Christian Thielemann is celebrated around the world as a conductor of Richard Wagner's music. For him, nothing tops conducting at the Bayreuth Festival. DW spoke with him at this year's festival.
DW: You have conducted many of Wagner's works - including "The Flying Dutchman" now in Bayreuth. What intrigues you about the work?
Christian Thielemann: I can tell you that "The Flying Dutchman" is the hardest piece I've ever done here because it was not written for performing in the orchestra pit. I always used to think that the "Mastersingers" was the hardest piece. But I now find "The Dutchman" more difficult because of the extensive instrumentation, and you have to steer everything accordingly. You're really twisting and turning and navigating the whole evening, and yet you're supposed to be making music in a spontaneous way. But if you're too impulsive, then it just becomes a mess.
How has working with stage director Phillipp Gloger been? After all, you have a lot more experience.
It's been very pleasant. I have felt very comfortable. The acoustics of this building are very difficult, and if a director doesn't pay attention to that, then a lot of acoustic accidents can happen. Philipp Gloger would ask me: "Where should I place the singers so that it doesn't sound bad?" That's a really good basis for working together because I sometimes have the feeling that this building is alive, and if one doesn't treat it well, then it takes revenge.
How did you and Gloger implement those discussions?
The choir, for instance, never moves too far to the front because the voices mix together better in the back. Choir scenes and group scenes: they can sing to the sides - that all works very well on this stage. That's one thing we've experienced here. It's strange, but when the Dutchman sings from far in the back, it almost sounds the best. Those are elements one has to take into consideration musically on this stage. And things one may have to refine in future years.
Where does the Dutchman stand ideologically?
He has no ideology. He's a person who doesn't know where he belongs. That's not unusual in this world. Homelessness, life as an artist - all of us artists are "Dutchmen." Thank goodness not all of us only come home once every seven years - but it's a metaphor, so things can be exaggerated for that reason. Wagner seems to have really pondered the topic. For instance, he placed the Mastersingers squarely in Nuremberg, although the piece is about the total opposite - about homelessness, rootlessness. The Dutchman comes back there, but he doesn't feel at home, and he has no choice but to leave again.
Thielemann considers the Festival Hall almost a 'living creature'
The soloists praise you and your work highly. What do you think of the ensemble?
We selected the singers, and one always chooses singers one can work with well - and I can really work well with this group. I'm happy to have them. They're also all very committed to each other. It's one of those productions without conflicts. There's been no bad blood between anyone throughout the production; everyone is working together toward one goal, and that is truly a wonderful thing.
Following Thomas Hengelbrock's cancellation, you took conducting "Tannhäuser" in Bayreuth at the last minute, and you're now working with Sebastian Baumgartner, who's considered somewhat of a hooligan in the director scene…
I won't comment on that, but one thing I will say: When Bayreuth says it needs a musically-minded person to conduct a piece, you don't say "no." We have enough to do with the music alone. We have a new "Tannhäuser," and we have a new "Venus." It's a big adventure. The last time I conducted "Tannhäuser" here was with Philippe Arlaud as director. The production was very decorative. What's happening right now is a major adventure for me, but it's also funny sometimes. Some things you just have to take with a certain nonchalance. You don't get anywhere if you just get annoyed and fret over things. Besides, I'm stepping in for someone, and that's really a lot of fun.
Thielemann is also directing 'Tannhäuser'
Is there some point where you would say: "I just won't do that" because you think Wagner would turn over in his grave?
He's already turned over in his grave quite a few times. I don't know. I'm doing it this year, and then that's it. I've said "no" to a lot of things.
Where does Bayreuth stand, in your opinion? There's always this or that crisis brewing under the surface.
There are always the imponderables of life. That's the way things are. But Bayreuth is the greatest theater in the world - for Wagner, that is. Nothing else is played here - and that's a good thing. But I do have to say again: "The Dutchman" just doesn't fit here; the early work is just too densely instrumentalized.
There's always word going around that one should perform [Bernd Alois] Zimmermann's "The Soldiers" or some other work here. But that wouldn't fit. The work we have here with "The Dutchman" - no, I would not want to rehearse Zimmermann's heavily instrumentalized "The Soldiers" here. That would be an utter nightmare. Other composers do not belong here either, and Wagner knew precisely why he didn't want that.
'Opening up to new audiences is a good thing'
The Festival seeks to open itself up to new audiences, and there are now broadcasts to public areas. What do you think of that?
I think it's great. Of course, it's nothing like attending an opera in the Festival Hall, but it really piques people's interest. People can at least get a feel for the atmosphere. I think that's really nice. But I think the fascination with this place is unabated. It's something wonderful, a tradition that one must preserve with every means possible. There are too few traditions where it's worth it. Some things are really just too old, or it doesn't mean anything to us. But this here? We can't get enough of it. That's a clear sign that Wagner evidently still means something to all of us.
Christian Thielemann was born in Berlin in 1959 and is considered one of Germany's most sought-after conductors. Formerly an assistant to Herbert von Karajan, Thielemann became music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin in 1997 and of the Munich Philharmonic in 2004. He served as chief conductor of the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden in 2012. Conducting at the world's most renowned opera houses, he has regularly performed at the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth since the year 2000, conducting over 100 performances there. He was named a musical consultant of the festival in 2010. For this year's Bayreuth festival, he has been musical director for two operas: "The Flying Dutchman" and "Tannhäuser."