„Protect me from what I want“ – Interview on "Arabella"

Opera: "Arabella"

Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Marita Müller about his production of Richard Strauss’ opera

Mr. Schmidt-Garre, you work primarily in the field of film, but you have also successfully staged operas, including such a difficult work as Korngold’s » Die tote Stadt. « How did you come to opera?

Although I have made a lot of films and will continue to do so, opera is very close to me. Music has always been the most important thing in my life. I play the piano and studied conducting with Sergiu Celibidache for a while. Then I actually wanted to do opera directing and assisted directors like Noelte and Ponnelle. But I was also very attracted to film, so I went to film school with the plan of making music films or even opera films. So many years passed until I actually started directing operas on stage. That was like coming home.

What kind of situations and characters are we confronted with in » Arabella «, how do you want to tell the story of the play?

The play is strangely constructed: Arabella wishes for the man of her dreams, he shows up, they fall in love, and just twenty minutes into Act 2 everything is fine. Why does it continue after this premature happy ending, when the story is actually already over? I developed the whole production from this question. For me, Arabella is a woman who hears about great love from friends and in literature and knows that there are passionate feelings, but she cannot find them in herself. She longs for such a feeling. So, for me, the great duet of the two sisters is really not about finding the right man but finding the right feeling. Then this mysterious stranger appears, of whom she hopes that he will finally trigger this feeling in her. The first duet with him ends with them singing a kind of canon in complete unison, led by Arabella, beautiful and simple, in diatonic music, and – for this one, brief moment – getting along ideally. But then Arabella gets scared. Jenny Holzer says, » Protect me from what I want, « and this is true for Arabella: when one’s own wishes come true, it is not always good; one can also be wrong with one’s wishes. And so, the intelligent Arabella doubts whether this happy state can be maintained at all, and quickly runs away on some pretext. Mandryka no longer understands the world. And in fact, shortly after, due to a ridiculous misunderstanding, he will distrust her and reveal a very ugly, vindictive and opinionated side. This is a huge disappointment for Arabella.

But then the parallel plot comes to a climax when her sister Zdenka finds happiness with Matteo. With her, Arabella suddenly sees that great, deep feeling she has been longing for: » Zdenkerl, you are the better of the two of us. You have the more loving heart. « At this moment in Act 3, the whole story turns for me. Arabella decides to make – one could almost say – a deal: if the great feelings are not meant for her, she makes a pragmatic decision: she marries the rich man, thus saving the family and enabling her sister to live out her great love on her behalf. Arabella herself will collect art on the Mandrykas’ estate in Slavonia, set up a literary festival and lead a harmonious, somewhat unromantic marriage, adored by Mandryka, who will never distrust her again.

In the correspondence between Strauss and Hofmannsthal, the term » operetta « comes up in connection with the creation of Arabella. What kind of piece is Arabella in your opinion?

 is not an operetta. The music is much too complicated and refined for that. There is practically no phrase that ends in the key in which it began, except in the isolated songlike moments. You have to work with these downright decadent modulations; after all, they tell something. In terms of its subject matter, it could well be an operetta – this aristocratic milieu in Vienna during the imperial era alone has something operettish about it. But Strauss gave the whole thing the beautiful genre name » lyrical comedy «. I find the designation very appropriate, because the work has a lyrical, melancholy undertone – even if » lyrical « is perhaps meant in the sense of » opera lirica « – also a strange dreamy slowness, but at the same time it is also a real comedy. The comic element often comes up short in performances of Arabella. Yet there are a lot of genuinely funny characters and situations in the work. Count Elemer, for example, is a delicious character, one who always looks at himself with a twinkle in his eye, and stages his great passion for Arabella as a parlor game rather than really feeling it.

Mandryka, too, has a comic side, if rather involuntarily. He appears elegant, matter-of-factly masculine, and then switches in a flash to extreme emotional and theatrical outbursts. He is what psychologists call a dramatic personality, one who has no inhibitions about exposing his innermost feelings to a large crowd. In Act 2, he fails at just that, as these snobbish, decadent counts from Viennese society run him into the wall with his extroverted manner in a lowly way. They are simply much more sophisticated and know the social rules of the game better. This makes the end of the 2nd act tragic. There Mandryka is a victim of this society.

What role does society play in this opera?

At first glance, Arabella is a love story, but that’s only a pretense – above all, it’s a social play. This is also expressed in our production by the fact that there are observers on stage in many more scenes than the libretto dictates. The three counts, the parents and other characters are constantly observing what is going on between the main characters. When Arabella and Mandryka meet for the first time in the great love duet of Act 2, everyone is there at the beginning, wanting to witness what is happening. This is of course very uncomfortable, especially for Mandryka, the stranger, but also for Arabella. This also clearly expresses what kind of expectations lie on this encounter. I find it very exciting that this is all happening in public.

How do the stage space and set elements support your storytelling?

The time in which the piece is set, 1865, is wisely chosen by Hofmannsthal and Strauss, but in order to understand it, you need to know a lot about the historical background, including the fact that Austria was then heading toward a similar economic crisis as when the opera was written – a mood on the brink of catastrophe, as one senses again today. My set designers and I feared that if we had set the piece in that time, the majority of the audience would have registered only a pleasantly historical Fledermaus ambience. Instead, we opted for the period in which it was written, the late 1920s. However, this is only one aspect of the set, which mainly concerns the costumes, because the stage design is not a realistic one, in the sense that the Arabella rooms described by the libretto would be built. We play on an empty stage with individual spatial elements that gradually emerge and show the fragments of a world that has come apart at the seams – including its rough, abstract backs. The public scenes take place, as it were, between the rooms, in the interiors of the walls. There are many open transformations; the stage set is constantly changing. It lives with the staging and behaves like a co-player. The spaces breathe and respond to the actions. In this respect, I am very influenced by one of my teachers, David Esrig, who sees the stage design as a » system of obstacles. « That’s what we tried to implement.

Opera: "Arabella"