Wednesday, October 12, 2016


I was interviewed last Thursday for a broadcast of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) radio program Afternoons. The episode featured in-depth interview segments on three ancient religions: Mayan, Rapa Nui, and Norse. Prof. Andrew Scherer spoke about the Mayans, Dr. Jo Anne Van Tilburg covered the Rapa Nui, and I discussed the Norse.

Hostess Kelly Higgins-Devine introduced my segment like this:
We see them in Marvel Comics, on the big screen – Thor and Odin. How close are those representations to the beliefs of the people who worshiped the Norse gods? You'll find out this afternoon. They may be more multi-layered than we've been led to believe.
A transcription of the Norse religion segment of the program is below. It includes my full answers with producer Jennifer Leake's questions in bold.

What is the Norse religion?

The term Norse religion is really a misleading one. I think it’s much more helpful to speak of Germanic religions in the plural. When I say Germanic, I don’t mean what we now think of as German – of being related to the nation-state of Germany. Instead, I mean a whole cluster of past cultures and languages, of people who spoke what we call Germanic languages like Old Norse and Old English.

Rock carving of spear god in Bohuslän, Sweden
If we step back and take a really expansive view, we can talk about Germanic polytheism that stretches back almost 4,000 years. Way back in about 1800 BCE, there are rock carvings in Scandinavia that show “reverse echoes” of the gods that we know from the Viking Age, like Thor and Odin.

In these rock carvings, there are images of a deity with a spear who seems like the earliest prototype of the god Odin. There is a god with an axe who, over long centuries, may have evolved into Thor.

There are written records and archeological artifacts that document this cluster of religions from this very earliest period all the way to the Christian conversions that finished around 1150. We’re talking about a period that lasts from 1800 BCE to the twelfth century, covering a vast area of continental Europe, Scandinavia, and the British Isles.

We can’t say that there was one great Catholic heathen religion. Instead, there was a large group of local religions over a wide range of time and space that do seem to share fundamental concepts, practices, and beliefs. We usually associate Norse religion with the Vikings, but that is merely one subdivision at a particular time and place of a much larger religio-cultural matrix.

Some of their Gods are still well known today. What is the mythology behind Thor?

The old gods can’t really be reduced to one simple function. We usually think of him in pop culture as the god of thunder. I would ask, what does that even mean? He would just be a god of making a really loud sound, which doesn’t mean anything religiously. Thunder, I would say, is just one manifestation of his presence here on Midgarð or Middle-earth, which is the plane of reality that we live on as humans.

A farmer looks up to Thor in a painting by Max Koch (1900)
If you really want to understand who Thor is, you look at the weapon that he has – the famous hammer of the gods. In the myths, his hammer is the most valued treasure of everything the gods have, because he uses it to defend gods and humans from the giants, who really represent the destructive forces of nature.

This protective function of Thor and his hammer is reflected in actual religious objects. There’s an eleventh-century Swedish amulet that says on it, “may the lightning hold all evil away” and “may Thor protect [me] with that hammer.” It has a protective function, but that shades over into a blessing function.

One of his many secondary names – because all the old gods have long lists of names that they’re referred to by – one of these has been interpreted as “Blessing-Thor,” “Thor, the one who blesses.” In the pop culture version, we don’t think of him blessing things with his hammer, but in the Icelandic sagas, there is record of people making the sign of his hammer over food as a symbol of blessing, like a Christian would make the sign of the Cross.

It seems that Thor’s hammer blessed major life events like birth, marriage, and death – but we know it was also used to claim land and to mark boundaries. In other words, it blessed all the ways that members of a community relate to each other.

We also know that people wore Thor’s hammer pendants – small Thor’s hammers on necklaces. They were very popular in the Viking Age. They seem to be an expression of belonging to a community, both in life and in death.

Another important god was Odin. What was his religious place?

He is also very complicated, like all of the gods of the old polytheistic religions. On one hand, you can see him as a god of language, poetry, and runes. On the other hand, he is a god of magic, war and death. To us, those don’t seem to go together, but the early people – whom we sometimes think of as primitive – often had very complicated theological ideas.

On one side, I think it’s a very deep and beautiful thing. He is determined to learn all he can about the world and about the future, even though what he learns doesn’t make him any happier – because he knows that the doom of the gods is coming, eventually.

Odin at the Well of Wisdom by Willy Pogany (1920)
He is willing to sacrifice one of his eyes just to get one sip from the Well of Wisdom. He is willing to hang himself from the World Tree for nine days and nights with no food and drink, hung and stabbed with a spear, in order to gain knowledge of the runes – the symbols that, according to the myths, were both a writing system and a magical system.

He travels all over the Nine Worlds to ask questions about the origin of the universe, the way things are now, the way the world will end. He risks his life by questioning powerful giants, and he even raises dead prophetesses from the grave to ask what the future will bring.

He has this determination to learn everything he can, to make personal sacrifices to gain wisdom, which I think is an inspiring thing – but the other side can be very frightening.

He learns on his travels about Ragnarök, which lmeans “doom of the powers.” The powers are the gods, so the term means the end of the world, when the giants and the evil dead will rise up and destroy gods, humans, elves, dwarves, the world itself. The giants themselves are destroyed. Everything is destroyed. Then a new world of peace and light rises from the ruins of the old world.

Knowing that this calamity is coming drives Odin to do some dark things. He stirs up war and fighting all over the world. This seems like a horrible thing, but he’s doing it to find the greatest heroes, the ones who win in battle, who eventually he can take to his side to fight on the side of gods and humanity at the end of time.

That’s the image we have of the Valkyries who fly over the battlefield choosing who are the greatest heroes to come up to his hall. Valkyrie means “chooser of the slain.” When the hero falls, the Valkyries take him up to serve Odin.

It’s an interesting thing, because it shades from a god who inspires language and creativity all the way over to a god who causes the turmoil of life in order to prepare for the darkness he knows is coming.

Did the Germanic tribes have any buildings that we might recognize as temples?

Reconstruction of a small heathen temple and altar in Norway
There was a wide variety of practice involving temples and holy areas. We’re talking about a very long period and a very great area on the map.

Tacitus, a Roman writer, reports in the first century that the Germanic tribes laughed at the idea of their gods being small enough to fit into man-made temples, but Adam of Bremen in the eleventh century writes of an enormous temple in Uppsala, Sweden, with statues of Thor, Odin, and Freyr – who’s more of a fertility god.

In between, in this long period, there were various holy groves, sacred spaces, and hofs – buildings dedicated to religious rites that are much smaller than the national-level temple in Uppsala.

Was there any sacrifice in Norse religion?

There was sacrifice going all the way back to the earliest recorded era. Roman authors writing about the Germanic tribes were shocked by human sacrifice, but the other sacrifices they thought were completely normal.

From the first to the eleventh century, there are written accounts of the sacrifice of weapons, armor, animals, slaves, prisoners, and even kings. It was done for a variety of reasons, for everything from assuring good harvests to thanking the gods for victory in battle.

What festivals or occasions through the year did they recognize and celebrate? Was there a calendar of celebration?

We have isolated bits in the written record that suggest that the midwinter celebration was very important and involved sacrificial meals and ritual drinks directed to the gods.

The word Yule that we still use was originally from their religion, and the word itself is connected to one of Odin’s secondary names. The Yule feast was dedicated til árs oc til friðar – to a fruitful and peaceful season. You can see how that shades into Christmas in our modern practice.

During that time at midwinter when you have the longest nights and the darkest point of the year, the barriers between the living and dead were thought to be at their thinnest. It is a pretty terrifying time. The restless dead leave their burial mounds and walk abroad.

The Wild Hunt by Emil Doepler (1905)
The Wild Hunt – which was also associated with Odin – roams the skies and the forests and sweeps up any who venture outside during the long nighttime hours. Some of these beliefs survived as folklore very far into the Christian era. We have records of the Wild Hunt as a folk belief that goes on for centuries, with Christians still believing in it.

One of the sagas from Iceland in the early thirteenth century credits Odin with creating laws that determine when the major sacrifices of the year should be made. It says, “there should be sacrifice towards winter for a good year, and in the middle of winter sacrifice for a good crop, a third in summer, that was victory sacrifice.”

Modern scholars have connected the summer rite with the departure of ships leaving for trading and raiding, and they suggest that a spring sacrifice existed to call for fertility of crops and of livestock.

It really is just fascinating, especially as Norse mythology still appeals to people today. We look at the Marvel Comics depiction of it on screen, of course. That’s an indicator, really, of how it still seeps into our psyche.

Right! I think that Norse mythology appeals to people today at three levels – at the dramatic level, the emotional level, and the spiritual level.

At the dramatic level, they are really great tales of adventure. We keep seeing them being retold. Neil Gaiman, the author of American Gods, has a new book coming out retelling the main Norse myths. There are comics, movies, video games – so many different things that either retell them close to the sources or use them as a starting point to make completely new stories.

The ancient giant falls before the young gods
Illustration by Katharine Pyle (1930)
If you go back to the original myths, the gods create the world from the corpse of an ancient giant. They set the moon, sun, and stars on their courses. Then they create dwarves out of the earth. The first humans are made from trees. A mysterious unkillable sorceress wanders among the gods and teaches them a strange magic.

At the end of the mythic timeline, after long ages of cosmic myths and heroic adventures, the sun and stars are destroyed, and our world perishes in fire and flood. After all that, a new world rises up clean from the waters, new gods appear, and a new age begins.

All of what I’ve just said comes from only one poem, so we’re talking about a wonderful repertoire of deeply dramatic ideas.

When you move to the emotional level – how people, I think, still react to them – the myths appeal to us as an expression of exuberant excitement at the experience of existence.

Thor, for example, really embodies the joy of life lived to its fullest. He drinks unbelievable amounts. He feasts with gods, elves, giants, and men. He takes human children on amazing adventures, which I think is hilarious and doesn’t seem to pop out in the pop culture version.

He has a little boy and girl who are like the Robins to his Batman. He takes them on adventures to Giantland, and they get to have contests with giants. In a Danish comic book which was made into a movie a while back, they have the kids there – but in America, we have more the image of a macho superhero.

Freyja, who is one of the main goddesses, rides in a chariot pulled by cats. Many people have said to me that her greatest godly power is that she can get cats to go in one direction together. She’s known for loving loving songs, loving love affairs. She soars through the skies wearing a cloak of falcon feathers.

These are larger-than-life characters who are able to do what we can only dream of, so it’s very emotionally appealing, I think, to this child that still lives on in us as adults.

When you turn to a third level, to a spiritual level, there’s really a powerful worldview that is contained in the mythology.

Odin never stops trying to learn about the future, even though everything he finds out tells him that the world will die, that he will die, that even the dead who come back from the afterlife will die. Everyone dies. But he doesn’t get depressed and just go home and sit on the couch and watch TV. He keeps searching for knowledge and never ceases fighting against the end and raging against the dying of the light.

I think this is a powerful spiritual view, because it tells us in the myths that the gods will die, but the new gods will be their children when the world rises from the fire and flood of the doom of the powers at Ragnarök. We look at that now, and what does it tell us?

The road goes ever on…
Photo of ash tree in Lincolnshire, England by Kate Nicol
It tells us that we ourselves won’t live forever, but our children will survive us, and their children will survive them. The branches of the World Tree continue to grow, and new leaves appear every springtime.

I think that’s a deeply spiritual and powerful message that appeals to people who actually read the original myths.

Thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us this afternoon. It’s just been wonderful to hear some more about what we call Norse mythology. Thank you!

Thank you so much for having me! I appreciate it.

Monday, October 3, 2016


Eric Owens (Wotan) in Lyric Opera of Chicago's
new production of Wagner's Das Rheingold
On Saturday night, Lyric Opera of Chicago began its 2016-2017 season with an opening night gala performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Lyric has committed to new productions of each opera of Wagner’s monumental Der Ring des NibelungenDie Walküre (2017-2018), Siegfried (2018-2019), and Götterdämmerung (2019-2020). The massive project will culminate with full four-night cycles of the entire series beginning in April 2020.

Bewilderingly, some critics have accepted at face value the assertions by Lyric general director Anthony Freud and Rheingold director David Pountney that this new production is presented “in a manner faithful to Wagner’s text.” To anyone familiar with Wagner’s Rheingold libretto, it should be quite clear that this version goes far beyond interpretation as it rewrites fundamental aspects of the work and recasts the drama as a comic opera.

Despite these issues, the power of Wagner’s music came through in the strength of the young cast and the artistry of the always-excellent Lyric Opera Orchestra. With the brilliant bass-baritone Eric Owens leading the ensemble onstage as Wotan and Sir Andrew Davis conducting the instrumentalists in the pit, the spirit of the music was served with dedicated integrity.

Rewriting the Ring

The Norns and Erda (Okka von der Damerau)
as they appear in Das Rheingold's fourth scene
Even before the low E-flat of the prelude was sounded, it is made abundantly clear that this production profoundly breaks with Wagner’s conception. In complete silence, an added prologue introduces the Norns three full operas early. The three spinners of fate enter with a bag, attached red threads to its contents, then pull out a blue cloth representing the waters of the Rhine.

In his famous account of his “La Spezia vision,” Wagner writes that “the pure triad of E flat major [of the Rheingold prelude] never changed, but seemed by its continuance to impart infinite significance to the element in which I was sinking.” In his conception, the gold guarded by the Rhinemaidens is the mystic element that affects the fates of all who come into contact with it. Primeval lack of change and change through the vicissitudes of fate are at opposite ends of Wagner’s mythology, so this added bit of stage business actively muddied the waters of the work right at the outset.

Referring to Wagner’s stage directions, director David Pountney told me in our interview that what the composer described is “unrealizable” – the description of Wotan and Fricka asleep on a mountainside at the opening of the second scene is impossible to create, since “there is no such thing as any mountainside that will fit on any theater stage.” Because “what is written down in the stage direction is not something that could ever actually exist on a stage,” the director and designer faced with the libretto must “start interpreting.”

Giants, goddesses. and the chariots of the gods
In the new production, however, the second scene begins with the gods entering on oversized and overfull carriages, dreamily dozing as they are pushed along by servants. The “Director’s Note” in the program states that “Rheingold deals with historical time when the gods were nomads but intent on walling themselves up in a pompous castle worthy of the Habsburgs, dressed to match.” To move the prelude from mythological time to historical time is a rewrite rather than an interpretation, as is adding the non-Wagnerian element of the gods wandering the world as the scene begins. Whether or not one can literally put a mountain in a theater, to delete a scene direction asking for two Norse gods sleeping on a mountainside and replace it with a convoy of nomadic nobles being ferried about by servants is closer to recomposition than to realization.

The design of Alberich’s underground realm in the third scene breaks with the aesthetics of the first scene (empty stage, Rhinemaidens on mechanical lifts) and scenes three and four (mostly empty space, dominated by the movable scaffolding representing the giants). Nibelheim, with its Blue Man Group quartet of percussionists, hydraulic platforms, gear-filled catwalks, and red-lit billows of smoke, evokes industrial imagery to underscore a presentation of Alberich-as-industrialist grounded in Bernard Shaw’s socialist reading of the opera cycle in The Perfect Wagnerite: A Commentary on the Niblung’s Ring (1898).

Steampunk Nibelungs
The design and lighting of the scene is quite similar to that of the subterranean factory in “The Next Doctor,” a notably steampunk 2008 episode of the British TV series Doctor Who that features children being forced to labor underground in a setting of oversized gears, scaffolding, and steam. The Lyric scene also features the Germanic dwarves of Wagner’s libretto transformed into semi-robotic creatures wearing de-individualizing welding masks and mechanically moving in synchronized lockstep. Their appearance and movement in the scene was strongly reminiscent of the well-known march of the Cybermen – themselves a form of robotic hybrid – in the same Doctor Who episode. As Pountney told me, the “imagery and visual representation [of Wagner’s Ring] are things that are very strongly influenced by fashion.”

Freia (Laura Wilde) and one of her golden apples of youth
In a second added scene, Freia and Fasolt appear on stage between the third and fourth scenes. The captive goddess makes abundantly clear that she has fallen in love with her abductor. When I asked Pountney about this complete rewriting of Freia’s character during our interview, he said, “It’s not explicitly in Wagner, but it’s a legitimate interpretation. These days, we would call it Stockholm Syndrome.”

Whether or not the interpretation is legitimate or not, it directly contradicts the libretto. As written by Wagner, Freia’s fear of the giants remains consistent from the first threat of abduction to her final liberation. In the fourth scene, the composer writes that – when Fasolt “angrily pull[s] Freia out from behind the hoard” – the goddess cries out for help, just as she had done in her first appearance in the second scene. When she is finally set free from her captors, the stage directions state that “joyfully she hurries over to the gods, each of whom embraces her at length in an excess of joy.”

In a staging that goes directly against Wagner’s characterization of the goddess, Pountney’s Freia gazes longingly at her captor after being ransomed, disdainfully spurns the outstretched arms of the welcoming gods, and storms angrily to the side of the stage. Even during the final ascent into Valhalla, she resists holding hands with her fellow deities.

Freia (Laura Wilde) and the hand of her beloved Fasolt
In the “Director’s Note” of the program, Pountney insists that this production features “a ‘naked’ narration” presented “in clear contrast to many contemporary versions of the Ring which are acts of interpretation.” When scenes are added that do not exist in the libretto, and when characters are portrayed in ways that directly contradict the libretto, is the result a “naked” narration, an act of interpretation, or a rewrite that places the director over the composer?

Rewriting is the prerogative of every director who presents a text visually – from Fritz Lang to Peter Jackson – but to pretend that this production is “faithful to Wagner’s text” is unsustainable.

Das Rheingold as Comic Opera

After Pountney insisted in our interview that Das Rheingold is “pure Karl Marx” and “a grand opéra which could have easily been composed by Meyerbeer,” the last thing I expected was a production that presents the Ring’s mythic prelude as opera buffa.

Annie Rosen (Wellgunde), Diana Newman (Woglinde),
Lindsay Ammann (Flosshilde), and Samuel Youn (Alberich)
He told me that the interaction of Alberich and the Rhinemaidens is a “very funny” scene “about a kind of primeval class conflict between gorgeous, careless, aristocratic girls and a fumbling, ugly, stinky, working-class bloke.” Indeed, the water-spirits are presented as identical blondes in white who hold tennis rackets, apparently to represent the pastimes of Paris Hiltons of a bygone era. Alberich is played in the broadly comic mode of Benny Hill, lecherously posing and mugging for the audience as he inevitably shoves his face between the shaven and oiled legs of the young women.

Wotan (Eric Owens) in his finery
The presentation of the second and fourth scenes is closer to Mozart’s Don Giovanni than to anything described in Wagner’s stage directions. The Norse deities are dressed in three-cornered hats with oversized feather plumes, in riding pants and knee-high boots, in embroidered coats with elaborate waistcoats, and in beautiful ballroom gowns. Wotan and Loge’s descent into the Nibelheim of the dwarves is represented using the standard staging of Don Giovanni’s descent into Hell – by opening of door in the stage, from which red light and smoke emanate. The comedy element was emphasized by large letters on the underside of the door spelling “Achtung!” The Giovanni connection continued throughout the performance, as the production freely mixed comedic and supernatural elements – indeed, making the supernatural elements themselves into comedy.

The decision to foreground the actions of stagehands in the production added to the comedic feel. Pountney described the concept in our interview:
This is more like a Shakespearian theater in which you see the people in the room manipulating the scenery, and they’re part of the action, and they’re even part of the story, and they react to the story, and they are in the story, but they are also telling the story, in terms of operating the elements of scenery and figures and so on.
Wotan (Eric Owens), oversized props, and stage crew
Throughout the production, oversized props are manipulated by crewmembers dressed as zombie-like workers who look like Andy Capp in the robbers’ face-paint from Dead Presidents (1995). The outsized reactions of the crew to the dialogue and action of the main characters guides the audience to respond to the opera in a comedic vein. The gala audience responded as directed, and laughter rang through the hall throughout the evening.

The abbreviated and simplified translation used in the supertitles also directs the audience to view the work as comedy, often using American colloquialisms to transform Wagner’s admittedly heavy and tortured alliterative German verse into much lighter and more humorous exchanges.

Jesse Donner as Froh
Much of the comedy comes from characterizations of the deities. Froh is presented as a figure out of Oscar Wilde’s work – a fop in a fez, continually fussing with his fan in the style of a decadent dandy. In the libretto, he “take[s] Freia into his arms,” orders the giants to back off, and declares her under his protection. Here, his actions and delivery are in the style of Monty Python as he is portrayed using old-fashioned English stereotypes of an ineffectual and effeminate upper-class twit attempting to stand up to manly working-class tough guys.

Donner, the powerful god of thunder, is reduced to a puffed-up and posturing Marvel Comics character in wig and red cape, literally pushed around the stage by a taller and more substantial Wotan. The deity of the Icelandic myths that Wagner turned to for inspiration, a robust figure known for his furious and repeated smiting of giants, is here a strutting figure in ridiculously oversized breeches.

Štefan Margita as Loge
Loge’s first entrance is played for laughs as the fire-spirit arrives riding a decidedly silly bicycle and wearing outsized driving goggles. Throughout the opera, Loge is played as the comic consigliere to the godfather-like Wotan. While the libretto states that Loge “remain[s] at the front of the stage and look[s] back at the gods” as he delivers his penultimate speech, the Lyric Loge directly addresses the crowd while leaning into the front row from where he stands in the orchestra pit. The similarity to Puck’s speech to the audience at the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is likely intentional, given Pountney’s assertion to me that this production is designed to be “like a Shakespearian theater.”

The comic tone of the production, often bordering on operetta, is perhaps at its most extreme at the very end of the work. As the Rhinemaidens repeatedly interrupt the gods’ attempts to finally enter Valhalla, the deities make outsized expressions of frustration, bringing peals of appreciative laughter from the Saturday audience.

Entry of the gods into the fire curtain
Whether this comic approach distorts or ridicules the original work is up for debate. The final image of the evening, however, seemed to turn its satirical gaze upon the Lyric Opera itself. As the gods slowly enter their new fortress to the sarcastic laughter of Loge, multiple reproductions of the Lyric’s beloved fire curtain (with its painting of the parade from Verdi’s Aida) descend to frame Valhalla, the Rainbow Bridge, and the deities.

Is this an attempt to assert ownership of the new production, two seasons after the Lyric reproduced the Covent Garden Tannhäuser with an onstage reproduction of the Royal Opera House’s proscenium? Anthony Freud, the Lyric’s General Director, recently told Opera News that he “very much want[s] this to be identifiably a Lyric Ring that takes an approach to the piece that is individual, engaging and has our artistic identity stamped on it.” Pountney brushed aside the idea that the new Ring is particularly associated with any specifically Lyric style, telling me “I think what [Freud] means by that is that it’s an individual interpretation created for Lyric.”

Given Pountney’s distancing of himself from Freud’s artistic goals, was this final image a tweaking of Lyric patrons? As the gods turn to enter their new dwelling, Loge sings:
They’re hurrying on towards their end,
though they think they will last for ever.
I’m almost ashamed to share in their dealings;
to turn myself into a guttering flame
I feel a seductive desire.
To burn them up
who formerly tamed me,
instead of feebly fading away with the blind…
As the audience hears Loge’s sarcastic words about burning the gold-owning gods he serves, it sees the scene framed by the fire curtain so loved by fans of the Lyric.

The "ludicrous bombast" of fancy dress: Wotan (Eric Owens)
and Fricka (Tanja Ariane Baumgartner) on the Rainbow Bridge
Pountney told me that he believes “the end of Rheingold is intended to be ironic, is a description of ludicrous bombast.” Yet he also insists that the opera is “about the Marxist division of labor” and the portrayal of Alberich is “connected to the whole Marxian thing.” In his article “I predict a riot” for The Guardian, he hoped that his 2011 opera Kommilitonen! (Young Blood!) would inspire today’s students to take to the streets, suggesting he identifies more with the “burn it all” philosophy of Loge than with the self-justifying power plays of Wotan. Perhaps the appearance of the fire curtain as Loge sings of burning down the hall of the wealthy was a socialist’s jibe at the patrons joyfully laughing in their $249 seats.

Powerful Performers

Samuel Youn as Alberich
The breakout vocal performance of the evening was clearly Samuel Youn as Alberich, making his American debut after an impressive career abroad. He and fellow bass-baritone Eric Owens (Wotan) here switched roles, having played the other’s part in a 2013 Berlin production of the Ring. On Saturday, Youn’s consistently projected his impressive voice over the orchestra. During one brief a capella moment in the Nibelheim scene, his powerhouse of a voice rang out with an awesome power. Given the comedic rewrite of the opera, Youn’s bawdy and over the top Alberich consistently stole every scene he was in.

Eric Owens brought his usual Brando-like method acting to the role of Wotan, bringing out a depth of character and motivation that hinted at developments to come in the succeeding operas of the Ring cycle. Even when others were the center of the action – as in the interaction of Loge and Alberich before the capture of the dwarf – Owens remained resolutely focused on projecting the fierce desires raging within Wotan. His quiet internal struggles were often as interesting to watch as the performers doing the actual singing.

Unfortunately, Owens’ voice was sometimes buried by the orchestra. This was due to neither his ability to project nor to the sensitivity of Sir Andrew Davis’ conducting. The low vocal range of Wotan’s bass-baritone part as he mused on the complexities of the dramatic action simply could not compete with Wagner’s thick and heavy scoring.

Just how much Davis was carefully controlling the orchestra’s volume of sound became obvious during the musical interludes between scenes, when the instrumentalists doubled their power output and reveled in the lushness of the score. As always, the orchestra was impeccably balanced, with clear performances from the strings, focused intensity from the brass, and beautiful solos throughout the ensemble.

Štefan Margita (Loge ) & Rodell Rosel (Mime)
Štefan Margita’s Loge turned to the audience for laughs throughout the performance, as the Slovakian tenor played the character more as a devious trickster than, for example, the seductive spirit of Siegfried Jerusalem. Like the flame he represented, Margita jumped about the stage, scaffolding, and orchestra pit with an astonishing energy. However, his dedication to the mercurial nature of the character sometimes worked against him, as when his repeated use of hairpin dynamics (swelling into and out of notes) sometimes caused the beginnings and ends of phrases to be lost in the orchestral texture.

Wilhelm Schwinghammer (clearly born to play Donner) and Tobias Kehrer as Fasolt and Fafner were impressive in vocal power and subtlety of characterization, even as they were restricted by bizarrely Sontaran-like makeup (again with the Doctor Who design influences) and having to stand in mobile scaffolding high above the rest of the cast.

Okka von der Damerau was an amazingly eerie Erda, turning her brief appearance into a mystical and mythic miniature. I look forward to seeing and hearing more of her in the Lyric production of Siegfried.

Diana Newman (Woglinde), Annie Rosen (Wellgunde), and Lindsay Ammann (Flosshilde) were fantastic as the trio of Rhinemaidens. Both individually and in ensemble, their shimmering voices evoked the mystic nixies of Wagner’s imagination. Vocally and physically, they underwent a fantastic transformation from the untouchable beauties of the opening to the heartbroken victims of the opera’s conclusion.

Zachary Nelson as Donner
Both Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Fricka) and Laura Wilde (Freia) were wonderful in their roles, making the most of the admittedly little music Wagner gave them. Similarly, Jesse Donner (Froh, but another one clearly born to play Donner) and Zachary Nelson (Donner) also brought great artistry to what are unfortunately slight parts. Rodell Rosel brought a suitably bizarre and Gollum-like nature to his portrayal of Mime and will be a wonderful part of the upcoming Siegfried.

The disappointingly slight program notes only included one essay, Richard Rothschild’s “A Vote for Das Rheingold.” For the one work in the operatic repertoire that dives deepest into Norse mythology, it was frustrating to see no discussion of the roots of the work. Rothschild seems unaware of Wagner’s Erda being a combination of the Norse goddess Jörð (“earth,” the meaning of Erda) and the mystic völva (“seeress”) of Old Icelandic poetry, instead connecting her to “a long-ago epoch that geologists call Deep Time.” His odd comparison of Das Rheingold to The Hobbit (“Tolkein’s [sic] brief introduction to the epic saga”) misses the more obvious comparisons to The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, both of which contain major elements Tolkien created under Wagner’s influence.

Das Rheingold runs through October 22. Tickets and more information are available on Lyric Opera of Chicago's website. All photos in this review are courtesy of Lyric Opera.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


David Pountney of the Welsh National Opera
On October 1, the Lyric Opera of Chicago debuts its new production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the four-opera, fifteen-hour spectacle inspired by Norse and Germanic mythology, legend, saga, and poetry.

This season will feature Das Rheingold, the first opera of the series, with a cast including Eric Owens (Wotan), Samuel Youn (Alberich), Štefan Margita (Loge), and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner (Fricka). Subsequent seasons will see Die Walküre (2017-2018), Siegfried (2018-2019), and Götterdaämmerung (2019-2020). If that doesn’t sate your appetite for Wagnerian gods and heroes, the Lyric will then perform three complete Ring cycles beginning in April 2020.

The vision of this new Ring is shaped by director David Pountney, the English director and librettist who currently serves as artistic director of the Welsh National Opera. Although Chicago Tribune classical music critic John von Rhein writes that Pountney is “a stage director committed to returning the ‘Ring’ to the world of the theater, after decades of Wagner cycles driven by ideological and/or technological concepts often far removed from Wagner’s explicit intentions,” the director himself makes clear that his new production is centered around a Marxist reading of the libretto and new technology developed with the attitude that Wagner’s stage directions are impossible to realize.

There is little about Wagner and his work on which Mr. Pountney and I agree. The composer is a polarizing figure for both his music and his polemics. In my transcription below (with my questions and comments in bold), I try to convey the intense back-and-forth of what became less of an interview and more of a debate.

I make no secret in my writing and teaching of my belief that we must all confront Wagner’s disgusting anti-Semitism and racism. Whether we perform, direct, study, teach, or listen to his music, we must each face the foulness of the ideas he worked so hard to promote in both his writings and his art. Yes, he was an amazing genius of brilliant musical invention, but he was also one of the most extreme examples of the very worst elements of German culture before the Third Reich.

There are many approaches to Wagner. Here are two of them.

“It’s pure Karl Marx”

KS – In my favorite bit of “The Future of Opera,” your brilliant and barn-burning millennial manifesto on the necessity of new opera, you write:
Those who do nothing more than live like parasites off the past I cast into a particularly unpleasant circle of hell. There is no greater betrayal of custodianship than that. Therefore, the future of opera for me is not about how many more performances of La Bohème there will be in the next century and nor about whether this Bohème is dressed up as something else…

And God forbid that the needs of the present should be fobbed off for the next century with the idea that it is sufficient to re-locate La Bohème in Brixton to answer this point.
How does this new production of an opera first performed nearly 150 years ago address the needs of the present?

DP – I guess because the messages – particularly in this opera – political messages that Wagner encoded into his libretto – which reflected, of course, the political realities of the time when he wrote it – still have degrees of relevance to us today. He was so sublimely skillful as a distiller of perhaps grandiose ideas into very compelling stories. There is something of the Roald Dahl about Wagner, isn’t there? He’s able to take things and turn them into something that everybody wants to be on the next page on.

I think Rheingold is wonderful as a rather thrilling story, but each of the characters in the piece is treated with such sophistication. The fact that he bothers to touch on the personal, romantic yearning of the working-class giant for something of beauty in his life. That’s a very, very subtle thing to weave into the story. Lots of people would have charged through characterizing the giants without putting quite so much attention onto that psychological detail, that one of them is really yearning for something.

That, I think, also reflects the much more explicit, even quasi-socialist state of mind that he was in when he wrote Rheingold. This feeling doesn’t really come much to the fore in the rest of the Ring, but it’s definitely there in Rheingold. Mime’s speech about “once, we used to make toys for our families, and now we’re driven underground.”

This is Karl Marx , actually. It’s pure Karl Marx – the division of labor and all of this kind of thing. But he never loses site of the fact that he’s also telling a good yarn, so none of that philosophy overwhelms the storytelling process.

KS – Watching the rehearsal, I noticed that Freia was looking at the giant with a yearning for him. Is this something you personally put into the production, that she’s actually reciprocating his feelings?

DP – It’s not explicitly in Wagner, but it’s a legitimate interpretation. These days, we would call it Stockholm Syndrome.

Wotan as he will appear in the Lyric Opera's Rheingold
KS – You’ve written that the new production is “in clear contrast to many contemporary versions of the Ring which are acts of interpretation... the emphasis in our case will be to tell the story, rather than to tell you what the story means.”

You’ve also said that this version of “Rheingold deals with historical time when the gods were nomads but intent on walling themselves up in a pompous castle worthy of the Habsburgs, dressed to match, Alberich is turning from a clumsy, mocked seducer into an early industrialist, and Wotan is dreaming of Imperialist hegemony.”

This seems strongly reminiscent of Bernard Shaw’s allegorical interpretation of the Ring in The Perfect Wagnerite. How influential was his commentary on your conception?

DP – A bit. Clearly, that is one of the key texts, simply because when Shaw wrote that, nobody had thought of that. Lots of people have dealt with those aspects of the Ring, and they are undoubtedly part of what we know of Wagner’s thinking at the time. He was involved in the revolution of 1848 and knew Bakunin, who was an anarchist. He was locked into all that.

KS – He handed out grenades.

DP – Exactly. Obviously, because the whole thing took so long, he moved away from that as he went further along with the music. In the end, you could say that his libretto writing was a process towards the discovery of a modern music theater style.

He starts as a libretto writer with a grand opéra which could have easily been composed by Meyerbeer. The libretto of Götterdämmerung could have been designed as the follow-up to William Tell or Meyerbeer or one of those chaps. Gradually, the libretto writing advances in radical theater language. Rheingold is a tremendously original piece of stagecraft. No piece the like of that had ever been seen.

“A theatrical naïveté”

KS – You recently told Opera News that the new production is more naïve than minimalist, “because it’s theatrical techniques where you can see how it is done, but you still believe them.” The Lyric’s general director Anthony Freud told the magazine, “I very much want this to be identifiably a Lyric Ring.”

How does the production’s naïve approach and naked architecture create something specifically Chicagoan? 130 years after the birth of Mies van der Rohe, is this city’s aesthetic sense still defined by his “skin and bones” design concept?

DP – I don’t think this has any relevance to that.

KS – A lot of people were shocked when he showed the guts of the building on the outside. Your production shows the stage crew walking around the stage.

Fight of the giants Fasolt and Fafner at Lyric Opera of Chicago
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried
DP – Yes, but I somehow think that’s a very different thing. Mies van der Rohe is doing something structurally exposing, which is very minimalist, in a way.

This is more like a Shakespearian theater in which you see the people in the room manipulating the scenery, and they’re part of the action, and they’re even part of the story, and they react to the story, and they are in the story, but they are also telling the story, in terms of operating the elements of scenery and figures and so on.

The fight of the giants is a typical point in question. It gives a wonderful illusion of a tremendous fight, but you see exactly how it’s done, but this doesn’t deter you from perceiving it as the fight of the giants.

KS – How is that a particularly Lyric Opera of Chicago production?

DP – I don’t know that that is. I think what he means by that is that it’s it an individual interpretation created for Lyric. I don’t think you could say that there’s anything particularly Chicagoan about it.

There are two big trends in Ring stagings over the last twenty years. One is “what is the biggest machine you can think of that’s going to do everything.” Covent Garden had that revolving platform, and of course the Met had its dysfunctional hydraulic device. That’s one way of doing it. The other big trend is the parallel commentary. You don’t actually stage the Ring. You stage a parallel commentary to the Ring, which is what the recent Bayreuth productions have mostly done.

We’re not doing either of those. We’re doing something that is much more focused on the story and the telling of the story and a theatrical naïveté.

“His sources are not very significant”

KS – Wagner’s appropriation and Germanization of Icelandic literature as part of his völkisch project produced the enduring popular misconception that the Ring is largely based on the Nibelungenlied, even after Arni Bjórnsson demonstrated that 80% of the Ring’s literary motifs are unique to Icelandic literature and only 5% unique to German literature.

Rheingold centers on pagan deities and myths that never appear in the Christian German poem, but are lifted directly from thirteenth-century Icelandic poetry and prose. The two middle operas also rely heavily on works written by Icelanders. Even Götterdämmerung, which contains elements from four “adventures” of the Nibelungenlied, includes major Icelandic elements completely absent from the German, including Valhalla, Ragnarök, the Norns, and the World Tree.

In the interest of foregrounding the narrative and “naked” narration as a director, how did you engage with the pagan Icelandic elements that form 80% of Wagner’s text?

Zachary Nelson as Donner (Thor) at the Lyric Opera
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried
DP – I didn’t. I’m telling the story that Wagner wrote down. We’re not involved in an exercise of historical analysis. We’re involved in an exercise of theater.

We’re telling the story that Wagner wrote down. Where Wagner got that story from is of some interest to me, but not really influential on how I tell the story that he ultimately came up with. His sources are not very significant, in that sense, to me.

KS – But Wagner’s audience of his time were familiar with the sources. They were reading German translations of the Eddas and the sagas.

DP – But we’re not of his time, and nobody knows these things now.

KS – So the sources are lost, and that’s it?

DP – No. They have contributed to his assimilation of various sources into the story that he wanted to tell, for whatever reason, so they’re still there, in a way.

That’s exactly the kind of theater I don’t want to do, is a theater of footnotes, where you constantly have to say, “By the way, you do realize that these are all Icelandic” or “these are pre-Christian.”

Tangibly, on the stage, what you have with Wotan, Fricka, and Loge are, actually, essentially contemporary nineteenth-century political characters. You have a man and his wife who behave exactly like Herr von Bülow and his wife or whoever in Wagner’s circle, and we have a political discussion which could have happened in the Reichstag. We’re not actually setting it there, either, but you could say that those things are just as important as the sources he went back to.

“There is no authenticity involved

KS – Wagner conceived of his Gesamtkunstwerk [“total work of art”] as combining all the arts into a unified whole, he viewed his own libretti as publishable works of literature worthy of recitation as poetry, he was meticulous to the point of fussiness over fully notating stage directions and design elements, and he was happy to tell anyone that he was a genius composer.

No major Ring production would dispense with the score or the sung text of the libretti, yet the visual and theatrical elements of the Gesamtkunstwerk are often completely discarded.

Was Wagner wrong about the unique cohesiveness of his work? Can the theatrical conceptions of a composer who constructed his own theater for a specific audience experience be tossed aside with no impact on the work itself? Why is the theatrical element changeable when we won’t change the other components?

Stefan Margita (Loge), Eric Owens (Wotan) and David Pountney
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried
DP – That’s a very, very simple answer. First of all, if you read the instruction, the action takes place on a mountainside. There is no such thing as any mountainside that will fit on any theater stage. The first thing that a director and a designer have to do when actually looking at the first stage direction they come to is to start interpreting. They have to find a way of representing a mountainside, if that’s what they choose to do.

[Note: Mr. Pountney seems to be referring to the second scene of Das Rheingold, which takes place on “an open space on a mountain summit.” In the opera’s first scene, the setting is “on the bed of the Rhine.”]

From the get-go, there is no authenticity involved anywhere, and there’s no reason why the solution of Wagner’s time – which is representing a mountainside as a flat piece of painting – there’s no way why that is any more convincing than by representing the mountainside as a giant sheet of Perpsex or whatever.

I think the important thing there is to be aware of the fact that, in a page of music, above which perhaps sits this instruction which is unrealizable, there will be, let’s say, a thousand detailed instructions to every single musical participant about every single detail of what they’re going to do. Their first job is to reach a technical degree of excellence which enables them to realize accurately those instructions. So their first goal is accuracy and correctness. They may, if they’re lucky, add on to that – at some point miles down the line, and they’ve achieved all that – a degree of interpretation.

Whereas the standpoint of the designer and the director – not because they’re arrogant, but because they have no other choice – is that they start from the opposite end, and they start with an interpretation, because what is written down in the stage direction is not something that could ever actually exist on a stage.

That doesn’t dislocate Wagner’s concept. All he’s really saying is that the artwork which he envisages – which is all our jobs to create new – also in musical terms, but not so new in musical terms – is to bind all those elements together and to respect their integrity and the way in which they play off one another.

If you listen to Wagner interpretations – let’s say, over a century – you will be aware of small changes, relatively small changes, in the style and interpretation that have gone on in the music. Obviously, if you were able to look at pictures, you’d be aware of massive differences in visual representation.

That’s because the visual representation is something which is, for example, partly dictated by fashion. Imagery and visual representation are things that are very strongly influenced by fashion. Fashion moves very fast. Music moves very slowly. So it’s not surprising that those two things will diverge colossally over time, and they have done so. That is a proof.

“The sacred pact”

KS – At Bayreuth, Wagner hoped to create an experience in which the audience was taken from the outside world – which he viewed as the great illusion – and immersed completely in his overwhelming total artwork.

By breaking the fourth wall – which has really been repeatedly broken for centuries – with continuous onstage revelations of how the illusion is created, the new production prevents the audience from total immersion in the overwhelming opiate sea of the Wagnerian experience.

Given that the theatrical moment has long been demystified, what’s the goal of such an approach when producing the Ring?

Choreographer Denni Sayers with David Pountney
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried
DP – No, I don’t think you’re correct to say that it prevents that. What it does is that it places great emphasis on, if you like, the sacred pact between the storyteller and his listeners. His listeners know the story is a story, but they submerge themselves in it, nonetheless. I think the same applies to this.

Rheingold is, after all, not a piece in which this narcotic subservience, if you like, of the audience is particularly required. Rheingold is not that kind of a piece. It moves so fast, and it’s so detailed and sometimes humorous. It’s not in the same kind of world as parts of Götterdämmerung or Tristan or something like that, which has this kind of overwhelming effect.

KS – I would argue the opposite of that. One of my students told me of attending a production in which they had ten minutes of darkness in the theater before the overture began, and then they started the E-flat chord. Clearly, you’re meant to drown in the music of this piece.

DP – Well, the introduction to Rheingold is an overwhelming musical moment, but then it’s rapidly followed by detailed and very un-narcotic storytelling. You have the three Rhinemaidens and Alberich. I don’t see how you can dream your way through that.

KS – But they’re also singing non-linguistically. They’re singing leialalei, wallala, and these nonsense words.

DP – Yeah, for about two percent of the time. The rest of the percent of the time, they’re being very specific and very funny and detailed, realistic.

KS – I have a question about whether it’s funny or not.

DP – Well, the way they describe Alberich as a lover is funny. They think it’s funny.

“Maybe Wagner was motivated
by anti-Semitism”

KS – Let’s discuss that question. In “The Future of Opera,” you write of the relationship between democracy and the theater:
The audience which enters the theatre must no longer be nobles but should be, in however slender a sense, ennobled when they leave even, or perhaps especially, if they have only been made to laugh together.
If we read Wagner’s other works – his grossly anti-Semitic essays and newspaper articles – and if we accept Bernard Shaw’s idea that the work is allegorical, then the humor in the Rheingold’s opening scene (such as it is) comes at the expense of a wicked dwarf as an anti-Semitic stereotype.

Here and in Siegfried, Wagner uses dwarves to portray offensive stereotypes of a conniving Jewish capitalist and a Jewish composer who steals from the German creative artist. In both Rheingold and Siegfried, the opening scenes feature the base humiliation of dwarf by, respectively, German genii loci and an Aryan Superman.

The argument of Alberich and Mime in Siegfried
Detail of 1911 illustration by Arthur Rackham
We know that Wagner wrote his essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik” [“Jewishness in Music”] just before he wrote the Siegfried libretto. The imagery and the terminology of the essay and the two opening scenes are very closely parallel. In Rheingold, the Rhinemaiden’s description of Alberich contains anti-Semitic elements from Wagner’s most notorious publication. In Siegfried, it’s clear that the hero is Wagner, the Germanic artist of the future, and Mime is the Jewish Mendelssohn figure from the essay who is unable to create on his own, but can only copy.

In an age when we have a presidential candidate who has questioned whether the first black president is actually American, who wants to build walls against Mexicans, and who advocates a ban on Middle-Eastern Muslims entering the country, can we still say that Wagner’s work ennobles the audience?

DP – I think the Ring ennobles an audience, actually, because it leads you through such a huge range of political, emotional issues which is described in extraordinary, rich, inventive, emotional language.

Rheingold, as I’ve always said, is essentially a kind of political cartoon. It’s not designed to be an ennobling experience. Clearly, for example, the end of Rheingold is intended to be ironic, is a description of ludicrous bombast. I think that balances the opening.

Maybe Wagner was motivated by anti-Semitism, but actually the message about Alberich, I would say, is ultimately not really readable as anti-Semitic. Mime is a slightly different case.

I would say it, principally, because what’s being shown here is a class scene. It’s a scene in which careless aristocratic girls of great desirability mock and treat disdainfully a kind of working-class… Remember, he’s not an industrialist at this point. He’s a guy from the underworld. He’s a working class guy who’s dirty and smelly and unpleasant.

Later, when he’s got the gold, he has truly megalomaniac delusions, which are – I would think – utterly disconnected from anything to do with Jewishness. I mean, he has this whole illusion about how, when he’s ruling the world, the whole world is gonna have to give up love, because he had to give up love. He has this whole illusion about having all the beautiful women he wants and ruling the world.

It’s a kind of Hitlerian dream of world domination.

KS – I would say it goes exactly with Wagner’s essays and with this new resurgence of what they now call the alt-right here in America – a new name for white supremacists. Both Wagner and the alt-right forward the anti-Semitic theory that the Jews invisibly control the world, and that’s what is talked about in that section of the opera.

DP – He doesn’t talk about it in this… I mean this is… He doesn’t…

KS – There’s a very telling speech in which Alberich puts on the helmet and is torturing Mime. He says, wherever you look, I will be there. It’s a sort of Panopticon image, that you never know if you’re being watched. In Wagner’s and in the modern anti-Semite’s mind, there’s an international conspiracy, and you never know where they are. I think it’s pretty clear that that’s what Wagner intends at that moment.

DP – I don’t think it’s clear, at all. I think it’s clear that what is implied is some kind of mighty industrialist power. I think it’s much more connected to the whole Marxian thing, as we talked about earlier.

I don’t think you can say that it’s specifically anti-Semitic, at all. I don’t think there’s any detail in that scene. You may be able to extrapolate that by going back to what Wagner also published, but that’s not available in the piece that is, as it’s performed in the theater.

There’s nothing about Alberich’s music that makes you think that this is meant to be some kind of Jewish take-off. I’m not convinced by that, at all.

KS – So the fact that it’s the same vocabulary in “Jewishness in Music” and in the libretto –

DP – Yes, but you’re being much too naïve about the creative process.

“The Israelis won’t play his music,
which I think is ridiculous”

KS – When I mentioned on social media that I was interviewing you, the reaction was, “Are you going to ask him about producing an anti-Semitic opera?” It’s very clear to a lot of people – for instance, Jewish people who don’t want to patronize a theater that would play his works. We know that’s a historical thing. This has been obvious to a lot of people. It’s not a wild idea that I just had yesterday.

Wotan (Eric Owens) and Loge (Stefan Margita)
put a knife to the throat of Alberich (Samuel Youn)
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried
DP – No, no, no. I realize that, and that the Israelis won’t play his music, which I think is ridiculous.

What happens with these pieces that are works of genius, and I would say the same about Merchant of Venice, which actually we happen to be performing in my company in Wales tomorrow… It’s a wonderful opera, actually.

KS – I don’t deny he’s a genius. I teach classes on him, but what I do with my students – I face the issues head-on, I show them the parallels with the essays, and –

DP – And I have nothing against you doing that, but, again, I’m not doing footnote theater.

KS – If you are going to bring out the allegory, which you said you are –

DP – The allegory, to my mind, is very clear. It’s about capitalism. It’s about industrialists. It’s about the Marxist division of labor. It’s about driving people underground to dig and produce gold for somebody else who’s controlling them.

There are lots of industrialists of all different nations and races and so on. They’re not all Jews. If you’re saying that the only industrialist is a Jew, this is ridiculous.

KS – I’m not saying that, at all. I’m saying that Wagner specifically wrote the characters that way.

DP – Yes, but the way they emerge in the piece that he wrote, as we now see it, and as we can now perform it, it doesn’t actually have any unavoidable connection with Jewishness.

It has, to my mind, a very clear connection with industrialism, and capitalism, and the power of money – and that’s fundamentally what it’s about.

I don’t think you can link that inextricably with Jewishness. If you do, you’re falling into the same trap yourself, because you’re saying the only bad capitalists are all Jews. That’s not true.

KS – That is actually what the alt-right has been saying – that if you point out racism and anti-Semitism, by pointing it out in someone who’s promoting it, that means that you accept it, which is what you seem to be saying.

DP – No, I’m saying that I don’t think that there is anything in the text that Wagner that ultimately left behind as his opera, which is the only thing I’m concerned with.

KS – So you’re having a hermeneutic moment where you push aside all his other writings and focus only on the text.

DP – Because that’s what we’re performing. We’re not performing his articles. We’re performing his opera.

That’s a bit like saying I won’t look at a Degas painting, because I now know that Degas was a virulent anti-Semite – but you can’t tell that when you look at a Degas painting.

KS – So Wagner’s writings don’t inform don’t inform how you view the piece, at all.

DP – No. I’m very aware of them, obviously. I’ve been studying these things for many, many years.

Ultimately, when I come to do the production, I’m not directing a footnote. I’m directing what’s there, written to be performed on the stage. The message that that carries is not the message you’re describing to me.

“What the author himself privately thought”

U.S. Marshals accompany James Meredith to class
at the University of Mississippi in 1962
KS – Let’s talk about the message that you had in one of your operas. Kommilitonen! (Young Blood!), your 2011 opera written with Peter Maxwell Davies, features the story of James Meredith, who faced immense white supremacist opposition when he became the first black student to attend the University of Mississippi in 1962.

You wrote for The Guardian on your opera, “If we are to recover a sense of public participation in politics, then the students, among others, should also lift their sights above the parapet of mere self-interest. Maybe our little opera will inspire some of them to do just that.”

This new production is with an opera company that clashed with African-American composer Anthony Davis over his insistence that a white choir not be used to portray the slaves on the slave-ship in his Amistad opera – in a city that is one-third African-American.

Given this history and given the intense nationalism and anti-Semitism of Wagner himself, what would you tell black students in Chicago who are marching against police violence to convince them to come into the opera house for this production?

DP – I’d tell them, “Wotan, the king of the gods, Zeus is a black man.”

KS – Okay. Other than casting, what about the artwork itself?

DP – The artwork itself is a profound message to humanity about humanity of all colors, creeds.

It’s a piece so way beyond that kind of particular issue. It’s about humanity. Love and gold and money. Fathers and daughters.

KS – When they know that he was a nationalist anti-Semite, would you tell black students to forget all that and come to see it, anyway?

DP – I think they should look at the piece. If they can seriously – looking at the piece – find anything racist about it, I’d be very surprised. In the piece.

I’m not sure why we would be very interested.

KS – In what? In having black people come?

DP – No, no, no, no. Don’t be silly, now. In what the author himself privately thought.

KS – It wasn’t private. You know that. He had a newspaper that featured Gobineau’s racist and anti-Semitic theories. This was not private. This was what he was known for in his lifetime and what his work was known for.

DP – There are lots of people who are very kind-of mixed up. Ezra Pound is another one. I have very divergent views and so on. But what do they leave behind? That’s what you go and see.

I go back to the Degas thing. Degas was a virulent anti-Semite in that whole Dreyfus affair and all of that. You look at those chocolate-box pictures, and it’s the last thing you would think about. In a way, you shouldn’t think about it, because it’s not in the picture. The man was an asshole.

Janáček was, to my mind, one of the greatest humanist composers, ever. Treated his wife abominably, was a racist towards his wife, because she was German-speaking – and treated her badly for thirty years. But when you listen to the music, you’re listening to the genius of a great humanist who may also have been a very flawed human being with whom I don’t feel obliged to agree, simply because I love his music.

I think this kind of overemphasis on the biography, on the backstory, on the footnote…

KS – I don’t think it’s that, at all. If you’re going to say that Wagner is expressing himself through his work, because he does… A lot of people, when they discuss Wagner, say that the Schopenhauer comes through, the Feuerbach, all these wonderful, deep ideas about humanity, about power, love. Okay, but we’re going to pretend that his anti-Semitism doesn’t come through?

We know that, the older he got, the more overwhelming of an obsession it became. It is clear from letters and testimonies from the time that it became his overwhelming obsession. It was not just a private thing he had on the side.

DP – That, I would certainly question. Overwhelming. I think you’re exaggerating.

KS – He published Gobineau’s racist theories in his own newspaper, and he went further than Gobineau in his own articles. We know this. This was not just a little thing on the side.

DP – I think his obsession was writing his pieces. It’s what he spent twenty-five years doing – writing this piece. That’s an obsession, if you like. I think that tells you where his…

We know that he was an absolute asshole, in all kinds of ways – a very deeply unpleasant man, demanding and petulant and foolish and arrogant – but he created wonderful things.

What do you want to say with this? Only somebody who’s flawless as a person creates art that should be looked at and admired?

KS – Absolutely not, but I think we should acknowledge –

DP – We’d probably be horrified if we met Shakespeare today and had a conversation.

“It’s not a Marxist-socialist interpretation”

KS – You’ve read these biographies of Wagner where they say, “Oh, thank God it doesn’t come through in his artwork!” And, of course, it does.

That’s what I think is the naïve part, to pretend – when it’s the same language in the essay and the libretto, and the opening of Siegfried is a dramatization of the essay written at the same time – to pretend that it’s not there, I think it denies the experience of a large proportion of humanity, rather than deal with it head-on.

Alberich and the Rhinemaidens
1910 illustration by Arthur Rackham
DP – What would that actually mean, for me as a director, for example? I mean, of course, I could do it. To me, it would just completely distort the entire story, and it would limit the story in a very, very regrettable way.

I think the story starts – the first scene of Rheingold – it starts being about a kind of primeval class conflict between gorgeous, careless, aristocratic girls and a fumbling, ugly, stinky, working-class bloke who is ultimately so outraged by their disdain for him that he turns into a violent and evil person.

KS – You don’t think that’s overemphasizing this socialist interpretation and making that the one interpretation?

DP – That, to my mind, is still a kind of taking a huge segment of human nature. It’s not limiting it to Jews.

KS – But it’s limiting it to a Marxist-socialist interpretation of a text that is literally about dwarves and giants.

DP – It’s not a Marxist-socialist interpretation.

KS – When you talk about the working class and the capitalist, of course it is. There’s nothing in the text literally about capitalists and the working class. That’s an interpretation.

DP – No, but when he becomes an industrialist who’s assembling profit and driving people underground…

KS – He’s not an industrialist. That’s a Marxist interpretation. There were no industrialists in the Long Ago, in illo tempore, when the dwarves were building mountains of gold. That’s definitely an interpretation.

DP – No, but we also know when it was written and what that means.

KS – But it’s not in the text, if you’re going to engage with the text.

DP – No.

KS – I’m not sure if we completely disagree, then. I’m saying there is no socialism in the text, and you’re saying there’s no anti-Semitism in the text.

My interpretation – knowing Wagner’s writings – is that there is anti-Semitism. Your interpretation – knowing the politics of the time – is that there’s socialism. So those are both interpretations with footnotes.

Students today who have not read Marx or studied nineteenth-century history would never see industrialization while reading the libretto.

DP – Industrialization is, actually, not necessarily… Again, you’re being much too narrow. Industrialization is a massive economic change in the order of the world which took place in the early nineteenth century.

KS – Nothing in the libretto takes place in the nineteenth century.

DP – I think everything in the libretto is nineteenth century. It was written…

“Obviously, that’s my thinking about it”

KS – If we’re talking about engaging only with the text – and you had said not using all these essays and things around it – you’re saying, “Footnote: At this point, Wagner was involved in the 1848 revolutions and had socialist ideas.” That’s a footnote.

Those coming new to the next with none of that in the background – someone not educated in a leftist perspective – the text is about gods and dwarves and Thor and all these wonderful things.

It’s clearly a footnoted interpretation to say it’s about the working class and capitalism.

DP – I wouldn’t necessarily… I mean… Let’s see how much you think of a socialist interpretation comes out in what we’re actually doing.

Obviously, that’s my thinking about it, but I’m not holding up big flags saying…

The giants of Germanic mythology in the Lyric Opera's Rheingold
KS – Are the giant heads on the scaffolding representing Fasolt and Fafner meant to look like English working-class guys with caps?

DP – I don’t know about English. They look like laborers. Yes.

KS – So they’re supposed to look like laborers.

DP – Yeah. Well, that’s what they are, isn’t it? They’re building laborers.

KS – Not if you read the myths. It’s a whole different thing.

DP – In this piece, they are builders. That’s what they say.

KS – But a giant builder is different from the lumpenproletariat.

DP – Well they’re pretty – aren’t they? – are pretty different. They’re twenty-five feet high, for a start.

KS – So you do have some footnotes.

DP – Maybe.

KS – Wagner said he would only perform the Ring on the banks of the Mississippi, because only Americans would understand the revolution of his piece – but that’s a footnote. The text is an adventure with gods and heroes.

DP – If you say so.

KS – If you have a hermeneutic moment with the text – with no footnotes – it’s literally about gods. There’s not one line in it that says the capitalist is exploiting the proletariat.

DP – Mime’s speech comes pretty damn close.

KS – I would say that Mime’s treatment by Siegfried comes pretty close to torturing Jews, which we know happened historically. Those are both interpretations, and you’ve made a choice as a director which interpretation to take.

DP – Of course. I say very clearly – although I’m not emphasizing the act of interpretation – nobody’s objective, as you’re busy proving.

KS – The other Ring operas won’t be so political, in your production?

DP – No, no, no.

KS – Alright.

DP – Good!

At this point, Mr. Pountney walked out of the room and called from the hallway, “Farewell, Herr Siegfried!” – using the name of Wagner’s hero in place of my own name, Seigfried.
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