Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser

Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser

Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser 
About the production

Richard Wagner
Festival Première on 6th July 1994 at the Nationaltheater

General Director Peter Jonas talks to stage director David Alden (1994)

Peter Jonas: You're working for the first time in Germany, yet fifteen years have passed since your début at the Met, when you got rave reviews from the critics for your Wozzeck production. Since that time you have been described as a radical, who has gradually matured without ever losing the provocative sharpness of his style.

David Alden: In 1976 I visited Europe, looked at everything and had a chance to absorb what Strehler, Kupfer, Neuenfels and Berghaus were doing. That was a revelation for me, which uncovered and articulated what had been occupying my own consciousness with burning intensity. My first work in Europe was Rigoletto at the Scottish Opera in the late seventies, and, as far as I know, it unleashed a flood of stylistic controversy. In England, it was still very early to speak directly to the audience with the style I was attempting and place passion and schizophrenia on the stage. The outcry of the critics didn't bother me then, nor does it today, because it is post-coital - sometimes interesting and amusing, but always "post factum". I had my joy at the rehearsals, and then in the performances, which I repeatedly attend when I like what I've done. If I don't like it, I run away from the scene of the crime.

Peter Jonas: Many people have said your work is too angry. What do you say to that?

David Alden: Yes, I believe there is plenty of rage in my stagings, but it is also combined with passionate emotions, with longing and sometimes with tenderness as well. A high tension that upsets people - that's the style I'm striving for. It all has to do with the way I myself react to the music. I respond very intensively to music, and this intensity which comes from the score must find its equivalent in the dramatic power of the performance and the visual depiction on the stage. I am obsessed with music - it gives me energy and my works a certain nervous tension.

Peter Jonas: Critics say your work has become more mature - and you've matured yourself, or more simply stated, have just grown older. How do you believe this has changed or further developed your style?

David Alden: The older you get the more experience you gain. You simply see more possibilities in a given situation. I personally tend toward living more and more dangerously, and that has an effect on my work. On the other hand, when you get older and add experience, your approach to every work becomes more difficult. There is much existential anxiety connected with that, which certainly comes from my own being and the electricity that builds up at the rehearsals.

Peter Jonas: Now you are doing your first Wagner here in Munich. What's your attitude toward Wagner? Why has his work come along so late in your artistic development?

David Alden: Actually I didn't arrive at Wagner all that late in my development. I've been absorbed with Wagner since I was sixteen: Wagner's works were my earliest passion, and have remained so for thirty years. I've read everything I could get my hands on - about the man himself and his works. Wagner is an obsession in my life, just as the Wagnerian obsession in the lives of many people comes and goes. I simply waited until the right offer at the right time for the right place came along, and this waiting period lasted more than twenty years.

Peter Jonas: Does Tannhäuser bring along any specific problems?

David Alden: Every work brings along specific problems, but Tannhäuser is a gift for any stage director. The opera is an incredible work of fantasy. It swarms with personal matters and the things he had struggled with all his life. It is a compendium of all those elements that would come along later, and that makes it harder to find a way through the different approaches to the piece and to discover what we consider its quintessence. But if all you ever had to struggle with were those problems: having to cope with too much material. No, Tannhäuser is a powerful challenge. The thing I love about Wagner's work is the subliminal, the erotic, the visionary factor - and that's how I stage things as well. I try to acquire an awareness of the archetypes, images and symbols and bring them to the surface; the music was composed to be interpreted that way. Wagner has nothing to do with realism or naturalism, but his work rather expresses the mental landscape of a man, treats sections of his personality that may be in conflict with one another - and people who may seem real but are in actual fact products of his dreams, which he can use or not as he pleases. It has to do with the strata of a personality.

Peter Jonas: Can you describe Tannhäuser's dilemma?

David Alden: Oh, I identify very keenly with the character of Tannhäuser. Most artists, when they meditate on the world, will identify with this figure on one level or another. Tannhäuser is conventionally described as a man torn back and forth between divine and earthly love. I wouldn't describe it like that at all. I think the issue here is the imagination of the artist, how he works and the inner source of creativity. What forces a human being to be an artist? It has to do with whether the artist can establish himself in the world, and how the world reacts to him. The entire metaphoric context of the virgin and the whore in this opera, the celestial and the terrestrial is only one of the levels of the many conflicts and problems, because sexuality and artistic creativity in this work are metaphors for one another. The third great theme is religion and the eternal awareness of a human being of having been born guilty, and it has to do with the fact that the sensuous nature of a person is something that fills him with profound horror, for which he must do penitence and which he must run away from.

English translation by Donald Arthur
© Bavarian State Opera