AI PROFILE Why Britain will never leave Europe

Csaba KáEl, general manager, Müpa, Budapest 

British culture remains in Europe insists Csaba Káel. “You can’t vote it out be- cause it’s a part of Europe’s culture and we need it”. It’s an assertion that allows no demur because, he says, “British, English, UK culture, whatever you call it” is an intrinsic and indelible part of the continent, and has always been. He cites Bach’s Dance Suites in which an 18th century German composer incorporates jigs from England and bourrées from France to tell his musical story. “We need to make the European politicians save our European culture”.

Káel has recently begun his second five year term as general manager of Müpa and is drawing up his plans for the arts centre’s development to 2020 and beyond. Embedded in those

plans will be lessons he is learning on his frequent visits to the UK.

The very name, Müpa, is part of the development. It opened in 2005 af- ter a politically difficult birth in which successive governments stopped and then restarted funding for the project. Káel had been involved from the be- ginning, first as artistic adviser and from 2011 as its chief. Its full name is Muvészetek Palotája, meaning Pal- ace of Art, which is not only hard for non-Hungarian mouths to say but is also inaccurate. So as a deft market- ing move – he used to have his own advertising agency – Káel expropriated the centre’s nickname to make it something, he says, foreigners could say and taxi drivers could under- stand. Müpa has a footfall of 500,000 a year, with two big festivals (Budapest

Spring Festival and CAFe Budapest Contemporary Arts Festival in the autumn) devised to attract more foreign visitors and also appeal to Hungarians, and Káel needs to make that figure grow.

Now 55, Káel’s first degree was in architectural engineering but his second was in film directing, still a parallel career with a score and more of features and documentaries plus a sheaf of awards to his name, though he says, bitterly, that movies in Hungary are dead because European distribution means that only American films are available on the main circuits. A relative was the late Pauline Kael, the New Yorker’s famous film critic.

But music is in each Hungarian’s soul – “every family has at least one musician in it” - and Káel is no exception. He took to directing opera, and has programmed Müpa’s semi-staged opera programme, including the annual Ring Cycle because Wagner is a special favourite. “We have a very strong tradition coming from Liszt, Bartok, Kodaly, Ligeti and now Peter Eötvös, a wonderful line, and it’s a special DNA because if somebody is learning Liszt in the music academy they are pushing the piano, not just playing it, because Liszt is in the DNA and this is a special knowledge” he explains. “To push piano is not in the score, it’s a feeling coming from Liszt. It’s not in our minds, it’s in our hearts”. Budapest’s old town boasts two opera houses and no fewer than eight symphony orchestras.

Müpa was built at Ferencváros near the beautiful new Rákóczi Bridge across the Danube, on a brown field site next to the National Theatre (which opened in 2002), to create a new cultural quarter on the Pest side of the river where the city’s defunct railway goods yard had been. It was to be Hungary’s statement to the world that the Iron Curtain really had gone, and Hungary’s culture was open.

So Müpa was built to the highest specifications over 10,000 square metres. Its 1,700-seat Bartok National Concert Hall has among the finest acoustics in the world, the last to be designed by the renowned Russell Johnson who also designed the sound for the Symphony Hall, Birmingham. Its Ludwig Contemporary Art Muse- um – now called Lumu - has Picassos, Hockneys, Oldenburgs and the national holding of Hungarian modern masters such as Laszlo Feher and Imre Bak, and your concert ticket also gets you into Lumu. And its Festival Theatre, Káel’s pride and joy, is where he presents operas with the most modern technology – an HD video studio so they can have live streaming from anywhere in the world, and a radio station to broadcast concerts. Müpa also has a high tech customer relation- ship management system to analyse its audiences and register their preferences. “My philosophy was to start a strong dialogue between Müpa and artists, between Müpa and audience, a dialogue between Müpa and part- ners in festivals or big venues around the world. The goal is to make Müpa a brand as a strong European cultural arts centre”.

A handsome coffee table book produced for last year’s tenth anniversary is laced with encomiums from the likes of Zubin Mehta, John Eliot Gardiner, Philip Glass, Joyce DiDonato, Simon Rattle, Bryn Terfel, Cecilia Bartoli, Steve Reich and Dan iel Barenboim, praising both Müpa’s qualities and its audiences.

Müpa needs its foreign connections, especially those in the United Kingdom. It is a member of the European Concert Hall Organisation along with the Barbican, Sage Gateshead, the South Bank Centre and Symphony Hall, Birmingham, who share the programming of a Rising Stars season. Káel happily uses those contacts to get advice from the likes of Jude Kelly and Nicholas Kenyon, but also to forge collaborations and cut co- productions which he sees as the life- line to Müpa’s future. In its new sea- son the Bartok Hall will welcome the Berlin Philharmonic, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the New York Philharmonic and the Royal Opera House’s music director Anthony Pap- pano. There’s a partnership with New York’s Lincoln Centre.

For his vision, though, Káel needs more. A third of his funding comes from the Hungarian government, the rest he must earn largely through box office, while fundraising is a very British skill hardly known in Hungary. He needs to find out how to make it work and adapt it to his needs. He needs to attract a new young audience – Ferencváros is a university district with 50,000 students on his doostep – and wants to increase the

dance and circus elements of the Festival Theatre’s programming, both British specialities. He has been in London to sound out jazz promoters, a genre Müpa needs to grow for both its young and international audiences. He needs to increase the world music offer, something of which Lon- don has an abundance.

And there is more he needs to learn through continued connections with the UK. Hungary has a national lottery that so far has fed only the struggling film industry, and Káel hopes to persuade the Hungarian government to widen it to include the performing and visual arts. He has a particular reason for looking to our successes there: Budapest is one of five cities in the running for the 2024 Olympic Games, and if the city beats Los Angeles, Paris, Rome and Hamburg the games’ focus will be at Ferencváros.

“We’re talking about the future of Europe” Káel says. “We need to save our European culture and to continue to build it, and create it for the next generations. Individual countries are not the problem and we have to give a special accent for our Europe, this is our task as cultural institutions. This is our idea. Around this city (of Lon- don) you will get interesting answers, and this is a problem. For me it is very clear: we have national ideas from our DNA and we have a European whole, and we have to work together for it.

“In our mind, in our spirit, there is part that comes from you, the UK. I’m reading a Shakespeare sonnet or listening to Britten’s music, and it comes to my Hungarian heart, but it comes from your country.”




1961 Born, June 8, Miskolc in North Eastern Hungary

1989  Graduated, Budapest College of Theatre and Film Arts 

1990  Manager, Novofilm, Hanover; founded Happy End advertising agency 

1993 Independent film maker
1995 Founded Z+ Hungarian Music Television
2001 Artistic advisor, Millleanaris Theatre and TV Studio

2004  Doctorate in theatre and film arts 

2005  Artistic adviser for Müpa’s opera programme 

2011 General manager, Müpa




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