Bad Boy in Bayreuth Wagner's Ring Gets a Brash Reboot

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Part 2: Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao


Denic's and Castorf's version of "The Valkyrie" takes place in Baku, Azerbaijan. "In the age of industrialization, they began producing oil in Azerbaijan, and all the major oil companies were there. It was only with the Russian Revolution that they were driven out and moved on to California and Texas," says Denic. Parts of "Götterdämmerung" take place against the backdrop of the New York Stock Exchange, "the place where all fates are decided today," but for "Siegfried," the third part of the tetralogy, Denic has recreated Berlin's Alexanderplatz. "Siegfried" tells the story of a divided world, says the set designer, for which Berlin in the days of the Wall is "a perfect metaphor."

The set for "Siegfried" also includes a parody of the United States' Mount Rushmore. In Bayreuth, the faces are those of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Wooden scaffolds surround the heads of the communist revolutionaries. "These men changed the world. Each person can decide whether it was for better or for worse," says Denic. "The scaffolds could mean that the heads are being destroyed or repaired. Most of all, they show that someone is still working on the project."

Castorf has a certain reputation to defend, having made a name for himself in post-Wall Berlin as an audacious rule-breaker, often entirely dismantling original texts and leading his actors through raucous, fourth-wall-breaking, sometimes shambling performances that ultimately brought him international renown. His first foray into opera was in 1988, when he directed Verdi's "Otello" in Basel, and he has staged enough operatic performances since then (including Wagner's "The Master Singers of Nuremberg") to appreciate the tolerance he's being shown in Bayreuth. "The singers are very open, which was a positive surprise … It's a new experience," he says, "very much okay, and very pleasant."

'This Isn't the 19th Century'

He did have a few minor skirmishes with conductor Petrenko. Once, when Castorf used a submachine gun in "Siegfried," "it was too loud for Kirill. We had to agree on less firepower." Sometimes the people in Bayreuth simply have to be told what hardened times we live in. "This isn't the 19th century, when women fainted en masse at every minor issue."

There were only "two or three" conflicts with festival management, says the director. On one occasion, the management objected to a dress made of black stretch material one of the performers was wearing and, on another, they were opposed to a performer's high heels. "Of course, they argued that it was for safety concerns, noting that the performer might trip. The absurdity of it is something I remember all too well from the Stasi in East Germany," says Castorf. "I'm new in Bayreuth, and I'm trying to figure out what their taste is like here. High-heeled shoes are out."

Fellow director Luc Bondy introduced him to Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner years ago, says Castorf. "I haven't seen the two of them often here in Bayreuth. There was little discussion of content. I had the impression that they were more interested in my being on time, which isn't my strength. But here it was made clear to me that you had to show up at 10 a.m. It's like manufacturing here."

Castorf seems calm. He hopes that the audiences in Bayreuth, even the most conservative of Wagner aficionados, might appreciate "the facility, the humor and a certain surprising approach" of his directing. At the same time, he says: "You can't take all of this so terribly seriously. Why should you?" Castorf chuckles quietly to himself. "I don't want to stage a 'Ring' of the century. A 'Ring' of the year is enough for me." But it seems fairly obvious that the opposite true.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Jim in MD 07/25/2013
1. How Quaint
It's not surprising that an East German and a Serb would cast America as the fantastical land of villainy and delusion. What is ironic is that an American composer premiered an opera with similar themes based on the late 19th-century silver rush: the Ballad of Baby Doe. Whether Texas works for the Ring remains to be seen pace Karl May.
g.ly 07/26/2013
2. Wagner Swinging ?
Well, when "Rheingold" plays now in Texas, I would suggest that also the music gets an upbeat, a little R&B touch maybe ? I could imagine Wagner would have loved this,
Chip in Texas 07/27/2013
3. Route 66 Sounds like Rhine River
Lucky that Wagner fans could hear the live broadcast of the new Rheingold today. Only one wayward brass attack, and the rest was pure vocal and orchestral joy. The "boos" for production teams are well-deserved from my experience in German houses over the last 10 years. The director's preview above confirms why today's audience unleashed its anger at curtain. Setting Wagner's Rheingold in 1960's white-trash Texas is proof that Eurotrash directors are inbreeding. Best to experience most new German productions with ears open and eyes closed.
delia 07/31/2013
4. Great!
What a fabulous idea – and a great way to celebrate the advent of the great American Götterdämmerung.
audy 08/26/2013
5. The Arts do it Again!
No political scandal could cause so much debate on important issues, well except for Snowden.
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