An Opera Director’s Historical Perspective: A Conversation with Grischa Asagaroff, Part 1

The following conversation is part of a series of discussions of the recent history of opera performances and productions:

[Below: Director Grischa Asagaroff, courtesy of Facebook/Grischa Asagaroff.]

Wm: Grischa, I’m delighted to take part in a conversation with you about your experiences directing opera productions over the past six decades. I’d like to begin by asking some questions about your early experiences with the art form.

Your father, Georg Asagaroff, was a notable figure in the early years of film in first Russia, then later Germany, during historically turbulent times in both countries. You grew up in Munich. To what extent did your family origins influence your educational and career choices in the performing arts?

GA: I grew up in Munich in an atmosphere that exposed me to dramatic theater, because this was the absolute preference of my parents. I was only ten years old when my father died in 1957. After his death, because of my mother’s strong interest in opera, we got a subscription at Munich’s Prinzregenten-Theater in 1961. I saw my first opera, Verdi’s “La Traviata”, and loved opera immediately.

[Below: Munich’s Prinzregenten Theater (Prince Regent’s Theater.]

Almost once each month I saw a new opera. I was much more excited by action-filled operas such as Berg’s “Wozzeck”, Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler”, Richard Strauss’ “Elektra”, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, and Wagner’s “Lohengrin”, “Fliegende Holländer” and “The Ring”. I liked these action operas more than operas like Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” (during which I fell asleep) or Smetana’s “Verkaufte Braut”.

Up until October  1963, I saw all performances in the Prinzregenten Theater with fantastic conductors like Joseph Keilberth and Hans Knappertsbusch. Singers included my beloved Astrid Varnay (my first Brünnhilde and Ortrud in “Lohengrin”), Inge Borkh (my first Elektra, Leonore in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and Senta in “Holländer”), Ingrid Bjoner (my first “Lohengrin” Elsa and Selika in Meyerbeer’s “L’Africaine) Jess Thomas (the star of the Italian and German repertoires), and also Hans Hotter, Wolfgang Windgassen and Gottlob Frick (the heros of the Wagner repertoire). Fritz Wunderlich appeared in Mozart operas as well as in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and Rossini’s “Barbiere di Siviglia”, often with Erika Köth .

At one time Cesare Siepi performed the title role of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with Fernando Corena and Sena Jurinac. It was incredibly fantastic, and was followed by George London as Don  Giovanni, with Walter Berry as Leporello.

In those years all operas were sung in German except when a special guest appeared as in “Don Giovanni” when the soloists sang in Italian but the chorus sang in German. I remember a fantastic production of Bizet’s “Carmen” for which Jean-Pierre Ponnelle had done sets and costumes. Sona Cervena was Carmen and James King was Don Jose. I also remember a new production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” with the incredible Pilar Lorengar performing in German.

[Below: Pilar Lorengar as Madama Butterfly; edited image of an EMI album cover.]

I became a real opera freak in those years, in addition to joining my mother in attending incredible theater performances with the best German actors at Munich’s Kammerspiele.

Opera and Theater became my dream more and more. On November 23 ,1963 I attended Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” in a production by Rudolf Hartmann, celebrating the re-opening of National Theater in Munich, which had been destroyed during the War. The opera was conducted by Maestro Keilberth with Claire Watson, Jess Thomas, Otto Wiener, and Hans Hotter. 

[Below: Munich’s National Theater at its 1963 reopening; edited image, based on an historical photograph for the Bayerische Staatsoper.]

Wm: Interestingly, my first opera subscription was also in 1961, as a college Freshman, for performances of the San Francisco Opera at the War Memorial Opera House. A few of the artists you named – including Hotter, Bjoner (my first Elsa also) and Siepi – I had seen in San Francisco Opera performances.

Especially interesting to me was your citing the importance of Jess Thomas opera performances in Munich. He had been part of San Francisco Opera’s first (1957) class of its Merola Young Artists program, then left for Europe to gain opera performance experience, returning to San Francisco in 1965 to become the company’s lead Wagnerian tenor until the end of the 1970s.

When did your interest in opera shift from being an audience member to being a participant on stage?

GA: The following October, I had my first onstage experience, as a super in the Festwiese scene of “Die Meistersinger” in Nuremberg’s Staatstheater.

That year, I also got a part in Richard Strauss’ “Arabella” together with the most beautiful chorus singer, with whom I danced the Valse in Act 2. The performance included Lisa della Casa and Günther Missenhard (who was later the husband of Agnes Baltsa). There I met Anneliese Rothenberger and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for the first time.

I was very excited at the opportunity to appear as super in so many operas from 1964 through the 1966 Festival. When not attending school, I spent all my time on the opera stage, where I got interesting parts. The most important was the non-singing role of the Principe di Persia in Puccini’s “Turandot” starring Bjoner and Ludovico Spiess.

Wm: Your early experiences as an assistant director were at the Bayerische Staatsoper, when such operatic giants as Rudolph Hartmann and Günther Rennert were present. Do you regard either or both of these directors as mentors?

GA: I was so excited when Rudolf Hartmann in July 1966 gave me my first contract as stage manager. I knew already about all of the productions and knew the singers and most of the stage directors and conductors. That knowledge helped me a lot.

From Hartmann and his colleague, Hans Hartleb,

I learned the classic, very musical staging of all of the operas they did, with mostly great acting by all those famous singers. I will never forget Hartmann’s production of Mozart’s “Zauberflöte” in Munich’s Cuvilliés Theater with Rothenberger, Wunderlich, Hermann Prey and Franz Crass, conducted by the young Christoph von Dohnanyi – by far the best cast I had seen until Ponnelle’s famous production in Salzburg.  

The Munich ensemble in those years was unique and could be compared only to the ensemble of the  Vienna State Opera in the time of Herbert von Karajan. Only a few famous singers sang on both stages, because there was a bit of rivalry between the Munich and Vienna companies.  

Rennert started in 1967-1968 and he brought a new style of directing on stage. He mainly choose the operas from Mozart, Rossini, Richard Strauss or modern operas – operas with “action” and with plots for mainly “singing actors”.

[Director/regisseur Günther Rennert; edited image of an Orff Zentrum photograph.]

Precision was most important also for his assistants. He was so strict. I learned this from him: as assistant you had to be at least 30 minutes before a rehearsal started on the stage to check all props.

I would have loved to stay in Munich after the Festival 1969 and get a fixed position as assistant stage director, but Rennert told me at a really late date that I should get more experiences in a smaller theater. (I know that some older colleagues he was afraid I would take his job.)

I was very sad that I had to leave Munich and a lot of singers were disappointed also, but, thanks to Dr. Hartleb, I got the assistant position at the opera in Dortmund. There I really got the hardest experience as the only assistant for opera and musicals. I also had to act small parts on stage and to present lectures about the new premieres in different places around Dortmund.

Wm: Later you became an assistant to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. What was he like to work with? What did you learn from him? How did he influence your career?

GA: I first met Ponnelle at the 1966 Festival, when he did his second opera production in the open air place (for the first time in Munich) of the historic Residenz of the Bavarian monarchs, next to the National Theater.

The opera was Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” with a fantastic cast of Giuseppe Taddei , Antonietta Stella, Gianfranco Cecchele, Giorgio Tozzi and Renato Cesari, conducted by Maestro Giuseppe Patane.

[Below: Director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle; edited image of an historical photograph, from jeanpierreponnelle.de.]

I was one of the two stage managers, but Ponnelle had the feeling I also should help as his assistant, specifically working with the supers. I was overwhelmed from his work and how he got his ideas to all people in a strong – but always very friendly – working climate. He never behaved as a “star” and he worked with everyone in the same nice manner if they are famous singers, sweating stagehands or student supers! He did all himself – sets, costumes and staging. He knew the music better than everybody else. He worked 12 to 15 hours a day.

Ponnelle used the piano score and very often, especially for all Mozart operas, the full score. The music was the most important for him, but he also knew the text perfectly and never went against the existing libretto. Since summer 1966, his kind of approach to an opera and its staging influenced me most for all my own work on the stage .

Because I didn’t come back to Munich in the first years that Rennert was intendant, Ponnelle and I met again at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. This was the occasion of my first real assistance to Ponnelle – for Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri”. This was the start of the most famous Düsseldorf/Duisburg Rossini cycle between 1971 and 1977. The participating artists included Maestro Alberto Erede and fantastic singers like Julia Hamari, Paolo Montarsolo, Ugo Benelli, Michael Cousins, Trudeliese Schmidt , Kristina Laki , Eliane Manchet, Marius Rintzler, Dale Duesing and Malcolm Smith. I was always at Ponnelle’s side. Rossini became my favorite composer in those years between 1971 and 1979 . 

Ponnelle’s approach to a new production was first learning the music perfectly, then reading the libretto and after that combining both music and libretto together to create the set and costumes. This influenced me very, very much for all my artistic life until today. I also observed the kind of choreography he used and the often symmetrical staging for the Mozart and Rossini operas. 

Wm: Between 1954 and 1981, the San Francisco Opera’s general director was Austrian-born Kurt Herbert Adler, who had long-standing ties with several of the major European directors, including Rennert and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

Beginning in 1969, Ponnelle began a series of productions created for the San Francisco Opera, or imported to San Francisco from European houses. Your first assignment in San Francisco was Ponnelle’s production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” in 1977.

The 1977 season was one in which Ponnelle’s production of Puccini’s “Turandot” was being staged for Montserrat Caballe and Luciano Pavarotti and Rennert was present for a production of Janacek’s “Kat’a Kabanova”. What are your memories of that first season with the San Francisco Opera, its administration and the artists of the cast and crew with which you were collaborating?

GA: Kurt Herbert Adler was a great manager with all his experience as conductor. He had a wonderful team in all positions around him. One felt at home from the first moment. Lots of his staff from those years are still in contact with me so many years later – as also members of the chorus. In opera, this is unique! 

[Below: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s principal set for Mozart’s “Idomeneo” in its 1977 mounting at the San Francisco Opera; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

I was so excited to work on “Idomeneo” with Ponnelle at the War Memorial Opera House. I had seen this production several times in Cologne and had made an assistant director’s score for my own benefit, with all the staging in it.

“Idomeneo” was such a great a wonderful production and we had such a fantastic cast with Eric Tappy, Maria Ewing, Carol Neblett, Christiane Eda-Pierre, George Shirley and the conductor, Maestro John Pritchard.

Once in the “Idomeneo” rehearsal period, Ponnelle and all the singers went on a “strike” of two days, because we had not had enough stage rehearsals, which was not acceptable. We all went to Ponnelle’s rented house in Sausalito and had a great time at the pool. Finally Adler gave us some more time on stage and the rehearsals continued.

[Below: Swiss tenor Eric Tappy as Idomeneo in the 1977 San Francisco Opera mounting of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo”; edited image, based on a Ron Scherl photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

“Idomeneo” needs a fantastic chorus and the San Francisco chorus was outstanding. It is a chorus of fantastic voices and great actors. All of them had also other jobs, so that singing on stage was only one part of what they did to make their living. They showed that they were better than the all-year round, fully employed choruses that work at some major companies. I got to know all the San Francisco Opera choristers so well and we became friends, which helped me so much for all the following years.

That season, I saw performances of Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” and was so excited by Ponnelle’s outstanding production and fantastic “Turandot” cast.

The previous year I had traveled to the United States for its Bicentennial celebrations. During that trip I spent a few days in San Francisco, including time at the War Memorial Opera House, where I saw some rehearsals of director Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Die Frau ohne Schatten”.

In December 1977, following my time in San Francisco, I worked with Lehnhoff on his “Frau” production in Düsseldorf with Hildegard Behrens , Ursula Schroeder-Feinen and Matti Kastu – an assignment that was so important for my later work on “Frau” in two seasons in San Francisco!