Der fliegende Holländer
Première on 26th February 2006 at the Nationaltheater
Wagner is our redemption
Peter Konwitschny is one of the definitive innovators in the operatic staging field – constantly rethinking old stories into the present and finding unconventional scenic solutions. A plea for Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer and the sacred element in art.
Mr. Konwitschny, since your Munich Parsifal in 1995, you’ve done a great deal of work with Wagner – has he grown closer to you over the years or perhaps moved farther away?
No, no, he’s kept on growing closer! The things that are documented in those works seem to me to be more and more important for our entire cultural history. I see Wagner as one of the great warning voices about where we are headed, if we’re not sensible, asking us: which do we prefer: power and property or life and love? I find his slightly hybrid demand magnificent, when he tells us that now that government and religion, in other words all the institutionalized systems, have failed, now art must take over the role of religion. In the final analysis, Wagner’s works also have the dimension of religion in them, they revolve around the question: what do we still hold sacred?
That’s what Der fliegende Holländer is about, too: a young woman falls in love with an ancient man... We don’t actually know how old this mariner really is?
500 or 5,000 years – he can be at least as old as our patriarchal civilization has existed, because myths have only been valid within that time span. I don’t think he’s ancient – he is ageless, because he cannot die, but he is an experienced man; that’s a bit like Janáček’s Makropoulos Case. Even in an early work like Holländer, Wagner makes it clear to us: something here is sacred, and we must not destroy it! And that is the power of love. He concerns himself with an outcast who has risen above our order: on the one hand there is the divine element, and on the other we have the mere human who has to respect natural forces. And just because the seafarer wants to measure himself against that, he is afflicted with this terrible, never-ending punishment. This is why Holländer also reminds me of Prometheus.
Then an angel comes along and says: dear God, this is too hard – we have to build in an escape clause to allow him to be redeemed by the eternal loyalty of a woman. There is a magnificent poetry in this story, but we may certainly draw some conclusions from it about our own real world: there are lots of men who have never learned to adjust sufficiently – and they get kicked out of the system. Although there are often great talents among them, they are exiled from the community – unless an unconditional love like this one rescues them.
As in Parsifal, there are no more solutions, only redemption. The tragic factor of this story is: the Dutchman may have found that redemption – but he has lost confidence in this woman being able to love him unconditionally. That is because of his inability to commit totally to a relationship. That’s a very up-to-date element, it happens all the time that people keep leaving an escape hatch open. Men have a terrible fear of a woman like that, who hangs on, who is unconditional. That’s what destroys it – not the disloyalty of the woman.
That means it is a totally real story. Other directors have staged Holländer as a vision, as a fiction in the eyes of Senta.
I think the play is diminished if it is simply shows the dream of a woman: because then it is strictly limited to subjective experience. No, this is about the individual and society, about these relationship issues: we see that this woman is capable of giving herself over without any conditions, and where it all leads. It would be a constriction if it all took place inside the woman’s head.
Isn’t Senta a kind of “Bartered Bride”?
Well, we did come up with that correlation in rehearsals: even before she makes her first appearance, she’s already been bartered. Her single parent Daland is eager to get his pubescent daughter to the altar, and make himself a little richer in the process. By the way, I consider it unnecessary to make Daland into such an unpleasant, money hungry capitalist. That just dulls the tragedy – there are no characters in Holländer that are drawn in simple black and white. We mustn’t turn the human beings in this piece to caricatures especially as genuine humor always plays a role in Wagner’s works, and Daland is a classic example of this.
As a rule, you never direct any piece twice. Has the concept of the Holländer been retained a year and a half after the Moscow première?
Yes, because I can’t imagine how anyone could do this piece completely differently. I regard the occupation with these as pieces highly existential, and I have never experienced a moment when I thought: stop, you can’t do it this way any more, you really have to do it differently... So the basic concept is the same, but here the ultimate impact of our production focuses on a different audience, people who know their Wagner – unlike in Moscow, where Wagner is still thought of as somewhat exotic.
But it will be different, in the finer structure, in the details, because we have a completely different cast. I regard authentic characters in their interrelationships as the core of the theatre – and here we have different people and different experiences, wishes, dreams and a different vocabulary of body language. A miracle happens in the theatre when the singers lend their life to the characters. A director must further that – the more the singer’s personality comes into the character, the more authentic it will be.
In recent times you went so far as to intrude into the musical structure of the operas. In Meistersinger and Così fan tutte, you stopped the music shortly before the end and involved the singers in a dialogue. Before that, the score was regarded as sacrosanct – is this permissible?
I will answer you with Brecht – you may do it if you can do it. Fundamentally I find this attitude of considering something sacred to be untouchable false. This is connected with being awestruck – and the word itself is a bit paradoxical. How can I be struck by something I look upon with awe? For the theatre, this would mean: we’ll do the production as much as possible the same way it was done at the world première – I find this ultimately necrophilic, a kind of funeral. And yet the context of a drama is in a state of constant flux. A staging is always a translation: things that were understandable in Wagner’s day may not necessarily be as shocking today as they might have been in Wagner’s time. As I see it, loyalty to the work means restoring the relationship between the author and the spectators – between us, the theatre makers and our contemporaries. In the case of Meistersinger I was concerned with the nationalistic misunderstanding that had come about between Wagner and ourselves. This is embodied in the dubious theory that without Wagner there would have been no Hitler – and I find that pretty heavy. No, Wagner’s work has nothing whatsoever to do with chauvinism – it’s more like being waited on today at a “counter” rather than a “schalter” in Germany. When our language becomes overloaded with Americanisms we lose our identity. I simply wanted to clarify that point and bring it out – for a long time we wondered if we could manage this without any interruptions. It’s interesting to note how many things that are part and parcel of drama are still considered taboo in the opera.
From where do you draw your ideas, theories and concepts?
The musical text is more decisive than the libretto in defining the action. When the Dutchman, for example, in his initial monologue longs for the end of the world, the consequences of which are questionable enough – then the things raging in the music leave no doubt in our minds that we are talking about the greatest of all imaginable disasters! As stage director I feel myself obligated to give this a fitting scenic expression, by not having the phantom chorus sing, as it usually does, from off-stage, but rather by revealing these people in all their misery.
Choral staging is one of your specialties.
At rehearsals I always strive for a close contact between myself and the singers, but also among one another, so that, for instance, there isn’t the usual gap between the chorus and the soloists, and everyone feels they are being taken seriously.
As conductors grow older, many get slower; stage directors develop a senior citizen’s conciliatory style – even at 61 you don’t seem to have calmed down – you keep right on provoking.
That’s not my objective – I don’t want to destroy anything for anyone, but I cannot prevent it from happening. I see a thing a certain way and feel that art is a very subjective proposition. And if Kundry is dead at the end of Parsifal – that’s how it is in the book, by the way – and this does not suit many people, then all I can do is say: take a good look at it! And doesn’t this terrible price for the continuation of an all male society make everything a bit absurd – when woman as such no longer exists? I had to show this – otherwise the message gets lost. This is, I believe, my desire, to keep pointing up things like this, where nothing makes sense if we keep sweeping them under the carpet.
Interview: Fridemann Leipold
English translation by Donald Arthur
© Bayerische Staatsoper