The Bomb in the Box – Interview on "Die tote Stadt"

Opera: "Die tote Stadt"

Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Serge Honegger about his production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera

In the opera, Bruges functions as a metaphor for a city associated with death. In the course of your research for the production, you traveled there. Is the morbid still found today?

Bruges today is not dead at all, but terribly alive, a kind of Disneyland. It’s only when you get out of the center, where the city isn’t so dressed up, that the place takes on charm and you find something of the morbid character cited in the opera. When I was there, I noticed the extremely tall, narrow windows along the canals. This architectural element has been translated by Vincent Lemaire as tall doors that define the stage set. They are the only quotation derived from the reality of Bruges, because for me, despite its title, the opera has more to do with Vienna, where it was written, than with Bruges.

Are there other references that played a role for you in developing the production?

When you study the opera, Sigmund Freud immediately comes to mind. The opera starts with Frank, the baritone, coming to the house of his childhood friend Paul and seeing that Paul is living entirely in the past. He is most disturbed and finally says to him, » my friend, your deep feeling has confused you, your deep feeling must also cure you. « This is precisely Freud’s thought, that one does not overcome a problem by curing the symptoms, but by going back through and experiencing the whole process in which the problem arose. And this is exactly what Korngold composes, making the material dramatic and theatrical. After all, theater is about experiencing processes, not about negotiating ideas. This explains for me the whole second and third act, the whole so-called dream. The interpretation of dreams also came into being exactly at that time, a few streets away. Apart from Freud, I often had to think of Hitchcock, which I do all the time anyway.

What titles came to mind?

First of all Vertigo, which is also obvious because this film actually goes back to the same source material in a roundabout way, to Rodenbach’s novella » Bruges la morte « (Dead Bruges). Here, too, a man meets a woman who looks like his dead lover. He wants – this was the quintessence for Hitchcock – » to sleep with a dead woman. « In the opera, there’s also this terrific, trashy line by Paul after he’s strangled the new woman: » Now she looks entirely like her! « The second film is Rebecca. Here a newly married woman comes to her husband’s house and has to realize that on everything lie the shadows of the past, the shadows of her dead predecessor. They are personified in the evil housekeeper who makes the young woman’s life hell. In Die tote Stadt, the small but very accurately characterized role of Brigitta corresponds to this Mrs. Danvers, who wants to maintain the status quo at all costs. And then, of course, Psycho: Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates lives with his mother’s corpse, denies her death, and even converses with her.
Korngold also has an apparition of the dead. Paul is standing in his » church of what has been « in front of the portrait of his dead wife, and suddenly she begins to speak to him, admonishing him to stay away from her rival. Of course, we don’t show the painting – just imagining it has a much stronger effect than actually looking at some mediocre painting of the soprano there. Her voice comes from the direction Paul is looking, but he moves his lips to it, as if the dead Maria was speaking out of him.

Although Erich Wolfgang Korngold had not yet worked for film while composing Die tote Stadt, the opera seems to have a connection with that genre.

The scenes are sometimes cut hard against each other as in a film. For example, in the second act, where the episodes string together quickly, almost disjointedly, expressionistically. Together with Reinhard Traub, I tried to implement these hard cuts in the lighting concept.

The period in which the opera was created can also be seen in the costumes by Thomas Kaiser.

The costumes reflect the turn of the times, which can be felt in the piece and especially in the music: Paul and Brigitta are still from the late 19th century, the other characters belong to the 1920s. For all the dream characters, we took our cue from Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen film. He creates a form of Art Deco medievalism, a mixture of the archaic and the modern, which is very characteristic of the 1920s.

You have to find a way of dealing with the ambivalent character of Marietta. Which reading did you choose?

Until well into the rehearsals, I didn’t want to admit that I was reading the character quite differently than the libretto by Korngold’s father, who wrote the text together with his son, probably intended. In the libretto, she is a tramp, a vain, coquettish woman who is only interested in Paul’s money and takes advantage of his love in an ice-cold way. Paul does not see this and projects the ideal image of his deceased wife onto her. Such a character does not sustain an entire opera performance. Nor can I imagine a singer today wanting to embody such a female stereotype. As a grotesque, it could be quite funny, with Rossini music, but it is not composed that way, on the contrary: Korngold gives her many genuine heart notes in the music. I therefore try to put her in the right: she has really fallen in love with this strange oddball Paul and is biting her teeth at him. Only in this way does the character get a profile and develop.

The protagonist Paul almost goes crazy at what’s going on in his head. How does he get out of the story?

I don’t see the end of this story as pessimistic as many other directors, where the only thing left for Paul after the curtain falls is suicide. After all, couldn’t he come clean with the past after this process of awareness and healing? And now maybe even perceive that beautiful woman who loves him? But I think that endings are totally overrated anyway. Here, too, the process is the decisive factor, not the result. It’s always difficult to come out of the story in one piece at the end. But it’s unfortunately as Robert Towne, the screenwriter of Chinatown, said: » In the beginning the audience forgives you everything, in the end nothing! «

Doesn’t the fixation on a statement at the end of a piece in this opera have to do precisely with the fact that Paul here detaches himself from his fixation on the deceased, in that we as the audience recognize the dramaturgical ‘trick’?

Korngold, after all, tells the story as a dream. The episodes that Paul experiences with Marietta escalate more and more, until the catastrophe, the murder. Then he awakens and realizes with relief that it was all just a dream, a salutary one, because now he has freed himself from the past and is – perhaps – able to leave the dead city. It happens the same way with us, with one important difference, and that has to do with Hitchcock again, with his concept of surprise and suspense. In his film Sabotage, a little boy has to take a package somewhere. The viewer knows that the package contains a bomb with a timer, but the boy doesn’t know. Now, of course, we are feverish every second: when the bus wobbles, when the boy dawdles, we are always afraid that the bomb will go off. This is what Hitchcock calls suspense: the viewer has an information advantage over the protagonist. If he didn’t have that, the surprise effect when the bomb explodes would be huge: surprise. But at the expense of the suspense beforehand. We would not be interested in the boy’s bus ride. Korngold works with a great surprise effect. When it comes out that the whole tragedy up to the murder was only a dream, we are all impressed. But at the price that the episodes before that string together rather arbitrarily. In our performance, the audience knows from the beginning that the dreamlike and sometimes grotesque episodes are a product of Paul’s imagination. Thus, each episode has a second level, and the whole thing becomes – hopefully – exciting.

Opera: "Die tote Stadt"