Salome / Das Gehege
Wolfgang Rihm /
Première on October 27, 2006 in the Nationaltheater
Oscar-winning Hollywood director William Friedkin is producing the first performance of Wolfgang Rihm's "Das Gehege" together with Richard Strauss’ "Salome"
After films such as "The Exorcist", "French Connection" or "To Live and Die in L.A.", you produced your first opera, "Wozzeck", in Florence. Did you have to adopt a different way of working – a different aesthetic – for your opera productions?
In the opera or at the theatre there are no real changes for a film director, apart from the fact that there's no camera. In both cases you have to have a vision of the work, and in both cases you have to work with performers who want the same thing: a psychological underpinning of the characters and a production that works. In film of course you have options like close-ups and various angles which you don't have on the operatic stage, but the public's attention can still be drawn to certain details – by means of the lighting, for instance – and that's very similar to a close-up in film.
An importance difference, however, is that film actors – especially in the States – often only need to look interesting to succeed. Most of them wouldn't be able to handle a stage at all. So it's the task of a director to present them as effectively as possible. At the theatre and in the opera house, with people who have excellent acting training, you can work a great deal more with body language to create genuine characters, and that's far more of a challenge for a producer.
Don't you have to scale down your ambitions and work with simpler means?
That all depends. If you're staging "Aida", for instance, which I did in Turin, or "Samson and Deliliah", you don't need to do that at all. On the other hand "Bug", my most recent film, due for release in December, is very intimate. So operas and films can both be huge spectacles or radiate a great deal of intimacy. In Washington I just finished working on "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" and "Gianni Schicchi", and there we have both extremes alongside each other.
A lot of your films depict brutal reality, often the reality of American big cities. How does that fit in with an art-form as stylized as the opera?
Every story and every art-form has to be approached in its own specific way. I've also shot comedies, things like horror films and also a play by Harold Pinter. Those are all very different things. I don't want to keep on doing the same thing and repeating myself. That's exactly why an opera production – with its special challenges that have to be respected – is a new experience.
Is the approach you're looking for more of a realistic one, or an abstract one?
It's very hard to show realism on a stage. The theatre always expects the public to put their doubts on hold and to accept theatrical convention. There's very little reality in a theatre from the word go, and that's exactly what I find interesting. And that's why I'm not trying to approach my opera productions with a desire for realism.
These days, film aims far more at portraying reality. But the very surrealism of opera contains a great deal of truth – not the kind of truth that gets portrayed as fact, but an eternal truth, if you like, an eternal truth about human beings, about their relationships, and about how destructive people can be. That's why my opera productions are also intended to represent timeless realities. After all, an abstract painting can contain a great deal more truth than a one-to-one reproduction of a scene.
The two works you're producing here in Munich - "Das Gehege" and "Salome", make quite an unusual combination. Where do you see the connection between these two works?
When you look at the characters, the figure of the caged eagle that you get in "Das Gehege" has very clear parallels with Jochanaan, who is trapped in a similar way, scorned by Salome and eventually killed. In the same way, Anita in "Das Gehege" scorns and kills the eagle. So the two works are very closely connected thematically.
Eevn though Rihm's music is completely different from Strauss's, in a certain way you can find references to "Salome" here too – it's like hearing an echo, as it were, of Strauss.
How far is this dramatic link expressed in your production?
The set and the costumes are kept in the same style, so that there's a visual connection too. I guess you could say I'm painting with different colours on the same canvas. I've also tried to integrate a character from "Das Gehege" into "Salome", so that the two works really are connected.
Wolfgang Rihm's work is based on the theatre play "Schlusschor" ("Final Chorus") by Botho Strauss, about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the urge for national unification. How have you dealt with this very "German" topic?
The "German" topic is only implied in the work, there are no direct references to German politics or history over the past 20 years. The opera, as a brief extract from the piece by Botho Strauss, thus has to be understood as a metaphor, and in my production there won't be any direct historical references either, apart from those that the audience can make for themselves. Naturally the figure of the eagle also symbolizes the German heraldic bird, and here in Germany the audience will certainly recognize that connection. But I don't believe that people in other countries would be aware of this significance, which is why the eagle can certainly be treated as an independent metaphorical figure in its own right, without any direct reference to Germany.
"Das Gehege" is a large monologue, and thus a theatre play in its most intimate form...
... and I'll also be producing it as an intimate piece, even though I find it holds several surprises. It's certainly very theatrical.
It can be seen in the tradition of plays like Schönberg's "Expectation" or "La voix humaine" by Poulenc and Cocteau, which are also psychological monologues by a woman.
It's astonishing that there are no comparable plays for a male role. That's because most composers are men, and they naturally tend to think of women. That's why opera in particular contains so many fantastic roles written for women. In movies that's no longer the case, by the way. It might have been once, but today far more interesting roles are being written for men rather than women.
"Salome" also ends with a monologue by the main character. Would you interpret this final scene as a kind of 'Liebestod' or more as a mad scene?
It has a bit of both. I have no doubt at all that Salome feels a kind of love for Jochanaan, but since it's not normal love aimed at a relationship or some kind of reciprocity, the whole thing is more of a mad scene really.
Salome isn't scared of death, death is not her enemy, she's far above fearing for her own life in any way, she lives in her own world, and is the product of her deeply disturbed environment. That's why her end can't really be interpreted as redemption, because something like that holds no significance for her whatsoever.
How can the two female characters Anita and Salome be compared?
Both women are extreme in their behaviour, they're not normal characters, and that's what makes them interesting. They're searching for something. Love? Desire? The meaning of life? And when they finally believe they've found what they're searching for, they kill it. That's something of a universal truth, isn't it? Take the war in Iraq, for instance: the American president says he wants to free Iraq for democracy and then he bombs it and kills people because Iraq is not giving him what he wants. It makes no sense.
When Salome realizes that Jochanaan cannot give her what she wants, she kills him; when Anita realizes that the eagle can't give her what she wants, she kills it too. That's why the two works are making a valid, universal statement.
Interviewer: Florian Heurich
Translation: David Ingram
(c) Bayerische Staatsoper