5 Questions for Sergej Newski

5 Questions for Sergej Newski

In our new blog series, "5 Questions for...", we will talk to composers about their unique paths to music, their worldviews, and their most vivid impressions while composing a piece. Our first interviewee is composer Sergej Newski. He told us about the biggest challenges he was confronted with while working on the new opera Secondhand-Zeit and his quaint experiences with his opera Franziskus.

To become a “composer” is not typically at the top of a young person’s wish-list, especially if, like you, he or she doesn’t come from a family of musicians. How did it happen?

I did have one musician in my family, my five-years-older cousin Dmitry who I grew up with. He studied cello at the famous Gnessin Special Music School together with Evgeny Kissin, who went on to become a piano legend. He sometimes played jazz standards with him. Dmitry really wanted to be a jazz pianist, not a cellist; in fact, he rather hated his own instrument! For me it was completely different. I had already had a clear plan ever since I was six: I would write the music and he would play it, no matter on what. When Dmitry was 15 – I was 10 – he developed an interest in sound direction. With the help of two tape machines and a primitive mixing console, he made his first attempts at multi-channel recording, using me as a guinea pig: together we invented a fictitious cross-dressing diva with the descriptive name of Bulldozerina Vinaigretova – the first name represented the brazenness of this imaginary pop artist. I composed some songs for this Bulldozerina and recorded them – my voice hadn’t completely broken yet... My serious interest in classical and even new music came later, when I was already 15 and studying at the Music College of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory. A pivotal experience for me was the visit in September 1989 of the Stuttgart Opera with Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten – I was gripped by the theatre and opera bug and went to see several performances. I became a diehard fan of New Music. The Moscow visits of Stockhausen in 1990 and Cage in 1990 also played a big role.

What do you consider essential to the success of a composition?

Time! Composing is a full-time job. Without my partner Anton and without the many people who support me in my work, I couldn’t do it! Sometimes “special conditions” or “rituals” are a help. When I was still a student, for example, I liked to go to the windowless rehearsal rooms at the Semperoper to compose. I needed this illusion, imagining that I was part of a large enterprise, in order to concentrate. Composing is a lonely profession and you take pride in the independence it brings. That’s one thing. Another is that the slow machinery of an orchestra or an opera house has a soothing effect on me. It gives me a sense of security. Its operations provide an orderliness that isn’t otherwise familiar to a composer. That’s still true for me today. This feeling of working in a large enterprise while, at the same time, creating art is something unique to opera and especially theatre. Maybe that’s why these are the two art forms that most interest me.

What has been your happiest experience so far in performances of your own stage works?

Definitely the opera Franziskus (St. Francis)! Both premieres: first the concert performance at the 2010 Klangspuren Festival in Schwaz (Tyrol) under Johannes Kalitzke, then the first staged production at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow under Philipp Chizhevsky, which was in the repertoire there for two seasons, from 2012 to 2014. The librettist Claudius Lünstedt has written a highly delicate, metaphysical yet quite absurd text: the nuanced portrait of a doubting, demanding character whose contemporaries often found him nearly unbearable. Our Franziskus in the Bolshoi production was Daniel Keating-Roberts, an outstanding English countertenor, pupil of Andrew Watts. In the fourth scene, which already takes places after the titular hero’s death, Daniel had to scale a ten-metre-high climbing wall. This was meant to symbolize the title character’s ascent into heaven. Little holes were cut here and there on it as steps for the singer. Some time during the final stage rehearsals, Daniel had to climb up and down the wall. Suddenly, at a completely inappropriate place in the score, the rehearsal was interrupted by a loud scream: “Hot holes!”, surely the last remark one would expect from a saint like Francis. We were at a loss. The cause, like the cry itself, was something completely profane: the stage lighting with extremely hot floodlights had heated up the climbing wall to a point where poor Francis no longer knew where to hang on. He must have had a guardian angel, because – thank God! – there was no “fallen saint”.

Franziskus (2008-2012)

chamber opera in 4 scenes after the play “Heiliger Franz“ by Claudius Lünstedt
for solos, mixed choir and big ensemble 
German version: Claudius Lünstedt; Russian version: Sergej Newski
3 speakers - choir SATB ( - 2(2 picc).1(ca).2.asax.tsax.0 - - 4 Perc.Acc.Pf -
World Premiere: Moscow, 12.9.2012
Duration: 60’

Score of Franziskus

What has been your greatest challenge so far as the composer of music-theatre works?

Setting whole pages of prose. I’ve often chosen prose and documentary texts as opera material, because non-fiction and monologues are the forms of expression that speak the most to me personally. And yet, I end up every time regretting this fascination, at the latest when I have several pages of a dense prose text in front of me. To reconcile the irregularity of a prose text with musical rhythm is always the greatest challenge for me. And – something I’ve only slowly grasped – a word, even a spoken word, functions in the context of an opera entirely differently than on the legitimate stage. The details and complex constructions often get lost in the musical setting. On the other hand, something expressed laconically or even a clichéd formulation of emotionality will suddenly take on a breath of authenticity in the opera. I was especially concerned with that while working with Svetlana Alexievich’s text for Second-Hand Time, because this text lives and breathes precisely from its paradoxical details. It hurt to have to cut the most beautiful details in the text, knowing that on stage they would unfortunately go missing in the overall flow.

What are you especially proud of in your newest opera project at the Stuttgart Staatsoper?

That my piece functioned at all in tandem with Mussorgsky. We – I’m referring now to the director Paul-Georg Dittrich and the production dramaturge Miron Hakenbeck – did not want to paint over or update an already existing work, but rather to produce a complex, polyphonic and energetic interaction of two completely different scores, each of which could also be played on its own. The eight scenes of Second-Hand Time are interspersed in the seven tableaux of Boris Godunov without tampering with or harming the Mussorgsky’s dramaturgy. I wanted to create a kind of “super-dramaturgy” merging both works – Mussorgsky’s and mine – into something new, with a stream of narration that is often paradoxical but always possible to follow. I found especially moving the enthusiasm of the singers, who had to learn two roles, not just one. It was the performers’ incredible panache as well as the director’s detailed work that made it possible to meld two roles into one. My special thanks are also due to the conductor Titus Engel, through whose efforts this project achieved its proper musical cohesion. Titus is a musician in whom I as a composer have almost boundless confidence. We’ve known each other for 20 years. He has always radiated calm while remaining very firm and convinced about the value of the whole project. Without his level-headedness and faith in our intentions, we could not have realized this project. Of that I am convinced.

Watch the trailer of BORIS (2018-2019)

Secondhand-Zeit (2018-2019)

libretto by Sergej Newski
based on the texts from the novel of the same name by Svetlana Alexievich
2S.2Ms.T.Bar.Child's voice - Chr - - - 4perc - pf -
WP: 02.02.2020, Stuttgart
Duration: ca. 60'

Read our article about the world premiere of BORIS here.

Score of Secondhand-Zeit

Interview conducted by Daniela Brendel, photo by Harald Hoffmann