Director Olivier Py in an interview with Reinder Pols about the opera Lohengrin.
OLIVIER PY, LOHENGRIN IS THE FOURTH WAGNER OPERA YOU HAVE DIRECTED. WHAT DO YOU FIND SO FASCINATING ABOUT THIS COMPOSER?
With no other composer do I feel such a close bond between the ideas and the music: his music invariably stirs up fiery thinking within me, it makes me bubble inside, in a way nothing else does. With Wagner, music, questions, libretto and theatre are inextricably linked. In my view, opera reached its zenith with this composer. I love the synaesthetic dimension: its effect is such that sometimes I don’t know if it’s my ear that’s watching or my eye that’s listening.
AND WHAT DO YOU FIND SO FASCINATING ABOUT LOHENGRIN?
I was first drawn to Tristan und Isolde. By directing Tristan und Isolde first and then Tannhäuser and Der fliegende Holländer, I didn’t immediately need to address the question of whether German romanticism might have been the seed-bed for National Socialism. But the day came when I couldn’t avoid the question any longer. At the request of contemporary composer Michael Jarrell, I wrote the essay Siegfried, nocturne for a Wagner festival. Only then did I ask myself the question I had had to suppress in order to have the freedom to direct Tristan und Isolde. It would have been awful to stage Nazi operettas or to weigh down the questions the work raises with political and historical considerations. But now I can’t avoid that question any longer. It has been on my mind ever since I wrote the essay and I believe that the link between German romanticism and National Socialism is most apparent in Lohengrin.
WHAT IS LOHENGRIN ABOUT IN YOUR OPINION?
Lohengrin has more of a political dimension than Wagner’s other operas. It goes in search of the essence, in search of political legitimacy. And in my opinion in that work Wagner begins to understand that aesthetics can legitimize politics, while he also senses the danger of aesthetizing politics. I am one of those who regard Nazism as an aesthetic movement. For me the aesthetization of politics is pivotal in this work, which revolves around the relationship between the artist and authority, or even between the poet and authority. That poet is Wagner. And the authority is a longed for and anticipated authority that will unite Germany – for better or for worse. The specific form it takes is ambiguous: Gottfried, the lawful heir, the child, has disappeared; so you might say that legitimacy disappeared with him. Furthermore, Gottfried is anti-aristocratic, while Ortrud and Telramund are old aristocrats wedded to the past. Telramund is a revolutionary – a monarchist revolutionary, because he believes in the symbolic power of the sovereign. So the relationship between art (or even culture) and authority is central in Lohengrin. And that raises the question of whether German romanticism, the symbol of culture, contains an element that could lead to deliberate catastrophe. After all, as Walter Benjamin said: “There has never been a cultural document which is not also one of barbarism.”
With no other composer do I feel such a close bond between the ideas and the music.
WHAT SHOULD WE MAKE OF THE PUZZLING “NIE SOLLST DU MICH BEFRAGEN” [NEVER SHALL YOU ASK ME]?
In my view Lohengrin is a transcendence whose name you cannot ask – it is almost a definition of art. If you don’t know his name, you cannot summon him and you avoid the risk of his being hijacked, let’s say by politics. Moreover, Lohengrin refuses the crown: Wagner understood that a poet who occupies the position of king eventually loses that transcendence. If the transcendence of art says its name, then it is overthrown, it loses all power. In Lohengrin Wagner presents the transcendence as the legacy of German romanticism and as the legitimacy of German nationalism (in the nineteenth-century sense). I don’t want to make Wagner into a proto-Nazi. On the contrary, I want to imagine that by asking that question, he anticipated the possible outcome of an alliance between German metaphysics and German nationalism. When Lohengrin goes away, in a sense it is so as not to become a Hitler. In A Communication to my Friends, Wagner clearly stated: “Elsa, she is the volk”. So when she loses the child, the volk loses sight of the legitimacy of power and makes the mistake of inviting transcendence onto the political stage. And Elsa’s trial by combat – a trial of the volk, if I follow Wagner – would then be the trial of collective responsibility.
SO THE LOVE STORY BETWEEN LOHENGRIN AND ELSA WOULD BE THE IMPOSSIBLE MARRIAGE BETWEEN THE ARTIST AND THE VOLK ...
They would have been better off as lovers, like Tristan and Isolde. The marriage of Lohengrin and Elsa is the dangerous union between the volk and the Volksgeist , the national spirit - a marriage that is best avoided when a people thinks that its culture makes it superior to other races. That is also why Lohengrin goes away.
IS THAT SUPREMACY OF THE GERMAN CULTURE OVER OTHER CULTURES PRESENT IN THE WORK? DOESN’T IT STEM FROM THE CONTEXT?
When directing an opera, you always have to try and capture the zeitgeist. Otherwise you ignore the subversiveness of the work. Perhaps we should read into Lohengrin the longing for German unity, the disappointment after the failed revolution of 1848. The strength of the opera is the way all the eras come together: the present, the time in which the work was written, the time in which the story is set, but also the history of the work. You shouldn’t forget what happened with Lohengrin, naively directing it without being aware that the Nazis used it – perhaps even without really understanding it. However, nineteenth-century nationalism is different from twentieth-century nationalism: it is the right of people to self-determination. Wagner’s views were left-wing, far left even. The National Socialist movement is peculiar to the German nation; it is different from the Spanish Franco regime and different from Italian fascism and French Poujadism. That distinctiveness has to do with the fact that at a certain point the German volk reinstated metaphysics, of which its culture is the emblem, and so began to think that it is superior to the other European peoples – and that it should defend that distinctiveness against ‘others’.
WHAT IS YOUR DIRECTOR’S CONCEPT FOR THIS PRODUCTION? YOU SET EVERYTHING IN A THEATRE THAT IS UNDER CONSTRUCTION OR PERHAPS BEING DEMOLISHED.
I can’t envisage a concept and then take shelter behind it. It has to be explained. Renovation work at La Monnaie meant that the production had to be postponed for a year. I saw photographs of the dismantled theatre and that set me thinking. Pierre-André Weitz and I came up with the image of a ruined, burned-out theatre in which the emblems of German romanticism have survived, dusty, dirty, reduced to ashes. Anselm Kiefer’s work nudged me in that direction. Not so much aesthetically but because he reuses all the elements of romanticism (the earth, the stars, the night, the forest, the Rhine) and questions them in the light of the devastation in the Germany of the ‘Stunde Null’, Hour Zero. That is also the subject of my essay Siegfried, nocturne: a walk through a nameless German city at the end of World War Two. W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, another way of describing that disaster, also made a deep impression on me. Those were my starting points.
YOU CITED THE ICONS OF GERMAN ROMANTICISM. SO IS THERE ALSO A RIVER?
Yes. The mountains, the forest, the river – the landscapes of German romanticism are depicted on torn and shabby painted canvasses. Large gilded cardboard images rise up as in a Nazi parade. Other images are of boats, the swan, a bust of Goethe and another of Beethoven.
For me the aesthetization of politics is pivotal in this work, which revolves around the relationship between the artist and authority, or even between the poet and authority. That poet is Wagner.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE ANTITHESIS BETWEEN NEW AND OLD RELIGIONS?
I turn round the historical perspective and examine the role of paganism in establishing the Nazi myths – Wagner didn’t care much for those heathen views anyway. It is almost the Ring upside down: the old gods are demons, who are roused from their sleep by a short and powerful conjuration. Here Wotan and the demons stand for death, for fascination with death – it is no accident that the SS chose the skull as its insignia! There are obscure, inadvertent forces and a deep pagan, yes even magical core to the work, but Wagner distrusts them. And it is that core that suggests to Elsa (i.e. the volk) that she ask Lohengrin his name. That is the difference between the sacred and the pagan: the sacred always has to do with sacrifice, violence and war.
WHAT SORT OF FREEDOM DOES ONE STILL HAVE TO INTERPRET A WAGNER SCORE?
Wagner provides no harmonic resolution – which Adorno blamed him for – so, strangely enough, everything is open to interpretation. That was his strength (and Bayreuth’s), for it meant that a new Wagner could be reinvented for every era. With positive and negative consequences: he is identified with Nazism and then exonerated, he is placed in his context and also taken out of his context. May I give a very immodest answer? I have had such an intimate relationship with Wagner, his work and his questions for so long that I don’t find it easy any more to distinguish between my subjectivity and his. Living with a poet for thirty years is quite a long time. I would like to see my subjectivity as objectivity. I believe I am faithful to the work. At any rate, I strive to be. I believe in the work.
Recorded by Reinder Pols