„This work is now part of the repertoire“, says the German newspaper Die Welt (March 9, 2016). Péter Eötvös‘ Tri sestry is one of the most performed stage works in contemporary music, it has already been shown in 27 cities. The latest production was presented in March at Wiener Staatsoper to great critical acclaim (conductors: Péter Eötvös, Jonathan Stockhammer; stage director: Yuval Sharon). Click below to watch the trailer, view the score and get more information.
Lyon, Opéra (March 1998, world premiere)
Dusseldorf, Deutsche Oper am Rhein (October-November 1999)
Enschede, Nationale Reisopera (November-December 1999)
Utrecht, Nationale Reisopera (December 1999)
Den Haag, Nationale Reisopera (December 1999)
Eindhoven, Nationale Reisopera (December 1999)
Den Bosch, Nationale Reisopera (December 1999)
Rotterdam, Nationale Reisopera (December 1999)
Maastricht, Nationale Reisopera (December 1999)
Amsterdam, Nationale Reisopera (December 1999)
Budapest, Ungarische Staatsoper (March 2000)
Hamburg, Staatsoper (September 2000)
Freiburg, Theater (October-November 2000)
Zagreb Festival (April 2001)
Edinburgh Festival (August 2001)
Hamburg, Staatsoper (October 2001)
Paris, Théâtre du Châtelet (November 2001)
Brussels, La Monnaie (March 2002)
Lyon, Opéra (April 2002)
Vienna, Wiener Festwochen (May2002)
Kassel, Staatstheater (November 2002)
Bern, Theater (April-May 2005)
Hamburg, Staatsoper (March 2006)
Oldenburg, Oldenburgisches Staatstheater (November 2007-Februar y2008)
Munich, Prinzregententheater (February 2010)
Koblenz, Theater (March-May 2010)
Berlin, Staatsoper (July 2011)
Zurich, Opernhaus (March-April 2013)
Vienna, Staatsoper (March 2016)
Yekaterinburg, Ural Opera (2019, 2021)
From the play to the opera
Chekhov’s play is in four acts and takes place over a period of four years. In his operatic version of the piece, Peter Eötvös has replaced this chronological approach with a network of independent scenes divided into three “sequences” (Eötvös’s own term) and a Prologue. These sequences are devoted, in turn, to Irina, Andrei and Masha (i.e., two of the three sisters and their brother), thereby shedding light on the action from three different points of view. In this way, the same events may reappear on several occasions, but each time they are differently treated. By breaking down the plot and restructuring it along different lines, Eötvös is able to give Three Sisters a markedly timeless quality.
Act One: The Anniversary
In a provincial town far from Moscow, preparations are in hand to celebrate Irina’s name-day. She is the youngest of the three daughters of Colonel Prozorov, who died exactly a year ago. Together with her sisters Olga and Masha, she dreams of returning to the capital where they once lived. Among the garrison officers invited to the meal is the new battery commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin. Irina and one of the lieutenants, Baron Tuzenbach, make plans together. Attracted by Vershinin, Masha reluctantly accompanies her husband Kulygin, a teacher at the local high school, to dinner with the headmaster. The sisters’ only brother, Andrei, introduces his fiancée Natasha to the assembled company.
Act Two: The Unsuccessful Evening
Some months later in the Prozorov home, a party is again being planned, but the atmosphere is hardly conducive to such an event. Masha and Vershinin both complain about their respective spouses. Tuzenbach and one of his fellow officers, Soliony, vie for Irina’s favours. Vershinin has to leave, as his wife has made yet another attempt to kill herself by swallowing poison. The party is abandoned. Andrei squanders away all his money at gambling. Although Natasha has now married Andrei, she leaves for an assignation with her lover, a local worthy called Protopopov.
Act Three: The Fire
A fire has wrought havoc in the town. At home, Olga busies herself attending to the injured and homeless. The drunken medical officer, Dr Chebutykin, destroys the family clock. Masha and Irina wallow in self-pity, the former fretting over the mortgage that Andrei has taken out on their home and over her impossible love for Vershinin, the latter over her boring work and their brother’s inadequacies. Andrei attempts to justify himself in his sisters’ eyes, but fails to hold their attention. Irina decides to marry Tuzenbach on condition that he takes her to Moscow.
Act Four: The Departure of the Soldiers
The battery has received orders to move on and the officers come to say goodbye. Andrei holds forth on the worthlessness of the present in relation to the past and future. Natasha, for her part, has taken possession of the house, thus dispossessing her sisters-in-law. Tuzenbach has been killed in a duel with his rival Soliony. The three sisters remain caught in their provincial trap and attempt to resign themselves to it.
The three sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina, sing of their sufferings “which will turn to joy for those who come after us” (no. 1).
First Sequence: Irina
Olga encourages Irina to marry Baron Tuzenbach (no. 2). Natasha, who is married to their brother Andrei, passes through the house, a candle in her hand (no. 3). The soldiers who have just put out a fire in the town burst into the room. While the drunken Dr Chebutykin smashes the family clock, Masha and Vershinin, the battery commander, exchange a few knowing words (no. 4). Another of the officers, Soliony, picks a quarrel, first on the doctor, then on Andrei (no. 5). Tuzenbach, then Soliony flatters Irina with his attentions (nos. 6 and 7). Natasha prevails on Irina to allow her son to use her room (no. 8). The soldiers announce their departure for Poland. Irina agrees to marry Tuzenbach and to go to Moscow with him, but then discovers that he has been killed in a duel with Soliony (nos. 9 –11).
Second Sequence: Andrei
Olga, Irina and Masha regret their brother’s lack of ambition (no. 13). Natasha passes through the room, a candle in her hand (no. 14). Andrei defends his wife against his sisters’ accusations (no. 15). Natasha wants to get rid of their old servant, Anfisa, and tells off Olga (no. 16). The drunken doctor breaks their mother’s clock (no. 17). The officers arrive to report on the fire, and the conversation turns to idle chatter (no. 18). Andrei is left alone with the doctor, who advises him to abandon everything and leave (no. 19). Andrei deplores the inertia of his present life, then goes out with the doctor, while Natasha slips away to join her lover, Protopopov (nos. 20 and 21).
Third Sequence: Masha
It is Irina’s name-day, the family are taking tea, and Tuzenbach announces the visit of the battery’s new commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin. Vershinin recalls the sisters’ father, Colonel Prozorov, whom he knew in Moscow (no. 22). Masha reluctantly agrees to accompany her husband, Kulygin, to supper that evening with the head of the school where he teaches (no. 23). Masha and Vershinin fall in love, but each of them is already married (no. 24). Masha admits her guilty love to Olga (no. 25). Vershinin announces the departure of the regiment and says goodbye to Masha. Her sisters and her husband, Kulygin, attempt to console her (no. 26). Pierre Moulinier
(Translation: Stewart Spencer)
Peter Eötvös in conversation with Pierre Moulinier
In what spirit did you approach the première of your first opera, Three Sisters?
I’d already written Radamès in 1975, but that was a chamber opera with four characters and reduced orchestra. Three Sisters is a large-scale opera and I wanted it to work from the outset. I used certain intervals, rhythms and instrumental groupings in order to reach audiences through the clearest and most subtle language possible.
I applied the dramaturgical rules that I’d learnt as a child while attending performances of plays by Shakespeare and Ibsen, rules I later explored in greater depth through my experiences in the theatre. I set out from the principle that things work when you have an introduction that gets the piece off to a good start and that tension results from the use of accelerandos, contrast and periods of calm. Being “classical” doesn’t mean being traditional, it means accepting rules that have proved their usefulness in the past.
Chinese Opera, which I wrote in 1986, isn’t an opera and it’s not very Chinese either. It’s a piece for chamber orchestra that features portraits of the directors I’ve known in the theatre and in films: Klaus Michael Grüber, Patrice Chéreau, Peter Brook, Bob Wilson, and Jacques Tati. I’ve worked with Grüber and Wilson, but it is perhaps Peter Brook who has taught me the most, even though I’ve never actually worked with him. Above all, he taught me how to tackle a stage piece. In this, he takes some beating.
Is your experience as a conductor of use to you as a composer?
I try never to overwhelm an instrumentalist or singer with complex writing. But I want each performer to have an element that he or she can execute with extreme precision so that, logically, I can then produce a complex score. When I compose, I never forget that I’m also a conductor. I never lose sight of the performance. I know exactly how the work will have to be rehearsed and how long the rehearsals will take.
For Three Sisters, I think the chamber ensemble of 17 instruments that accompanies the singers needs a good week to sort everything out. For the large orchestra that I’ve positioned behind the scenes, things are much simpler: for them, two days of rehearsals are enough. Before writing Three Sisters, I wanted to get to know the inside of the Lyons Opéra, where the work received its first performance. I conducted two operas there, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the second act of Wagner’s Parsifal. In this way I was able to adapt to the specific nature of the orchestra and work out how my own two orchestras would be made up. We set about the preparations in consultation with the music director, Kent Nagano, with him in the pit as the first conductor and me, as his assistant, at the back of the stage. I also worked on the piece in close collaboration with the director, Ushio Amagatsu. It is extraordinary to be able to work on a production from start to finish with everything at your disposal, just as was the case in the 18th or 19th century.
A number of people have said that it is impossible to imagine Three Sisters staged in any other way than the one seen at its first performance at Lyons. What’s your response to that?
But there’s no lack of attempts to present the work in different ways. The opera will be revived in 1999 and 2000 in Düsseldorf, Amsterdam and Budapest. In Germany and Hungary it will be sung in the languages of those two countries, and the female roles will be taken by female singers, rather than countertenors, as was the case in Lyons. I’m curious to see how it will all turn out.
The original libretto for Three Sisters was in German, but in the end you opted for Russian. Why?
Because of Chekhov, of course. But also because Russian is a very concentrated language. The vowels have a singing quality to them and the consonants have lots of character. Alongside English and Italian, it’s the language that suits me best. German is a different matter. I spent 30 years living in Germany and know the language and the country very well, but my principal themes aren’t German. I don’t speak Italian and English, and so I feel I can adopt a freer approach to them. I can use them as I would use a musical language, employing the vowels for consonance and the consonants as percussive elements. I don’t use my native language, Hungarian, as I have a mental block here.
How do you judge the current situation in opera?
Opera is a highly sensitive area, artistically, politically and economically. Many composers have no experience of the rules governing opera houses. The works that they write for the stage often lack any dramatic conception, although this does not prevent audiences from being affected by their expressive power. Having said that, I still think that opera has a future and that its future lies in the connection between ear and eye. The next few years will be increasingly visual – directors will use images of every kind – and will combine the most sophisticated elements from the second half of the 20th century: film, video, photography, information technology, and electronics. Opera is bound to benefit from these advances. It isn’t dead. When Boulez said in the 1960s that opera houses should be burnt down, he wasn’t referring to the genre itself.
You’ve written a great deal of electronic music in the past, but don’t draw on it in Three Sisters. Why?
Because Chekhov didn’t seem to me to lend himself to such treatment. But also for economic reasons: it’s too complicated for an opera house. But I’ll use a mixture of instrumental and electronic music in my next works for the theatre, at Frankfurt and at the Châtelet in Paris. I think it would be wrong to abandon electronic music. Each period invents new instruments of its own. The 17th century saw the development of strings, while woodwind instruments evolved in the 18th century, brass in the 19th, and percussion instruments, with Varèse, in the early 20th century.
Electronic music gained acceptance in the 1930s with John Cage and later with Stockhausen. Unfortunately, our own traditional world hasn’t made sufficient use of electronic music, and it is the creators of pop music and rock who have shown the greatest ability to learn from Stockhausen. They know how to use the right means at the right time. They are more “contemporary” than we are. In Paris, it is Boulez and the IRCAM that are a shining example of experimentation with an eye to the future.
Do you feel yourself to be rooted in a particular country, or would you describe yourself, rather, as an international artist?
I was born in Transylvania, like Bartók, and grew up in Budapest, which, during the Cold War, was on the other side of the world. I left for Germany in 1966 and worked with Stockhausen at the WDR Electronic Studio in Cologne, and have never really returned to my own country. I’ve worked in Paris, at the head of the Ensemble Inter- Contemporain. I now live in the Netherlands, where I conduct the Dutch Radio Chamber Orchestra at Hilversum. Both as a conductor and as a composer I feel at home everywhere, but there’s nowhere that I’d actually call home. That’s my fate. I lead a wonderful and extremely agreeable life, but it is the life of a stranger watching what goes on around him. That’s what I wanted to show in Three Sisters. All that I’ve done in this work is to study the characters, their actions and inaction, the impossible decisions that they have to take and which, in the end, they fail to take.
What is the role of irony in your life and works?
Irony is like wit. It helps us to see things clearly. For me, it protects me and
allows me to keep a low profile. In restaurants, for example, I never sit at a table in the middle, but always in a corner. And I watch. Ultimately, this is a Chekhovian attitude.
The texts are taken from the booklet of the album “Three Sisters” (Deutsche Grammophon, ASIN: B00002R2SW). Published with kind permission by Deutsche Grammophon.
Photo: Wiener Staatsoper, Michael Pöhn