Frits Celis (conductor)

Frits Celis: Interview biography
Frits Celis Flemish Opera Downloads

401DutchDivas and 401DutchOperas proudly present this retrospect of the career of conductor/composer Frits Celis (1929). This survey evolved from a series of video interviews and a correspondence between Celis and René Seghers that started in early 2016 and continued until August 2017. The reason for our interest is clear: during his tenure at the Royal Flemish Opera (KVO in the 1960, ‘70s and 80s, Celis emerged as the last advocate of Flemish opera composers such as Peter Benoit, Jan Blockx, August De Boeck, Paul Gilson, Emile Wambach, Flor Alpaerts, Joseph Ryelandt, Renaat Veremans, Arthur Meulemans, Willem Kersters, August L. Baeyens and Vic Legley. Dutch composers such as Jurriaan Andriessen and Marinus de Jong enjoyed the Flemish creations of their works under his direction. Below you can find the story of Celis’ career and his thoughts on the past, present and future of Flemish opera and opera in Flanders in his own words. One should also take note of the fact that Celis is a composer in his own right. A wonderful CD exists with his 'Episodes' (1973), 'Drei Lieder' (1981), 'Quartetto d'Archi' (1992) and the 'Sonate Nr. 4 opus 49' and 'Melopee' (both 1994) on the 'Art & Music Consultants Brussels'-label (CD 92 039').

Tekst: René Seghers/Frits Celis

Celis1960sIn 1946 Celis, then 17 years old, was given a post as a harpist in the orchestra of the Royal Flemish Opera Antwerp (KVO). As such he participated in the 1950 creation of Henk Badings’ opera De Nachtwacht, conducted by Johannes den Hertog. From early on it was Celis’ dream to become a conductor. Besides his harp studies at the Royal Conservatory Brussels he also studied conducting there with René Defossez (both disciplines weren’t then available in Antwerp). Celis: 'Thanks to the craftsmanship and the fine teachings of Defossez I have learned nearly everything from him. In 1954 the Flemish Radio in Brussels organized a competition for a post as conductor with the radio orchestra. I was the only candidate who passed, but almost at the same time the Brussels Opera House was also auditioning for the post of second conductor. They had an austere selection procedure before an international jury. The four finalists were each given an act from Puccini’s La Bohème, to be conducted before a real audience. I was given the difficult second act, and came out primus inter pares, as the only Flemish conductor among French language colleagues. After long consideration I accepted the post at the Brussels Opera House. In part also because that house had my former teacher René Defossez as its musical director. I have later followed additional courses at the Internationale Sommerakademie Mozarteum Salzburg and at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Cologne, but Defossez was my true mentor.’

De Koninklijke Vlaamse Opera van Antwerpen

Celis320In 1959 Celis eagerly accepted the offer of then Royal Flemish Opera Antwerp director Mina Bolotine to become conductor there. A year onwards the new director Renaat Verbruggen promoted the then 31 years old Celis to 1st conductor and musical director. Over the years he conducted there the great international repertoire including all Richard Wagner’s operas and a plenitude of operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini and Richard Strauss, along with contemporary works such as those of Flemish composers Arthur Meulemans (creation of Egmont), Willem Kersters (creation of Gansendonk), August L. Baeyens (creation of van Coriolanus), Vic Legley (creation of De cluyte van de twee naakten),  van Frédéric Devreese (creation of Willem van Saeftinge), de Duitser Werner Egk (Belgian première of Der Revisor) and the Slovenian composer Jan Cikker (Belgian premiere of Opstanding/Resurrection).


Cikker: Opstanding: 'Instrumental passage from Act III
KVO Orchestra – Frits Celis, 1974.

Celis: 'Admittedly one feels different about various works, yet I always tried to give my best to each and every one of them, within the financial limitations that we had to cope with at the time. In spite of those limitations, we managed to stage a surprising number of works each season. Because of government demands we continued for a while to perform al operas in Dutch language, which of course required the soloists to be local as well. This policy had its roots in the much debated founding of the precursor of the Flemish Opera in 1893. The reason for the performances having to be given in Dutch language was simple: since 1870 there had been a Théatre Royal Français in Antwerp and that house then had exclusivity to French and Italian language performances.'

The Great Flemish Opera Composers

GIlsonPZonneschijn320Renaat Verbruggen considered it his duty to protect and promote Flemish musical heritage and opened each season with a local work. Celis: ‘It was my pride to conduct those opening nights. They were challenging. We had to work form antique manuscript scores that were at times barely readable. But that only made it more interesting, since I really wanted to pay tribute to our great musical heritage. I conducted operas there by Peter Benoit (1834-0901), Jan Blockx (1851-1912), August De Boeck (1865-1937), Paul Gilson (1865-1942), Emile Wambach (1854-1924), Flor Alpaerts (1876-1954), Joseph Ryelandt (1870-1965) and Renaat Veremans (1894-1969). In 1964 I was even invited with the KVO ensemble to perform Paul Gilson's mesmerizing fairy-tale opera Prinses Zonneschijn, in Gran Teatro del Liceo Barcelona, where it was given in a splendid staging by Anton Van de Velde. Our soloists, sets, props and orchestra came along, only the chorus was from the Liceu, singing in Catalan! All five performances of Princessa Rayo de Sol were warmly applauded by a full house.


Paul Gilson: Prinses Zonneschijn 'Duet Act III', Emiel De Jonghe (Tjalda), Lia Rottier (Prinses Zonneschijn), KVO – Frits Celis, 1965.

In Antwerp the young royal couple King Boudewijn and Queen Fabiola attended a gala performance of the work. The often overpowering music of Paul Gilson excelled especially in terms of its orchestration. He later became a famous teacher as well, his most gifted pupil being Daniël Sternefeld (1905-1986), of whom I had the pleasure to conduct his splendid Halewijn in Tongeren. Yet it was August De Boeck from Merchtem near Brussels whose works fascinated me the most. Apart from the lyrical fairy opera Winternachtsdroom (Winter Night's Dream) and the mellifluous and refined score of Reinaert de Vos , I have to proclaim the last of his five operas, La Route d’Emeraude – in Dutch Francesca – his absolute masterpiece.'


August De Boeck: Winternachtsdroom: 'Introduction’
KVO - Frits Celis, 1971.


August De Boeck: Reinaert de Vos: 'Finale II’
Jan Joris (Reinaert), Kvo - Frits Celis.


De Boeck: Francesca: 'Love duet, Act II
Raymonde Severius (Francesca), Lode Devos (Kobus), NIR Orchestra – Daniël Sternefeld, 1957.

After I conducted this score several times I eventually produced an orchestra suite from the music for a CD-recording in the ‘In Flanders’ Fields' by the excellent CD-label Phaedra. I also had been researching a lost orchestra work by De Boeck since the 1950s, along with his violin concerto and chamber music pieces. When in 2011 the commemoration De Boeck’s 150th birthday arrived I was the the first to publish a brief monograph on him.’

Dutch operas at the KVO, Flemish operas in Amsterdam

At the KVO Celis also conducted Dutch operas, such as the Flemish creations of Jurriaan Andriessen’s Kalchas and Marius Monnikendam’s Van de Vos Reinaerde (with Johannes den Hertog as stage director). He created De lelijke meisjes van Bagdad (The ugly girls of Bagdad) by Marinus de Jong (1891-1984), who had once been his counterpoint and fugue teacher at the Antwerp Conservatory. Celis: With the Radio orchestra of the KRO and our own singers I performed De Antikwaar by the Antwerp composer Jef Maes (1905-1996) in the Concertgebouw Amsterdam. Also the comic opera De Grote Verzoeking van Sint-Antonius by the Ghent born composer Louis De Meester (1904-1987). Both these short operas I had previously performed with the KVO ensemble in  'Théatre Sarah Bernard' Paris.'

From Verbruggen to Deruwe

Renaat Verbruggen was succeeded as KVO director by tenor and teacher Sylvain Deruwe. Celis: ‘He tried his best but failed to bring the KVO to new heights, although the Flemish premiere of Wozzeck was a truly memorable. During his tenure I was also given the task to conduct Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy, now in Maeterlinck’s original language. I also cherish the performances of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. Around 1975 our ensemble was invited to perform it in Czechoslovakia’s Kosice, Bratislava and Prague. In the latter city I had the honour to conduct the work in the Thyl-Theater, where once Mozart's Don Giovanni was baptized by its composer!’

From KVO to Opera for Flanders

Walkure320With public interest and attendance waning, the independent existence of the KVO ended in 1981, when the it merged with the Ghent opera house into ‘Opera for Flanders'. Both kept their own organisations and teams, but exchanged productions that would onwards be performed in the original language. Alfons Van Impe was appointed general manager, Silveer Van den Broeck artistic director and music director in Ghent, while Celis kept his old post also in the new organisation. Celis: 'We opened in Antwerp with Der Freischütz, the same work that had opened the ‘Nederlands Lyrisch Toneel’, the later KVO, in 1893. In Ghent I opened the season with Alban Berg’s difficult Lulu. During his five years tenure Van Impe only gave a single Flemish opera, the creation of Willem Kersters’ Baas Gansendonk, recommended by me. Regrettably, Bob De Nijs’ libretto after the novel of the famous Flemish 19th Century author Hendrik Conscience was not the best.'


Willem Kersters: Baas Gansendonk: 'Introduction Act I’
Opera voor Vlaanderen – Frits Celis, 1984)

'My own career was given an impulse by the direction of such modern works as The Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky), Mathis der Maler (Hindemith) and Death in Venice (Britten), aside from the usual scores by Wagner en Richard Strauss, among others his Ariadne auf Naxos.  Another successful production was the coupling of Ravel’s L’enfant et les Sortilèges with L’heure Espagnole. In concert I was given full freedom to make my own programmes with masterpieces such as ‘Psalmus Hungaricus' (Kodaly), 'The Bells' (Rachmaninov), several Flemish works, culminating into the word premiere of De Boeck’s marvellous piano concerto, majestically performed by Jozef De Beenhouwer. Perhaps the best achievement of all in this period were the five performances of Britten’s brilliant 'War Requiem' (Britten) in Gent and Antwerp.'

When Van Impe retired in 1986, Silveer Van den Broeck became artistic director. Celis: 'I was given important works to perform such as Don Giovanni (Mozart), Otello (Verdi), and the unjustly forgotten masterpiece Mârouf by the French composer Henri Rabaud (1873-1949). Unfortunately, the Opera for Flanders had to deal with continuous deficits which eventually resulted in its dissolving. With that my 34-years career as an opera conductor ended abruptly.'

On the concert stage

Celis continued to be a cherished concert conductor, starting with the Beethoven Academy. His success on the concert stage was hardly surprising since he had of course conducted nearly all Belgian symphony orchestras frequently during his long career in conducting opera. Abroad he conducted on concert stages in the Netherlands, Germany, France and once even in Birmingham, Alabama (USA) where he exclusively performed Flemish works!

The composer Celis

CelisCD320An important part of Celis’ musical career must be seen in his composing activities, initially focusing on orchestral pieces but later also including various types of chamber music. Many orchestra works materialized by invitation of the Belgian Radio and Television, and at the time these works were frequently performed and rebroadcast. Due to reorganization within the Belgian orchestras gradually deterioriated and interest in their achievements waned, affecting also the Belgian composers, whose works are nowadays hardly ever heard.

Following the composition of 'Tarquinia', opus 76, for reciter and instrumental ensemble in 2005, Celis ended his musical activities in order to devote his time to writing his memoires and to analyse the works of August De Boeck, which studies found their way into the splendid monograph that was released in 2011. By the city of Merchtem, where the great composer was born.


Frits Celis: 'Episodes op. 10' (1973)
Leo De Neve (viola), Christel kessels (harpsichord), CD Vox Temporis, 1997)


Frits Celis: Drei Lieder (1981): 'Zimmerblumen’
Marijke van Arnhem (ms), CD Vox Temporis, 1997)


Frits Celis: 'Melopee’ (1994)
Marijke van Arnhem (ms), CD Vox Temporis, 1997)

On the current state of Flemish music

The current desperate situation within Belgian music urges Celis to a final plea: ‘The incredible perseverance of conductor Edward Keurvels and the bass Henry Fontaine resulted in the founding of the first Flemish Opera House in 1893, the ‘Nederlandsch Lyrisch Toneel’. I have already stipulated that they could then only perform works from the German or Slavic repertoire, in Dutch translations. Original Flemish operas in Dutch language did not yet exist. Only original Dutch works such as Leyden Ontzet by Cornelis van der Linden, Brinio by Simon van Milligen, and Liederik, a hastily crafted composition by the completely forgotten Flemish composer Jos Mertens could then be given. I have sketched the specific background for the Dutch language performances at the KVO earlier, but one should know that, for reasons of understanding the operas, performing in the local language was custom in nearly all German, French and English opera houses.’

De Herberprinses as saviour of the Flemish Opera


Jan Blockx: De Herbergprinses: 'Finale Act II, Carnival’
Marie-Louise Hendrickx (Rita), jef Vermeersch (Merlijn), KVO – Frits Celis, 1961.

Following its founding in 1893, the Nederlandsch Lyrisch Tooneel had problems to attract sufficient public attendance, even though it gave early performances of such now famous operas as Tsaar en Timmerman (Lortzing), De vliegende Hollander and Tannhäuser (Wagner) and De Toverfluit (Mozart). The company was on the verge of bankruptcy when, in its third year, the miracle happened: the Antwerp composer Jan Blockx (pupil and successor of Peter Benoit) composed the Flemish opera als direkteur van het Koninklijk Vlaams Conservatorium, legde aan de operadirektie de partituur voor van Herbergprinses, on a splendid verist libretto by Nestor De Tière.


Jan Blockx: De Bruid der Zee: 'Intro & Arrie's song, Act I’
Willy van hese (Arrie), KVO – Frits Celis, 1962.

Celis: ‘Soon after its creation in 1896 the work celebrated its 5oth performance. Even the Paris publisher Heugel came to see a performance and then published the score. Thus, Herbergprinses became internationally renowned and stimulated other Flemish composers to write operas. Apart from the works of lesser talents such as Albert De Vleeschouwer, Arthur Van Oost or Ernest Brengier, there is also the marvellous 1899 opera Quinten Massys by Emile Wambach, on a sketchy libretto by Raf Verhulst. This proved another tremendous success for Flemish opera.'


Jan Blockx: Liefdelied: 'Ik zing het lied der eeuwige liefde, Act II’
Erika Pauwels (Berthilde), Sylvain Deruwe (Theo), KVO - Frits Celis, 1969.


Emile Wambach: Quinten Massijs: 'De moeder maged, Act III’
Renaat Verbruggen (Floris), 1960s.

BlockxBruid320In 1901 Blockx’ third opera De Bruid der Zee, Bride of the Sea), once again on a libretto by De Tière, proved another triumph for the composer. These works saved the Nederlandsch Lyrisch Tooneel from bancruptcy. Other successful masterpieces were Paul Gilson’s already mentioned Prinses Zonneschijn from 1902, and the wonderful Winternachtsdroom by August De Boeck, likewise from 1902. These popular works enabled the Nederlandsch Lyrisch Toneel to move to a new house in 1907, and become the Flemish Opera, eventually even the Royal Flemish Opera (KVO). With fluctuating artistic and public success, the KVO entered the post Word War II era with the progressive Antwerp born composer August L. Baeyens as its director. This brought new artistic heights such as with the premiere of Mathis der Maler (Hindemith), Jenufa (Janacek) and Mozart’s Idomeneo in Richard Strauss’s orchestration, Peter Grimes (Britten) and Straus’ ballet Josephs Legende. In addition, Baeyens realized the creation of Arthur Meulemans opera Adriaan Brouwer.’

The Flemish operas of ere in present day Flanders

CelisSeghers320Celis admits that the plots of many Flemish operas of the fin de siècle era may not be a guaranteed success on the stages of today. However, he argues: ‘It strikes me that this criterion is completely abandoned when it comes to the plots of the famous international repertoire. Against better knowledge I always hoped that our Flemish audiences and the heavily subsidized Flemish opera of today would somehow find ways to support our national musical heritage, if not in staged performances than at least in concert performances. Even if only now and then and even if just in highlights performances. Not all, but certainly a distinct number of Flemish operas deserves to be heard because they are masterpieces in their own right. Regrettably, our musical patrimony of the late 19th and early 20th Century is completely abandoned. The reason is for a large part to be seen in the fact that all our opera houses and orchestras have been put under direction of foreigners who don’t have any bonding with Flanders and its patrimony. Even a cultural Flemish RTV station such as ‘Klara’ completely ignores our own music. Worse, even the output of the sole Flemish CD-label, Phaedra's 'In Flanders’ Fields' is completely ignored by them. All the more praiseworthy is the perseverance with which a select number of chamber ensembles and soloist make an effort, in spite of lack of support and funding, to at least give opportunities to young contemporary Flemish composers to be heard now and then.’


De Boeck: Francesca: 'Wanhoop' (from the Francesca Suite arranged by Frits Celis
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra - Ivo Venkov, 2011 (CD Phaedra 92071).