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"It Is Our Duty to Re-Create Art": An Exclusive Interview with Nikolaus Bachler - Part 2

By Jens F. Laurson
22 Jul 2009

Nikolaus Bachler

Here is the final installment of Jens F. Laurson's candid interview with Nikolaus Bachler. The outspoken BSO intendant shares more thoughts about his work in Munich and opinions on the overall state of the art form.


Click here for Part 1 of this conversation.

You being a theater man, it’s difficult to conceive what you see in Ernani when operas like Three Oranges or Jenůfa have so much more to offer, dramatically; they are already so well written. Isn’t it much harder to relate Ernani; to make it go beyond clumsy operatic gestures?

"I think that sometimes those things that are further from us make for more interesting theater. Works like Jenůfa, as with anything by Ibsen and Chekhov, are so perfect in themselves… you can do them and it’s beautiful to do them. And they’re masterpieces. But a wacky thing like Lucrezia Borgia or such a theatrically—awful piece like Ernani, which features ideas of revolution and idealism now completely foreign to us… those pieces I think are like the Greek plays where we can strip it down to its essence and get much more topicality from it. If the conflict is far enough away, it can become incredibly present. With opera there’s the additional element of the music. Ernani is just fantastic music. Something I wouldn’t necessarily say of other operas of Verdi. I don’t know yet if we’ll do Ernani or not, but it’d be attractive if we find the right constellation.

New works—since you ask—are going to continue to be presented. The next big creation is Peter Eötvös’ The Tragedy of the Devil [February 2010] which I commissioned and for which I proposed the libretto [by Albert Ostermaier]. It’s really a collaboration of the entire house with the artist. Kabakov [the husband & wife duo Ilya & Emilia] will create the set, so it’s a visual artist-composer creation. We are talking with Jörg Widmann, trying to push him to write an opera [chuckles], and we are thinking about and talking with a few other composers. But that’s a continual process. We’ll continuously offer new works. Maybe a production every two, three years for the big house. I don’t know if we can do it every year, it also depends a bit on the financial situation. And we’ll also produce works in smaller spaces. This year we had the Jay Schwartz’ premiere of Narzissus & Echo during the Festival.

I do think this is important. Of course it’s not as important for a house like Munich as it would be for a smaller house for which it is a way to get an amount of press they might otherwise not get. We do it more because it keeps us alive, metaphorically. To be busy working with composers is good for us. We can’t just be stuck trying to figure out what Verdi meant with this or that phrase."

Any particular plans?

Charles Maxwell in Narcissus und Echo
photo by Wilfried Hösl

"Well, everyone is expecting us to do the Ring, so… sometimes I do what everyone is expecting, and sometimes not,” Bachler inserts with a dose of "grand impresario laughter."

"The interesting thing we’ll do for sure is the combination of Wagner and Verdi— because they have a lot in common. Verdi has a lot of influence on Wagner, and of course Wagner later on Verdi. That which was Verdi’s scandalizing, emotional gestus, Wagner picked up and transformed into an agreeable, toothsome delirium for the bourgeoisie. But it’s cut of the same cloth. Wagner gives the bourgeoisie the opportunity of intoxication and ecstasy without the imperilment. That’s true, even today. I’d go as far as to say: If you dare, you’ll shoot heroin, if not, you go to Bayreuth.  Well… metaphorically speaking, of sorts. Wagner and Italy is such a strong story. When we talk about opera, we talk about Verdi because it’s the foundation of modern opera. And if you translate that foundation into the German of Goethe and Schiller, you get Wagner."

So you are putting on Rienzi.

“Yes” – Bachler divulges, chuckles, then winks, just to make sure no one would bet too much money on actually seeing Rienzi in 2013.

When is opera dead, when does it become a taxidermists project or museum art?

"When we no longer strive for contemporary interpretations, when we give up on the aspiration to relate the opera and its creation to our times. Then it’s dead. Lots of opera is dead, incidentally. But there is no opera so dated or hopelessly uninteresting that it couldn’t be made into something. If you talk about the major operas from the 17th century to today, they all deal with the same media, the struggle of being human, in whichever way. It’s only different perspectives. And there is no reason why we couldn’t connect that to our situation. The question is how.

I always find this a very useless discussion when we say ‘modern interpretation’. There is no escaping a modern interpretation. To go on stage means to interpret. Even to do nothing, even to be reactionary is inevitably an interpretation. As is being ‘true to the composer’—which I find is the most ridiculous expression. What does it mean to be true to the composer? True to the composer means to try to find out what is in the work and what the composer wanted to express. But in the year 2009 even just to put a dress on, a historical dress perhaps, and to walk in from Maximilianstrasse, climb on stage, and sing Manrico in Trovatore is an interpretation. We cannot disconnect ourselves from our time and who we are. It’s not possible. This is the difference to visual arts. You can take a painting and hang it somewhere else.

When a playwright or a composer creates something, he makes a lifelong contract with the future to be developed and interpreted. Of course sometimes the interpretation is so much weaker, so much more uninteresting and banal than the value of the subject. In that case it’s not only possible, but necessary to fight against that and to protest. But looking to the past leads in the wrong direction. There is no original Nozze di Figaro interpretation. What should it be? Basically whenever someone speaks of being true to the time, or true to the composer, they only mean the interpretive style from 20 and 30 years ago. What we nowadays call “historic” are productions from the 50s. Not the 1820s. Anything produced then was so much more radical than you can even imagine.”

*

Edita Gruberova and Pavol Breslik in Lucrezia Borgia
photo by Wilfried Hösl

Bachler makes the very point on the impossibility of non-interpretation which Jorge Luis Borges’ wrote about in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”: A sentence like “History, the Mother of Truth” written in the seventeenth century means something radically different from the same penned by “a contemporary of William James.”  Likewise seeing a 17th century costume means something radically different to a 18th century audience than it does to a 21st century audience.

Bachler continues:
“The discussion among a normal theater audience—I don’t mean that kind of conservative public that doesn’t want anything moving on stage—always starts when something is considered wrong about a performance. When we look back to the last 20 years, we easily can agree that the Ring of Chérau, or a Ruth Berghaus production is the equal of the opera’s subject. There is no question that kind of quality is the only way to do it. Because the rest is just putting on costumes and singing. Concert in costumes and makeup. That’s what most things are.”

Which is boring…

"It’s boring, it’s stupid, and it goes against the composition and the writer. That’s the way to total a work, because it no longer relates to the truth of it, because it no longer touches the value of the subject.“

But is it right to assume that every opera actually has some poignant truth at the core? Isn’t some of it written with no greater aspiration than contemporary Top-40 hits?

"Yes, some of it is, for sure. We know how Donizetti and how Rossini and even how Mozart wrote certain things. That’s where the ‘re-creative artist,’ which is what a director is, comes in. It’s his art to judge what he can find and how he can extract it. There is no general judgment. That’s what art is all about. There’s no structure like in engineering, where you can clearly specify the different elements. Consider I Puritani, written just like a soap opera would be today. But there might be an artist today who has just the vision for this art and who might exactly find it the right vehicle to express himself today. And with the right set, the right singers, something could come out of Puritani that really matters. And what I think is our duty and the reason we are allowed in this profession is to re-create art that has to communicate something to the people. Otherwise we have no right being in opera. The rest is show business. We are not working in showbiz. We have a greater, humanistic mission."

Isn’t opera also show business—legitimately? It certainly used to be.

"Yes. I would immediately agree, in principle. But this is a question of terminus technicus. But nowadays it’s so dangerous just to discuss that term because it might have us miss a greater, more important point. Yes, of course it’s part show if someone opens the curtain and says ‘To be, or not to be’. But I think we have to discuss the part about the human mission more, because that’s the front on which we are losing. We’re certainly not losing the show element. I think the difference is that … some arts demand more. And it is about a mission, or truth, or human nature and how we see ourselves. It’s still a show and I still want to be entertained. It’s just that it happens to be that I’m entertained by pondering whether being or not being is a good idea.

Yesterday’s Traviata illustrated the main difference between opera and circus or an ice revue: People are in the theater and they leave the theater moved. Moved, lastingly, by the story. Moved by certain human situations they know or don’t know, project, or relate to. And this is what theater and especially opera can do like no other art form else, in my opinion. And if we hold this power in our hands, we have to use it. We can’t reach everyone all the time. Sometimes we’re ahead of our time, sometimes behind. What matters is that...”

Bachler slaps his hands together as if to jolt the imaginary audience from collective lethargy

“...something happens. Because that’s what the whole thing is about."





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