Coda: The Performance I Can't Forget


Coda HDL 613
Young Senta and Daland (Jaakko Ryhänen) in Claus Guth’s Holländer, 2005
© Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH/Jörg Schulze 2013

The year 2005 started out as the lowest point of my life, and like the plucky 1930s movie heroine I am, I decided that it would be up to me to turn things around. I would take a sabbatical from my five jobs. (All musicians with a mortgage are working five jobs.) I would practice piano repertoire that I wasn't preparing for performance. I would study French diction for singers. And I would provide myself with one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

The last, I decided, would be a trip to the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth. To this day, Bayreuth remains a festival dedicated to the reexamination of nothing but the ten canonical Wagner music-dramas (actually seven, because Bayreuth views the Ring as a single opera). There's also a social component nowadays. Today's Wagnerian pilgrims walk a red carpet in designer couture on the way to the rapt attention devoted to the music. If you want to simulate the Bayreuth experience at home, wait until the hottest day of the summer, put on your finest clothes, go up to your uninsulated attic and remain motionless as you listen to Act I of Götterdämmerung for two hours. 

I studied for this event as if I had a part-time job at Dunkin' Donuts. In 2005, there was no Ring, so it was possible to see five operas, directed and designed by five different teams, conducted by five maestros. I expected revelations. On the first night of the trip, I spent my birthday at the premiere of a new production of Tristan und Isolde. Passions ran high in the audience. I was temporarily deafened in one ear when the man behind me booed the Kurwenal. (Really? The Kurwenal?) Tannhäuser and Lohengrin had staging effects that, in description, would seem impossible to achieve. Parsifal was a triple whammy. This is the only opera Wagner orchestrated after hearing the acoustics in his new theater, the theater in which I now sat. This was the only time I heard an opera conducted by Pierre Boulez, who made it into a thing of shocking, prickly beauty and then never conducted it again. And this production was the creative capstone for the sadly short-lived director Christoph Schlingensief. Although Schlingensief had a throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach, many of his ideas indeed did stick. During Kundry's "Ich sah das Kind," she and Parsifal enacted a whole series of ways in which their story might end, and for the waltz of the Flowermaidens, Schlingensief was the only director of my experience to catch the loopy campiness of the music. 

The one thing I did not expect was any revelations from Der Fliegende Holländer, which is the only Wagner opera I ordinarily don't have much use for. Yet director Claus Guth made it seem the deepest opera ever written. Guth gave us Holländer as the story of a young woman coming of age. We saw Senta at age seven, age fourteen and age twenty-one. Each wore the same little sailor suit, since Senta, it turned out, was fixated on her father and on the nautical tale he read her each night from a picture book as he sat in Daddy's big chair. Young Senta conflated her father with the Dutchman of the story, to the point where she could no longer tell them apart. (In 2005, this was helped no end by the late replacement of one singer, so that Daland and the Dutchman were both played by towering Finnish basses.) In Christian Schmidt's design, the single setting was bisected on the diagonal by an enormous staircase. Each half of Daland's parlor thus mirrored the other, with the paintings, doors and radiators of the top half hanging upside down, just as the two stories interlocked in Senta's mind. The production worked from an accumulation of tiny details, each one carefully calibrated to Senta's psychological path. The Dutchman's arrival was signaled by a suitcase opening itself; the parlor lamp toppled of its own accord. 

By Act III, the immersion in Senta's situation, performed without intermission, was all-encompassing. Locked in her own mind, she had turned Daddy's chair around downstage and had hidden behind it. Reaching up from behind the chair, she put on a little play about the sailors, their girls and the Dutchman using stick puppets. And behind her, the massive Bayreuth company was performing the scene, exactly as she directed it. She was, quite literally, pulling the strings. It was the most complex music-dramatic image of my life. Then I became aware of the man seated next to me. He was pitched forward in his seat, his head down. His wife, on his right, was rubbing his back in large circles. As quietly and clearly as she could, she reassured him, "It's all right, it's going to be all right." The man, I thought, was having a heart attack, and under the strict rules of Bayreuth behavior he assumed that he would just have to die as quietly as he could.

The man was not having a heart attack. He was having the experience I was having, of an opera performance so deep and complex that it became almost literally unbearable. There was no such thing as a conventional heroine, or a conventional sailors' chorus, or a conventional setting. A brilliant person had thought long and carefully about every instrument in the orchestra, every lighting change, every footstep, every bar of music, and several hundred artists had carried out the vision. Afterward, the man next to me had the gallantry to apologize for disturbing me. I told him, "Are you kidding? You only get one of those in your life." Briefly he misunderstood, thinking that I meant that you could only be forgiven for succumbing to a performance once in your life. We sorted it out, but I didn't fully realize how right I was at the time. No other Guth production I subsequently saw moved me in that way. One summer I returned to Bayreuth, and the magic was gone onstage (a flimsy Tankred Dorst Ring) and in the now-distracted audience. Yet I find it almost shockingly easy to think myself back into that hard little chair I sat in. "It's going to be all right." Yes it is, it really is. spacer

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut.

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