First published on 11 Aug 2013. Updated on 25 Sep 2013.
As Wagnermania builds around Melbourne, like ominous thunderclouds above Valhalla, Time Out speaks with director Neil Armfield about his vision for Wagner's epic masterpiece, the quartet of operas known collectively as the Ring Cycle, which, if played end on end, clock in at a marathon 20 hours.
Hi Neil, tell us, in terms of an aesthetic vision, what kind of Ring Cycle can we expect in November?
There'll be a distinct modernity about it. A playful sense of theatre. We're drawing on different frames for action and different kinds of proscenia, going right back to Wagner's time for inspiration and then right up to the present. We're dealing with the fact that the theatre is a playground and machine of transformation.
In what sense do you mean "a machine of transformation"?
One of the interesting things about The Ring is how many kinds of transformation happen across its 16 hours. There's an extravagant theatricality about the work as a whole, but also a great intimacy. It was like Wagner was trying to find the musical equivalent of the great Greek tragedies with The Ring. He was trying to break away from the bourgeois commodification of music theatre, particularly the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century work that proceeded him. He aimed to create a new kind of theatre that would involve all of society, that would involve all of the arts, design, music, poetry and image, and most importantly a sense of the whole community being involved in it, which was what he thought was at the heart of Greek theatre. Wagner wanted to make a great symbolical work about human society and the world and human destiny
The designer, Robert Cousins, is someone you've collaborated with a lot in the past. What is it about his work that makes him the right choice for Wagner's Ring?
Robert and I first worked together on Tim Winton's Cloudstreet. That was in fact his first theatre design, and I went on to do a few more productions with him. We have this little history now of going off into new frontiers together. But I suppose behind my casting him as designer is the work that he did with Benedict [Andrews], and in particular The War of the Roses. He's such a great conceptual artist, someone who is a rigorous visual and conceptual thinker.
What has the approach been? Have you been immersing yourself in the lore of past productions for inspiration, or trying to rid yourself of preconceptions?
We're going into this with our eyes open in one sense, and closed in another. Neither of us has seen a full production of The Ring. We're aware of the procession of junk that is often attached to this work, with people trying to just literally render what Wagner asked for. Instead, we're trying both to be true to the work and to find a way of releasing the symbols and the images that lie at the heart of the work, rather than trying to embody the folkloric magic.
Many readers will be familiar with your spacious visual style. Is it safe to assume you'll be pursuing a similarly clean vision here?
I've always tried to clear the stage of junk. I feel that a director's job is to get the audience to listen with their eyes, to reveal the music. So often music is clouded by the aesthetic confusion of what you see on stage.
I'm interested to see that working with choreographer Kate Champion and that you're using a lot of performers who aren't performers.
Very much so. At various key moments we almost see ourselves on stage.
What are some of the particular challenge directing opera?
You always have to support the music. If the music isn't right, nothing will be right. You always need to place the singers in a way that they're going to sonically command the house.
What about the particular challenges posed by Wagner?
The problem there is that productions of Wagner are often clotted with clichés. You know, it's like when you watch bad Shakespeare: the vagary of it is enormously irritating. But if it's being done well, if the size of the emotion is matched by the size of the music, well, then ... Wagner had a superb dramatic instinct.
Are you aiming for a peculiarly Australian Ring?
No, I think that will emerge naturally. You're always digging into your own backyard and into your own family history for the energy. There's a lot of comedy in the Ring that you don't often get the lid lifted on.
What's the funniest moment in The Ring?
I think there's a lot of humour at the beginning of Das Rheingold with Albrecht. But I'd say the opening of Act III of Die Walküre was a characteristic moment. The Valkyries are assembling and Erde I think it is asks one of her sisters why she's so late. Her response is, 'Work to do.' That seemed to me like a funny line, so I got the rest of the girls to laugh at it. Anke Höppner, who sings Gerhilde, said, 'But we can't laugh at this. Arbeit for Wagner is a holy thing. The work of the Valkyries is a sacred dedication.' I said, 'But that doesn't mean they can't laugh about it.' That's a pretty characteristic moment. The Valkyries spend a lot of time laughing about the fact that the horses are fucking.
In what way can Wagner's story be read as a modern story?
He was a socialist revolutionary. For all the anti-Semitism that infected his thinking and corrupted the legacy of this music, he was passionately anti-capitalist he took part in the Dresden uprising, the police were looking for him. He would have been executed if they found him.
But how do you read that into the operas?
With everything we're doing we're asking why. Why are we doing this, what does this tell us, how does this create meaning? It's a really rigorous process. The stakes in this work are nothing less than the future of the world and the continuation of the species. I want to do a production about meaning, which had moments of spectacle and theatricality but that wasn't about the gold and the glamour.
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