By Anne Theresa Valbæk
*The Ring* has been completed in more ways than one for artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera, Kasper Bech Holten. At the young age of 34 he has managed to stage one of the world’s most challenging operas, Wagner’s opera cycle *Der Ring des Nibelungen*, and has achieved far more in his professional career than he had ever dared hope for.
“It’s very strange that I’m so euphoric and on a high, but it’s also a bit sad, for this marks the end of five or six years of work. It’s difficult to let go after all that time.”
Kasper Bech Holten talks of *The Ring* with intensity and with a sparkle in his eye. He leans forward while sitting in the small conference room at the top floor of the Royal Danish Opera’s magnificent waterside edifice, Operaen. He goes on:
“It’s been an extraordinary task to work with *The Ring*. It offers so many dimensions. It’s a job that demands that you straighten up and give it everything you’ve got if things are to gel at a higher level.”
He is well-spoken and full of verve. The young artistic director knows what he wants. The staging of the full cycle of *Der Ring des Nibelungen* has been his goal for several years, and the premiere of *Die Götterdämmerung* is just a few days away – the last opera in the gargantuan Wagnerian cycle of love, power and destiny.
Wagner wrote *The Ring* over a period of 40 years, half a lifetime. Only few directors have managed to stage the complete cycle so early in their career – that’s if they were ever given the chance!
But Kasper Bech Holten has enjoyed a comet-like career. It took him just a few years to secure the position as artistic director of one of Scandinavia’s most illustrious opera companies and in addition, to achieve widespread critical acclaim for his staging of the four operas of Wagner’s Ring cycle, *Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried* and *Die Götterdämmerung*.
“If someone had told me 15 years ago that I would achieve all that I have, I would have told them that it was a completely absurd, insane and wholly unrealistic notion. It’s all happened so fast, I must say.”
Strong belief in himself
There is no doubt that Kasper Bech Holten is an opera capacity, sustained by his education and experience. But what are the talents that made this young artistic director one of the best so quickly? In his own view it’s down to his fearlessness and that he is unperturbed by what other people either think or do.
“It’s a strange thing, this thing about creating art. Many artists are tremendously self-effacing – I have that in me too. There are days when I don’t think I’m able to do anything. But by and large my self-confidence is pretty strong and I’m good at shutting out my fears about what other people think. I think that’s a great strength.”
The coffee cup gets a refill. It’s early in the morning, but the young artistic director already needs to refuel. Kasper Bech Holten adds milk and takes a gulp before continuing:
“There is nothing worse than an artist who is constantly afraid of what others think and who lacks self-confidence. That’ll never work. No matter how talented you are, you need to take decisions and to stand by them.”
And that is what Kasper Bech Holten has done with *Der Ring des Nibelungen*. The staging is very modern and unconventional. Medieval castles and armour have been replaced with contemporary settings and streamlined business attire. The staging has been enthusiastically embraced by most critics, but has also been a great disappointment to a small minority of opera traditionalists.
“We have elected to use a woman to tell the story of *The Ring* – a woman of the 20th century – as opposed to the traditional staging of *The Ring* in which men take centre stage.”
“What I have to say to the critics who find it too modern, which is a question of taste, is that I have to tell a story that I find interesting. I believe that a traditional staging of *The Ring* makes it less poignant. People would not relate to the same extent to the moral dilemmas implicit in *The Ring* if the setting were too far removed from their everyday life. What’s more, I find it odd when people say that *The Ring* should only be staged the way Wagner did in the late 1870s – Wagner was precisely the kind of man who constantly went new ways, always seeking provocation. So we would, in fact, do Wagner a disservice by staging *The Ring* in a traditional manner.”
More people should see opera
Opera mesmerised Kasper Bech Holten at the early age of 9 and his parents took him to the theatre just to put him to the test.
“We didn’t have a television and I read a huge number of books. I was probably a bit of a nerd. The opera opened up an entirely new and amazing world for me. For many years I didn’t think it was going to amount to anything more than a really great hobby. My ambition was to become an economist, just like the rest of my family. After upper-secondary school, I decided to give opera a go, and now here I am.”
“My mission today is to encourage more people to visit the opera, including the younger generation who might not otherwise be all that interested. To me, promoting the world of opera to as wide an audience as possible is very important, and I believe this can be achieved by bringing some of the old operas up to date.”
The best thing about working with *The Ring*, according to Kasper Bech Holten, has been the close collaboration he has enjoyed with a host of talented artists, from set designers to opera singers and musicians. The down side is that it is now all coming to an end. He smiles pensively at the thought of what the future may bring. A major chapter in his life is about to reach its conclusion and new challenges lie ahead. Exactly what they are eludes us. One thing is certain, however: Kasper Bech Holten won’t spend the rest of his life as an artistic director.
“In the short term there are plenty of opera assignments such as in Berlin and Gothenburg in addition to the Royal Danish Theatre, of course. In a way, it’s completely unthinkable for me ever to do anything else. Anyway, I’m quite sure that I will not be the artistic director of the Royal Danish Opera for the rest of my career. Whether I will become artistic director somewhere else or a full-time director I just don’t know. I imagine that at some point I will start doing something else – journalism, politics, management.”
“As for now, with *The Ring* behind me, I will take the liberty of staging more productions that are just as bold and spirited.”
Time flies and there is a tight agenda. The interview draws to an end. Kasper Bech Holten has other things to do – rehearsals and more meetings. He gets up, offers a firm handshake and expresses his gratitude. The impression he leaves behind is one of enormous drive, determination and professionalism.