Aus dem Programmheft

A Journey on Packed Suitcases in Search of “Us”

Q & A about the RING with the director Stefan Herheim.

The second day of A scenic festival in three days and one eve by Richard Wagner
Conductor: Sir Donald Runnicles
Staging: Stefan Herheim
With Clay Hilley, Ya-Chung Huang, Iain Paterson, Jordan Shanahan, Tobias Kehrer, Judit Kutasi, Nina Stemme et al.
Premiere on 12 November 2021

Jörg Königsdorf: The stage that we see at the beginning of SIEGFRIED not only takes up where THE VALKYRIE left off but is also a visual representation of a basic premiss of this RING production: the landscape of suitcases isn’t a realistic place but a symbol of what has been left behind by bygone generations and peoples that have passed through. What does this tell us about the period in which the drama that unfolds should be set?
Stefan Herheim: It tells us that what we have is a continuum, a problem that perpetually recurs because it cannot be resolved in human reality. The cycle is a vicious circle that people have got to break out of for the sake of their humanity. The drama plays out in the here and now, yet the suitcases link the past to the future and determine that the journey itself is the goal of the drama in progress.

JK: Similarly the characters in the drama appear to hold various superimposed layers of meaning. Mime, for instance, isn’t only a dwarf and a smith: he also has the outward appearance of Richard Wagner. Siegfried’s costume, meanwhile, seems to function like a quotation from the work’s performance history. What are the implications of this for the way the characters act?
SH: Just as Wagner read and reinterpreted the myth in his own time, I read and reinterpret Wagner in mine. It’s not so much about me, however, but primarily about an “us”. Self-referential aspects are of interest especially in works that by virtue of their reception history resemble a palimpsest in their disparate, superimposed and mutually reactive strata. And consequently there are conscious as well as unconscious references to the production history of the RING in this production, too. But here they don’t play an explicit and decisive role in the reception of the four evenings. When Mime enters looking like Richard Wagner and wearing a concentration camp shirt, we know the production will contain a certain amount of ambiguity, but the character nonetheless continues to function as the dwarf of the story as told.

JK: In the performance history of the RING, the anti-Semitic clichés associated with the role of Mime have repeatedly come in for close scrutiny. The Mime you show is a Wagner figure with the clichéd facial features that were used to caricature Jews in the 19th and 20th century. Are you squaring the circle here?
SH: To the extent that it is an impossibility per se, yes. If you’re involved with the phenomenon of Richard Wagner for any length of time, you develop an ambivalent attitude towards him: an attitude that amounts to more than swinging back and forth between great admiration for the extraordinary creative power of the artist and outrage at the effusions of the man and the anti-Semite nauseated by himself – but which instead strives to understand how the alleged contradictions cohered and at the same time to scrutinise grey areas in one’s own integrity and tolerance. A Viennese critic at the world premiere of SIEGFRIED commented scoffingly with respect to Mime that “Wagner, here as elsewhere, whenever he wants to be humorous, lapses into a Jewish musical jargon”. It’s interesting that the supposed Jewishness of characters like Mime and Beckmesser has nothing in common musically with what Wagner represented as typifying Judaism in music – doing so to distance himself from composers such as Meyerbeer, Halévy and Mendelssohn. In actual fact what he did, and what they did, was to apply the same principle of dissonance to characterise mendaciousness, underhandedness and the grotesque. The character that may be seen as Wagner’s one and only genuine Jewish one is the seductive Kundry, who does good of her own free will and bad things when under the sway of evil. It was only in Cosima’s Bayreuth circle that the image of the Jew came to be consolidated in Wagner’s work, and Wagner reception has been struggling with it ever since. In the RING a character that is an embodiment of envy and resentfulness, bursting with idiotic insolent ambition, shot through with feelings of inferiority and wallowing in self-pity, is by his very name an analogy to the art of dissimulating: Mime, the evil dwarf, who continually displays – mimes – his need for redemption until he falls victim to Siegfried’s sword. As a grotesque cross between a caricature of a Jew and a portrait of the composer, as both the beaten object and the smith, this character oscillates between two irreconcilable poles and is both victim and perpetrator of that malice and schadenfreude that is peculiar to Wagner’s humour.

JK: The reception history, however, is as it were subcutaneously present in your production, for instance in the suitcase landscape, which of course is constructed as nothing other than a rocky landscape with peaks and ravines. Are these layers also a sign that each new version, each new approach to the myth of the RING is built upon what went before?
SH: Essentially, yes. At the same time, finding a visual language is always accompanied by the attempt to free oneself from existing images and to expose undiscovered strata.

JK: The centrepiece of the stage remains the grand piano, which performers enter and emerge from a number of times, and through which they revert to their form as roles in a composition. Should one think of this as an imaginary stage within a stage, a supplementary level?
SH: The grand piano is the instrument on which historically the work was composed, was partially presented to the public for the first time and was rehearsed in the run-up to the world premiere – and it remains indispensable for every opera rehearsal today. The piano is musically and visually a gateway to the imagination, while at the same time remaining an everyday sign of the art that is to be created in the moment – it’s both a bridge and a sacred altar of artistic execution.

JK: It’s not just the suitcases that remind us of the situation of an uprooted society that defines its identity in the act of performance. Also the many people who are present on stage during the performance are back again. Do they change in the course of the proceedings? Do they learn from what they see?
SH: That’s an absolutely central question. Who makes the rules for theatre that aspires to be art, and what is its aim? How far does art seduce and dazzle, how far does it enlighten and set us free? To answer this we would have to employ the trope of the kaleidoscope, because even though the word Spiel [game, playing, performance] doesn’t appear in either the libretto or the stage directions of SIEGFRIED, in contrast to the three other parts of the tetralogy, Wagner deliberately places it right in the centre. Not just in the extreme dissimulation the characters display, for instance in the wager of wits, but also by means of the many fantastical elements of the plot. Wagner had formulated the purpose of play as early as 1851: “to teach the audience the crucial myth, as a child is taught a fairy tale”. Since THE RHINEGOLD, our collection of fugitives, searchers and travellers on stage have been sucked more and more into a performance which they, as game-players, creators and dreamers, produce themselves and which they become powerless to escape. In the ecstatic finale of SIEGFRIED they seem to have awoken in a new, mythical place of refuge, which of course will have consequences in the final part of the tetralogy.

JK: In the closing duet between Brünnhilde and Siegfried you also play with the genre conventions of opera. Is that to be understood as an allusion to the way that performance, as an act of self-reaffirmation by a society, develops over time increasingly elaborate forms, also including more culinary forms?
SH: Definitely. Culture is a process of constant refinement; a process that is by no means immune, however, to self-reproduction or indeed to resignation, decadence and perversion. True art is always in danger of turning into an artificial commodity, and Wagner is no exception in this respect. The further he progressed with his RING, the more he found himself caught up by the conventions of Grand Opéra, which, vilify it and attack it as he may, he still secretly admired. That’s already evident from the text drafted for Siegfrieds Tod [Siegfried’s Death], as which the TWILIGHT OF THE GODS was originally conceived. The traditional method of “musical parody”, familiar from Grand Opéra, can be heard unmistakably in the final duet of SIEGFRIED.

JK: Given the RING’s multiple layers of meaning which keep emerging here, the question is whether a production can do justice to them in any comprehensive way, or is not instead the result of a deliberate process of selection. If this is the case, what criteria did you apply to make your selection?
SH: The singularity of each of the evenings of the RING provides some justification for them to be staged largely independently of each other. My confidence in being able to stage them cyclically as whole one after the other came from the idea of making the starting point and anchor point not time and place, but a collective of imaginary figures – here specifically the pool of fugitives and seekers who are escaping from their present-day history into myth in the form of a collective narrative: fleeing from a culture and fleeing into a culture in search of a new home for themselves in the magic of play, in the sense meant by Schiller in The Aesthetic Education of Man: “Man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.”  The fact that the RING to a large extent eludes attempts to confine it to a specific place and time is after all not only due to the great length, the temporal discontinuity and the many contradictions of the mythical drama of ideas, which was more than a quarter of a century in the making. A musical analogy to this is to be found in what Thomas Mann so aptly termed Beziehungszauber, allusive magic, which Wagner achieved by means of his Leitmotiv technique, so profusely employed in the RING. The orchestra acts like an autonomously thinking and feeling organism that occupies virtually every moment between remembering and anticipation. There are numerous arguments for and against this semantic frame imposed on the listener. For me, Wagner’s music is absolutely programmatic in its associativeness. It is the dramatic bearer of time, place, content and meaning and as such it is my decisive point of reference in the attempt to derive causal coherence from it with respect to the staging. My aim is to make the eyes hear and the ears see. For that reason I endeavour to formulate a visual language inspired by the music and develop a corresponding psychology. This for the most part defies linguistic definition, for obvious reasons, which is precisely what accounts for the fascination of this work of music theatre.

JK: In THE VALKYRIE we saw men and women in opposition to each other as part of differently acting and feeling groups. Is this antagonism maintained in some form in SIEGFRIED? And does it still serve as a way of explaining the world?
SH: For Richard Wagner’s work and thought the dissociation of the sexes was of fundamental importance, and in SIEGFRIED in particular the binary is decisive for the action. If we struggle today with formulations like Sänger*innen and Zuschauer_innen [i.e. gender-appropriate forms to avoid the generic masculine in German], it is because we regard gender as binary no more than we have arrived at any workable, emancipated, dialectic synthesis. After Wotan has put Brünnhilde to sleep, for a long time no female voice is heard, until in Act Three the Wanderer summons Erda so that he – and he is mistaken – can feel certain of his male power as it deserts him. The eponymous hero Siegfried first meets a woman in the very last scene, which is why I wanted – as Wagner originally envisaged – the Voice of the Woodbird to be sung by a boy, who accompanies Siegfried unawares through his initiation process. At the end when couples form within the collective like Brünnhilde and Siegfried, this isn’t to be seen as limited to the physical coming together of man and woman because today all bounds must be transcended in the moment of “supreme delight”, including those of gender.

JK: The title character encounters himself and then his counterpart in the person of Brünnhilde; the figures of the collective merge together erotically entwined. And yet the RING does not come to an end with the invocation “Luminous love, laughing death!” – it carries on with the narrative that was in fact Wagner’s starting point. Why does this continuing journey have such a powerful impact on us?
SH: Because the RING presents to us the most brutal paradox of existence in an aesthetically overwhelming way. How else can a message of deepest hopelessness be conveyed if not ultimately by hope itself?


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