In the supplemental material to the Opus Arte DVD of Katharina Wagner’s recent Bayreuth production of Die Meistersinger, she relates:
When my father asked if I were interested in directing it here, I asked myself as I would with any work anywhere: “Does it have a story I’m interested in telling?”
It would appear that the answer was no, but she took the gig anyway.
Ms. Wagner seems not to have been interested in the story of a young lover who learns to master, and ultimately to respect and embrace, the traditions of German art in order to gain the woman of his dreams. Nor was she interested in the story of the master poet and home-spun cobbler who comes to terms with the passing of his time of influence, yielding his artistic powers to the next generation. The story of the Town Clerk whose pedantry and hubris bring him to a bad end were not of interest to Ms. Wagner, either.
The story she wanted to tell was of a rude, avant-garde visual artist who defaces paintings and public walls. He shows his portfolio but the established art community isn’t impressed. A fellow who types for a living (on a machine people keep referring to as a shoe) takes him in and a raucous event of performance art erupts in the town square. A hitherto proponent of conventional art is transformed by this event and steals a freshly-painted backdrop (referring to the wet paint as ink) that the young guy prepared for a model theatre (referring to it as a poem). Great thinkers and artists of German history engage in a danse macabre for a pretty long time in tighty-whities. The young guy wins the acclaim of the crowd by staging a brief 17th-Century theatrical masque (which people refer to as a song) but rejects popular acclaim. He leaves, the girl leaves, the Dad leaves, the people disappear, and the fellow who types — lit from under his chin like we used to do in our tent in Boy Scouts to look spooky — sings to the empty stage of the importance of German art while massive Fascist statues arise and the sounds of the unseen chorus finishes the show in stirring fashion, like the end of Shane.
Ms. Wagner wanted to tell not just a “story she’s interested in telling” — she wanted to tell her story. In her late twenties by now, she has grown skeptical, apparently — even a bit angry — of the audiences who attend the Festival to see this particular work, and is quite uncomfortable with the audiences who used to come see this work 60 years ago, when her father was a member of the Nazi Youth. She wanted (I think) to stage a performance at Bayreuth about staging performances at Bayreuth, and to confront the audience that she (at least partly) loathes with her concerns about a work that she (at least partly) fears. She wanted to tell the story of (I dare say) an artist in her late twenties by now, who frankly dislikes and even condemns the conventional ways that conventional audience passively accept conventional works of art.
Fair enough. She runs the joint, she can do what she wants, yes?
But let’s think for a minute about what we’re dealing with. Early in the show, David impresses upon Walther that the true work of art consists of (a) the perfectly new and resonant word, in combination with (b) the perfectly new and suitable tone. This is one of the central principles of Ms. Wagner’s great-grandfather’s artistic manifesto: that words and music matter equally in the performance of the “artwork of the future”: musical drama. The action of Meistersinger is a young artist’s tackling that very challenge. It is a challenge that Ms. Wagner avoids entirely.
Here we have words that make no sense and music that has no relation to the dramatic action. Here we have someone singing “look at my basket of sausages” and “I’m going to take my basket of sausages back” without at any time having a basket of sausages. We have someone saying “I will mark this song’s mistakes” without marking the song’s mistakes. We have someone saying he is fixing a shoe but not fixing a shoe. We have someone stealing a painted cardboard and subsequently complaining that the words were difficult to memorize. And we simply drop entire plot lines — such as the hero’s winning the girl by accepting the people’s acclaim — in favor of alternative dramatic action (or in this case inactive declamation of a monologue to no one else whatsoever) that furthers Ms. Wagner’s preferred story.
This is called false theatre. Fake theatre. Fakery, quack quack quack. When someone copies pages on a copying machine but then doesn’t use the copies, that’s false. When someone types a paper and someone else says “Nice shoes, Hans!” that’s false, fake. No one is insisting that all the stage directions be observed in classic revivals; but one does insist that the actors not lie to each other and to us.
If Ms. Wagner wants to stage a show about a visual artist with a penchant for theatre, then cut all that stuff where the character talks all the time about his poetry and his singing. If a guy wants to serenade his sweetheart from a cafe chair, don’t include the part of the score where he tunes his mandolin. He doesn’t have a mandolin! Why are we listening to him tune one? Either make sure something that’s true happens during this passage, or cut it. But don’t fake it, or ignore it, or lie about it, or hide it under a rug and hope that if you keep going fast enough people won’t notice.
And if two couples simultaneously reach the culmination of their love plots, and are realizing their rising love right there in front of us, while at the same time right in front of us an older man is overcome by and accepts the receding of his life’s hopes, and the five of them are overlapping their realizations and their rhymes, and initiating modulations that provoke even deeper understandings, and advancing to aesthetic clarity through richly complex vocal and orchestral writing, don’t put a nine-year old kid on the stage who pretends he needs to take a wicked piss during the last 16 bars. Or else do it, and show us why the quintet is really about a kid who needs to piss. But it’s not good enough just to do something crude and then say, “Look audience, I just did something crude during a part that I know you’ve been waiting for, nyah-nyah!” That’s false, fake, regional-rep theatre, and an abandonment of the director’s duty to truly stage what’s truly happening in the play.
Michael Volle does a Beckmesser in this production of which there can be “keine besser.” And Klaus Florian Vogt sings Walther von Stolzing with lyricism, commitment, utmost musicality and charm from start to finish. Sebastan Weigle is a master at the score and the Bayreuth chorus can make a hell of a rousing sound, even if recast from the volk to the invisible background in a poor-man’s-Hollywood ending. Pity one can’t recommend the DVD, though — how about an audio recording?
Recently the music critic of The New Yorker suggested that, before a stage director is engaged by the Metropolitan Opera, she should be asked two questions: “Do you like opera?” and “Do you like this particular opera?” There is little evidence that Ms. Wagner would have responded affirmatively to either one, and despite her assumptions to the contrary she does not have legions of fans who are waiting with baited breath for her to tell “a story I’m interested in telling.”