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Interview with Frank Castorf, part one

Hans Christoph von Bock / alsJuly 24, 2013

Multi-award-winning director Frank Castorf is famous for pulling classical works apart and creatively reassembling them. So expectations and apprehension are great in the lead up to his 'Ring' production in Bayreuth.

Stage director Frank Castorf. Photo ITAR-TASS/ Vladimir Astapkovich
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Deutsche Welle: The search for a director for the "Ring" in this anniversary year took quite some time. Several candidates were considered and most turned the offer down. Why did you agree to do it?

Frank Castorf: I always say: "I came from East Germany, and there, you always bought bananas when they were available."

So it was an offer you couldn't refuse?  

Not really. But I'd never been to Bayreuth before. It's always special to get to know something, to learn something new. Bayreuth is particularly interesting with its long history and the social norms, circumstances, and ideologies that have accompanied the festival. All the rest is vanity - and I'm certainly not immune to that! I like the brevity and intensity of the season here, where you stretch and overstretch yourself. You have only two months to stage sixteen hours of music. You need a lot of stamina and have to be ruthless toward your own sensitivities, intentions and opinions. Plus: I really enjoy doing it.

You're known for your dislike of linear stagings and for taking liberties with a work. Yet, with the "Ring," you have to stick to the libretto. That doesn’t suit your style at all.

Right. And that's often held me back from staging opera. I've had a lot of offers to do opera and have turned most of them down because I don't have the freedom to move a storyline through time and space the way I want. That's how I decide whether to do something or not. Otherwise, I could just as well work for the railway system and make sure the trains run on time. I'm more interested in the detours. I talked about this with conductor Kyrill Petrenko, who conducts the "Ring" here, and he said: "I really request that that we stick to the score."

That's one way to look at it. But you can also tell a story a different way: more complex, yet maybe even more accurately, without damaging the original. That's what we're trying to do here. It's also about, as Wagner termed it, "artistic terrorism."

Before you started thinking about how to stage the "Ring," did you take a look at pictures from the first performance in 1876?

No, no, no! I maintain a healthy ignorance. I'm always worried that certain things could influence me. So I don't look at other stage presentations. I'm more interested in things like: how are we going to depict the "world ash tree," what are the norns, what is "Notung," the sword? What images fit in a day and age when our images are primarily determined by the media?

Have Eva and Katharina Wagner given you complete freedom? Or did they try to tell you what to do? 

Here, I'm sometimes reminded of former East Germany. It's almost like a state-run company where you get the feeling that anyone you work with is a potential enemy. They view you with a certain, necessary skepticism at first. But I'm familiar with that, so it doesn't really bother me. That's why I feel quite comfortable here. And the two ladies are actually quite nice...

Stage director Frank Castorf. AP Photo/Fritz Reiss
Frank Castorf has a healthy skepticism towards the classicsImage: AP

You said you didn't want to tell the "Ring" tale in a linear fashion. What would you say to a viewer who doesn't see the logic in this production?

I'd say that you discover something new through paradoxes, disjunctions and through things that are less than absolutely clear. A realization, maybe even a new storyline develops in the mind, and you might end up saying, "Oh, I wouldn't have come up with that!" That makes it interesting - to see that a thing has evolved.

What are your hopes for the premiere? How would you like the audience to react?

I've never been interested in complete harmony. The worst thing that can happen is when friends come and say: "Hey, Frank, I was really curious about this evening - it's so, well, interesting!" That's stupid. The worst is when people show their support in the sense of knowing that "he does it this way, and that's the way it's always been, and that's great." But actually, here in Bayreuth, it's a completely different audience, very diverse.

Do you expect people to disagree with you, or to be upset?

Well, I hope so. Otherwise it wouldn't be so exciting.

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. Critics and viewers are anticipating his take on Richard Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" opera cycle.

Interview: Hans Christoph von Bock / als