See with your ears and hear with your eyes: ‘Opera’s not about a good time’
Stefan Herheim, one of his art form's most thrilling directors, talks about his controversial approach
“I am an artist first, but also Catholic and homosexual. That should not be left out.”
So insists Stefan Herheim, clearly a complicated human being and certainly one of today’s most exciting, original and controversial opera directors. He’s in London for his production of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades for Covent Garden, and no doubt it will divide opinion.
I wonder what I will think of it: I rate his 2008 production of Parsifal at Bayreuth one of the finest stagings of an opera I have ever seen, and his Pelléas et Mélisande at Glyndebourne in 2018 one of the worst.
Although born and raised in Norway (he radiates the fierce energy of his Viking ancestors) this 48-year-old has been based in Germany throughout his adult life. Opera came to him early: his father played viola in the opera-house orchestra in Oslo and Herheim caught the bug, mounting his own versions of the pieces he’d seen at home with puppets and gramophone records. As a member of Norway’s only Catholic boys’ choir, he spent many of his summers singing in the baroque splendour of St Peter’s in Rome, where they deputised for the regular choristers.
As a teenager he seriously considered training for the priesthood, and religion still haunts him. When asked to name a book that has changed the way he thought, he immediately comes up with the Bible. “Even today I cannot pass a church without looking inside, and to me a theatre is always a temple waiting for a congregation. So I would not say that I lost my faith: it’s more that it became transferred into my ambition to become an artist.”
His conception of his calling remains high. “Opera for me is not about entertaining people or giving them a good time – it is about bringing us together to confront our most pressing and dreadful problems. Perhaps art can’t change the world, but it can change the way that people can think and feel. This makes opera a spiritual experience for me.”
The style of Herheim’s work is divisive, and some will invariably find his stagings too busy, too detailed, too flamboyant. His habit of presenting not the opera that the libretto specifies in a realistic or literal fashion, but instead building what one might call a meta-opera – a critical commentary on the text, developed through long discussions with his close friend from university days in Hamburg, Professor Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach.
Herheim is anxious to make it clear that there are no strings being secretly pulled here. “Alexander may attend some rehearsals, but there I am the director. It’s just that we have the most stimulating conversations, and he helps me to reflect on whether something is working or not. We balance each other. He is a theorist; I am the visual person ... and also the musical one.”
Herheim’s productions are never spare or bare, and rarely simple: like the baroque interior of St Peter’s, they are a feast for the eyes, multilayered and richly symbolic, as well as being, on occasion, mildly confusing if not downright baffling.
Significantly, Herheim has engaged very seldom with contemporary operas. “At the beginning of my career, I tried a little; but I found them afraid of human emotions.”
His penchant is for the past, and intellectually he should be classified as a historicist: the settings he chooses do not update to the present day or float through a realm of fantasy; instead they mine both what we know of the composer’s inner life and the period in which it was composed. His recent Covent Garden version of Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, for example, was set not in 13th-century Palermo but in mid 19th-century Paris, where the opera was first performed; his astonishingly beautiful Parsifal seemed to flow cinematically through all the opera’s iterations since it was first conceived in Bayreuth in the 1870s.
Setting Pelléas et Mélisande in a simulacrum of the Organ Room at Glyndebourne was one of his less happy inspirations. “I always aim to tell the story and to get to its essence, but I want to add other perspectives,” he says. “Opera audiences need to see with their ears and hear with their eyes: it can never be a simple experience, and if audiences all leave the auditorium thinking differently about what they have witnessed then I have succeeded.”
Herheim is not one of those directors who works against the music; if anything, it’s the text he mistrusts. “The story of an opera is never just what the words tells us – the moment words are sung they assume another meaning and often that meaning will tell us that the words being uttered are lies. Music starts where the words stop.”
Quite how he knows that it is lying he does not elucidate. Presumably it’s a matter of intuition. His interpretation of The Queen of Spades deviates from Pushkin’s original supernatural short story. It is not predicated on the central figure of the psychotic soldier, Hermann, nor on the spectral figure of the Countess who appears to Hermann with three playing cards to win the hand of her ward, Liza, with whom he is in love. Rather, it concerns Tchaikovsky’s guilt about his homosexuality and his redemption through music.
“It’s a requiem over his inability to love. You could say it’s an opera in code.”
So, Herheim presents all sorts of parallels to the composer’s biography, including Tchaikovsky himself. “This seems to me much more rewarding than trying to return to Pushkin’s original story, which Tchaikovsky wasn’t really interested in. When his brother Modest showed him the libretto he had written, he said he couldn’t identify with its cynical, sophisticated St Petersburg milieu.”
When he did relent, he created instead a highly expressionist drama “in which he crucified the three main characters on the cross of his own neuroses. Their behaviour in the opera doesn’t make sense unless you look at it like that.”
All of this may make Herheim sound like rather hard work, but he’s smiling, voluble and exuberant, and seems like a man with a healthy appetite for life. If only he had more time to indulge it: for the past few years he’s been so busy that his existence has become that of “an opera idiot” and much of the next two years will be taken up with evolving a new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle for Deutsche Oper Berlin. But after two decades of the stress of creating opera productions, he feels the need to move on, so in 2022 he will assume the overall artistic leadership of Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, one of the best opera houses in Europe.
It’s a potentially explosive appointment, as Vienna is culturally a notoriously conservative city. But who can doubt that opera needs more people with his intense commitment to its traditions and complexities?
– © The Daily Telegraph