Staging Richard Wagner's opera "Lohengrin" at the opening of the Bayreuth Festival, the American finds himself inspired by the ambience on the Green Hill.
Critics describe him as "opera's disrupter in residence" and his work as "ingenious," "virtuosic," "dizzyingly spectacular" and "dazzling." With his theater group The Industry, Sharon has created productions on moving vehicles, at train stations or on parking lots. Now he's at Richard Wagner's own theater, giving his take on the lonely swan knight, Lohengrin.
Deutsche Welle: Many people who like Wagner recall a moment where it first clicked. Do you?
Yuval Sharon: My first encounter with Wagner came relatively early in life. "Siegfried" was only the second opera I'd ever seen. As a 13-year-old, I thought it was interesting that there's a dragon and a sword in the story. The sheer length of it was a challenge – but it resonated with me somehow. I was initially interested in film and theater and only later realized what one can do with opera.
And with Wagner in particular?
And with Wagner in particular! There's no artificial separation in his operas between arias and dialogues. Instead, it's a constant flow of music. And with their sheer length, running five or six hours, his works create a feeling of ritual and of something out of the ordinary. I'm fascinated by that very different world onstage.
You also work frequently in the US. It's often said that American audiences prefer conservative stagings whereas Europeans tend to be more open-minded to creative ideas. Or is that just a cliche?
There's a kernel of truth in every cliche. In America you simply have less time for stage direction. Especially in Germany, on the other hand, you see the value placed on a creative idea. Every new production is an attempt to bring out something new in the work. We rehearse for six weeks here, but in America – even at the big opera houses – you only have three or four weeks. So when you go to work there, you have to be extremely well-prepared and have less opportunity to try things out. That's why I founded my own production company so that I can work according to my own rules.
The production team: conductor Christian Thielemann, stage director Yuval Sharon and set and costume designers Rosa Loy and Neo Rauch
You're an American with Israeli roots and are staging here at the Bayreuth Festival for the first time. What is it like for you to work at this venue, a place where Nazism and anti-Semitism were once fiercely celebrated?
It may sound diplomatic, but honestly, I feel wonderful here. That difficult history was of course a terrible tragedy, and it affected my family as well. But it's clear that people here are coming to terms with that history and probing ever deeper into it. That wonderful exhibition Silenced Voices just below the Festspielhaus for example, right next to the bust of Wagner. It portrays Jewish artists and theater personnel who once worked at the Bayreuth Festival and describes their fates. Every day I go by there and look at another one. I feel so honored to be able to stand on their shoulders and work here as an independent stage director without it being a major issue. My religion and heritage are irrelevant to my work anyway. It only comes up in conversation.
What did your friends and family say when they heard you'd be traveling to Bayreuth?
They didn't criticize it. They did though back in 2001 when I came to Germany to study German. I wanted to be able to read and hear Wagner and Brecht and Rilke and many others in the original. Some in my family asked, "Why Germany?" They were a little uncomfortable with that. But I immediately felt at ease and welcome here. I always perceived a wish on the part of Germans for reconciliation, a desire to build a bridge from the past to the future. When people are that open-minded, I go along with it.
In the story, Lohengrin is supposed to resolve an intractable situation but is unable to avert inevitable tragedy
You've staged a number of contemporary operas. What interests you in a piece like "Lohengrin" that has already been staged hundreds of times?
Of course there have been many very important "Lohengrin" productions. But if a work is good, you never get to the bottom of it. You can always dig up new things, also because it can reflect our own times.
What did you find in the piece?
To me, the women in it are very strong characters. Elsa is often portrayed as wrecking everything because of her curiosity. But this isn't about her failure, it's Lohengrin's failure. He expects the impossible from her: to marry a man without knowing who he is. Can real love exist if you aren't allowed to know the partner? She says: No, impossible. That moment is the point of departure for social criticism. Blindly trusting and obeying someone is not permissible in our society.
What kind of character is Elsa as seen in the current context of #MeToo and Time's Up?
You could see her as a woman who liberates herself. In Act One, she needs external help, a rescue. But by the third act, she's strong enough to stand on her own two feet. And although the story is a kind of fairytale, it carries a strong message. It gets really exciting when Elsa encounters Ortrud. Both are very, very strong women. The men, in contrast, aren't exactly weak, but they're corrupt. It's about the conflict between power and love – the same thing you find in Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung." In "Lohengrin" you have power-hungry people everywhere: Telramund, the King – and of course, Ortrud. The opposing force is the liberating kind of love that Elsa could embody if she had the right partner. Unfortunately, Lohengrin is the wrong one.
By the time you joined the production team, the set and its aesthetics had already been established by the well-known painter Neo Rauch and his wife, Rosa Loy. What were you able to contribute?
Of course it was an unusual approach. I had a strong aesthetic concept, and Neo and Rosa were enthused to view the work they'd done up to that point not as an end result but as a point of departure. I listened to them and offered my own ideas. Some of them they liked, others they didn't. It was a nice, productive dialogue.
Maybe because of the sad story and serious subject, "Lohengrin" has been the subject of parodies and caricatures, such as this one following a performance in Paris in 1891
What do you expect your audience to bring to the experience? Does one have to know the opera "Lohengrin" well to get something out of your interpretation?
I still see myself as the 13-year-old sitting in the opera "Siegfried" for the very first time. Even here in Bayreuth, someone will come in who'll know nothing about the piece. Of course I expect the audience to know it well, but you also have to leave a door open for those who are encountering it for the first time. And in theater, there's always that principal of dialogue. Friedrich Nietzsche once said something to that effect: a major theatrical event requires outstanding people achieving something onstage – and no less outstanding people taking it in, in the auditorium.
Is the Bayreuth myth palpable?
Absolutely palpable. Every day on my bike I go over a bridge, see the Valkyrie porcelain factory – and just behind it, the Festspielhaus on the Green Hill. Then I think: this is the very spot where such an incredible mind created something like this, where architecture and music went hand in hand. It's inspiring, simply magnificent! The dark side is always there too, but that tension only makes it richer, more complex and more interesting.