2018-08-07 00:41:58 UTC
By Joshua Barone
BAYREUTH, Germany--Articles about 19th-century operas typically
don't require spoiler alerts. This one does.
That's because Wagner's "Lohengrin"--as staged at the Bayreuth
Festival here by the visionary Yuval Sharon, the first American
director in the festival's 142-year history--has a new ending.
In the ambiguous final scene of Mr. Sharon's production, with sets
and costumes by the artist couple Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy, the two
lead female characters appear not only to survive, but thrive:
liberated from patriarchy, and for the first time given complete
agency. Lohengrin, a failed hero, leaves in shame. And the gullible
people of Brabant, depicted as vaguely mothlike, are killed en masse
by a single zap.
When the curtain came down at the premiere on Wednesday night, there
"were barely any boos," David Allen wrote in his review for The New
York Times. But there were more than a few scratched heads as people
struggled to make sense of what they had seen. On social media,
people joked that Gottfried, a shining green presence that seemed
more symbol-like than human, looked a little like Germany's
signature Ampelmännchen on traffic lights.
Mr. Sharon couldn't be happier.
"All of these various ideas resonate with each other, or clash with
each other, or sometimes don't get told all the way to the end," he
said over lunch the day after the premiere. "I love things that
aren't closed, because then the audience has such power and freedom
to discover things for themselves."
He then invoked the Roland Barthes adage that "the birth of the
reader must be at the cost of the death of the author." Mr. Sharon,
39, a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient and one of the most
innovate directors working in opera today, tends to do things like
that. His program notes for "Lohengrin" even use a Brecht poem, "In
Praise of Doubt," as an epigraph.
That poem in many ways holds the key to understanding this
"Lohengrin," which makes a feminist of Wagner by reading into the
motives of its most oppressed characters: the women. In one stanza,
The most beautiful of all doubts
Is when the downtrodden and despondent raise their heads and
Stop believing in the strength
Of their oppressors.
A traditional reading of "Lohengrin" would be that the villainous
Ortrud plants the seed of doubt that makes Elsa ask the forbidden
question of Lohengrin's name and origin. In other words, curiosity
kills the cat. But Mr. Sharon said he sees Ortrud as a sort of
freedom fighter who liberates Elsa, while the moth people of Brabant
blindly follow the light of Lohengrin's charisma to their deaths.
This is just the latest dramaturgical feat by the Los Angeles-based
Mr. Sharon--whose own opera company, the Industry, has in the past
staged a single opera around the city, with limousines driving
audience members from scene to scene, and put on a "War of the
Worlds" both inside and outside Walt Disney Concert Hall. (He has
yet to direct at a major American company like the Metropolitan
Opera in New York.)
His "Lohengrin" is tame by comparison; after all, it was made for a
traditional proscenium space designed by Wagner. Mr. Sharon has been
relishing his time at the theater, whose acoustics are famously
balanced and clear--like "you're inside a cello," he said. And he
didn't even know he was Bayreuth's first American director until a
reporter from The Times told him so last year.
In an emailed statement, Katharina Wagner, the composer's
great-granddaughter and one of the festival's directors, said that
Mr. Sharon has a convincing vision and "a deep understanding of
"His feeling for nuances and fine gradations in the drawing of the
characters on stage is very pronounced," she wrote. "In addition, he
is a passionate director and a distinctive team worker, the
'sunshine' of the whole team, as Christian Thielemann called him."
(Mr. Thielemann is the conductor.)
Not once did she and Mr. Sharon talk about his nationality.
"It was just never even a topic, somehow," Mr. Sharon said. Now,
though, "it feels like such a nice counterprogram to what is
happening politically to our country."
I asked what he meant. "When we see how our president reacts to
Germany--even in the last week, treating Germany like an enemy,
instead of a close ally--it to me feels very meaningful to come to
Bayreuth," he said, "and offer the opposite program and say: Look,
through music, through art, through this collaboration we can show
how different cultures can find ways to talk to each other and work
together and create something."
A clip from Yuval Sharon's staging of the Debussy opera for the
Cleveland Orchestra.Published OnMay 9, 2017
After discussing "Lohengrin," we talked about what's next at home in
the United States and what other Wagner operas he might stage in the
future. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How would you describe the state of opera in America?
What's interesting in America now is that there's such a thirst for
new work, definitely more than when I first started working. That's
amazing, and I hope that continues, but I wish that American
companies took a little more stock of what's happening in Europe.
We also have a really difficult financial and social problem with
opera that every company in America is struggling with. Some people
think, then, that we have to do "Elixir of Love" in street clothes.
I want to say: Well, why are you even doing "Elixir of Love"? It
doesn't speak to me at all. I guess some people like the music, but
if you like the music, you can do it in concert. If you're going to
stage it, really give us a burning reason.
So you think there should always be a reason, no exception.
Oh, yeah. I don't think you should ever treat it as a given, like,
"Of course, we're going to do 'Carmen.'"
That's the rep theater approach, though.
Right. But I think that's an idea from a different time. I think in
America, at least, there should always be a burning need. If it's
just to fill the seats, that seems to me like it's not leading in
the right direction. I don't know; there are plenty of people on the
business side ...
This is your idealism coming out.
I still have that idealism. That's why I started my own company. I'd
like to offer an opposite approach to all of that, and with new
Because of that, how do you see yourself as part of a broader
When I started the Industry, it was really about trying to enrich
the operatic landscape with composers I thought companies wouldn't
give a chance to. We're still a scrappy company, but I think we've
found resonance on a larger scale. What that means for the opera
field, I can't say. I can have my wish for what it means. It's not
that everyone does operas in cars--that's not the point--but
maybe opera companies think beyond the proscenium. You can do
exciting things in a proscenium theater, but the approach needs to
be a little different. You just can't do the same old thing.
What other Wagner operas are you eager to direct?
All the Wagner operas to me are real abysses: You can work on them
forever. They sound a lot more modern than a lot of contemporary
pieces. It feels like their time is still coming, somehow, not like
history. I would do any of them, but I have an idea for
"Meistersinger" that I would love to do, but I can't tell you on the
record. I'd love to do a "Ring" cycle one day. That's like Mount
Everest for a director, but I don't think I'm doing it any time
soon. To me it feels like an artistic goal. I'm almost 40 now. So, a
"Ring" cycle in my 50s would be cool.