This year, the Hungarian Composers’ Union gave the Benedek Istvánffy award named after the classic Hungarian composer for the 15th time. This award is given to a composer under 40 years of age for a piece of work presented in the previous year. In a strong competition this year, a one act opera by András Gábor Virágh titled Femme fatale 2200111XXG won the Benedek Istvánffy award. The accolade was given by Máté Hollós, President of the Hungarian Composers’ Union.
András Gábor Virágh has been the organist in St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest since May 2010. He also has been a DLA student of composing at the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music since September 2013, and teaches musical form study and analysis as well as music theory. As far as his professional activities are concerned, he has won two national organ competitions and three national and three international composing competitions so far. In 2011, he was awarded with the Junior Prima prize. He majored in musical composition in 2013 in the class of Gyula Fekete at the Liszt Academy of Music, and was awarded by the Aurora Musis Amica foundation and with the composer award of the Hungarian Academy of Arts in the same year. Since 2014, his works have been published by Ostinato Musikverlag in Germany. The interview below was prepared by Gabriella Bokor with the composer who had just been awarded with the Istvánffy prize.
– We have spoken several times, and I know that you compose in various genres, but I’ve never heard about you writing an opera. I never thought you’d be doing one.
– Well, I didn’t think myself until it was suggested to me. Of course, I had been interested in operas, because I love its extremities. To be honest, it is important for me to present a wide range of emotions regardless of genres. At the end of 2013, I had a teacher, Gyula Fekete, who drew my attention to an opera competition which one could enter with an 18-20-minute-long piece. There were four topics: horror, thriller, western and sci-fi. Sci-fi was an obvious choice to me. I hoped that the story would have extraterrestrial beings in it and I was right.
– Do you like sci-fi?
– Very much, but I don’t really have too much time to read, but I’ve been always been dreaming about space. Even when I was a child, transcendence seemed to be more interesting than the earthly things.
– So you decided to compose a sci-fi opera. Did you start to look for a llibrettist afterwards?
– We had a discussion with the director-teacher of the opera faculty students, Almási-Tóth András, and I asked if he would like to write the lyrics for me. He was hesitant for a while, but then he decided to go for it. We agreed on a deadline, and when the cast was selected and the libretto was prepared, I had a few weeks to write my composition.
– Did you start to think about the music once you have received the libretto?
– I imagined an atmosphere, as I believed that the scene would be set in the space. And indeed, it was. It is a tragicomic story with two protagonists, two extraterrestrial-looking beings, FF22 and FF 23, played by Orsolya Gheorghita and Éva Bernáth. So I had to write music for two vocalists and an orchestra with the size of Mozart’s era. The story is about these two beings looking for earthlings. They are looking for the men in their lives. They do find their pairs — played by dancers. However, later they have an argument about one of them, so there is a little conflict as well. They get physical and the two beings eventually beat up one another so badly that they die.
– Not an ordinary story…
– It is quite witty, I laughed a lot, and it was a great experience to compose music to it! The lyrics were very musical, it was easy to compose, because it had words and expressions and gestures that could be easily formed musically.
– This was your first opera composition. What was your workflow?
– I read the libretto, and read it again and again until I learned it entirely — I always do this. I will memorise the lyrics, because this way I can work even when I don’t have the libretto open in front of me, such as when travelling on a tram. Even then, the lyrics will work in the background, I find this important. I was reading the libretto for weeks, and the composition was formed by itself. Units, characters were created, I found out where the arias or recitativos would be…
– Was it important for you to know who sang the parts? Did you compose with their voices in mind?
– So much so, that they invited me to their concerts many times, and then I heard exactly where Orsolya’s voice has the nicest character, and found out where would Éva’s glitter the best. So I composed this piece based on repeated impressions.
– Would you fancy to continue and write an opera again?
– if I had the choice, I would definitely say yes.
– Which opera piece is closest to your heart?
– Bartok’s Bluebeard obviously. Of course, I’m not impartial, but I think I should not be ashamed because of this — we’re talking about Bartok after all.