»The New Beginning of the End«
Questions to the director about the RING
Jörg Königsdorf: THE RHINEGOLD is set in a mythical, distant past, populated not by humans, but gods and dwarves. What does this pre-historic past mean to us?
Stefan Herheim: Even the title suggests a time in which the gold lay untouched and pure at the bottom of the river and nature was intact and whole. This initial underwater existence precedes unborn life just as much as the state of innocence before original sin and the expulsion from paradise. In nearly four and a half minutes of the RHINEGOLD prelude, the world is created in an overtone series starting from the note E-flat, or »Es« in German – as in »Es war einmal«, the German equivalent of »Once upon a time…«. Only a few minutes later, this world is turned upside down. The robbery of the Rhine gold and the forging of the ring unite many creation myths. Time and space in the RING are not linear, but circular, which makes the timeless myth appear equally archaic and modern.
Jörg Königsdorf: At the beginning of this production, we see people who are obviously fleeing, stopping on an empty stage. What motivates them to begin this play here, as if from nothing?
Stefan Herheim: The music! First of all, the music is heard because the opera house has filled with an audience with the corresponding expectations. The notes make the space come alive, demanding artful action, but also offering an escape route, both on stage and in the auditorium. We do not really know what these people are fleeing from or where they are fleeing, but they all carry an element of »no longer« and »not yet« within them which is confronted with an »Id«. The latter swells from the orchestra pit in a harmonic triad, provoking the collective to onstage action born of this programmatic music. This then takes on a life of its own, inasmuch as those fleeing their own history take over the music and reshape that (hi)story.
Jörg Königsdorf: Apart from this massive amount of protagonists on stage, a concert grand piano, which initially acts as an obstacle for this human tide, points to the work as the product of an individual imagination. How do these two levels fit together?
Stefan Herheim: The grand piano is the instrument at which Wagner composed the RING and presented parts of it to the public for the first time, the instrument where it was rehearsed up to the world premiere, and which is essential as an orchestra substitute in every rehearsal today. The piano is a musical and optical gateway to the imagination, yet it remains an everyday vehicle for the art that must be created in the moment – an everyday object in the opera house, and a sacred altar of artistic execution at the same time. The fact that players occasionally instrumentalize the piano for their own purposes is in the nature of stage action, within whose field of meaning it is used and played out.
Jörg Königsdorf: Does the Rhine, that epitome of nature in harmony with itself, represent unrealistic wishful thinking of a paradise which perhaps never existed, or an actually attainable state?
Stefan Herheim: One of humanity’s greatest problems today is that it has created so many artificial needs for itself. Coexistence within a society oriented towards real needs and living attentively in harmony with its surroundings must be treated as an attainable goal, not as a utopia. At the end of the RING stands the twilight of the gods, not nature, and therefore the question remains whether afterwards the entire vicious circle starts afresh and people will once again create idols, or whether this stage of evolution will at some point have been overcome. The sonic harmony of paradise of the Rhine is not truly a desirable state, nor is the Garden Eden. So it is not about naïve frugality, but about the challenge of reflecting mankind as actively questioning and creatively shaping its surroundings, until it accepts the healing, yet contradictory impulses of love and uses them to shape reality. Art is a phenomenon which is always about »creating a world« – both for reality here and now and for future reality. Richard Wagner was not only aware of this, but made it the centre of his thinking, creativity and hope.
Jörg Königsdorf: The central figure in THE RHINEGOLD is Alberich the Nibelung, the inventor and first owner of the ring, that instrument of power. Does he represent evil, or do we need to view the figure with greater complexity?
Stefan Herheim: Alberich may forge the ring, but he does not invent it; he merely does what the Rhinemaidens tell him on purpose, tempting him to commit the original sin: the gold is vanquished, nature possessed, and the Nibelungs subjugated. This is diametrically opposed to Wagner’s notion of love, for when man subjugates others, he remains a creature driven by base instinct and in need of redemption. Ridiculed by the mermaids, Alberich wishes to compensate for his humiliation, so powerless love makes him grasp for loveless power. Wotan, father of the gods, on the other hand, who broke a branch from Yggdrasil, the ash tree at the centre of the cosmos, and fashioned into a spear to keep the laws he himself does not obey, fights in the name of love, but loses his human divinity, respectively his divine masculinity, which ultimately makes him dependent on the redeeming, world-saving action of a woman. This brings the tale full circle, for the end which Brünnhilde brings about is survived only by Alberich, the black elf. He and Wotan, the light elf, are therefore not to be taken as the contradiction between good and evil. Rather, like light and shadow, they are interdependent, variations on the problem of power and love.
Jörg Königsdorf: DAS RHEINGOLD not only establishes the dichotomy between culture and nature, but also a war between families spanning generations. Are these families, or clans, to be considered as such? Or do they stand for something else?
Stefan Herheim: The gods, giants and Nibelungs may be seen as representatives of 19th-century class society, with its aristocracy, middle class and proletariat. Ultimately, however, we are dealing with archetypes which can be found in almost all cultures through the ages. In our production, the collective, which enjoys escaping into artful play, threatens to be torn apart by arrogance, despotism, envy, rage, class and race conceits just as much as our own is. Yet ultimately the play is held aloft by an unbreakable hope of universal coexistence – in THE RHINEGOLD, this is still in the spirit of a divine comedy full of double-entendre and irony.
Jörg Königsdorf: The production also contains several allusions to the World War II era: a steel helmet, the figure of Loge with its Mephisto aspects so reminiscent of Gründgens, but also the materiality of the suitcases pointing to deportation and expulsions. Why does the production get caught up over and over in this era?
Stefan Herheim: Because we are not in some historical vacuum when we perform Richard Wagner’s main work at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. I find the accusation that such means have long become obsolete as suspicious as the demand of some members of the German parliament that the time has come to finally put a certain chapter of German history behind us, a chapter which is only a man’s lifespan removed from us, which systematized the destruction of entire peoples, set the civilized world on fire and changed it forever.
Jörg Königsdorf: The RING was written with what can certainly called an intention to improve the world: in the hope that human beings might be redeemed through the act of performing, through art. Do we still have reason to nurture this hope today, almost 150 years later? Or has art become too much a part of the system itself?
Stefan Herheim: Of course the art of opera is part of the system subsidizing it. However, there is no lack of subversive elements within it, for it gives voice to the unheard-of and the unheard which question the system as such. The political explosive force of opera was always essential to its success, and became part of its role in educational policy during the second half of the 20th century. Today, it is cumbersome to invoke this, especially since the system itself is undergoing a crisis of values and identity which leaves us on the threshold between »no longer« and »not yet«. All the more, I believe that the art of performance as illustrated by the RING can be a guideline, corrective and inspiration to us. The sounds of loving redemption at the end of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS, after all, do not celebrate fatal failure, but evoke the hopeful glimmer of a new beginning.
Translation: Alexa Nieschlag