Concert Reviews | CD Reviews | DVD Reviews | Opera | Early Music | News | Film | Art | Books | Kids

20.9.03

INTERVIEW: Wagner in Washington (Part 1 of 6)

Monument to Richard Wagner as a Grail Knight, in Liebethal, GermanyA month ago now, I wrote a post (Wagner Festival in Washington?, August 19) about a possible new Wagner company or festival here in Washington, which I learned about from an article by Jochen Breiholz (Wagner-Wahn im Internet, August 19) in Die Welt. At the end of my post, I said that I was contacting the Millennium Wagner Opera Company to find out when they were performing and what they envisioned for their productions. I said I would write again if I learned anything, and so here I am. Thus follows the the first part of the Ionarts exclusive interview with Carol Berger, the founder of the Millennium Wagner Opera Company. It will be published here in six installments, which may not necessarily appear consecutively.

Ionarts:
Why did you name your project the Millennium Opera Project? What is the significance of "millennium"?

Carol Berger:
"Millennium" really was not meant to have a special implication. I suppose you could say that, with the new millennium, we are trying to do something new. And that is a direct reference to something that Richard Wagner told his son, Siegfried: "Go do something new." And what I say about Millennium is that we don’t do something new just for news' sake, to be leaders, or to be eccentric. We do it because we are trying to expose the inner psychodrama, the spiritual drama that exists within Wagner's works. So I suppose it means "Wagner for the new millennium."

Ionarts:
What is the difference between the Millennium Wagner Company and the Millennium Wagner Project?

Carol Berger:
The Opera Company is a subset of its parent, the Millennium Wagner Project. This is very different from most opera companies like the Lyric Opera or the Metropolitan. They have a larger entity, which is a performing entity, an opera company, and within the Opera Company they have a subset, such as the Metropolitan Opera Guild or an education department. Those departments within the Opera Company do things such as education, lectures, community outreach, and fundraising, but everything is subservient to the performing entity, which is the Opera Company. The reason that I have structured the Millennium Wagner Opera Company in the exact opposite way of the standard set by these opera companies today, by having the opera company become a subset of the Project, has to do with something I believe spiritually about Wagner. It has to do with the message of Parsifal, because I believe that Parsifal was Wagner's culminating statement on everything he had been building toward in all of his music dramas, what he called "fellow feeling" or "shared suffering," this concept of Mitleid. "Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor" is the message of Parsifal, which means through the experience of sharing the suffering of others and doing something about it, we become enlightened. That is the subtext of all of our work. That is what Parsifal does: he does something about it; he heals Amfortas. Only then can a pure fool, who is any man and who is every man, become enlightened.

That is what I think is Wagner's primary message to the world, that people need to be sensitized to the suffering in the world and to go out and help people. Not to feel sorry for them: Mitleid is not pity or compassion, it is really shared suffering (literally "pain-with or with-suffering"—ed.). If you read his late essays, especially the volume of essays called Religion and Art, you see that Wagner is involved in antivivisection societies, animal rights, the whole notion of suffering in the world. If Wagner were alive today, I believe he would be an activist in many social, economic, and environmental causes. So I have structured the performance company, the opera company, under the rubric of the Project because the Millennium Wagner Project, the outreach project, is the community outreach piece that does programs for the poor, the sick, the aged, the people I call sidelined in life, the ones you don't usually see sitting in the seat next to you in an opera house, the disabled, the mentally handicapped, the vision-impaired. That is our larger cause, because in the end I am not looking for an egotistic product in which this is all about performance. My belief is that the greater purpose of Wagnerians in life is a spiritual purpose, an active selflessness, to go out and help people. That's why tickets to the Festspiele in Bayreuth are shockingly low compared to their imitators in the major opera houses of the U.S. Our program of community outreach through the arts is the umbrella organization, and the Millennium Wagner Opera Company, a fully professional performing company, is a subset of that larger mission. It is this new structure that I insisted on, for which I had to fight with my incorporating partners to establish. I think we are larger than just getting on stage and getting applause. That sets us apart. It also makes us vulnerable to criticism, because most of the world is very self-centered. Most people in the world of opera, frankly, are very self-centered. We are trying to be spiritual people in this field.

Ionarts:
What will be different about your productions of Wagner?

Carol Berger:
Our production work is similar to the Stanislavski method, which I studied for many years. That is the acting perspective. I also bring a lot of movement, because of my background as a dancer. All of my singers do a lot of physical movement in rehearsal. Thirdly, we do tremendous amounts of bonding to the characters. Rehearsals are very similar to psychoanalytical sessions. It's very intense, and it will produce a dramatically charged performance. Nothing is kitsch in our productions; it's all pretty deadly serious.

Ionarts:
It seems that you envision a more traditional interpretation than what has been attempted sometimes in recent years. I take it you will not be presenting Der Ring with laser guns?

Carol Berger:
It's not that it’s traditional. It's more abstract, in a particular sense of that word, what comes to your mind when you think of Greek drama. This was Wagner's basis for what he created, even in his plans for the Bayreuth theater, which was based on a Greek amphitheater. If you think of the way that Greek dramas are staged, there is minimalist use of light, costumes, and props. I don't think traditional is the right word. I think shifting the time period in a Wagner production can be good, if it comes out of the psychology of the work. We are exposing the bond between the inner psychology of the characters and the inner psychology of the person sitting in the audience.

(To be continued.)

No comments: