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Photo Gallery: A Risky Reimagining of Wagner's Ring Cycle

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

Firebrand director Frank Castorf presents his version of Richard Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung" this week at Germany's most important opera festival. The production is meant to salvage the shaky reputation of the festival's artistic directors. But is it doomed for disaster?

It's late in the evening high up on the storied Green Hill at the edge of Bayreuth, and renowned German theater director Frank Castorf is letting off some steam. We're on the summer terrace of the Bürgerreuth Restaurant, a few hundred meters up a steep footpath from Festival Theater, the Bavarian opera house built by Richard Wagner. "Today I was on the verge of throwing rocks," says Castorf, as mosquitoes buzz around the lights above the tables. He is talking about the dress rehearsal for "Götterdämmerung." "What happened on that stage was Ingolstadt local theater. And that's being generous."

Castorf leans back and breathes in deeply through his narrow nostrils, his face deeply tanned. He seems to be enjoying himself, despite his apparent exasperation. "I'm feeling something like a postal clerk mentality," he says. "I need to tap into a different kind of aggressiveness." Castorf seems to be looking forward to the hard work he still faces on the fabled Green Hill in Bayreuth. Still, he adds, "I don't really like working in July."

Starting this Friday, Castorf and Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko will present their "Ring of the Nibelung" in the Bayreuth Festival Theater, their contribution to this year's anniversary celebration marking Wagner's 200th birthday. Preparations for the large-scale production, which is estimated to run for a total of 17 hours, were completed in an extremely short period of time. Castorf was brought in after filmmaker Wim Wenders, who had initially been hired to direct the Ring Cycle, backed out after lengthy deliberation. Attempts by artistic directors Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, both great-granddaughters of the composer, to pull in other prominent directors, including Tom Tykwer, also came up short.

Castorf is now playing the savior. "I see myself as a service provider here," says the 62-year-old director. He is taking the short rehearsal times in stride. "I had to stage 'Rheingold' in nine days, which, of course, is lunacy. It's like working on 'Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten,'" he said, referencing a long-running German soap opera. Wagner's Ring Cycle, says Castorf, is "a piece of great eclecticism," which makes it easier for any director to work with his own ideas.

How enthusiastic is he about Wagner's music? "I don't know whether I'm a big fan of Wagner's music," says Castorf. "I wouldn't put it that way. I understand why his music had such a strong influence on American film music. It's the leitmotif-like aspect of it, its overtly German and Brechtian nature. The desire to create insight through grand moments. Everything is based on the principle that one has to step outside of something to truly perceive it. Ultimately, it becomes very transparent." Nevertheless, he adds, "the singers often seem to melt away."

Jitters at the Top

The organizers of the Bayreuth Festival are apparently very nervous ahead of the Ring premier. Conductor Petrenko declined to give any interviews at all and director Castorf cancelled most of his. Although Katharina Wagner publicly pushed to have the contract with her and festival co-director Eva Wagner-Pasquier, which expires in 2015, extended as quickly as possible, all she was willing to reveal about the Ring Cycle was this: "What we have been able see so far is impressive."

In contrast to the usual Bayreuth premiers, very little was shown to the press in advance. "We regret to inform you that, contrary to previous announcements, it is no longer possible to attend the dress rehearsals for 'Siegfried' and 'Götterdämmerung'," the festival press office announced. "At the request of the production team and in consultation with the organizers, festival management has closed the dress rehearsals to all visitors."

Some members of the press have even been denied admission to the premier. The passionate Bayreuth critic Monika Beer, who writes a Wagner blog filled with a great deal of insider festival information and planned to report on the Ring performances for Fränkischer Tag, a regional newspaper, was turned down when she tried to secure tickets for opening night. In her blog, Beer often attacks the Wagner sisters running the show at Bayreuth for what she calls their "disastrous artist's policy." She was told that there is a shortage of press tickets this year. "The festival management wants to keep out people like me," says Beer.

Director Castorf says that the mood within the management team for the Bayreuth Festival reminds him of his wild days in East Germany. "Every outsider is the enemy. It's pure GDR." According to Castorf, the organizers suffer from a "phobia" so pronounced that he even had to negotiate for permission to have his own relatives attend rehearsals. "In the end, my mother and my son were allowed in."

From Rheingold to Texas Tea

Castorf revealed the spectacular concept for his staging of the Ring cycle early on. In his version, oil will be the gold in the Rhine, the Nibelung treasure. And because Wagner makes him think of Route 66, Castorf sets some of the action in the North American plains. He says that he wants to "move away from illustration," use a lot of video and a revolving stage, and set his oil storyline primarily in Azerbaijan and Texas.

"Such translations don't work one-to-one," says Castorf today. "Direct translations into the world of modern industrial production or Wall Street are never convincing in the theater, even if it's (respected German theater directors) Ruth Berghaus or Peter Konwitschny."

Serbian set designer Aleksandar Denic has already worked for Castorf several times, including on his 2012 Paris production of "The Lady of the Camelias." The 49-year-old designer is also known for his work for Emir Kusturica's film "Underground." For the Bayreuth festival, Denic designed monumental sets that recall the days of glamour and misery in which mankind came to love oil as black gold.

Denic's set for "Das Rheingold" -- known as "Preliminary Evening" in Wagner's tetralogy -- includes the façade of a Texas motel, complete with a gas station. The set designer, a convoluted, temperamental and argumentative man, invokes the grand, uninhibited days when the automobile was king -- "the golden years of the 1960s and 1970s, when gasoline was cheap in America, people drove big cars and oil reserves seemed inexhaustible."

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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