Coffee with Hans Nieuwenhuis

30 Mar 2017
POSTED BY Y Magazine

One of the world’s top opera directors says Oman has some very promising classical stars in the making. Alvin Thomas meets him.

An evening with an opera director is something I could never have imagined in a million years but then again my time at Y has been full of surprises. And if meeting an opera director wasn’t enough, my interviewee also happens to have received the Order of Orange-Nassau, conferred on him in 2012 by the then Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands for his work in opera, theatre and music.

His name is Hans Nieuwenhuis, and I am able to have a chat (thanks to our friend Nicole Bradbury-Becx) with the man himself after his sojourn in Oman for the Voix Humaine opera – which he directed – at the Copacabana at the Grand Hyatt Muscat.

Our meeting point is a coffee outlet at the Oman Avenues Mall, and straight away, I realise that Hans is a very modest man. And dressed in black, the Amsterdam-born Hans doesn’t look a day over 40, even though he tells me that he has passed 60!

Talking about his early days, he says: “I come from a large family of seven brothers and sisters. My grandfather was a very famous musician back home. My mother too was very musical so we were raised in a very musical background. As a child, I learnt to play two instruments – the cello and piano.

But in a surprising turn of events, Hans tells me about an aversion he developed to opera. “My parents were highly cultural, and they would drag me to see plays. When I was 14 – and now comes the big surprise – I was taken to an opera. I left in the intermission, and said that it was not my art form. I thought it was boring and tacky.”

Hans then went on to study law at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.

“During my time there, though, I started directing plays and television. I don’t know how it happened but I ended up in theatre. And in the process of making money, I designed, wrote, composed, directed and sometimes even went on stage.”

But the real turning point in his life came when he turned 26 and wanted to get a mortgage and buy a house.

“The bank wanted me to have a steady job. So it was suggested that I work at the opera, which I thought was funny.”

Funnily enough, Hans ended up being hired and went on to assist in his first opera in 1975. By the end of the first year, he had already assisted five of the most important directors in international opera: Götz Friedrich and Harry Kupfer from Germany, John Cox and David Pountney from the UK and Lotfi Mansouri from Iran.

Soon, however, Hans had his own production – a comedy based on the legendary American actor, producer, writer and stunt performer Buster Keaton, which went on to become successful. It was called The Old Maid and the Thief and was composed by the American-Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti.

“The real starting point for me was in 1980,” he says. “That was when I made my debut in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Art Park Festival. It was an opera by composer Philip Glass, and it was called the Satyagraha – and was based on a scene from the ancient epic of Mahabharata,” he reveals.

Since then, Hans has directed more than 104 operas.

“Opera is a very expensive art form. And unless it has something to say, we shouldn’t spend so much money on it. In my view, opera should talk about life, relationships, love, sadness and all these things human beings go through. Opera is a very emotional art form.

“Music is the essential under-stream of opera. If an opera doesn’t have interesting music, then it will undoubtedly end up bad. I never had any interest in opera, but I had a love for music. People who have sensitivity for music will like opera; but not every opera. That’s what I want to say.”

He adds that he has directed every singer in the “dreadful” opera he saw when he was 14. Over the past three decades, however, Hans has been busy talent-hunting for young opera singers. He has taught and directed at the San Francisco Opera Merola and Adler Fellow Program, the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Yale University and Michigan University in the US, to name but a few. 

Today, however, he is the general director of the Orfeo Foundation – an institution that aims to assist opera singers, and is now in Oman to find and hone future Omani and expatriate singers. “Most people who want to join can send me clips and we invite them to join.”

Explaining the hard work an opera singer must undertake, Hans says: “It’s like an Olympic sport. You cannot simply do it half way. You need to go through it and work incredibly hard to make it as an opera singer. Seventeen or 18 is when you start to study for opera.”

Hans’ institution currently assists 20 students. Hans also only has good things to say about opera in Oman.  “The first time I was here was three years ago. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos has founded his own music school, which is incredible! 

“The conservatory is fantastic. I was invited for a master class with Omani singers, chorus and instrumentalists, and I have to say that I am impressed by the talent here.

“We haven’t set an exact date but we have set a fascinating process for making opera a part of the culture here by integrating it with the local culture here itself.

“Opera is theatre, with music and singing, and if you look at it in that sense then there is a lot of opera in Arabia. There are just many variations. And I’m only here to find and maybe help a few of these talents [of which he accepts there are many] to rise to an international level.”

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