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Why Wagner's 'Parsifal' is so relevant today

Interview: Rick FulkerJuly 25, 2016

Bayreuth stage director Uwe Eric Laufenberg talks about festival scandals and his production on opening day, July 25. "Parsifal" is particularly interesting in times of widespread religious fundamentalism, he says.

Uwe Eric Laufenberg. (c) dpa - Bildfunk
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Fredrik von Erichsen

DW: Conductor Andris Nelsons left the Bayreuth Festival for unknown reasons but in dispute - a mere three-and-a-half weeks before the premiere. When the news was revealed, you called it a catastrophic development for your production of Richard Wagner's opera "Parsifal." How do you feel now?

Uwe Eric Laufenberg: After conductor Hartmut Haenchen took over, the production has been back in very good hands musically. His approach is very different from Nelsons'. The singers had to make a major readjustment - as did the orchestral musicians. Haenchen uses the original score. He owns a complete set of part-books and had them put on the musicians' note stands. They said, "Oh, goodness, that's a big change."

It's a Bayreuth tradition to use the same scores from year to year, which include handwritten notes. Haenchen dispensed with all that and forced them to readjust. Some of the instrumentalists know the pieces so well that they can play them by memory - but now they're being forced to look at the score again. It's an inconvenience for them, but the production has benefited from Hartmut Haenchen's rigorous approach.

Hartmut Haenchen. (C) picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hiekel
Hartmut Haenchen takes a rigorous Approach to 'Parsifal'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Hiekel

And that in only 26 days' time!


Before the Bayreuth Festival begins, there's frequently some sort of drama behind the scenes, usually a conflict, giving the impression that everyone's nerves are strained here and under incredible pressure. Is that how it is?

Before I started my work here, I asked the management, "Do you stage these scandals on purpose to keep Bayreuth in the news?"

"No, no, no, we don't do that," came the answer. You do get the sense here that someone else is always to blame. I can take it with a bit of humor. But if a singer is involved, that can also be very painful to them [Editor's note: in 2015 Anja Kampe, slated to sing the role of Isolde, had to leave the team during the rehearsal phase]. I'm relieved that we've been able to hold the cast together and collaborate with joy and satisfaction. We're not storm-tossed here.

How about a bit of shop talk - maybe an example of the interaction between director, conductor, soloists and technical team.

I could tell many stories about the little scandals that have erupted at various points. But up to now, I've managed - knock on wood! - to get the work on stage in a spirit of calmness and cooperation. Productions in Bayreuth are clearly different. Everyone who comes here is 100 percent prepared and knows how to do it. That can be a challenge for a director or a conductor who comes and wants to try something different.

I do find it annoying when acoustical experts here tell you, "This was Wagner's intention, and the chorus or the soloists have to stand here or there; otherwise they can't be heard." I think that's nonsense, because you can hear the voices here more clearly than in any other theater in the world. So if people tell me, "You have to accommodate the scene to the acoustic," I just don't buy it.

Parsifal in Bayreuth Bayreuther Festspiele 2012. (c) dpa - Bildfunk
The past production of 'Parsifal' by stage director Stefan Herheim was highly popularImage: Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

What approach do you take in interpreting "Parsifal"? Are you forced to give an answer to earlier productions, particularly in Bayreuth?

I'm interested in the work's core message.

And that is?

This piece basically focuses on the religion of Christianity. On one hand, the grail knights in "Parsifal" inhabit a realm of charity, empathy and sympathy, and they come to the aid of the needy. Then there's the other side: a crucified God, blood rituals and military symbolism.

I believe that Wagner wanted to bring out the factors of benevolence and mystery in this work. Not to openly criticize religion, but to enable one to experience it. That's interesting in our own times of widespread religious fundamentalism - but also in times of a Pope Francis, who has been de-emphasizing the institutional side of the Catholic Church and stressing the factors of mercy, grace and benevolence.

It's always been pertinent to ask: What are religions doing, and are they allowing themselves to be abused for ideological purposes? What do they really stand for?

Uwe Eric Laufenberg. Copyright: picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com/H. Neubauer
Just before the performance, Laufenberg seems optimisticImage: picture alliance/APA/picturedesk.com/H. Neubauer

"Parsifal" is a five-hour musical drama with very little plot or action. The characters are mainly allegorical figures. Then everyone is redeemed in a happy ending. Isn't all that quite a challenge to put in scene?

If you just consider the text, "Parsifal" is difficult, yes. You need the music. It explains so much in detail, and you have to get a sense of that. Such is the case with the happy ending. Wagner knew this would be his last work. At the final uncovering of the Holy Grail, the violins soar upwards, the harmonies become clearer, and everything finally dissipates into nothingness. It's like a final breath, the utopia of a dying man, as it were - a very beautiful, holy, peaceful utopia.