From the programme booklet
The Passion as a Value-Creating Machine
A Conversation with Director Benedikt von Peter
Dorothea Hartmann: The St Matthew Passion is a ritual, created for the sacred setting of the Good Friday liturgy. It has, however, long led its own life in the concert hall and in staged renditions. What explains this connection with musical theatre? How did the basic idea of staging the Passion here at the opera house come about?
Benedikt von Peter: The house has its own performance history of the St Matthew Passion: in 1999 there was a staged interpretation by Götz Friedrich and Günther Uecker, using Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s version. We are reverting to Bach’s original, recounting the Passion as a piece of epic theatre. After all, it is less a narrative piece than a drama in stations: a tale of suffering, passion and martyrdom. This is one of the first stories of the Western world, and interestingly enough, the topic of martyrdom became highly relevant to 19th-century opera history: the physical, the human body, dissolves, and characters abandon and sacrifice themselves for an idea. At the end of the opera, they die for the sake of eternal love. In the 19th century, this befell female figures first and foremost, and the matrix underlying this construct is similar to the martyrdom of Jesus. According to the Christian faith, he sacrificed himself on our behalf, atoning for our sins.
One remarkable aspect of the term “passion” is that this word signifies both emotion and suffering. This ambiguity is a very European invention, unknown to any other culture. Investigating this “passion”, the feelings it evokes in us, and observing this suffering from a distance, that is what I find interesting on a theatre stage. In church – during a ritual – that would be impossible.
Dorothea Hartmann: The theme of the “Passion”, the combination of big emotions, suffering and martyrdom, had very different connotations during past centuries. How does that affect performances today?
Benedikt von Peter: I have just spent some time intensely working on Luigi Nono’s INTOLLERANZA 1960. In that piece, in the end a group of people sacrifice themselves for the idea of the collective; there is martyrdom in the political and military sense. In the end, people walk into a flood, sacrificing themselves to fight for their ideas. This illustrates what has become of this notion of passion: the 19th century is still present. At the time, “sacrifice” was replicated on theatre stages without second thought. Looking back to the 19th century, when the St Matthew Passion was “rediscovered” in Berlin by Mendelssohn, it’s worth noting that it was performed again and experienced a veritable boom at the exact time when everything was about founding national states and forming collectives: groups of citizens – such as the Berliner Sing-Akademie – who found each other and defined an identity by singing together, or hiking together. It is no coincidence that Bach was often considered a national composer, and with each performance of the Passion, these values were embedded deeper and deeper within the bodies: values which were reconfirmed in the religious context and later in the concert hall, and which were finally enacted in daily life – the Passion as a value-creating machine. Today, we are aware of the consequences that sacrifice and the notion of martyrdom can have: a whole history of intellect, war and civilization marched into catastrophe in the 20th century due to this notion of sacrifice. I think it’s quite healthy to look at these values from a post-martyr perspective.
Dorothea Hartmann: In this staging, children re-enact the Passion and its values with their bodies. Isn’t that also very disconcerting?
Benedikt von Peter: Yes, that is very ambivalent. First of all, there is the western tradition of the nativity play. It is a re-enactment of the birth of Jesus. But there is no tradition of children playing the Passion. That is the peculiar thing. In their daily lives, children probably don’t understand why a man is crucified. It’s a gruesome motif, an intimidating motif, combined with guilt and self-sacrifice. If children now re-enact this story of suffering and death, perhaps we as viewers also observe this story with new eyes. It creates distance from the story of the Passion, unlike in a church service, where I am supposed to feel empathy. At the same time, the children’s re-enactment also creates empathy for the story itself. So our production also contains both an offer to identify and to take an outsider’s perspective: is it right to let children take on these roles? Which values and ideas does the piece embody? Are they humane? Are they appropriate for children? How strongly are these values embedded in us? Were we given a clear set of values during our childhood? How do we view these values now?
Dorothea Hartmann: The text by Matthew the Evangelist is 2,000 years old, far older than most opera stories. What does this ancient story have to give us – beyond our examination of the notion of the Passion?
Benedikt von Peter: There are astonishing situations in this story, in which a man – Jesus – continuously breaks the pattern of expected reactions: he is beaten and does not strike back. He is condemned and remains silent. He is accompanied by great loneliness: he is near death and is abandoned by his friends, the disciples. One important message here is surely: there must be sacrifices so that we don’t all end up consumed by egoism. And: this story can offer consolation as we consider our own death.
Dorothea Hartmann: Like a model set, the St Matthew Passion consists of many very different building blocks, both in text and music. The Evangelist’s text is complemented by choral verses from different times, plus the poetry of Picander, Bach’s contemporary. Musically, Bach also merges different traditions. The production proceeds in a similar manner: the staging also includes very different elements, even expanding the building blocks already in the score: it adds the children’s acting, further choruses and ensembles. What is the concept behind these expansions, and behind spreading the action throughout the entire space?
Benedikt von Peter: First of all, we took the function of the piece as a ritual seriously. The point of departure is Bach’s performances at Leipzig’s Church of St Thomas. At that time, the congregation sat amidst the text and the music. They were literally embedded within the story and the music. Today we would call this an immersive theatrical event. This “being in the midst of the music”, inside the body of the Passion – this basic situation intrigued us, so we amplified and expanded this. Then there is the building block of the “tableaux vivants” on the podium, on an altar: children who keep enacting different images. Around them are the soloists, and there is an orchestra at each of the points of the compass. We also move through the space musically with the figures and orchestras. To Bach’s double chorus concept, we have added a third chorus and a fourth orchestra up in the second tier. Altogether, this results in a kind of a musical cross. In addition, there is the participatory element: “Singvereine”, i.e. choral associations – which have a special connection with the St Matthew Passion in Berlin, thanks to Mendelssohn – are invited to sing along, as is the entire audience. It is a space for music, but also a space that is to be created by music.
Interestingly, the working method in rehearsal has a lot to do with these building blocks: there are individual rehearsals with the children, the soloists, the Evangelist, the choirs, the orchestras – and in the end, we put it all together. Often, they only have very short parts and particles. Each of them has its own way or its own form of expression. In the end, we put it all together, and everything reacts with the other elements, yet remains independent.
Dorothea Hartmann: So this production is less a subjective interpretation at first. Instead, the musical and dramaturgical architecture of the composition is transferred to the physical architecture, allowing us to experience it. Yet there is still a subjective interpretation or reading in those moments when individual figures leave the context of the narrative and turn against the “architecture of the piece”. How did this idea come about?
Benedikt von Peter: For us, there was this central question: how does a child view the story of the Passion? From this idea, we developed one figure: the “Girl”. Perhaps this figure listens more closely, and questions traditional stories. She observes the action of the Passion from the outside, she finds other Bible verses, not only those by St Matthew, and most of all, she takes exception to the notion of sacrifice. That is a second story line. On the one hand, there is this abstract setup in the space, and on the other hand, of course there is a story we are telling. The Evangelist is not only the master of ceremonies for the audience, but in our interpretation, he is also the children’s teacher. One can assume that he has done a lot of practicing with the children, just as I am practicing with them now. One child resists this, the “Girl”. Further children join her: they don’t identify with the story; they don’t want to play and be “sacrificial lambs”.
Dorothea Hartmann: Has this decision anything to do with the increasing political awareness observed during recent years among younger people, which has led to movements such as “Fridays for Future”?
Benedikt von Peter: These movements played an important role in our preparation. Representatives such as Greta Thunberg are a new type of child: the figure of the child that is threatened, but also threatening. With Thunberg, this figure has appeared on society’s stage. The values of the Passion – humility, abstinence, charity – are actually exactly those that would be important for this movement here and now. The piece reflects these values. And in our interpretation, the children ask whether the older generations actually live by what they are teaching their children.
Dorothea Hartmann: During recent years, the question of the antisemitic notes to be found in the St Matthew Passion has come into the focus of academic research and public discourse. How does the production deal with this problem?
Benedikt von Peter: If you don’t know the text and just read it without discernment – as children do – you don’t necessarily notice the antisemitism at first. This demonstrates that a piece is always not merely the piece itself, but also the history of its reception. The misguided interpretations begin with the Luther translation, which contains an unambiguously antisemitic reading. Bach used this text. Subsequently, it was mainly the chorus “Sein Blut komme über uns und über unsere Kinder“ which was used to illustrate an assumed collective responsibility of the Jews for Jesus’ death and the self-condemnation of the Jews, and these, in turn, were used to justify antisemitic crimes. During recent years, some performances have cut this chorus. We also discussed doing this, and the question whether this number requires comment on stage. However, it takes place at such an abstract moment that any comment would entail a lot of additional information at this point. It is very hard to recount quickly. However, it is important to convey the issue. We have chosen to do so outside the actual performance, in introductory events and with a text in the evening programme. On stage, we accentuate other points, for example regarding the figure of Judas: throughout the reception of the Bible, the antisemitic image of Judas as the evil and treacherous Jew who betrays Jesus appeared from the 4th century onwards. In the text, Judas hangs himself; there is no forgiveness for him. Other figures, however – Peter, for example – are forgiven. We stage a forgiveness for Judas as well: a girl reacts, frees Judas, embraces him, as if to say: you have now suffered enough. That is a very small moment. But we have been able to speak extensively about it with the children, because it is very clearly visible in the action.
Dorothea Hartmann: At the end of the St Matthew Passion, we have reached a very dark point. The service for Good Friday, and thus the liturgy for this day, and the Passion stories all end with death. The resurrection and Bach’s Easter Oratorio only follow two days later. What does this mean for the production?
Benedikt von Peter: I have thought about the ending very much. The St Matthew Passion ends with death, but there is the strange twist that calmness comes with death. What does that mean? Is one stuck within this suffering? Or must one find calmness in suffering? Bach did not compose an edgy, agitated final chorus. This self-sacrifice should stir us. But instead, death leads us to calmness – that is the statement here. Death is the vanishing point. For us, this is a pretty depressing calmness, and we asked ourselves: can this statement really apply to everyone? How do children deal with this? Their questions mark the end for us.
Translation: Alexa Nieschlag