The longest. The most exhausting. The most distressful.
Yet, to write a musical-theatrical piece based on Mikhail Afanasievich Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is the most challenging task of my life as a composer; to write a piece from this mystic novel, the evergreen favourite of my anaesthesiologist-ambulance man friend, Zoltán Csordás, who, already at the beginning of our friendship when I did not even know anything about Russian literature, let alone read the novel, could talk about it for hours upon hours. We gave lectures in Józsi Reményi’s flat on some important things almost on a weekly basis. I think it was in 1998: I focused on Figaro; he talked about The Master and Margarita. It was at the time when they visited Moscow together with Józsi. They made a pilgrimage to every scene, took numerous pictures and back home at the occasion of the lecture, he showed us Bolshaya Sadovaya 302 bis, Patriarch’s Ponds, Sparrow Hills in the photos.
As I mentioned before, I did not read the book then but as I was listening to the philological analyses of Csordás, it became obvious that this was a very significant and exciting work. Later, I read it and I liked it but there were still obscure parts. The breakthrough was brought about by the second reading years later. I was stunned and annihilated. I had no chance against it in much the same way as the poor Moscow-bureaucrats who had no chance against the subversive Force which sprawled into their lives. “I need this work”, I thought. It cast a spell on me just like a truly exciting woman would have done whose beauty is only a cover on the many other layers deep inside. First, the beauty layer catches the eye but the really exciting things are underneath… I need this work and how else would a composer think of such a masterpiece than writing an opera out of it?
It is an inhuman demand because the piece is so colourful, multi-layered and the story itself is so ramifying that the most important yet most difficult task of any libretto-writer/dramatic advisor would be: to shorten. And shortening in the case of such a whole of a book is a constant minefield. For a long time, my attitude towards this giant was to let it be… maybe in the future, when the situation would be mature enough, as well as myself.
Then, a good 15 years later, we are sitting in my friend conductor Gábor Hollerung’s office on Kerepesi Road. “Write us something big”, he tells me. By this time, we had the First symphony under our belts which, considering its size, was up to this criterion. Enormous orchestra, soloist, choir, electronics, several percussions, 17 and a half minute-long closing movement – what else do we need?
“My pleasure. Our common projects are always pretty successful”, I said. Then: “But what kind of composition do you have in mind?”
We looked at each other and said almost at the same time: “Some light music!”
Since time immemorial (actually, since 1994 when we performed rock opera King Stephen by Levente Szörényi in Esztergom), I have been longing to write something that mixes the rhythmic world and crazy energies of light music and the opportunities of contemporary classical music and symphonic orchestra. They, the Dohnányi Orchestra, take part in many light music projects. I was there at their concert with Sting when the Arena almost exploded and we had such a good time with my wife in the first row… but how did Gábor suspect that this was my heart’s desire? Somehow he knew.
Of course, I said yes.
By the time I got home, the plan was ready: I will write a rock-opera out of The Master and Margarita. Or a musical. Or whatever it turns out to be, there will surely be a drum set, an electric guitar and many 12/16 measured taa-doo-doo-baa-doo-baa-dooooo, oh yeah. One can feel so crazily excited about such an idea that he does not even consider the obstacles of the practical side. Such a monstrous-gigantic production could easily slip on several banana skins:
- Laying fingers on universal masterpieces is quite risky – reaching up to their ‘toes’ is difficult, let alone emerging at their level.
- What on Earth is there in common with the Bulgakov-novel, its plot of the 1930s and rock music?
- The mixing of genres, fashionably referred to as crossover, hides serious dangers, too: the composition will drop out of classification. Deciding on where to place it is also a good question: would it be suitable for the Madách Theatre or the Opera House?
- I have never, ever written light music (apart from tiny experiments) and perhaps it is not the best idea to start with such an utterly important piece.
Well, I bumped into these difficulties later, during the phases of planning and creation. The topic and the style are both extremely challenging to deal with. Think about it! The Stork Calif was completed in one year and four months. In January, 2016, only the 3/5th of The Master and Margarita’s piano extract (no mention of orchestration!) is ready. It would be two years in April until putting the first note down. It does not give in without a struggle.
The pink bubble of falling in love with the idea had faded and when I cooled down, I began to plan and put the idea into practice. I re-read the book. I asked a fantastic poet, the Kossuth award-winning Szabolcs Várady, to write the libretto of the opera. Upon his recommendation, we involved his colleagues, literary translator Róbert Bognár and actor-director András Schlanger, in the work who finished the script of the opera after numerous consultations on dramaturgy, characters, structure, etc. Szabolcs used this as the basis of the libretto.
Finally, after the libretto was done, it was my turn: the first note was born on 15 April, 2014.
In the upcoming months, as I have planned, I am going to give an account of the preparation and the composing process in the Video-blog. Apart from me, my colleagues will also express their opinion on the matter.
I would like to emphasise the huge amount of work and the unbelievable devotion (from many of us) we put into the making until the audience would notice the first posters on the Andrássy Street:
“The Master and Margarita – musical in two acts”.