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Wagner - historically informed

Dr. Dominik Frank is one of the scientists working at the Research Institute for Music Theatre (fimt) at the University of Bayreuth. Together with the head of the institute, Prof. Dr. Anno Mungen, he is researching Wagnergesang im 21.Jahrhundert – historisch informiert (Wagner singing in the 21st century - historically informed )- as part of a knowledge transfer project. Within this project, they are involved in a concert performance series of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, performed by Kent Nagano and Concerto Köln. In November 2021, two performances of Das Rheingold took place in Cologne and Amsterdam within this framework. Since this year, the Dresden Music Festival has also been collaborating on the performances. This new cooperation kicked off with a performance of Rheingold in Dresden on 14 June 2023. In the coming years, the production of the other works in the cycle is also planned. The exciting thing about these performances is that scholars and artists come together to bring Richard Wagner's work to the stage in a historically informed way. What this means and how research and practice go hand in hand, we got to the bottom of in a conversation with Dominik.

It's Wednesday, 10:30 a.m., we're on the campus of the University of Bayreuth, we both have a coffee in our hands, we're ready to go.

First of all, thank you, Dominik, for taking the time to talk to me about this project. Maybe a very basic question first: What exactly is the role of fimt in this project?

The fimt is basically docked onto an already existing project that Kai Müller and Jochen Schäfsmeier brought to life with Concerto Köln. This project, the Wagner-Lesarten (Wagner readings) actually arose from a crazy idea after a Concerto Köln concert with Kent Nagano, when the people from Concerto Köln said to him: Mr Nagano, you're always getting involved with our repertoire here - that is, with early music - shouldn't we play Wagner or something from your repertoire for you? And so the idea was born that one could approach Wagner coming from early music and historical performance practice. And if Wagner, then directly the whole Ring.

So it's a huge project! What does it take?

And then they set it up quite broadly for the time being. First of all, of course, you need historical instruments because they sound different from modern ones. For example, the string instruments are strung with gut strings instead of steel strings, or certain instruments are copied, such as bassoons, which have a certain attachment - an A-flat - or special Wagner tubas. This creates a different sound, and then there are the historical playing techniques, such as portamento or some types of glissandi. But in any case, in addition to the historical instruments, it plays a huge role that the string and wind techniques are different than in a contemporary interpretation. For the time being, this applies "only" to the orchestra, but there are also singers. From the beginning, the pronunciation of the sung text was included in the considerations, because it must have sounded different back then than it does today. And this is where we slowly come into play. Anno (Prof. Dr. Anno Mungen, director of the fimt) was asked to be on the scientific advisory board at the beginning of the project, and he said that we actually had to deal with singing much more intensively.

So we applied for a DFG project with the title Wagnergesang im 21.Jahrhundert - historisch informiert. The special thing about this project is first of all that it is a knowledge transfer project, which is actually a format that is primarily common in the natural sciences. The idea is that we, as a university, work with the practice partner Concerto Köln, where we can thus transfer our scientific findings directly into practice and in turn draw scientific findings from practice. Our focus is on singing, based on Anno's research on Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient. She was something like Wagner's great singing ideal, which is why we can take her as a good model for possible singing techniques. On the other hand, we are doing research on the singing schools of the time.

And what can we conclude from this research?

On the one hand, for example, that the singers also worked with much more portamento than today. On the other hand, Wagner loved extremes, which - I think the score also shows this very clearly - for example, in the strong alternation between declamatory speech singing - which sometimes sounds almost like acting - and bel canto. There is always this prejudice of Bayreuth barking, which is above all a consonant spitting, but bel canto is just as much a part of Wagner's modes of expression. It is precisely these blatant changes of expression that are so exciting for us. And precisely the Schröder-Devrient moments when you go out of tempo, change from singing to speaking, whispering or even shouting. It is important to keep in mind that Schröder-Devrient always thought in terms of acting, which is why in our project we are also very much concerned with the interpretation of the piece and the roles and can really work with the singers in terms of acting technique in order to make these figures comprehensible from the context of the time and from Wagner's cosmos of ideas. In the process, we also come across the problematic parts of the Ring, for example, the question of what kind of image of women is being portrayed here or how anti-Semitism is reflected in the play through caricatures of Jews, etc.

I have another question about the Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient moments. Have I understood correctly that these are moments in which time virtually comes to a standstill?

In any case, these are moments in which the listener/viewer is torn out of the listening flow. Of course, this can happen through the standstill, but it is above all moments in which the "normal" listening impression is disturbed. This moment in Fidelio, for example, has become famous when Leonore no longer sings but actually shouts: "One more word and you are dead! This is already in the score and it is very common today to do it this way, but Schröder-Devrient must have developed these moments very excessively, so that it was really mentioned in every review of the performances. So Schröder-Devrient moments can show up in changing from singing to speaking, changing the tempo or really shouting.

Wagner plays again and again with this alternation of speaking/singing ductus. In Siegfried, for example, there are these different forms of expression, especially in scenes with Siegfried and Mime or Wotan and Mime. One always has the impression that the singers break out of a certain duct...

In Valkyrie, the first act, this is also totally extreme. Up to the moment when Sieglinde and Siegmund really fall in love, that is, up to the moment when the door bursts open, you can speak the entire text declamatorily instead of singing it and there is actually no loss of quality. Only then is singing basically born through love. I'm looking forward to taking a closer look at that when we get to the Valkyrie in our project.

The task of the scientists involved in the Wagner Readings Project is to transfer their scientific knowledge to the actors. You said that your sub-project "Wagner Readings in the 21st Century - Historically Informed" is a knowledge transfer project. What exactly does that mean and what methods do you use?

First of all, the knowledge transfer project differs from a normal DFG project. While a normal DFG project has a scientific publication as its end result, in a knowledge transfer project, the findings of the project are immediately reflected in society. In this case, it is expressed in the concert, the programme booklets, the exhibitions that took place in Dresden, in other words, with everything that is made accessible immediately. And that happens through the method of artistic research, in that we work directly with artists and don't start thinking in a vacuum. For example, I don't sit in my office and write Ah die Freia könnte jetzt mal zwei Stunden leiden (Freia could suffer for two hours), but I can speak directly with the singer and tell her, try it out this way or that, how does it feel when you speak at that point, does it feel right? Maybe it doesn't work in one place, but it works very well in another. And this work is then reflected on and evaluated scientifically. In concrete terms, this means that after the performance in Cologne in 2021, we conducted and transcribed 47 qualitative interviews with singers, orchestra, scientific support, backstage staff and some audience members, and then analysed them using cluster analysis in order to record and document the aesthetic impact of the new old techniques.

But how exactly was the work process for the rehearsals for Rheingold? You were involved in supervising the rehearsals, what was the division of labour like with the other scientists who were also involved in the project?

So basically you can say that on the rehearsals Ulrich Hoffmann - a speech scientist from Halle - points out that the r has to be more of a rrr, the o has to be an oh and the u has to be a uuu and then I say: shout a little bit more here...

He leads the pronunciation exercise, while my task is these different modes of expression, i.e. shouting or speaking instead of singing at certain points, or going out of tempo. In the Cologne version of the performance, I was also responsible for the historical facial expressions and gestures. But of course it's also a process of working with each other in rehearsals, and the other people involved also discuss things there and contribute their insights. And then the development of the role psychology is my task, basically everything that has to do with the "direction" of the concert evening.

So your project also includes role psychology and the interpretation of the piece, but also research into certain historical gestures. To what extent are these components important for a concert performance, where the musical interpretation is first and foremost in the foreground?

First of all, quite profanely, the historical gestures naturally do something to the pathos in which singing takes place, and Wagner wants more pathos. That means that if I raise my arm and shout for help, it will have a different effect than if I make a different, more contemporary gesture, or if I put my hand on my heart while singing, that supports the emotional pathos of the words. It is not for nothing that singers already gesture intuitively, even when they are singing in a concert performance. Gestures therefore support the expression of the singing. And Wagner had a whole system of classical declamation gestures that he used in the staging of his plays and which have also been researched. There are also director's excerpts of Richard Wagner's stagings of Walküre and Siegfried, which is of course fantastic for our research. And the gesture repertoire of these two plays can be transferred relatively easily to Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, because it is not plausible that Wagner would have used different gestures for the same emotions in the other plays.

So we work with pathetic gestures of the 19th century. And they do something with the singing and the acting. But overall, of course, the acting does something with the singing. If I know that my goal as a mime is for people to laugh at me, I sing and play it differently than if my goal in a modern production is for the audience to sympathise with me as a character. I will then sing the role differently, much more garishly and caricatured. Another good example is the character of Freia. In a modern production, of course, one would always try to portray her as self-confidently as possible. And of course that also works through the way certain phrases are sung strongly. In a modern production it's super exciting to look at these characters in a new way, but from our historical perspective Freia is a complete "has-been" and when I as Freia have to play the victim for two hours, it also does something to my physicality and my singing. I am very happy that our two singers who have sung in the Freia project so far, Sarah Wegener and Nadja Mchantaf, who both actually look at the role from a feminist, reflected perspective, have nevertheless gone this way with us and that we can really expose this disgusting image of women.

So we are doing exactly what one would probably not do in a modern production. Normally, problematic passages such as those containing sexism or racism would be commented on by the production or staged against it. We deliberately do not do that, we deliberately omit this image of women or, for example, the caricature of Jews in the dwarf roles in Rheingold. We see it as one of the tasks of this historically informed performance to point out these highly problematic passages very clearly. The audience is shown exactly that: this is the play and this is how it treats these issues. Just as we listen to what A-strings and gut strings do to the sound, we look at what it sounds like when someone plays the Jewish caricature that Wagner has just written and what that does to us as an audience.

And this anti-Semitism that then emerges in the play is absolutely repulsive, but I think it's good that we first show what's in here. Our strategy here is perhaps subversion through over-affirmation. We emphasise these passages so strongly that hopefully everyone notices how problematic they are.

But how do you develop this role psychology? Can it be read so clearly from the stage directions and the play or does the social context of the time of its creation also play a large part in your considerations?

I find both, but above all it can be read very well from directly from the piece. Especially if you look at earlier drafts and analyse, for example, how Mime is characterised here in the stage directions, which were then partly deleted in the final version, there are actually no questions left open about what Wagner is showing here.

The Rheintöchter at a rehearsal in cologne - ©Heike Fischer

The psychological interpretation of a character is therefore inseparable from its musical interpretation. What we see now with the Wagner readings are concert performances, but they are psychologically staged. This results in a strange intermediate status, between concert and play, doesn't it? During the performance in Dresden, I kept thinking that we were clearly experiencing here that the Ring of the Nibelung cannot be performed without staging...

They are theatre pieces. Rheingold is not a symphonic work, like Lied von der Erde, for example, although I think that even there one can ask whether a staging (as in Stuttgart) is not the more exciting performance option. But the pieces of the Ring are so clearly theatre pieces and the good thing is that Kent Nagano also understands this in the same way and always emphasises that the story must be told and places great value on the comprehensibility of the text.

But of course you can only tell a story if the actors know what they are playing and if they play the roles all the time. The exciting thing is that the plays demand a very special style of acting. What Wagner demands is a kind of method acting avant la lettre and at the same time it also requires a distance so that the singer understands what the orchestra is doing, which in turn the character cannot know. So the ideal would be a mixture of Brecht and Stanislawski actors. So what Wagner demands is ultra-modern, but of course it misses the reality of Wagner and today often also the reality of the singer. But we are lucky to have singers in the project who implement these principles fantastically.

Wagner was a dramatist and not a pure music composer. Nevertheless, people always talk about his music first and foremost...

Wagner himself would probably be very sad that he didn't become famous as a playwright and director and stage designer, but "only" as a composer and that many people also look down a bit on his texts and say, yes, the music is cool, but the old texts... I think he would be horrified because he already saw himself extremely as a playwright. So I think his plays are very problematic on many levels, but I think they are well done as dramas and I think you really can't take away both the textual element and the scenic element. They are really plays.

Yes, and I think it's also noticeable in your performances. I mean, you have worked psychologically with the singers, they are basically staged, yet of course they are simply standing in front of the orchestra. But you can feel, I think, that it is a psychologically narrated piece, not a piece where you can sit back and close your eyes and just enjoy the music.

Absolutely, and above all, we made sure that the singers didn't fall out of character between their parts, which is unfortunately often the case in concert performances. And quite honestly, I don't find the music that beautiful, well, maybe that's my taste, but I find that if you detach the music from the text, it quickly becomes banal. Of course, it is often brilliantly done in its scenic effect, but I find, for example, the Annunciation of Death super boring without the corresponding scene, when it makes this loop 80 times.

I understand why it's very well done, but I find it interesting above all scientifically and dramaturgically. I don't listen to it for pleasure, so the Valhalla motif that so many are so enthusiastic about, do you think that's good? I mean, it's super orchestrated. But the exciting thing comes from the moment, from the scene, when you realise what's happening, that the Ring motif is playing beforehand, which then becomes the Valhalla motif in a multi-stage transformation. I'm on board with that, that's great, but I have to authenticate that scenically and that's why in this scene in our version (in which we unfortunately can't show the gradual emergence of the castle from the mist as Wagner intended) Alberich and Wotan stand opposite each other. Because one is his motive and the other is that of the other, and these motives develop in mirror image. So they stand opposite each other and look into each other's eyes. I think that does something to the motif, I hear it differently then. But I would find it much less strong without a scene. So I don't think I'm the type to put on a Ring CD in private and listen to it just to calm down.

So for me, Wagner is similar to contemporary music, the more I deal with it scientifically and in terms of content, the more interesting it becomes.

I think that's a great comparison.

I always experience this with contemporary pieces - I sit in front of it and listen to it and don't understand most of it, I don't know if I like it, but then I read texts about it and the more I understand the more exciting it seems to me. With Wagner it's actually similar for me, at the first hearing I found some of it great, some of it trivial, but the deeper I delve into the different levels, especially the text, the more exciting I find it. But this impression goes beyond the music. I think you once used the term "theatre music" in this context.

I think it's very, very great theatre music. It conveys what he wants to tell extremely well and to the point. These dramatic moments that are in there, this tableau effect, which he also partly stole from Meyerbeer, but which he really masters perfectly, that's the hammer... this contrast dramaturgy... But listening to something like that detached from the performance is not really my thing.

Let's go back to the basic idea of Wagner readings. The principle of historically informed performance is usually associated with Baroque music, and less or not at all with repertoire from the 19th century. Although we see here that one can do a great deal with a historically informed Wagner piece. Why is this epoch not a subject of this performance practice? Because the historical distance is smaller?

I would say so, yes, and because of course there is also the opinion that it sounds better the way it is today. I think the idea behind it is that if Wagner had had the instruments of today, he would have used them. That's a steep thesis, of course, but I think it's often behind it.

That, I think, is often a certain ambiguity in the discourse about the performance of Wagner pieces. There is always a lot of talk about doing it the way the great master wrote it down, but in reality one rather emulates an ideal that manifested itself much later in performance practice. I have the feeling that faithfulness to the original is always demanded, but what is actually meant is a certain faithfulness to the reception. That's what I find with Wagner, and that's where this question of faithfulness to the original comes in.

First of all, the term "faithfulness to the original", in relation to theatre, is a Nazi term. Of course, the term has been around a bit longer than the Nazis, but it's a category that only refers to music.

And the moment from which it is also used for stagings, and this can be proven very well, can be traced back to National Socialism. Or rather, it is the invention of the Nazis that they transferred this musical concept to the aesthetics of staging and thus claimed that there was a correct way of staging, especially for the plays of Wagner, but also of Mozart, Weber, etc. This way of staging was then to be fixed and always and exclusively performed in this way, which of course excluded any kind of interpretation and thus (political) criticism in the theatre. So that's the idea behind it at first.

And then, of course, in today's discourse it is grist to the mill of conservative art lovers who don't want any innovations, but see opera as a kind of museum where you can always see the pieces in the same way. But that's the difference between visual art and theatre. Of course, I can hang the Mona Lisa in a museum and it will always remain the Mona Lisa. However, it has to be said that I look at it differently today than someone did 200 years ago. But you can't preserve music because it always has to be performed anew, and in theatre it's even worse because everything always has to be re-imagined.

So if we are now talking about imaging, would a historically informed performance practice be the next step that you (i.e. the fimt) would strive for? And would the aim then be to bring the plays onto the stage with the technical possibilities of the time, or would the idea behind it be that the interpretation and the direction of the characters is historically informed, but the performance is done with the means of today's technology?

So I would definitely be there for this next step. I would also find it super exciting to work with the technology of the time. However, I'm afraid that we would never be able to do that for fire and safety reasons, and that we would have to try to imitate the impression of the old technology with modern means. Nevertheless, a line of research would be super interesting, looking at how those floats on which the Rhine daughters lay worked, or what the fire magic looks like when it is produced with the original steam engines and arc lamps. In my opinion, the way should be to recreate it as faithfully as possible to the original and then to recreate it for the performances with modern means in order to find out how these aesthetics are received. What such an experience is like for a modern audience, I would find just as exciting as the question of how it affects us today when one plays on intestinal sides or with special Wagner tubas. The question is, of course, whether you should do such a production one-to-one or add a kind of artistic commentary from today's point of view. For example, you could mark visibly for the audience what cannot be reconstructed, or you could fill in the blanks with your own, because it's more about the overall effect on the audience. I think you could develop very interesting experimental designs that would allow you to do phenomenological impact research.

I think that would really be a project for the Bayreuth Festival, because it ties in with the history of the hill, but at the same time paradoxically takes a very fresh look at the work. First, however, you can experience Rheingold in concert once again in Cologne on 18 August. It's worth a visit!!!

signed: Wein in den Muscheln

Bayreuth, June 2023

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