetic, theatrical...Ironic on account of my love of the 1920s, pathetic because of my musical roots in rock and Baroque, and theatrical because I’ve developed my style through a constant, practical interaction with the stage.
How does your ideal music-theatre conception look now?
I believe music theatre must be integral. Purism is an interesting concept, but on stage I want to reflect life – and it is rarely purist. Maybe music theatre has a greater possibility than other art forms to discover utopian spaces. For that reason, it should never close itself off!
That’s also the source of my love for futuristic and fantastic subjects. For me, an intellectual approach and great delight in storytelling aren’t mutually exclusive. One also needs to understand and integrate the “New Music” era. But I don’t think we can talk sensibly about contemporary music without reflecting on the revolution in singing produced by pop music.
The subtitles of your operas are unusual: you describe 20,000 Leagues under the Sea as “pop-music theatre”, and Frankenstein is a “Gothic opera”. What do these concepts mean?
I’m working on a kind of “archaeology of modernism”. Shelley and Verne are, of course, pioneers of science fiction and, increasingly, their incredible visions are becoming our reality. At the same time, however, they are also pioneers of pulp fiction.
The trivial and the visionary are not mutually exclusive here. In that sense, both of these works are models for me. I’m not quite sure of the right genre classifications for my pieces, but I’m inspired by the possibility of venturing into uncharted musical territory – into the vast unexplored delta between the currents of New Music and popular music.
20,000 Leagues under the Sea could also be called a family opera. Following the premiere in 2011 in Eisenach, it had 23 performances there, followed by seven in Meiningen in 2012; and in 2013 there was a series of performances of your revised version in Cottbus. There were very large audiences everywhere. What do you think has made the piece so popular?
I think the public has sensed that this isn’t just some commercial rip-off, but that I am seriously trying to tell an exciting story in a new way. A Berlin-Brandenburg Broadcasting (RBB) reviewer at the time wrote that this is not a musical at all but perhaps the future of opera. Naturally I was delighted by that.
Experiences of film and post-dramatic theatre have found their way into this piece, enabling it, within a staging of limited means, to move from an ocean liner to a submarine and from the Mariana Trench to the North Pole.
Those are worlds of experience which normally aren’t dealt with in the musical theatre, either through staging or music. As a result, it is exciting for adults as well as for their children. My own kids sometimes listen to the Eisenach recording as a radio play...
What’s most fun about the composition for me personally is that nearly all the themes are derived from a single basic melody. Only one composer-friend has noticed this, certifying it as a “battered leitmotif technique”.
In 2014, the “Frankenstein drama” that you created with Philipp Stölzl for the Basle Theatre was met with enormous acclaim. Then came the idea of developing this piece into an opera. A commission from Hamburg Opera is now making that a reality (world premiere on 20 May 2018). Unlike in the Basle version, all the characters sing except one: the Monster. It doesn’t sing, but mostly speaks. Why?
The film and opera director Philipp Stölzl and I had decided to tell the story from the Monster’s perspective. The libretto traces its development from a colossal though helpless toddler to a loving outsider and finally to a murderer and Frankenstein’s intellectually brilliant adversary, implicitly raising the question of the “other” and his/her exclusion from society.
On a metalevel, it deals with the equivalence between classical opera singing and modern acting techniques. The Monster “cannot” do something that all the others can. Because of this defect it is cast out of the community while also bearing the seeds of something wholly new.