Features

Industrial Design

In an age when so many arts festivals have interchangeable programming, the Ruhrtriennale remains devoted to works that can't be experienced anywhere else. A. J. GOLDMANN talks with composer Heiner Goebbels, the intendant of Germany's most unconventional arts festival.

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The interior of Bochum's Jahrhunderthalle
© Franziska von Gagern 2013
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Ruhrtriennale's Heiner Goebbels
© Wonge Bergmann for Ruhrtriennale 2013

The Ruhr region in northwestern Germany was at the heart of the country's economic miracle in the 1950s and '60s. Fifty years later, it was part of Germany's rust belt — a depressed urban area littered with derelict factories.

In 2002, Gerard Mortier, who had just stepped down as director of the Salzburg Festival, converted the disused cathedrals of industry that dot the region into the stages of an ambitious and unpredictable arts festival, the Ruhrtriennale. The summertime event runs in three-season cycles, each under the direction of a major cultural figure. It features roughly thirty productions a year that run the gamut of the performing and visual arts, including operatic and musical works, art installations and dance performances. 

In the decade since it was founded, the Ruhrtriennale has gained a reputation as one of Europe's destinations for innovative programming. Unlike such festivals as Salzburg and Aix, the Ruhrtriennale keeps its ticket prices low, thanks to luxury government subsidies that cover about eighty-five percent of the operating budget. Mortier and his two immediate successors, the well-known directors Jürgen Flimm and Willy Decker, struck a balance between new and familiar works. Each intendant also structured his appointed cycle around a guiding theme, such as industry, religion or artistic epoch. 

When it was announced that Heiner Goebbels, one of Germany's leading avant-garde composers, would be the artistic director for the 2012–14 cycle, a new direction for the Triennale seemed inevitable. "When they picked me, I told them right away that I didn't want a theme," he says, from his Berlin apartment in the quiet neighborhood of Schöneberg. "They knew my tastes, and they knew my artistic works, so they knew what to expect. I think they wanted to have an experimental renewing of the festival program."

For his inaugural season, Goebbels programmed Carl Orff's seldom performed opera Prometheus,based on the play by Aeschylus and sung in Ancient Greek, in a production by the Samoan choreographer Lemi Ponifasio. That summer's other main operatic event was Europeras 1 & 2, John Cage's radical examination of the history of opera that had been virtually unseen since its 1987 premiere. Goebbels himself directed the sold-out production. Also on the bill was Goebbels's own When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing, a music–theater piece about girls from Maribor making the transition to adulthoodthat features texts by Gertrude Stein, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Ian McEwan, among others. 

The 96,000-square-foot space Jahrhunderthalle (Hall of the Century) in Bochum, a former gas and power station for a steel mill, is the main festival venue. This year's installment, which runs from August 23 until October 6, will highlight two operatic rarities, Harry Partch's Delusion of the Fury and Helmut Lachenmann's Mädchen mit dem Schwefelhölzern (Little Match Girl). Like last season's program, the 2013 lineup showcases a wide range of contemporary artists, several of whom were featured last year, including the legendary Robert Wilson and the renowned choreographers Boris Charmatz and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. 

In the past, the thematic programming that has been a feature at the Triennale has gone hand in hand with striking a balance between the old and the new. Mortier conceived of the festival partially as a way of revitalizing one of Germany's most economically depressed regions. As artistic director, he mixed standard repertory with modern and contemporary productions, curating a program that focused on spirituality in European art, through theatrical productions that were specially tailored to the festival's unusual venues. The 2003 production of Olivier Messiaen's Saint François d'Assise in the Jahrhunderthalle was arguably the highlight of his tenure. But his reign also included classic fare, such as Don Giovanni and staged performances of Pierrot Lunaire, Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin. Often the artists he invited to stage these works were more provocative than the works themselves. Many credit Mortier with revitalizing the Salzburg Festival in the post-Karajan era. Similarly, in the Ruhr, he was able to attract many leading artists, including Peter Sellars, Pina Bausch, Bill Viola, Patrice Chéreau and the Catalan theater company La Fura dels Baus. 

In 2003, Mortier told The New York Times that audiences wouldn't come to the Ruhr to hear the Vienna Philharmonic. Based on his programming choices, it would appear that Goebbels has decided to take that message even further. "The past three years before I started have been more focused on the [traditional] repertoire. I said I'm not doing any repertoire, because we have such a rich institutional landscape in Germany, with eighty opera houses and hundreds of theaters," Goebbels says. "So I do works in my program that you can't see so easily anywhere else." 

When Jürgen Flimm took over in 2005 for his three-year term, he divided his seasons thematically between the Medieval, Baroque and Romantic eras and examined how the art of each epoch responded to industrialization. Still, Flimm didn't adhere dogmatically to his thematic divisions. During his tenure he also mounted works that seemingly had nothing to do with his chosen themes, such as Brian Ferneyhough's 2004 opera Shadowtime, about Walter Benjamin, and the world premiere of Moritz Eggert's "soccer oratorio" The Depth of Space. But the undisputed highlight was David Pountney's now-legendary production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Soldaten in 2006, which was presented at the New York Armory two years later. In addition, Flimm invited popular musicians to perform, among them Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne and Billy Bragg.

When artistic director-designate Marie Zimmermann suddenly died, Flimm's contract was extended for one season until Willy Decker signed on for the 2009–11 cycle. Decker, who directed the Met's current Traviata, brought a religious focus to the festival. Over two seasons devoted to Judaism and Islam, he programmed his own staging of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron as well as Layla and Majnun, a theater piece based on a twelfth-century Persian love poem, with music by Palestinian composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi. In his final summer, focused on Buddhism, Decker mounted a production of Tristan und Isolde and invited the controversial Catalan director Calixto Bieito to stage Toshio Hosokawa's Hanjo (which will be seen this season at the Berliner Staatsoper, the house that Flimm currently leads). In a more popular vein, the same season featured John Cale performing his classic album Paris 1919.

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The exterior of Bochum's Jahrhunderthalle
© Jahrhunderthalle Bochum 2013

When Mortier founded the festival, there was criticism from some quarters that the impresario was squandering taxpayers' money for what was essentially elite entertainment. "I can't deal with this accusation, at least judging from my program," Goebbels says. "Of course, we offer very high-level international artists. But we try to invite and produce artworks where the threshold of who can enjoy it is very low. We're offering art on eye-level. We don't want to intimidate people with super-complex and hermetic work. We try to create avant-garde and experimental art that is open to everyone." Goebbels's own works often inhabit an ambiguous position between music and theater, as is the case with two of his best-known pieces, the Grammy Award-nominated Eislermaterial and Surrogate Cities

As we discuss the coming season, it becomes clear that Goebbels wants to keep the Triennale as a laboratory and showcase for experimentation. By forswearing any overarching theme for his tenure, he wants to get away as much as possible from programmatic and even predictable choices. "I consider the notion of the 'aesthetic,' and of art that doesn't make compromises, as a topic," he says, "but I don't have an overall theme, because a theme restricts the artist, it restricts the curator — myself — and it restricts the view and perspective of the audience, which I consider the most important thing in such a festival. We should create a space for the imagination of the audience, we should not teach them. We can open spaces, but we should not make messages." 

Part of this involves the readiness to be inspired by various kinds of art. "What I'm trying to enlarge is the concept of what music-theater can be. I'm trying to shift the boundaries towards the visual arts, because the visual arts can be very inspiring for the performing arts — and vice versa," he explains. He points to one of last season's highlights, the group installation 12 Rooms, which brought together work by a dozen internationally acclaimed artists, including Marina Abramovic´, Damien Hirst, Roman Ondák and Lucy Raven. 

That is certainly the case with this year's opening production, Partch's Delusion of the Fury. A pioneer in experimental music, Partch built instruments that could accommodate the forty-three divisions he made to the octave (rather than the traditional twelve). By no means a household name in the U.S., Partch is all but unknown abroad. "He had a very strong artistic idea, which is actually very close to my own approach," Goebbels explains. "He hated the classical concert format. He wanted to put the conductors in prison." 

One of the reasons Partch's music has rarely been performed in Europe is because the instruments he invented are kept at Montclair State University in New Jersey. They were retrieved in 2007 for a performance of Delusion of the Fury at New York City's Japan Society, the work's first performance since its 1969 premiere. For the Ruhr performances, however, the contemporary music group Ensemble MusikFabrik has rebuilt Partch's instruments and will learn to play them. 

Goebbels is delighted to be able to introduce Partch to a new audience, calling him a composer who wrote complex music in a non-academic way. "He was one of the first composers who invented microtonal systems, but in a very light, humorous and poetic way. So the music sounds like it's from an unknown area and another culture that we haven't discovered yet," he explains. 

The summer's other big operatic production is Helmut Lachenmann's Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern, in a new staging by Robert Wilson. This work, first seen in Hamburg in 1997, is based on the classic Hans Christian Anderson tale. "It's really an opera that deserves to be more widely heard, because it gives a new dimension to how you can transform narrativity — the story of the little match girl — into a very concrete experience of sounds and noises," he says. 

In addition, Goebbels is presenting his ambitious musical installation Stifters Dinge (Stifter's Things), which the composer has described as "a composition for five pianos with no pianists; a performance with no performers; a play with nobody acting." The visionary work, inspired by the writings of German Romantic writer Adalbert Stifter and his evocative descriptions of natural landscapes, is a multimedia extravaganza that combines music played on mechanical instruments, snippets of texts by Malcolm X, Claude Levi-Strauss and William S. Burroughs, special effects and visual projections. It has been shown all over the world, including a 2009 exhibit at the New York Armory. In the Ruhr, it will be installed inside of the Kraftzentrale, a former machine house in Duisburg's Landschaftspark. One of the very few classics on the 2013 program is Le Sacre du Printemps, which will be staged by the daring Italian theater artist Romeo Castellucci.

Putting together the festival is a full-time job. During the year, Goebbels takes weekly trips to the Ruhr area, where he now has an apartment. During the festival itself, he is at the door every night. And while he is certainly more than cut out for the job, the composer is itching to get back to his music. At the time of our interview, he was putting the finishing touches on the 2013 season and had about half of the 2014 program mapped out. "I will be a composer again after this," he says. "I'm not planning on doing other jobs like this in the near future. It's a fantastic festival, and the job fits my imagination, but I'm an artist, and I want to work like that again." spacer 

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6