Do we really want to change the world?
Stefan Herheim in conversation with Jörg Königsdorf
Jörg Königsdorf: Fundamental to the production concept of this RING is the idea of play, which started more or less spontaneously in THE RHINEGOLD. What significance does this central idea have for TWILIGHT OF THE GODS?
Stefan Herheim: On the preliminary evening, a group of fugitives began acting out a drama about the RING, which revolved around powerless love and loveless power. In THE VALKYRIE and SIEGFRIED the game-playing took a variety of turns but always remained rooted in the mythical world. In TWILIGHT OF THE GODS it shifts to a seemingly modern, secularized community in which power games and scheming are carried to extremes. When the Norns’ rope of destiny breaks in the Prologue, it’s not only their “eternal knowledge” that is lost but also the narrative thread woven until that point. The connection between art and reality, which creates meaning and guarantees the cohesion of the collective experience of art, is thus severed. Interestingly the concept of Spiel [game, playing], which Wagner employs so often throughout the RING, only appears at the very end of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS, when the three Rhinemaidens “swim in circles, merrily playing with the ring” – a counterpart to their “blissful play” on the preliminary evening.
Jörg Königsdorf: In TWILIGHT OF THE GODS the focus, which has thus far been only on individual characters, widens to encompass an entire society. Who is meant by that?
Stefan Herheim: Wagner was targeting the social ills of his time, but as we haven’t really got much further in many respects in our own time, there exists between him and us a contemporaneity that makes his mythical search for meaning still relevant now. The Gibichungs under their weak king Gunther represent a disorientated and easily manipulable people who nevertheless have a special role to play as increasingly silent witnesses of the tragedy. For the Gibichung Hall, a place of lies and self-deception, we have chosen a real space from the present day which stands for the social institutionalization of the myth as well as for its mutability in reception – the foyer of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, in which representatives of the audience appropriate the drama of the RING OF THE NIBELUNG for themselves. Hagen uses his knowledge of the mythical figures’ assailable position and of the vanity of his contemporaries, to hatch a plot that ultimately legitimizes his killing of Siegfried. He fails to notice, however, that he too is a pawn controlled by Wotan.
Jörg Königsdorf: Do the fugitives (among whom the performers are recruited) hold up a mirror for us, or do we see in them what may become of us?
Stefan Herheim: The answer goes beyond an either/or. Essentially the opera always offers us a way out of an everyday life that all too often induces us to forget what actually constitutes being human. What is unsayable and kept quiet acquires in the opera a polyphonic voice that engages all of the senses. Through the collective experience of art our individuality is transcended. But do we thereby become gods? And does twilight then descend on us?
Jörg Königsdorf: At the end of SIEGFRIED we see the pair Siegfried & Brünnhilde transported by their joys of love. But rather than taking it up from there, TWILIGHT OF THE GODS opens with the Norn scene. What significance does the production give to these three figures?
Stefan Herheim: The Norns, daughters of the Urwala Erda, weave the rope of destiny, but they can no longer relate past, present and future. Their state of being lost corresponds to Brünnhilde’s loss of knowledge, which causes her to fall victim to male wilfulness. And since the scene with the Norns takes place on the Valkyries’ rock, on which Brünnhilde sleeps next to Siegfried, one gets the impression that the Norns rise out of Brünnhilde’s subconscious mind to warn her. That’s why in our production Brünnhilde, the moment she awakes, sends Siegfried out into the world to perform heroic acts. Similarly the Rhinemaiden scene in Act Three has the appearance of a dream, and draws on Brünnhilde’s closing oration as well as on what Gutrune relates when she wakes from a troubled sleep before the final scene. Consequently Erda’s influence can be seen operating in all the female figures.
Jörg Königsdorf: We encounter an astonishingly old-fashioned role allocation in the new couple Siegfried & Brünnhilde: she sees him off on a big journey and stays dutifully behind on her rock. It’s only in the course of the piece that she discovers agency and takes action herself, standing out from the other system-supporting women like Waltraute and Gutrune. Was Wagner in a sense the first feminist?
Stefan Herheim: The fact that Brünnhilde as a human woman takes a male wrong upon herself and redeems the world by sacrificing her own life, doesn’t exactly classify her creator – whether it be Wotan or Wagner – as a feminist. The composer saw himself after all as the genius that could combine within himself rational-conceptual, male poetry and emotional-sensual, female music. It’s interesting that Brünnhilde sends Siegfried out to perform new deeds. To justify his status as a hero, the medieval heroic epic demands a journey of adventure. More crucial, though, is the fact that Brünnhilde seems to subliminally sense his destiny – even though she acquires an understanding of it only in the final scene. To expiate his own guilt, Wotan sacrifices his daughter and his grandson in the hope of being able to save the world through love. The perfidious thing about this construction is that the god’s plan comes over loud and clear in the antagonists’ ostensibly silent resignation.
Jörg Königsdorf: A term that comes up repeatedly in the piece as a precondition for saving the world is “knowledge”. What does this knowledge actually consist of, especially in a world that – in spite and even with the aid of an enormous wealth of accumulated knowledge – moves ever closer to its own destruction?
Stefan Herheim: The word “knowing” [i.e. the German word Wissen] derives etymologically from “seeing”, but essential knowledge doesn’t lie in what is immediately visible. What Wagner is concerned with is knowledge that results in a holistic understanding. The god’s betrayal of his loving children consists in their being supposed as humans to redeem for the redeemer a godless world that’s out of joint. Art, as a non-rational manifestation of meaning, permits an aesthetic approach to the problem.
Jörg Königsdorf: In the orchestral postlude after Brünnhilde’s closing oration, as the orchestra depicts the unfolding catastrophe, we hear the Love motif that we heard once before in the last act of THE VALKYRIE. What does that mean for the message that this production seeks to communicate? Is it a collective moment of realization of how a better world can be created, or is it simply great yearning?
Stefan Herheim: How is a better world supposed to be created without great yearning? The final verbal statement is “Keep away from the Ring!” but it’s the music that has the last word. The intrinsic meaning of the “hehrstes Wunder” motif (“sublimest wonder”) must ultimately remain open, as our redemption cannot be materialized on the stage in sublime art. And so the question remains of whether we really want to change the world.