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'Exceptional states'

Interview: Hans Christoph von Bock / gswJuly 27, 2013

Frank Castorf views oil as the gold of our age. One part of his production of Wagner's "Ring" cycle takes place at a Texas gas station in the 1960's. His staging also includes settings in Azerbaijan and Wall Street.

Castorf speaks at a press conference alongside the Bayreuth Festival's co-directors Photo: Tobias Hase/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

DW: You are known for telling stories out of order by playing with space and time. But with Wagner, you have to stick more closely to the score and the libretto. How do you overcome this hurdle?

Frank Castorf: My contract stipulates that I will stay true to the works. But I am also presenting counter-stories that perhaps shed more light on the material. Many little filler pieces play a big role in making the art of theater and opera exciting. For example, a mute person can still offer up a very important commentary. As can a tipped over water bucket. Things get interesting if it's not knocked over accidentally but done with malicious intent…

Why does oil, of all things, play such a big role in your production? Is oil the gold of our times in your view?

I asked myself what "The Rhine Gold" can mean to us. And I assumed that oil plays a similar role for us today as gold in the "Ring." Our technological progress, our luxuries and our economy all depend on oil. And oil also destroys. At some point in the 1820's, oil was discovered in Baku in Azerbaijan. We've seen the images from documentaries about how people extracted the oil from those "holy springs," as they were called in Baku. Oil expliotation first came by way of the Cossacks during the Russian colonization of Azerbaijan. Then it continued under the Soviets. All Europeans profited from this oil: the English, the Germans, the Belgians. Then came the First World War and the Americans with their Standard Oil Company. The Russians decided to turn off the oil pipelines. The resource passed into the state's hands and was intended to flow solely into the Soviet Union's monstrous oil production - at the cost of many millions of people who sacrificed their lives for this "progress."

Workers roll out the red carpet for the opening of the Bayreuth Festival 2013 in Bayreuth, Germany, 25 July 2013. The one-month Wagner festival is Germany's most prestigious culture event. Photo: Daniel Karmann/ dpa
The Bayreuth Festival is attended by many German political and cultural elitesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

It sounds almost like a history lesson by Frank Castorf for the audience at the Green Hill.

If you'd like to put it that way, it's a history lesson. With Wagner, you can't say, 'This means this or that.' But you can put the events in other contexts and find new ways to interpret the statements. To me, that's precisely what constitutes art. This concept of art, of course, has a lot to do with the breakthrough into modernism. And I think it wouldn't have been foreign to Wagner because he wanted to create drama that wouldn't just set itself apart from Italian and French opera but also from the morass of German municipal theater that was customary all across the country. So, for me, Wagner was a revolutionary.

Many people see Wagner primarily as an anti-Semite. Writer Thomas Mann said the Bayreuth festival performances became "the theater of Hitler's court." Did the Nazi past in Bayreuth interest you during your staging?

I can't hear any more of it. And that's why both ladies (Bayreuth co-directors Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier) were so glad that no swastikas were included, no Reich Chancellery and no Hitler. "Heil Hitler" and "Heil Wagner" over and over again - it's dull. What's interesting to me is oil's trail of blood, and where the interests of the Russians and the Americans collided.

Is it about the god Wotan and the dwarf Alberich representing the antipodes represented by social systems in West and East?

I'd prefer not to have to always explain why I do something. Art is about exceptional states to me. And these exceptional states are often clouded by a very dubious understanding of art - thanks to press conferences or program notes. Just because we always want to know everything. We don't want to make any mistakes. We have an incredible fear of being taken for dilettantes. It's such nonsense! There is so much sensuality that emerges in the moment. Günter Netzer also didn't know which pass he had to play to make a goal. But he knew what it was all about. It's simply feeling. You can't explain it mathematically and certainly not sociologically. And that's why all this babbling and rambling is the most boring thing on earth.

Angela Merkel arrives flanked by her husband and other guests in Bayreuth Photo: Tobias Hase/dpa
Annual Bayreuth guest Angela Merkel is sure to have a thought or two about Castorf's 'Ring'Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Your production employs videos, cameras and a revolving stage. How important is that to you?

By the end of the 80*s in the GDR, I'd begun working with video projections. Back then it was subversive because you were perhaps able to show something that hadn't been agreed upon. And of course all of my theater runs counter to compliance. I hate anything relating to conformity, and I always have. I had enough to do with that in the East. I'm disagreeable; if I hear black, then I have to say white.

Using cameras offers me - aside from the effect of surprise - many possibilities: I can get in close. I can create beautiful images. I can make provocative images. It's interesting to show a face close up - all of a sudden, I see the person in an exceptional state. I see how he's sweating and how his make-up is flowing off thanks to the sweat. I like these changes, and the camera shows them to me very precisely. For me, it has a very sensual element when I have this proximity to people.

Headlines have proliferated on the "Ring" production in Bayreuth in the Wagner anniversary year. Many directors were considered, but Frank Castorf, known for throwing theater conventions overboard, was commissioned. Born in East Berlin in 1951, Castorf is the artistic director of Berlin's Volksbühne at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz.

Interview: Hans Christoph von Bock / gsw