Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Wagner Interviews

Monster or Genius? - The Wagner Interviews

It seems appropriate that the year of Wagner's bicentenary ends at the Royal Opera House in London with a worldwide cinema broadcast of a performance of the composer's remarkable final work Parsifal. Summing up the essence of Wagner's writing, Parsifal would take opera not just to a new peak, but even to another dimension that ultimately proved impossible for others to follow. Following the presentation of the work at the Beijing Music Festival in China in October, a series of interviews around the legacy of Wagner and Parsifal were conducted by the KT Wong Foundation (www.ktwong.org), an organisation dedicated to the promotion of opera in China. These interviews, drawn from a wide variety of notable Wagnerian singers, authors, directors, conductors and composers, were designed to obtain insights on the composer, his legacy, his works and the challenges of performing Wagner's music.

Taking as a theme Richard Wagner: Monster or Genius?, there is in reality very little critical examination of the negative aspects of the composer's world-view and his notorious anti-Semitic treatises, but the question of whether you can separate the music from the ideology is at least raised in the interviews. For some of those interviewed, particularly performers like John Tomlinson, it's almost essential to divorce the man's views from his music, and indeed conclude that the sentiments expressed in the operas have none of the more distasteful aspects of Wagner's views in them, a point agreed by Simon Callow and Daniele Gatti, who says that it is the music that is important, not the man. Music critic David Nice however finds references to "purity of the blood" in Parsifal hard to ignore, but others, like biographer Stephen Johnson, look at Parsifal and see in it not only the whole sum of the man's thoughts and philosophy - heavily influenced by Schopenhauer - but that Wagner was even aware of his own contradictions, and that is indeed this that makes his work great. Chinese composer Zhou Long, who has worked on similar mythological subjects (Madame White Snake), goes further and points out the legends are important to ideology and cannot be separated from the music.

Some of the most insightful comments from the interviews inevitably come from the people who have sung, directed and conducted Wagner's music. The questions posed by Jasper Rees and Rudolph Tang are relatively straightforward, asking about first experiences of Wagner, how the interviewees came to find that they were suited to performing Wagner and what their Desert Island Wagner would be. Some specific and personal aspects are however brought out from soprano Waltraud Meier on the otherworldly nature of Kundry in Parsifal, from tenor Stuart Skelton on being a Heldentenor and undertaking a Wagner opera like a journey, and from John Tomlinson on the intoxicating nature of the vocal-line which takes you over, and which some people don't like for that very reason. Dame Anne Evans provides some interesting analysis of the colour of Wagner's harmonies being influenced by Italian music, and considers the unique experience of performing at Bayreuth.

In regard to Parsifal it's probably true however, as Stephen Johnson says, that it's the very contradictions within Wagner's world-view and his personality make this final enigmatic work indefinable and great. Nearly all the interviews refer to the famous line in the work about time becoming space and how somehow Wagner has created this realm in the music for Parsifal. For director Robert Carsen, it's a work that refuses to be pinned down, like an iceberg, only the tip is visible the rest presumably existing in another dimension that remains permanently beyond reach of the rational mind. Peter Hanser-Strecker also compares Wagner's music to a mountain that imposes itself without any need of a director's vision. Much like the work itself, where nearly all the dramatic action has already taken place before the beginning of the opera leaving only reflection and surrender to the music, Mark Wigglesworth finds that all the hard work conducting Parsifal is done beforehand in the preparation. Actually conducting it is effortless and it almost takes on a life of its own. This is confirmed by Daniele Gatti, who often conducts the work without the score in front of him, and in his interview tries to describe the feeling of completing the work and coming down from its sound world.

Other interviews touch on a few other specific aspects in their field. Peter Hanser-Strecker, the great-grandson of Wagner's publisher talks about his family's connections to the composer, how Wagner introduced the concept of an advance payment for Parsifal. He also makes some interesting observations about the future of opera lying outside the opera house. Composer Guo Wenjing considers the musical problem of the Chinese language, but is also posed the difficult question of whether a composer, facing the end of his life, could really be capable of putting the sum total of his life, work and genius into his final work as Wagner seems to have done in Parsifal. Alexandern Polzin, the designer of the production of Parsifal shown in Beijing, talks about the concepts and stage designs. Richard Peduzzi, the scenographer of the Bayreuth Ring with Patrice Chéreau reflects on how their landmark 1976 Bayreuth centenary production transformed the way opera is presented on the stage.

The 16-episode video series can be viewed on YouTube or from the links on the KT Wong Foundation website. The excerpts of the Beijing production of Parsifal used in the interviews all come from its performance at the Salzburg Festival (available on DVD and Blu-ray) which was conducted by Christian Thielemann and directed by Michael Schulz, with Johan Botha as Parsifal, Michaela Schuster as Kundry, Wolfgang Koch as Amfortas/Kilingsor and Stephen Milling as Gurnemanz.