FactsOpera Short in VR, 23 min, 2018
Directed by Jan Schmidt-Garre
(This clip is just a simulation for a conventional screen.)
W. A. Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro, Act II, Scenes 13-16
"At once the theatre transforms itself into a sun", a stage direction by Mozart reads. Gazing at the sun can be beautiful but what would it be like to actually see it from inside? The 360° camera promises such a peek.
"360° Figaro" is a music film shot in virtual reality: an opera scene, for the first time conceived and staged exclusively for this new medium, live performed both vocally and instrumentally, recorded by a binaural sound recording technique. A series of scenes – coherent in itself – has been shot from the beginning of Act II of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Instead of having a conventional centrifugal angle like in an arena, our point of view is a centripetal one. The viewer is placed right in the centre of the performance which is staged exclusively for him.
We set in to the story with the erotically charged scene in which Rosina and Susanna decide to dress up the young teenager Cherubino – played by a woman – as a girl and are in awe and smitten by the result of his androgynous beauty. Sparks begin to ignite between the boy and Rosina. But then there’s a knock on the door – it’s Rosina’s husband. In a hurry they try to hide Cherubino in the dressing room, Susanna rushes to leave the room, Rosina remains alone and Almaviva enters. When Cherubino – a bundle of nerves – clumsily knocks over a chair, Almaviva is alarmed out of jealousy and decides to break the dressing room door. He hurries to fetch some tools and forces his wife to accompany him, then cleverly locks all doors. An instant after they are gone, Susanna reappears, rescues the unhappy Cherubino who out of lack of escape possibilities, jumps off the window. So by the time Rosina and Almaviva return, Susanna has taken Cherubino’s spot in the dressing room. Almaviva urges his wife to tell him the truth. She almost confesses while he attempts to blow up the door – which magically opens and Susanna, elegantly pretending to be utterly surprised, leave Rosina and Almaviva equally exposed and astonished. A contrite Almaviva begs his wife’s forgiveness for having been untrusting and suspecting.
The set: contemporary dressed young people within a classical interior. An assembly of doors surround them, original interior doors as well as doors which were specifically constructed for the purpose of moving and adjusting them with the help of wheeled walls. The room changes according to the momentary moods and scene changes: once we find ourselves in a narrow alley, once in a spacious salon. The doors enable the camera to show two types of settings, simultaneously, later even three: one for Cherubino, one for Susanna, one for Rosina (this type of angle only the 360° camera can achieve). The walls thus build a labyrinth which mirrors the ingenious architecture of Mozart’s finale.
Mozart relentlessly masters to heat up his scenes and situations, they are full of humour and profound knowledge of the deepest human abyss while highly charged with a type of sitcom which is more contemporary and fresh as ever. What Mozart so wonderfully manages in this very ensemble, is beautifully summed up by Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus who let his Mozart proclaim the following: “Would a playwright want to portray this very moment, he would need to recount each and everyone of his thoughts, one by one, on paper. A composer can summarise them all – and yet still make you hear each and every individual thought of thread. I would bet this is the way God listens to the world.”
Rosina: Jacquelyn Wagner
Almaviva: Mathias Hausmann
Susanna: Olena Tokar
Cherubino: Valentina Stadler
Conductor: Christoph Schlüren
Cinematography: Thomas Bresinsky
3D sound recording: Thomas Koch
Technical coordination: Christian Weissig
Set design: Sascha Gross
Costumes: Olivia Schuler-Voith
In memoriam Lothar Mattner
Shot with the Omnicam 360° camera developed by Fraunhofer Heinrich-Hertz-Institut, Berlin
A co-production of PARS Media with WDR/Arte Concert, Arthaus Musik, Neue Horizonte, Fraunhofer Heinrich-Hertz-Institut, Oper Leipzig
Supported by FilmFernsehFonds Bayern, Land Sachsen-Anhalt, nordmedia – Film- und Mediengesellschaft, Niedersachsen/Bremen mbH
Max Nyffeler, Schweizer Musikzeitung
Now I understand why I was advised to sit on a chair without a backrest. I am in fact in the middle of the turbulent second act of Figaro and must constantly turn on my axis. Around me, Susanna, the Countess and the jealous Count Almaviva are negotiating the puzzling case that it is apparently Susanna and not Cherubino who has hidden in the Countess’s dressing room. But stop! Of course I am not sitting on the stage. It’s an illusion, and I owe it to the VR glasses that Jan Schmidt-Garre put on me. They catapulted me into a virtual reality. The experiment at the intersection of art and technology, entitled 360° Figaro, was realized by the experienced film author and opera director as an in-house production; partners in the 200,000-euro project were the Leipzig Opera and the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute in Berlin, which developed the 360° camera. The end product is overwhelming – total immersion.
Is this what the Future of Opera Looks Like?
Documentary filmmaker and opera director Jan Schmidt-Garre has filmed the first 360-degree opera. Half an hour from Mozart’s » Marriage of Figaro « for VR glasses and swivel chair. A report.
By Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt
A black god from heaven into Count Almaviva’s castle. He sees everything, this god. Every half hour, someone has to come with white gloves, remove smears and dust. The black god looks like a dark chandelier, but it is a camera. Something like the ultimate camera of the moment. It’s called OmniCam 360. Constructed by the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute from ten 36-degree mirror segments and connected to ten micro HD cameras. The count’s castle stands as a fifty-square-meter wooden cube – chipboard on the outside, a dream in mint green and beige on the inside, wallpapered with peacocks and fine plants – in Studio Halle. The walls around the camera can dance, transforming into ever new spaces.
Horst Sindermann once broadcast SED propaganda disguised as entertaining journalism from here, a good 55 years ago. Now, a completely different revolution is taking place here – the studio has become something like a mini-Babelsberg of Saxony-Anhalt.
Jan Schmidt-Garre, award-winning documentary filmmaker and opera director, is sitting on a stool one wall away. Between many young people with iPads, in front of screens, computers. He has a thing tied around his head and over his eyes that still looks very alien, although it has long been familiar from his children’s game consoles. Schmidt-Garre turns erratically, his head wobbling, sometimes moving upward, then sliding gently to the side. Virtual reality (VR) goggles transform people into strange maniacs for other people watching their adventures in other worlds. Schmidt-Garre wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s shooting the first 360-degree opera in music history in Halle.
That is. It’s not actually the first opera. That’s what he had in mind. » The Magic Flute. « It all started three years ago. And Schmidt-Garre had actually thought, because the idea was so obvious, that he would have to hurry. But he now knows that he didn’t have to. Those who knew about the technique and its effects talked him out of the » Magic Flute « relatively quickly. They said that no one could stand a good three hours with Tamino and Papageno in virtual space.
He has stayed with Mozart. It has now become a chamber play. A total theater of the heart, so to speak. » Marriage of Figaro, « Act II finale. Four voices, the orchestra reduced to piano, violin, clarinet, cello by a Romanian composer on Schmidt-Garre’s order. It sits, well hidden from the camera’s view, in a side wing of the miniature cube in the studio.
The count, outside the door, smells deceit. Cherubino, the Countess’s potential lover sung by a woman, is disguised as a girl. The Count knocks, Cherubino flees out the window. Drama, love, desperation, jealousy. Could be a prequel to » Love Actually. « Lasts just under half an hour, works without explanation for everyone. The only catch: Schmidt-Garre’s » Figaro « unfortunately has to do without Figaro. He doesn’t appear in the finale.
He didn’t actually think of the audience first when he heard about the cameras and what you can do with them. As a director, he wanted to get out of the frontal theater. To be in the middle of it instead of across from it. To stage the action around himself. And to take the audience along with him at the end, of course. To put him in Almaviva’s castle as an autonomous being, as his own director.
The cameraman comes. Something doesn’t work. Maybe they have to buy another camera in Halle. For the sky. You have to be able to see the sky above you. The people at the Fraunhofer Institute are very helpful. They learn with every project. There is a fine electricity in the air.
The old dream of total theater, with VR glasses it could become reality, of really experiencing a drama. Everyone watches their own story. More powerful, more individual, more intense than was previously possible. » There is, « says Schmidt-Garre, » a lot of freedom given to the viewer. « There is no long shot. You wander around with your eyes. Always afraid to touch the singers with your glasses, to get caught on them while turning on the stool. Schmidt-Garre’s » Figaro « is, in a way, a barrier-free opera. They had to get used to the fact that the singers are potentially constantly in the picture, that they have to be observable at all times, that there is no front and no back in the virtual space, unlike on stage. They love to sing in one direction – which can sometimes drive opera directors to despair – which doesn’t exist in the virtual world. To the front. For acoustic reasons. That’s why, according to Schmidt-Garre, one of the standard positions for love duets in musical theater is for the tenor to embrace the soprano from behind. This way, both can sing into the auditorium at the same time.
The freedom he gives the audience in the virtual space, he also gives to the performers. They can, and must, play much more intensively, free of acoustic conditions, work with glances, get very close to the camera. But Schmidt-Garre doesn’t believe that they have to do more gestures on the big stage than they do here in the miniature cube in Halle. He learned from Rudolf Noelte, the great theater and opera director, that singers always have to play close-up, and that even in musical theater they can spare themselves grand gestures and gigantically widened eyes.
The freedom that Schmidt-Garre’s singers now have, however, also came from a voluntary self-restraint. Schmidt-Garre wanted to use the new medium in its purest form. The half hour of Mozart is filmed without editing. There are no dissolves. The camera, which could potentially be mobile, remains motionless in the sky. Schmidt-Garre had to create the theatricality differently. The walls move gently, open up new lines of sight, transform spaces. The singers move in these spaces, do not remain rigidly in one place. Schmidt-Garre stages a drama of looks, of gestures, a bee dance of love around the camera.
A good quarter of a year later. Schmidt-Garre’s virtual » Figaro « has passed its acid test. It was shown on Arte, which co-produced it. In Leipzig, » Figaro « took place in one of the opera foyers. People sat on swivel stools. Each two meters apart. It looked spooky. It was funny even for Schmidt-Garre. To imagine what they were seeing, where they were in this strange new opera world. So intensely immersed. A paradise for pickpockets.
We are also in a foyer. That of a Berlin coffee house. Inside, Schmidt-Garre has just told us what has happened since Halle and how everything came before Halle. He has brought along VR glasses and his final » Figaro «. Inside, we would have been a bit too behavioral even for this place. That’s how you stand there. The fancy, but still clunky thing like a media gas mask on your face. Everything is clear, brilliant, lint-free. Singers around you. Singers at your feet. Jacquelyn Wagner as the Countess, Olena Tokar as Susanna, Mathias Hausmann as the Count and Valentina Stadler as Cherubino. They are at each other’s throats so much that you want to intervene yourself, to help. Inevitably, one joins in.
You can steer with your eyes, click from one chapter to the next with the blink of an eye. You look for hyperlinks. It works amazingly intuitively. Subtitles were a problem. They didn’t exist. An app had to be invented first. Now everything works. And Schmidt-Garre is also very happy with the new generation of VR glasses. They are even cheaper than the old ones.
He still hasn’t completely given up on the dream of the first VR opera, he says. For now, Schmidt-Garre is preparing » Capriccio « by Richard Strauss for Leipzig. Without the black god, probably also without the formerly so fashionable video sequences (» I don’t need that «).
And then maybe one could do the » Magic Flute «... As a miniseries. Divided into chapters. Staged by different directors. As a kind of 360-degree sequel novel. The idea does make you a little dizzy.
Jacquelyn Wagner, born 1982 in Michigan, USA. She sings the major soprano parts at Paris Opera (Fiordiligi), in Milan (Eva, Leonore), Salzburg (Eva), Düsseldorf (Desdemona, Marschallin) and Berlin (Pamina, Rosina).
Olena Tokar, born 1988 in Lugansk, Ucraine. In 2012 she was awarded the first prize at renowned ARD music competition in Munich. She is member of Leipzig opera where she sings Pamina, Papagena, Susanna, Musetta (Bohème), Berta (Barbiere di Sevilla) and Zdenka (Arabella – directed by Jan Schmidt-Garre).
Mathias Hausmann, born in Bruck, Austria. He sings the major bass baritone parts at the Salzburg Festival, the Vienna Festival Week, in Baden-Baden, Munich, Chicago, Milan, Paris and Buenos Aires.
Valentina Stadler, born 1988 in Karlsruhe. Bachelor at Manhattan School of Music, Master at Hanns Eisler Academy Berlin. Neukölln Opera (Carmen), Opernstudio Teneriffa/Bologna (Cherubino), Young singers project Salzburg Festival. In 2017/18 she became a member of Gärtnerplatztheater Munich.
By Jan Schmidt-Garre, January 2016
The keen interest in virtual reality following Facebook’s billion dollar investment in VR glasses developer Oculus and which more recently dominated the Sundance Film Festival and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, also prompted greater curiosity in the medium behind the technology – the 360° film. The glasses are fed with these films and supplemented by images on the upper and lower edges allowing the viewer to submerge himself in a borderless spherical world. Because this medium is still very young, neither hardware developers nor producers are able to fully foresee the kind of experience this will produce. To date it has been games, pornographic films and documentary formats – immersive journalism as in the short film Clouds over Sidra – that have occupied the foreground. But the 360° film also offers fascinating possibilities for theater, opera and dance.
The Camera as Stowaway
Previous attempts to document theatrical or musical performances with 360° cameras have fallen far short of exploiting the full potential of this medium. Paul McCartney, for example, had one of his concerts recorded with a 360° camera. The result was only in part satisfactory. Since the camera was positioned on stage, the viewer sees most of the musicians, and even McCartney, from the rear: the action was not directed at him, but towards the audience. Though a sense of participating in a historical event is transmitted, the experience comes closer to the perspective of a stowaway on an ocean voyage. The experience of an actual concert – reclined on a deckchair in a panorama lounge – is not conveyed.
The Camera at the Center of Events
One more interesting application is Jochen Sandig’s experiment of translating his production the Human Requiem into the new medium. The basic idea behind the production consisted in individual members of the choir unrecognizably mingling among the audience. The performance began with the piano prelude to Brahms’ A German Requiem. Only once singing began from among the audience did the choir members suddenly become visible. In the 360° film version, the members of the choir begin walking around the camera, as if at random, begin singing and very gradually forming a circle. The viewer is then encircled by the singers’ glances, who sing to him in whatever direction he turns.
Let’s now try to imagine a performance of the Magic Flute, conceived for the 360° camera from the first day of rehearsal. Rather than being centrifugally aligned, as seen in the Arena di Verona, in this case, the action is aligned to the central point – centripetally. The viewer stands at the center of an action staged exclusively for him. The snake performs a spiral movement around the camera when, as in the first picture, it pursues Tamino. Tamino moves closer towards us when fleeing; the snake fills the picture from all directions to the point of even threatening to strangle the audience – Tamino has meanwhile passed out –, before finally being struck dead by the Three Ladies. Or Papageno’s encounter with the evil slave Monostatos. Here, the two rivals approach one another on a 180° axis: diametrically separated and compelling the spectator to swing violently here and there between the two poles – an uncomfortable sensation, allowing them to experience the conflict in all its immediacy.
The Production Sequence
Much like the staging of a classical opera, such a production requires an eight-week rehearsal period: in a first phase, on a rehearsal stage, and then in the studio with the final sets. There are piano rehearsals to begin with, before rehearsals with scenery and orchestra, lighting rehearsals and, finally, the dress rehearsal are carried out. Instead the opening night, we now have recording sessions: either two run-throughs every other day, or several recordings of single acts. The camera and elaborate recording equipment are used only during the recording sessions. Throughout rehearsals, the result can be simulated with the already available semi-professional equipment. The production outlay is only slightly in excess of a conventional opera production, and considerably less than that of cinematic opera productions, such as those by Zeffirelli, Ponnelle or Bergman.
The Audience as Director
The 360° medium could lead to a completely new kind of art experience in which the mediums of film and theater supplement one another in specific ways: The camera does not depart from its location at the center of the action, since this constitutes the medium’s great advantage. The director also dispenses with cutting, since, in this medium it is the audience which is left to decide about those excerpts he or she wishes to view. The field of human vision spans 180 degrees in the horizontal, and 130 degrees in the vertical. Therefore, the concentrically staged action around the center point compels the viewer to herself become active: in other words, to pan and, consequently, to cut. The director John Huston noted that we blink when looking from one object to another. For the editor Walter Murch this constitutes the basis of the film cut. Even in everyday life we cut up the flow of our perception and dissolve it into single takes. The same holds for the 360° film: we pan from one picture sequence to another and cut our own film.
Fairground Theater and Baroque Opera
The limited filmic means will be supplemented by classical theatrical devices: action, sets and lighting. The action fills the total continuum, from the central point through to the potentially endless horizon – effectively limited by the camera resolution. Scenery and lighting can produce a multiplicity of spaces, which separate, emerge and amalgamate. The space becomes dark, narrow and claustrophobic, until a rapid transformation surprisingly opens up and widens it. Doors can release axes of light: one side can be narrowly structured, whereas the other opens a depth dimension. It is precisely here that the old theatrical devices of Baroque opera and Fairground Theater show themselves as well-suited partners to the modern technology as provided by the 360° camera.
In that there is no behind-the-camera in 360° film, the production process now becomes integral to the work. Here, the making-of – issued as bonus track in a classic film on DVD – is an alternative layer of the work which the viewer may select. He or she can pan upwards above the limits of the set, to the rigging loft and the lighting bridge. She might equally decide to focus her attention solely on the orchestra and director, and then experiences a concert film. And the next time, she returns to the main action, to the artificial world of the Magic Flute.
The Audience as Point
In 360° film theater, the Fourth Wall, with which Stanislavsky wished to imaginatively close the stage towards the auditorium, contracts into the extensionless point. By means of periscope, the viewer is witness to an action which – depending on the theater’s aesthetics – may acknowledge him or ignore him with uncommon clarity. Consequently, one is able to imagine a realistic Chekhov or Tchaikovsky production in which the audience is invisible guest in an alien world: murmuring is heard from all directions, flowers are ordered and the window is opened. At one point someone walks up very close to my camera-eye, while, at another, he is positioned at greater distance from it; I, however, am never be discovered. And one can imagine a commedia dell’arte on a Renaissance piazza where the actors make use of the omnipresent camera so as not only to tear down the fourth but all conceivable walls facing the audience.
The Audience on the Panorama Lounge
In 360° film revives a dream that bore witness to the incursion of industry in art from the late eighteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century: the dream of taking possession of the world in Pan-Orama – the all-encompassing visual vantage point. Segantini’s Alpine Triptych and Monet’s Water Lilies were conceived as panoramas designed to ease the viewer’s submergence into their artistic worlds. The history of the panoramas is, in turn, the story of the ideal vantage point, the belvedere. All these topoi resurface once again in the new medium. The joy of the mountaineer, to whom the world suddenly reveals itself after a lengthy ascent, can be staged here: Tamino’s snake is dead, the darkness of the scenery is dissolved; the view broadens – and then » suddenly this overview «! (Fischli/Weiss)
The overriding objective of all VR developers is the total immersion of the viewer into an artificial world. In virtual reality, the passivity of the viewer is to be taken to an extreme. The 360° film, by contrast, may lead to enlightened immersion. In classic cinema and theater, the viewer is not totally submerged. She is back in her own world at a mere turn of her head. But she is bound to the sequence of images as presented by the director. In 360° film she is completely submerged. At the same time, however, she is her own director and cuts her own film – on each occasion a new one.
Opera for Tomorrow’s Audience
The art form of opera in its 400 year history has always strived and sought an exchange and communication with new forms of media and realized to reinvent itself in these new forms: opera recordings on vinyl and CD as well cinema, radio and TV broadcasts are examples of this. And just in the similar way, opera will continue to live on in virtual reality. It will create and bring about unexpected new facets and in this way will as well reach a new, young audience.
Either a Bend or a Line – Interview about Staging Operas
Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Barbara Eckle, July 2016
I’d love to talk to you about each individual phase of staging an opera. How do you choose a piece?
The theatre offers me something and then I have to see if I can find a way into it. I listen to the music while looking at the piano score a few times – and to different recordings of the same score if possible – and then ask myself whether I’m able to form a picture of the opera, an overall picture. A tone that interests me. Up until now, I’ve always found that the story seems to contradict itself at a certain point. I come up against a barrier that ultimately helps to open up the piece for me.
Can you give me an example of when that was the case?
Take Massenet’s Manon as an example. This opera tells the story of a young woman, Manon, who falls in love at first sight with a stranger, the Chevalier Des Grieux. After starting a passionate love affair with him, she leaves him during the second of five acts. Why does she do that? She loves him, there can be no doubt about that. The music makes that abundantly clear. So as a director, my approach was to try and find an answer to that question. For me, Des Grieux isn’t real. He’s a character from baroque theatre, just like the lover who steps off the stage and into the real world in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo. Manon falls in love with this theatrical character’s naivety, directness and melodramatic nature, but she knows that nothing good can come of their relationship. Reality will catch up with them at some point.
Did your Des Grieux also look like a theatrical character?
Des Grieux was a baroque character from the time of Prévost’s 1731 book Manon Lescaut, which was the inspiration for Massenet’s opera. My Manon, on the other hand, lived in Massenet’s Paris at the end of the 19th century. She has a small baroque theatre in her house and one day, the little figurine of Des Grieux comes to life. Manon follows him into his theatre and we join them there during the second act. The entire stage zooms in to become a baroque theatre, complete with beautiful cardboard stage flats like the ones found at Drottningholm Palace Theatre in Sweden. The entire opera takes place between these two different time periods and levels of reality.
What role does stage scenery play as far as you are concerned?
The space must be a feature of the story. It must be created by the staging; it has to live and behave like a member of the cast. That’s why Arabella started with a completely empty stage that slowly filled up as the evening progressed. It’s only five minutes before the end that the perfect space – the one that the opera characters have been craving – is revealed.
Do you see props as part of the stage scenery?
I see them more as part of the mask in the Edward Gordon Craig sense, where the mask incorporates the costume and the way a specific character walks. I love keeping props on the stage and using them for different purposes during the performance so that they become charged with ever greater meaning. Props are a wonderful way of identifying a character. They can develop a life of their own and be used within the production to make reference to earlier events.
What types of props do you use?
Flowers, letters, bottles, clothing, pistols. Marietta’s braid in Die Tote Stadt...
So do you start to work out the staging once you’ve identified what approach you’re going to adopt?
I still try to open up the dramatic aspects of the piece in advance by breaking it up into individual units of action. This is a technique that I learned from the theatre director David Esrig, and it’s been enormously helpful in terms of enabling me to cut through to the core of a piece. It’s a sort of structural synopsis that questions the motivations of the characters rather than the external plot. I’m able to do the staging only once I know why a character is doing what he is doing.
How detailed is this structural synopsis?
It consists of perhaps thirty sentences that I spend a lot of time refining and that give a dynamic account of the story. If these units of action make sense, then the content of the piece vaporises into them, leaving behind only the functions and the sense. This is my performance score. I look at it and can see the sequence of events in front of me.
So what you are aiming at is traditional storytelling?
Yes, even if that story isn’t entirely the one the authors intended. The story doesn’t matter to me as such, but it’s only through the story that I’m able to access the motivations of the characters, and through them the development and inner logic of the piece.
Can you give me an example of a unit of action?
Take the second scene of the second act of Arabella, for instance. The opera guide says, “Fiakermilli serenades Mandryka and the counts”. In my score I translate that as follows: “The counts present Fiakermilli to Mandryka in order to titillate him.” That’s not what Hofmannsthal and Strauss intended with this scene, but the result is a better play and a better story. And the music suits this reinterpretation or nuance so perfectly that perhaps this was, in fact, the writers’ hidden intention.
So do you fill out the performance score during the rehearsals?
I run through the entire opera on a stage set model. The singers have been studying their parts for months and have normally got them down perfectly. This means that I’m standing opposite a singer who has lived with the character for months already and who, naturally, has quite a sophisticated image of that character. It’s an image that is all the more stable because he uses his very body to breathe life into it. He actually sings the character. If I were to develop the staging only now, in an improvised style, I would have to deal with these characters that I have played no part at all in forming, and it would be difficult to achieve a coherent performance. Irrespective of that, I’d think it disrespectful to the singers if I were the only person to arrive to work unprepared.
But no matter how well prepared you are, you still encounter these fully-developed character profiles.
That’s why I try to meet the singers – or the protagonists at least – months beforehand so I can discuss my approach with them. I don’t go too much against the grain in terms of the pieces themselves, but in terms of prevailing assumptions about the characters, I often do. For instance, Korngold and his father, who wrote the libretto, viewed Marietta in Die Tote Stadt as a vain, coquettish woman whose only interest is money and who callously takes advantage of her admirer Paul’s love. Paul believes that Marietta is the reincarnation of his dead wife. Despite this portrayal of the character, which is really quite awkward, Korngold adds a lot of really heart-felt notes to her music. So I have attempted to legitimise Marietta’s actions. She has in fact fallen in love with this strange guy and is driven almost to despair because of how detached he is. This is the only way of giving the character depth and allowing it to develop. Unfortunately, I was unable to meet the singer who played Marietta before rehearsals started, and it took a while for her to let go of this image of the coquettish seductress.
Is the music the key criteria for you? In Manon, you also alluded to the music as the justification for how you read the opera.
The music is the most important thing. And the music is right. I can stage an opera in a way that goes against the text but not in a way that runs counter to the music.
Is that your response to the old question of ‘prima la musica’?
That response would perhaps be a little one-dimensional. The fact that the music is so important is precisely why it cannot come first in terms of time. For the singer, this phrase seems to suggest that they should wait until they get stimulus from the pit, responding to it by taking a step, making a gesture or whatever. By that point, it’s always too late, though. Doing this creates nothing more than an apparent musical illustration of the music that in fact is just a superfluous appendage. You’d be better off giving a concertante performance of the opera. Wagner developed a theory that lends itself well to answering this question. In his view, music drama became necessary in a historical sense because music, once it had been emancipated from dance, was missing its extra-musical foundation, its “Formmotiv” or “formal motive”, as he called it. He believed that music needed to be motivated by external elements – he did not believe in absolute music.
So was this his sole reason for creating those grandiose music dramas? To have a legitimate reason for composing?
Yes, exactly. The music responds to the questions posed by the text, the setting and the theatrical scene. No matter how questionable his premise might be, Wagner is right about one thing: This is the only way that musical theatre can work. The singer must use his action to provoke a reaction from the music. He must anticipate the music to – ideally – give the impression that the entire score has been created in that moment as a result of what is happening in the scene. This is naturally much more difficult for the singer, as they can’t just sit back and wait until the conductor provides them with a stimulus. They have to recreate everything. They have to compose and conduct the opera. If that is accomplished, the music and the action coalesce almost magnetically. The music can then be experienced from the inside out. For me, that’s the ultimate goal of directing an opera.
Let’s go back to the staging for a moment. Do you go through the opera scene by scene on the stage set model?
I assign roles to figurines and determine every glance, every turn and every motion. It’s a bit of a sluggish process to start with and there is a lot I have to change, but there comes a point when I understand the space and something like the language of the performance emerges. After that, everything goes very smoothly.
Do you play the music and have the figurines in the model do the motions?
Yes, and sometimes I don’t know what to do next so I do the motion myself. And that’s when the most mysterious thing in the whole of theatrical work takes place: I take position, visualise what has happened up to this point, put on the music... and then I know exactly what I have to do! Almost every time, I just know what to do. This means that I enter a second reality. I experience the setting while I’m simultaneously conscious of its fictional character. I then know what would be the right thing to do in that moment. In an inexplicable way, the artistic setting infects me and I live, during that moment, in a second reality. It’s an extremely uplifting experience.
Does that not happen during the rehearsal?
Similar moments do occur during the rehearsal. But I wouldn’t be able to come up with a lot of the things that I do when I’m able to concentrate in the peace and quiet of my own home. The pressure of rehearsal is more conducive to faster, more conventional solutions, not to interesting ones. That’s how it is with me, at least. A director like Herbert Fritsch works at his best under pressure.
Do you lay everything down at home or are there scenes that you are only able to develop during the rehearsals?
I try to lay down everything in advance. But there are always one or two scenes that push back. I put these scenes aside, sometimes until the rehearsal and sometimes to just before the première. These scenes sit heavily in my stomach for weeks, even though I know that these scenes often turn out to be the best. It’s the same with the narrative problems of a piece that we spoke about earlier, and which often prompt me to adopt a certain approach to staging.
What type of scenes push back?
The ones where there are no proscribed actions. The points where there is no “arrangement”. “He enters from the right so she must go left in order to keep the line of sight open” and the like. In Arabella there was a waltz, during which nothing happened, between two scenes in the second act. A minute of music with no action – what do you do with that? To resolve situations like this, I attempt to determine exactly how I got to this moment in the piece and where I have to go. I do this countless times. Syd Feld, the screenwriting coach, calls it “hitting your head against the typewriter”. “In the next scene, Zdenka sends a very important letter to her lover. She sends a letter, sends a letter...” And suddenly I’ve found the answer. I had Zdenka dance a little waltz with the letter in anticipation of her forthcoming night of passion. That was very touching. Beautiful moments that really stick in the mind can come from slight imperfections in the piece. That’s why Shakespeare’s plays are always staged so unusually. Whilst his plays are ingenious, Shakespeare is by no means perfect so the director always comes across these gaps that need to be filled in.
Are you always able to easily apply what you have created at home in the rehearsal?
The first phase of rehearsals is largely about communicating the staging I have prepared to the singers and to study it. I do that as quickly as possible and skip over the details to begin with. The main point is to bring the singers together in a unit. Stanislavsky said that the more closely the mental images of each participant coincide, the better the performance can be. The sooner the singers are able to get their bearings and imagine the staging on their internal map, the more confident they will feel and the sooner they will be ready to absorb the details and the deeper aspects of the staging.
Are the singers receptive to your suggestions?
The singers all have very different temperaments. Some do exactly what I say and not an iota more, so when I see the performance in front of me, my staging looks alarmingly bare. Some understand what I have said amazingly quickly and improvise the entire scene according to the sense they think I had in mind. At those moments I feel like a painter who wants to put a line here and a dot there, but instead someone fills the entire picture with paint. I then have to slowly scrape it off again to find out whether what I intended works.
And what happens if it doesn’t work? If the timing or the idea itself doesn’t work?
Then we need to work together to find something new. In these situations, the singers make suggestions or I offer something up. And if nothing comes to us at all, I do what I did at home. I enter the fictional setting and hope that it will reveal the next step. Usually it does, quite by itself and without any great deal of mysticism. Nevertheless, it’s an extremely intense existential experience. If I say to the singer, “Let me take your place”, it’s a bit like saying, “Give me your glass for a moment so I can take a sip.” I enter this second reality with just the same clarity. I taste it just as strongly as I would the wine from his glass. I become part of a current; it’s almost a religious experience, and certainly the most fulfilling one to be had in stage direction. And when the idea finally comes, it’s a discovery rather than an invention.
So how do you explain being able to find a solution when your colleagues can’t? They are just as deeply emerged in the setting as you are.
Because I’m able to see the whole picture in my head and see where the missing detail should fit into it. When I have this objective in mind, I’m able to go beyond the given. In my inner world, the second reality is more pronounced than it is with singers who have only recently been confronted with it. I sense the direction and the feeling of harmony once the detail materialises. Once it all suddenly comes together. There are always one or two people within a team who feel exactly the same way and are able to make wonderful suggestions. The others eye them suspiciously because they think they must have access to some secret knowledge that’s been withheld from them. Those people just have a clearer mental image, however. The conductor Sergiu Celibidache taught me a lot, and he called this process “transcendence”. That may sound a bit esoteric but what he meant, very simply, was being able to move beyond something. The conductor must somehow be able to go beyond the tonal phenomenona that confront him. Otherwise he would have no standard by which to judge them. That means that, somewhere within his mind, he has already reached his destination and knows how to get there. The same applies to any artistic process.
When rehearsals have finished, when everyone is that bit closer to the end goal, staging must come a little easier.
You often hear how an important scene was changed shortly before the première and you ask yourself how that was even possible, given how little time was left. The fact that this happens doesn’t mean that you were just meandering along up to this point. This is Stanislavsky’s exact thought on the matter – by the end, the mental image is so mature and sophisticated, and everyone agrees with it so completely, that the singers or the director are able to change an action in an instant or reinvent it without damaging the architecture of the production. The second reality is able to support everyone at this point.
Do you work according to Stanislavsky’s system?
I find his concept of the ‘super-objective’ really exciting. He talks about the super-objective of the play, a sort of quintessence, and the super-objective of the parts, and that is very interesting. He was an actor himself and was due to play Argan in Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid. At first he attempted to play the part by saying, “I want to be ill”. That didn’t work, however. At some point or other he came upon the formula, “I want people to see me as a sick person”, and this formula enabled him to crack it! That was Argan’s super-objective. A formula that stands above the character and helps the actor to give his actions the right direction. Tom Hanks said that he was only able to play the businessman in the film A Hologram for the King once he had found the following formula: “A man who has lost his self-confidence but who must act as if he hasn’t”. Now that’s something an actor can act! A formula like “an American in Saudi Arabia” would have given him nothing to go on. It would have been too literary.
Do you have an example from your own work?
The character of Manon. In my production, she’d had enough of cynical Paris society. She wanted to experience sincere, untempered emotion. Her super-objective is, “I want to be an innocent”. Arabella’s another one. She’d heard and read a lot about profound emotions and real love, yet she is unable to find them in herself. Her super-objective is, “I want to feel something”. This kind of formula is a huge help to a lot of singers and acts like a sort of mantra.
What methods do you use to communicate the personality of the character to the singer?
Everything only becomes concrete during the rehearsal, when the singer is required to act out a certain action with the motivation x in the context y. Before the rehearsal, I was telling the soprano Betsy Horne about the opera Arabella. Now Betsy and I talk about a fictional character who’s right in front of us and who is supposed to take on a life of its own over the course of these seven weeks. I never criticise Betsy personally. Betsy and I work together as a team to create this character – as the director, I look at the character from the outside and she as the singer, from the inside.
It’s more difficult for the singer to separate herself from the fictional character than it is for you...
Most of them are very aware of this difference. But that’s the mystery of acting. Even a three-year-old can experience a chair as a tractor whilst never forgetting that it is, in fact, a chair. The interesting thing is that actors talk about their parts in the first and third person. They say, for instance, “I’m a burned-out banker who...”, “Frank is a naïve musician who...” and so on. Their job is founded on this duality, this duality of I and He. If I go on stage to demonstrate how I would perform an embrace, for instance, then I sense this difference very keenly. I’m not embracing the singer. I’m embracing the fictional character. That’s why neither of us feel any shame while doing it either.
Hegel viewed theatre as the highest form of art, since in theatre, a fictional event is presented as if it were a real event.
That’s why acting, which is more often viewed as being on the fringes of art (if you consider it at all), is paradigmatic for a very essential aspect of art: the experience of fiction. This is also the essence of writing. It’s a spiritual experience of the subject matter, of acting out the subject matter on the stage in the mind. Anybody who writes has this experience. Novalis even said that writing is to experience language itself.
So what style of acting do you like your singers to employ?
Hitchcock gave the best stage direction: “Don’t act!” The singer should execute the action rather than act out executing the action. Very often you see that a singer doesn’t, for example, put on his glasses because he wants to read a letter. He acts it, “Oh, there’s a letter and I can’t read it. What should I do?” The next thing he acts is: “No problem – there are my glasses. I want to put them on”. And finally: “Excellent – I can see everything perfectly with my glasses. So – what does this letter say?” He is afraid that the action is too mundane like this. Too bare and unartistic, and so he serves it on a platter. This is what Hitchcock meant by “Don’t act!” There can be no difference between the performer and his action. They have to be completely identical – the character is what he does.
What do you say to the singers when this happens?
In these situations, it’s usually enough to make them aware that it’s happening. Then there is the tendency that actors have to enlarge the individual action. In Manon, a bouquet plays a key role. I asked the actor who was playing Brétigny to cast a casual glance at the bouquet as he entered the stage. He did this and I was happy. At the next rehearsal, he saw the flowers and reached out to them with his hand. I didn’t think this was as good. On the third occasion, he picked up the flowers, sniffed them and put them back. I stepped in at this point: “Please – just look at them. That’s enough!”
The same happens with theatre productions in the repertoire. The performances are becoming longer and longer...
A bigger danger, even at the rehearsal stage, is when the singers execute the action but don’t believe their action conveys what it’s about, so they add a commentary to it. In my production of Arabella, there’s a huge increase in tension during Mandryka’s first encounter with the father of the woman he has fallen in love with. He approaches the father, closer and closer, breaking all of the rules of etiquette. As the music hits its climax, he suddenly stops, acts as if nothing has happened and sits back down. Realistic lighting returns, the father gives a sigh of relief – and the audience with him. In one of the last rehearsals, the singer who was playing Mandryka suddenly made a mollifying gesture just before he sat down. All of the tension that had built up was gone. The act of sitting back down is in itself a return to normality. A gesture explaining that fact does nothing to support that. Instead, it saps the action of its strength. It brought to mind something that was really pivotal for me from an aesthetic point of view, and that was a Picasso sculpture that I saw when I was very young. It was one of these small sculptures made from folded metal that was painted. And it occurred to me just how economic Picasso had been in his work. He either bent the metal or painted a line. Never both at the same time. The same applies to theatre. Theatre is extremely compact and the chain of actions on stage must be executed with exceptional precision and linked together as economically as possible. It’s either a bend or a line, a gesture or taking a seat. In other words, sitting down is the gesture. This also demonstrates how little is achieved by comparing theatre to reality. In real life you could do both.
Where does the singers’ desire to comment on their actions come from?
At that moment the singer thinks my god, I’m not doing enough here. What I’m doing doesn’t match the intention of the scene. Yet it does: within the context! David Mamet put it as follows: “The boat has to look like a boat. The sail doesn’t have to look like a boat.” But we always think that every detail has to look like the whole. So we try to act everything at once: the action, its meaning and its context. The director is responsible for this, though. That’s how labour is divided. And that makes sense. The theatre director Rudolf Noelte always said, “Being a director means sitting in the stalls.” Only then are you able to see the whole. The director is responsible for ensuring that all of these simple actions – including all the elements, the space and the lighting – constitute the sense of the piece.
We’re now right in the middle of the rehearsal process. What key phases are still to come?
The next phase is the nice one, the one where the director is able to take a step back and take in the first, lengthier scenes in the production. In film, this would be the editing phase. Those first few weeks in theatre, when the outline of the performance starts to develop, correspond to the arduous phase of checking the material in film. Now you can see quite clearly what works and what doesn’t. Now you can refine the performance and round it out. Next come the final rehearsals. This is when all of a sudden, as if by some conspiracy, all of the differences of opinion that were there during the production phase are set aside and everyone sticks together to give a good première performance. The director moves from the stage to the auditorium and watches the performance under realistic conditions. Yet again, everything depends upon experiencing that second reality at this point. I have to submerge myself fully into what is happening on stage to assess what works, and I’m very sensitive to disturbances of any sort during that time. If a singer enters the hall during his break or the assistant director speaks to me, I’m torn out of that second reality and lose many precious minutes trying to get back into it again. Then comes the dress rehearsal. As with all of the final rehearsals, I don’t give criticism to the performers in person. I send an e-mail so that the singers can read it in peace and quiet. They’re more likely to take it in that way. And well... then, just like that, I’m free and waiting for the première, hoping that the second reality kicks in...
Is there anyone who you model yourself on artistically?
I had wonderful teachers. I think of Esrig when developing a concept, Noelte during rehearsals, and Celibidache... That isn’t the same as having a role model, though. If I had to name one person who I feel close to, it’s Ravel. In him I find analytical rigor, purism, clarity and a sensitivity to old forms, as well as elegance, ease and a hint of metropolitanism. And he understood how to bring everything together into one sensory flow, along with a sense of melancholy... I would love to work like that. To move people to tears.