"The Flying Dutchman" is the first Wagner work you've staged - and you're doing so at the Green Hill. How did you receive the contract?
Out of the blue I was called and asked. My jaw dropped, of course, and I requested some time to think - my third opera production and straight to Bayreuth! So I spent two weeks examining the piece, had conversations with the festival's leadership about what they liked about me and my work, and then I accepted.
The plot of "The Flying Dutchman" is quite banal. The Dutchman has never seen Senta and wants to marry her; she has only seen a picture of him and immediately promises her loyalty. What did you find interesting in it?
I don't find the story banal at all. It's a very peculiar love story. Other than that, the two worlds from which Senta and the Dutchman come were interesting to me. He is always travelling and in motion - damned to restlessness and not having a home. I see a connection there to our lives today, in which more and more flexibility and mobility are demanded. In this restlessness, there is an immense desire for rest "from the storms of life," as Wagner formulated the general essence of the Dutchman.
Senta, on the other hand, suffers in the world she inhabits: a spinning room owned by her father Daland. There's a motto there that her nanny repeats: "My dear child, if you don't keep spinning, there'll be no present for you." Senta is bound by the rules of profitability and economics that extend all the way into her personal relationships.
They are two people who come from worlds in which their dealings with feelings and love have been thoroughly "economized." And both end up trying to escape those worlds together. It's a love with utopian elements that is bound up with the attempt to lead a better life. It's an attempt that becomes a big project. It may fail or may succeed, and it may only partially come to pass or play out in imaginary spheres. And that's what you find out at the end of the production.
You are the newcomer in Bayreuth, but you have an experienced partner in the orchestra pit. Have you been able to profit from conductor Christian Thielemann's expertise?
Yes, he is an unbelievably good partner. He was often there for stage rehearsals, and that was my request. He gives the singers a feeling of security, but his presence also creates a remarkable tension. He is someone who has very precise musical ideas, but there were always conversations about how they could be realized. Even if neither of us are the kind of people who are especially amenable to compromise, we know that we have to talk about things sometimes.
What would you like to achieve with this work?
I expect from this production what I expect from all productions: that the audience will become more sensitive to the world in which we live and that people will be able to understand and observe human behavior more closely. I also think that my work can invite people to think about the world in which we live - and whether resistance is possible in this world. That will be seen at the end.
How can you put a spinning room, a sailboat and the figures that you've described on the stage in a way that is still credible today?
We decided in favor of a "modestly modern" approach. The Dutchman, for instance, scratches himself in the arm and cannot bleed. He is always travelling and cannot die - cannot come to rest. But then during the love duet, he suddenly starts bleeding. Red is a color we also associate with Senta and her world. We see a person who rediscovers love through suffering, at least for a moment.
Wagner's music is gestural. That means the music constantly narrates what's happening. Wagner formulated part of what is supposed to happen on stage and wrote it in the score. But I've also allowed myself to translate some episodes in a way that are familiar in our world.
Senta's spinning room has no spinning wheels in your version…
No we translated it. We came up with a fan factory. So there's a conveyor belt where the female singers turn the ventilators, pass them along and then pack them. It's easy to recognize why Senta finds this world banal. The women in the factory enjoy their work, but that just makes Senta even more aggressive. She takes the packaging materials and starts to make art out of them, including a little sculpture of the Dutchman. Eventually the real Dutchman confronts her - a sculpture that comes to life.
So she breaks out of this world by becoming creative…
And that fits with Richard Wagner, who wrote about a new kind of man - away from the purely utilitarian being to an artistic being of the future. So it's about making Senta active. She has a vision - even if it's cloudy - and isn't just a passive dreamer. It's by way of this background that I try to move away from and deal productively with the cliche aspects of the plot.
Interview: Hans Christoph von Bock / gsw
Editor: Rick Fulker