Christoph Waltz | My Music: ‘Music is pretty much as Nietzsche said: it wouldn’t be a life worth living without music’
Tuesday, December 5, 2023
The actor and director Christoph Waltz on his musical childhood in Vienna, and the links between theatre, film and opera
I grew up with classical music. In the 1950s, early ’60s, pop music hadn’t been assigned today’s importance yet, so what I grew up with was classical. Later, I remember my younger brother introduced me to The Beatles, but up until then music for me was classical music. Even then the orchestras and operas had programmes for children.
Seeing Birgit Nilsson in Turandot, aged about 10, was just incredible, and I remember almost every bit of it. My stepfather was a composer and conductor so he took me to the opera – it was his responsibility. He said as long as you promise never to try to be part of the music business – it’s the dirtiest business there is! Not that he knew many other businesses.
I’m in Los Angeles now, so the offer of classical music is actually, for a town this size, ridiculously small – ridiculous is kind!
I studied voice and singing for a while at the University of Music and Performing Arts, so auditioned in both segments – acting and singing – and was enrolled in both for a while, until they said ‘it’s too much, you should actually decide: do you want to be a singer or an actor?’ I had started working in films already by then, so I think I spared the music world an annoyance! But I thought ‘how can I still live this unfulfilled detail of my life’? And so when I was asked 10 years ago by Opera Ballet Vlaanderen whether I wanted to direct an opera, I said ‘well, actually, I was more considerate when I studied – and now I will not spare the music world the annoyance anymore!’
They suggested Der Rosenkavalier – I wouldn’t have dared! (I wonder which one would I have dared to suggest?). I said ‘are you sure, you know it’s kind of a major chunk as a first directing endeavour?’ And they said: ‘We’re looking for a director who can handle the theatrical aspect of it’, because it is an interesting piece in that respect. It has been performed as a play, and it holds up as a play. I think it was that acting element that that made them approach me.
I’ve done 15 years of consecutive theatre, but film informs my idea too about acting. I don’t think stage necessitates neglecting details, that’s one of my convictions – that an audience doesn’t want to be the target of stuff that’s being thrown at them, they want to be the ones who decide what’s going on, or at least I do when I’m in the audience. You need to enable, you need to give the space and opportunity to enter what’s going on upon the stage.
Singing was thankfully not the only musical activity I kind of pursued as a dilettante – but I always tried to understand, I always tried to either get information about, or to figure out, what holds a work together – that’s a major part of my enjoyment of listening to music.
I’m in Los Angeles now, so the offer of classical music is actually, for a town this size, ridiculously small – ridiculous is kind! If you’re in Vienna or London or Paris or Berlin, you might have three orchestras playing every night and 5-10 chamber ensembles. And not to talk about the opera houses! Vienna has three, Berlin has three, London has two, and they play every night because they play in repertory. It’s not like that here.
In terms of what kind of music I listen to, I don’t want to limit myself. I’m interested in contemporary music, not that I understand it all that much, not that I like a lot of it, but then I don’t like everything in Viennese classical either. Music is pretty much as Nietzsche said: it wouldn’t be a life worth living without music – but not only the three pieces that I like so much, or that I listen to on Classic FM every day. I need to expose myself to new works, to actually engage, to not make a priori judgements but to educate myself a little bit, not only by reading up but by actually exposing myself, widening my horizon, and maybe trying to live up to the occasion rather than trying to reduce the occasion to my restricted view. I find that one of the really, really fascinating aspects of music.
Christoph Waltz’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier opens at Grand Théâtre de Genève on December 13
This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of Gramophone magazine. Never miss an issue – consider subscribing today