Holender’s Full House

Brilliant, at Times Ruthless, the Respected Director of the Staatsoper Plays to Win

News | Alexandra Ruths, Anca Lucian | February 2007

Romanian-born impressario Ioan Holender (Photo: Staatsoper)

Passing through door after door, through the polished corridors of the Vienna State Opera, we found ourselves in one final sumptuous hallway. A tailored secretary asked us to take a seat.

Then a deep, calm voice emerged from inside.

"Kommen Sie bitte rein." It was Ioan Holender, Director of the Vienna State Opera.

Admired for his brilliance at both the art and business of opera, the Romanian born impressario is also a man who, for all the storms of activites that ceaselessy surround him, remains an island.

Respected, even feared, rather than loved, he is described as "a tyrant" by those who work with him, someone nearly impossible to get close to and even harder to trust.

Still, he is credited with bringing the Wiener Staatsoper back to a top professional level, an enormously complicated undertaking involving the management of over 500 artists and support staff, and the staging of over 60 operas and ballets a season, far more than any other company in the world and more than double the number at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

We entered. The bright sunlight streamed in through the three big windows, which offered a privileged view of the Albertina. The light was reflected off the handcrafted, dark, polished wooden desk. Beautiful antique chairs and a circle of modern blue sofas were arranged around a glass table. In the opposite corner, three long transparent tubes filled with bubbling water rippled soothingly; a vase of white lilies completed the picture.

The walls were covered with diplomas and documents in German, Romanian and English. Compared to the narrow aisles and old-fashioned offices we had passed on our way, this room was a revelation; we leaned back and took a deep breath.

"So you two are Romanians, ha?" he asked genially. Well, no, actually one of us was Austrian. He looked puzzled. In what language should we speak? But then he smiled and with the quick straightforwardness necessary for the effective running of one of the great opera houses of the world, ‘his’ opera, he decided he would do both, in Romanian to one, in German to the other.

And indeed Ioan Holender glided easily from one to the other, a man with, in effect, two mother tongues. But his heart is indisputably Romanian, he told us, embedded in Timisoara, the hometown he left almost 50 years ago.

He is the longest serving director in the opera’s history, he will have served for 18 years when his contract expires in 2010. Appointed by the Austrian government, the position of director of the Vienna State Opera is thus as much political as artistic, and Holender has excelled at both. And while he is both admired and despised as a person, he is universally respected for the opera’s success.

"He knows what makes great opera," said Stanley Hale, a violist who played with the Staatsoper for over 30 years. Yes, Holender has "friends in high places" politically, but he also has contacts worldwide in the music business. "He gets the greatest singers, the greatest conductors, produces a top product, and the performances are sold out."

Such a finale was beyond the imagination of the 24-year-old who first arrived in Vienna. Born in 1935, Holender’s family owned a marmalade and vinegar factory that was expropriated by the communists after the war. The young Holender was torn between the ideals of the new communist system, and the urge to rebel against it.

"Holender’s biography," wrote Werner Resel, director of the Staatsoper orchestra, "demonstrates to young people that you must often persevere along a long and rocky path before reaching a goal, and in the end, perhaps you achieve that goal precisely because of the obstacles that you have had to overcome,"

And there were many rocks in Holender’s path. After enrolling in mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Timisoara, he was expelled in his third year because of his political engagement and criticism of the government, voiced through the student union. His ‘curriculum vitae’ became even more colorful when Holender took a job as director’s assistant, at the same time earning a living giving tennis lessons, before migrating to Vienna in 1959.

"Don’t ask me things that are already in the book!" the charismatic, blue-eyed septuagenarian advised us, referring to his autobiography "From Timisoara to Vienna." So we dug deeper.

"The beginning was depressing, solitary and sad," Holender said of his first months here. "Most of my expectations were not met."

Even so, he managed to start a career as a baritone in Klagenfurt before joining the theatrical agency ‘Starka,’ which in time he would take over and rename ‘Agency Holender.’ Here he developed the management skills and straightforward, effective attitude that have helped him to become one of the most pragmatic characters in the modern opera world.

He was appointed director of the Vienna State Opera in 1992, where he guided Vienna’s tradition bound institution into the modern era, restaging many traditional works and introducing challenging pieces and new conceptions in a contemporary idiom that has succeeded with Vienna audiences.

"Holender recognized that the Opera could only retain its leading position by blending innovative programming into the traditional grand opera framework," said leading American tenor Neil Shicoff in Holender’s biography.

Leaning back in his cushioned chair at the coffee table in his office, Holender listened to our questions, answering quickly and sharply – digression in language or life are not part of his repertoire.

"I believe the shortest way between two points is the truth," Holender said, "and even in very tense situations one shouldn’t hesitate to address the problems directly and speak freely."

He admitted, for example, that it had been hard to give up his own singing career. This had, however, given him the chance to support the careers of others. Through his artists management agency, that he developed and ran, he discovered and promoted a young and unknown Jose Carreras, and is referred to by Placido Domingo as a "close friend."

Holender’s management style is direct, and he is credited with brilliant organizational skills and an instinct to economize, earning him the nickname Sparmeister, or "master saver."

However, he is also respected for his understanding and deep appreciation of the repertoire and the  artists.

"It doesn’t work without knowing the artist’s heart, and understanding their psychology," he told us.

However this doesn’t make him loved. One company member reported that Holender is "despised by everyone who works for him." He’s been known to show very little patience with musicians. For instance, when a substitute didn’t show up, an off-duty member of the orchestra agreed to fill in at the last moment, rushing over and necessarily arriving a little bit late. Holender was incensed and tried to fire him.

"He almost succeeded. That’s how much power he has," the musician said.

In another incident, a singer who withdrew because of illness from a performance at the Staatsoper was blacklisted by Holender for a second role at the Theater an der Wien. If he couldn’t show up for the one, Holender is reported to have said, he could forget performing at the other.

When asked if Holender has any friends, a member of the opera’s artistic staff snorted, "God, I can’t imagine it." Another described him unequivocally as "a despot."

Nevertheless, in the wider music world he has many admirers. Cellist and director of the National Symphony in Washington D.C., Mistlav Rostropovitch said: "If in the future humanity will get to multiply by cloning, I would undoubtedly recommend to clone – especially for the needs of opera houses – my friend Ioan Holender,"

Appreciation of Holender isn’t limited to the opera world, and his opinions have been sought on public affairs, on issues like EU expansion and immigration. At the European Day celebrations in Graz, in May of last year, Holender said that having experienced fascism, communism and democracy, and having lived in two very different cultures, he would call himself a citizen of the world.

Yet he still feels a strong connection to the country of his birth, and urged Romania and Bulgaria, as new EU members, to hold onto their young talent.

"I would advise the young people in Romania and Bulgaria to find their way and make their career in their homeland," he said in his opening speech at the event. "Fleeing is not a solution, in fact it makes it twice as hard for those countries to develop." In the same speech, Holender made it clear that he had come to Vienna in order to "survive rather than build a career."

Months later, here in his office, Holender’s voice became nostalgic when talking about Timisoara, the home he left behind decades ago.

"I like to call myself a citizen of the world, but at the same time I know I have a [real] home thanks to my Romanian roots, and now and then I do feel the need to go back" he said. In fact he was planning to visit over the holiday.

Then the telephone interrupted us, and he sprang to respond. The call was about that upcoming trip; it would have to be shortened because of a Stravinsky concert the following Monday in Vienna. He did not need any preparations or greetings in his hometown, he explained to the person at the other end.

"That’s not the reason I’m coming," he insisted. He finished the conversation, and came back to the coffee table carrying a copy of his autobiography, which he signed for us on the title page.

Just then, his secretary peeked in, to see if we were still talking, as others were waiting. Though he had little time left, and though he seemed tired, Holender still felt like talking, this time about Romania and its new role in the EU. Pride in one’s culture, he said, should not be confused with partisanship, a phenomenon he sees as increasing rather than lessening with the expansion of the EU.

"I am a patriot, but not a nationalist," Holender said. "Our culture is like a spiritual food that we need just as much as material food," and crucial for a people’s self-respect, he added. "People need to know who they are."

This is why he hoped that Romanians would be able to change their perception of themselves, to believe more in themselves and in their individual power to succeed. It is also imperative that Romanian culture be protected and promoted by the Romanian government, he told us. "It is one of the most precious exports Romania has, and it would be a crime to have it destroyed," he said.

"The EU unites us in economic terms, but we, the people, will need to work very hard so that the EU will one day also unite us socially and culturally," Holender continued. It was this kind of conviction that brought him the European Cultural Initiative Prize of ‘Pro Europa.’ Holender’s own foundation, CEE Musiktheater, already supports many opera houses in Eastern Europe. He also intends to expand the program by giving greater support to Southeast European countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia, through scholarship programs and grants.

"Those countries were home to an incredibly vivid, revolutionary and valuable opera scene and were so proud of it," Holender had said in an interview with Pester Lloyd, Hungary’s German language newspaper. "With our support we want to make sure that the new generation of talent stays in their [local] opera houses and develops its potential there."

At the age of 71, Holender is still a man of the present, and of the future.

"Of course I look back on everything I did and everything that happened so far, with happiness and with satisfaction," he said. "Perhaps, that’s why it is still easy to look forward to whatever comes next."

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