Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Interview with David Pountney, Director of Ring Cycle at Lyric Opera of Chicago

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.

David Pountney of the Welsh National Opera

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.

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.

Fight of the giants Fasolt and Fafner at Lyric Opera of Chicago
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried

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?

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.

Zachary Nelson as Donner (Thor) at the Lyric Opera
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried

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?

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.”]

Stefan Margita (Loge), Eric Owens (Wotan) and David Pountney
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried

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?

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.

Choreographer Denni Sayers with David Pountney
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried

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.

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.

Wotan (Eric Owens) and Loge (Stefan Margita) threaten Alberich (Samuel Youn)
Rehearsal photo by Karl E. H. Seigfried

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”

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.

U.S. Marshals accompany James Meredith to class at the University of Mississippi

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.

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.

Alberich and the Rhinemaidens
1910 illustration by Arthur Rackham

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.


Jonathan Eells said...

The outcome of this interview is perfectly clear; you must direct your own production of the Ring cycle and set things straight.

Háulfr said...

This is a very interesting interview, thank you for conducting and sharing it. After reading it, however, I'm fairly certain I need a drink.

Pountney's dangerous blindness to blatant antisemitism and apparent simultaneous veneration of and contempt for the working class (fumbling, ugly, stinky? nice) unfortunately place him in the company of a considerable number of contemporary British leftists. As a Marxist myself, I can only call his collected opinions a disaster.

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