Singing Youth parallels the reality of politics and public discourse in Hungary in the 1950s and 2020s. Tamás Jászay talked to the show’s creators, Judit Böröcz, György Bence Pálinkás and Máté Szigeti about inherited power structures and the show’s reception at home and abroad.
In 1953, the three-figure composition Singing Youth by the Greek refugee sculptor Makris Agamemnon was placed in the sculpture gallery in front of the Népstadion (People’s Stadium) in Budapest. This characteristic work of socialist realist art was not moved during the change of regime and is now on display again in front of the Puskás Arena, inaugurated in 2019. It is a symbolic site of the System of National Cooperation (in Hungarian: Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere, in short: NER), a hallmark of Viktor Orbán’s politics, where mass sport, government’s cultural policy and the rewriting of historical memory take place. We talked to the writer-directors of the performance Singing Youth, which premiered in August 2021 at Trafó – House of Contemporary Arts, Judit Böröcz, theatre manager, György Pálinkás Bence, visual artist and Máté Szigeti, composer, about the circumstances of its creation and the time that has passed since then.
Tamás Jászay: How did three people from such different fields end up working together?
Máté Szigeti: The tasks were divided according to competences: the music belonged to me, the visual elements to Bence, certain dramaturgical considerations to Judit, and we all took part in the collection of material and writing of the text. We kept track of who was where and made all the decisions together. This was unusual for me because when I write a choral piece, someone puts it on stage, or if there is an existing script, I compose music for it. Here, however, there were parts of the text that we were revising in the final stages of the process, while the music was almost finished. Three yeses were needed for each step, which obviously slowed down the process, but it was still essential to make a joint decision.
Judit Böröcz: The themes we finally focused on were also decisive in determining the musical corpus. What we worked on most together was how to represent the two eras, the 1950s and our own time. During the collection process, we divided up the huge amount of material and decided together what would fit and what would not.
Bence György Pálinkás: Trafó originally invited me to the project, I involved Judit because we have very similar ways of thinking, and then we invited Máté together. We read his doctoral dissertation beforehand and listened to all the music he composed. His New Hungarian Song on the Heights and Depths of Hungarian Culture, which is based on a quite similar logic to Singing Youth, was the work we decided to look for.
Szigeti Máté: I wrote this piece of music in 2017, when Zoltán Balog (Reformed bishop, pastor, head of the Ministry of Human Resources between 2012-2018 – author’s note) improvised an opening speech at a Sheep Cooking Festival, in which he touched on a number of issues of current cultural policy. It was an impromptu, simple speech, with rambling sentences and interrupted thoughts. I was interested in how mistakes and bad grammatical structure could be set to music so that the text as a whole could be heard. The result was a cantata for two female voices and instruments, composed in a musical language reminiscent of the Baroque world. Bence and Judit have guessed correctly that I am not far off the mark when it comes to expressing political opinions through art.
Tamás Jászay: While you emphasise the novelty of the process, the label next to your names on the playbill is writer-director, which are two key concepts in the traditional theatre hierarchy. Eventually the moment has come when someone had to decide on certain issues?
Judit Böröcz: No, we also took turns to run the rehearsals together and tried to rely on each other in everything. Later on, I met Ana Dubljevic at a workshop on the concept of feminist dramaturgy. You could say that we were practising elements of this: we were asserting our needs outside the work within the work. We paid attention to who had what capacity, and everyone could try their hand at every aspect of the work. We learned from each other and supported each other and the rest of the team in our work.
Bence György Pálinkás: The project was not completely horizontal because the singers joined later. The three of us did the score and then worked on it together with the six singers, Péter Fehérváry as choirmaster, and Zsófia Tamara Vadas as choreographer. Tamara’s concrete suggestions as a facilitator made her a decisive factor in the staging.
Máté Szigeti: Before the rehearsals started, we put the score in the hands of the singers, and the three of us agreed that it was ready, but that didn’t mean that the material did not change afterwards. For example, some words or half-sentences were given extra emphasis through repetition, but Tamara decided on the number of repetitions and the length of the pause between them, because this way the music could be adapted to the movement.
Tamás Jászay: What if I, as a singer, refuse to say Viktor Orbán’s name on stage? This is a sensitive topic in today’s highly divided Hungary, while the singers involved give their voices and bodies to the project.
Bence György Pálinkás: We explained the concept clearly to them because it was important to be on the same wavelength with them. And that they should be able to sing a capella for an hour without a break. And they had to be on stage all the time, while doing exhausting movements. The real filter was that it was a direct political project: there were people whose jobs could have been threatened by performing, so they said no.
Judit Böröcz: We didn’t ask anyone to agree with what we thought or what the lyrics said, it just mattered whether they were comfortable singing it as a performer.
Máté Szigeti: It is already a commitment on the part of any contributor to put his/her name to such a project. Within the performance, we demonstrate rhetorics of power, forms of social movement, and the choir becomes a participant in what can happen in society at large through manipulation. Throughout the dramaturgy, we teach the speech of power to the victims of propaganda, who at a certain point are already singing hate speech. This is where real acting was required: the singers do not identify with the content of what they are singing, yet they have to articulate words that speak of the destruction of their fellow human beings. This is a serious undertaking on their part.
Tamás Jászay: Here we also have to talk about the childhood memories that are evoked when six people in uniform perform various gymnastic feats under the instructions of an invisible power. It is rare in Hungarian theatre that text, music, movement, video and the use of spatial forms are so closely linked, and with such a serious ideological, political and cultural context.
Judit Böröcz: The audience can identify with the six people on stage as a group, as they are also in some way mirrors of society. The society that takes us through the stages at the end of which we sing the terrible things beautifully, without reflection. During the collection of material I read a lot about the popular culture of neo-nationalism and listened to the songs of the band Romantikus Erőszak (Romantic Violence), which classifies itself as national rock. I was struck by how many of their lyrics are openly violent, xenophobic, hateful, and yet how many fans they have. They sing and scream lines with the right emotional saturation in a big concert that gives a communal experience, and that becomes ingrained in one’s world view.
Tamás Jászay: What came first: the theme or the form? There are precedents for this in your career: in Máté’s set-to-music ministerial speech, while Judit and Bence reflected on 19th century and contemporary nationalism in their public square sound piece, The Little Melting Pot, and in the Hungarian Acacia, created together with Kristóf Kelemen, you talked about the ideology-driven use of symbols through a plant.
Bence György Pálinkás: I like projects where the theme and the form are organically connected. This project was part of the Liberty EU competition, of which Trafó was a partner. The sculpture of Makris Agamemnon, the Singing Youth in front of the former People’s Stadium, now the Puskás Arena, is both a theme and a form: the movement and the singing of the sculptures’ is the starting point for the actions on stage. They have been forgotten in this place, and today they lead the spectators into a very different stadium than in 1953.
Tamás Jászay: How was the collection of material done? How can you start a work on such a large scale?
Máté Szigeti: At the beginning it was an associative game: the sculpture group was given and that the context was changed. We were looking for keywords, what could be associated with the phenomenon, what was the role of body culture and sport in the two political systems. We wondered how political systems could be represented on stage, what could be evoked from them in the form of sounds or texts. The sculpture group was created by Makris Agamemnon, a Greek refugee who made a career in Hungary. What was the role of this in the political climate of the time, how was refugee or immigration policy handled then and now? The sculpture group thus spiralled around many themes.
Judit Böröcz: But we really digressed in many directions, including biopolitics, or what a stadium building means, how the physicality of the stadium and the physicality of the human being relate to each other, or the political context in which these buildings can be constructed.
Bence György Pálinkás: All are guest texts except for two paragraphs. The political speeches were written at the inauguration of the two stadiums, and the cultural-political texts of the two eras were mainly collected from manifestations related to popular music. Szilárd Demeter, as the ministerial commissioner responsible for the renewal of Hungarian popular music, spoke a lot on the subject. Soviet, and thus Hungarian, cultural policy under socialism was determined by the doctrines of Andrei Zhdanov, who wrote extensively on how culture could be transformed through music. In the collection of material, like the politicians, we often used the method of cherry picking: we looked for what we wanted to see and found the right texts. Of course we were also interested in surprises: there were some statements we could agree with. Some of what Szilárd Demeter said, for example, when he said that ’elite culture’ in Hungary today is a private party for a narrow group of people.
The third main area of collection is the popular music of Viktor Orbán’s System of National Cooperation, which we called NER-pop. We are talking about a two-way process: certain musicians and the NER are mutually interested in each other. If, for example, someone from the NER received a state award, performed at right-wing political events, they were classified here. Or there is the case of Carpathia, which used to be a band associated with the far right. In 2013, their frontman received a major state award, and a few days before the next elections, they published a video saying that you should only vote for Fidesz.
Máté Szigeti: The music of the fifties is a well-conceived, closed material. It was easy to generate new, movement-like music. Even though we were not alive then, there is a strong visual, textual and musical world associated with the era in everyone, including young people, so it can be reproduced. The NER, on the other hand, is a much more malleable thing, so I had a serious problem there. The general characteristics of NER-pop are difficult to define, while some of its gestures are identifiable, but because it is still happening, its actors and its methods are changing.
Judit Böröcz: The NER incorporates almost all genres: stylistically it is much more indulgent than its predecessor as we have outlined. NER defines what it uses for its own benefit, what it allows to be born in the first place. You can deny this, but the system is driven by a strong sense of deliberation, and the aim is to shape cultural canons and narratives and put them in service of gaining and retaining power.
Máté Szigeti: This is a key point: from my point of view, the difference is not how complex or simple the musical material used is. From the pioneer songs, we have at most lifted small motifs that may remind us of the original. Whereas the pioneer songs had a centrally imposed stylistic and formal framework which made the identity of the composer irrelevant, in NER-pop each artist has his or her own image around which the somewhat confused symbolism of NER can be built. This is why it is more difficult to get to grips with it: there is no longer the unifying ambition that there used to be.
Tamás Jászay: All of you may have direct memories of socialism from the eighties at the most, which was a much milder period compared to the fifties. What is your personal connection to the era of the party-state?
Bence György Pálinkás: Of course, for us, the present was really important: it is the logical centre of the whole project. For the NER, the period of socialism is in fact an antithesis, against which it defines itself from the very beginning, but nevertheless adopts many of the methods of Soviet propaganda. Most of the sculptures made during the socialist period have simply been put in the Memento Park without any social dialogue. The sculptures did not generate social debate as they did in Germany, they were not graffitied, they were not transformed, they did not become counter-monuments. Instead, they were simply placed in a physical space where mainly tourists go and there is no public discourse about them.
Máté Szigeti: Certain memories in the lives of people who were not present have stuck with us as almost cherished moments: some of the pioneer songs survived the change of regime and were even included in primary school music education. They live on in us as a childish world of lyrics and music, while the seeds of ideological education were sown in them. We miss the point because they do not directly convey an ideological message enough to make anyone cringe. The more innocent we think they are, the easier it is to build heavy ideological content on them.
Judit Böröcz: I myself have had to reflect on the role that nationalism and political propaganda play in my own identity, how they are projected into my everyday life. In The Little Melting Pot we are also looking at how this builds up over centuries, and in NER we are looking at how it can have an impact by rewriting language, shaping culture and taste. The question is, why do I know irredentist songs? Where do they come from and if someone starts one, why can I continue?
Tamás Jászay: Reading through the critical reception of Singing Youth in Hungary, it comes up several times that you oversimplify this issue when you draw a straight line between the Soviet cultural policy of the 1950s and the Hungarian cultural policy of the 2020s.
Bence György Pálinkás: I was surprised to see this in the reviews, because it is clear to us that this is not what we are saying. Of course, any theatrical performance can only be a reduction. Our basic claim is that there are similarities between the two systems, which many people have already written about, but we are still saying something new in detail.
Judit Böröcz: At the beginning of Singing Young there is a quote from Viktor Orbán, who says that the political system is now in place, but it must be embedded in a cultural context, otherwise it will not last. Our lecture is about this thesis. Singing Youth is a demanding, not necessarily pleasant hour, but it has humour and irony too. It does not have a single story to tell, and it is constructed with a different type of dramaturgy than we are used to in the Hungarian theatre tradition.
Bence György Pálinkás: The production really is out of our theatre tradition, and therefore the audience may have a failure of expectation with what they will experience: what they see is not entertaining. We wanted to understand how agitprop art works in the 1950s and today. Singing Youth can be interpreted as agitprop in itself, it just has a more complex message than its predecessors. There are parts that are intellectually accessible, but we also used a lot of emotive modes of operation that are necessarily simplistic. The idea quoted from Viktor Orbán was espoused by the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, and it really worked: political systems embedded in culture are permanent. A year before we started working together, the NER really started to tighten up: it became clear what cultural products were being made impossible and what were being left. Today, two years after the premiere of Singing Youth, more and more people are asking, for example, how much longer there will be independent theatre in Hungary. And it also seems that the NER is becoming more and more clever: the pop songs written for the Sándor Petőfi commemorative year contain increasingly direct political messages. We are at a moment when it is worth looking at where they are going, because the destruction will soon be irreversible.
Tamás Jászay: I understand your concerns, but still: isn’t this too much of a local interest?
Bence György Pálinkás: Not at all: Viktor Orbán has a very interesting CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) speech, where he talks about that Hungary is interesting for the world today because of one thing: it is an incubator where the conservative politics of the future is being experimented. The methods are evolving and other countries are taking elements from it.
Tamás Jászay: I thought there was surprisingly little analysis of the musical layer in the reviews, although by making the choir the main character, you were reviving a 2500-years old theatrical tradition. I call Singing Youth a documentary choral theatre lecture performance, and perhaps the many punctuation markers are the reason why the critics have gone beyond the music, although it is the music that controls the whole thing. The text, the movements, practically everything is in the music.
Máté Szigeti: Throughout the process, the layers have become so intertwined that I find it difficult to look at the music with detachment. In a certain sense, Péter Fehérváry, the choirmaster, knows the work musically much better than I do: he discovered connections during rehearsals that I was not aware of. These were not choices made by the composer, but elements that he extracted from the work with his musical expertise.
Judit Böröcz: In the performance we are trying to unravel the layers of identity that define our whole way of thinking. We are standing at an autopsy table, trying to dissect ourselves, but at the same time we have all our knowledge and all the cultural reflexes that we cannot get rid of.
Tamás Jászay: After Fast Forward and Wiener Festwochen, the performance will also be part of the main programme of BITEF. What have been the reactions abroad so far? Was there a layer of the performance that the foreign audience noticed and we Hungarians didn’t?
Judit Böröcz: The emotional layer of the performance is better articulated through the music, where there is not a constant desire to analyse the content, but at least the audience does not have a preconceived opinion about every sentence. The feedback seems to suggest that the Hungarian viewer either takes it all in or agrees with what is said: he or she is most in tune with the text.
Bence György Pálinkás: What is more difficult for the foreign viewer is the subtle alternation between the music of the two periods. I can follow them because I grew up here.
Máté Szigeti: In Dresden, they were sensitive to the references to sacred music, and Monteverdi and Schütz were cited by critics as composers behind the material. They had nothing to do with the 1950s or the NER, but in some movements the Renaissance, early Baroque musical language was indeed linked to the appropriate text material. To recognise these, it is essential to have some distance between the viewer and the politics of the day. If the focal point is not what we perceive the NER to be, then other, otherwise important factors are more valid.
Judit Böröcz: After Fast Forward, a reviewer wrote that something strange had emerged from the Hungarian independent scene again, which he wouldn’t even try to categorise. We had the impression that this is not a common performance abroad either. And that’s not a bad thing at all.
Main image: Zsofia Sivak
Singing Youth is at BITEF Teater on 8th October. For further information, visit: bitef.rs
Tamás Jászay is a theatre critic, editor, university lecturer, and curator. Since 2003 he's been working as a freelance theatre critic: in the last 20 years he published more than 1200 articles (mostly reviews) in more than 20 magazines all around the world. Since 2008 he is co-editor, since 2021 editor-in-chief of the critical portal, Revizor (www.revizoronline.com). Between 2009 and 2016 he was working as the co-president of the Hungarian Theatre Critics' Association. In 2013 he defended his PhD thesis on the history of Krétakör Theatre (Chalk Circle Theatre). He regularly works as a curator too: Hungarian Showcase (Budapest, 2013), Szene Ungarn (Vienna, 2013), THEALTER Festival (Szeged, since 2014), dunaPart (Budapest, 2015, 2017, 2019, 2023). Since 2015 he's been teaching at Szeged University, since 2019 as an assistant professor.