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Rusalka's Vulnerability and Passion: An interview with Ana María Martínez

Soprano Ana María Martínez, who will sing the title role in Lyric's 2013-14 production of Dvořák's Rusalka, answers Lyric Opera dramaturg Roger Pines's questions about the character. 

AMMasRusalka

Soprano Ana María Martínez, who will sing the title role in Lyric's 2013-14 production of Dvořák's Rusalka, answers Lyric Opera dramaturg Roger Pines's questions about the character.

RP:You sang your first Rusalka at Glyndebourne in 2009, and later reprised the role in Munich. Had it occurred to you to sing this opera before it was first offered to you?

AMM: Not right away. I always thought it was a bit too full, more for a lirico spinto. You have to have the vocal range to do it. There are scenes that are actually bigger than Madama Butterfly vocally  the finale with the Prince, for example. The role itself was always in my mind as very beautiful, something one would love to portray onstage. I’ve always erred on the conservative side regarding what I sing. I think it’s served me well to wait until later in my career before singing Rusalka.

RP: Had you ever seen the opera onstage before, or listened to anything in the piece besides Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon”?

AMM: I’d listened to it, but not with the ears of learning it. I knew parts of it, and when I was studying at Juilliard we listened to portions of it. But you listen differently when you’re going to learn a role. I’ll put it to you this way: When you’re in the passenger’s seat of a car and you’re looking at the scenery“Isn’t this nice?” But if it’s a route that’s new to you, unless you’ve actually driven there and have the perspective of the driver, you look at it differently.

RP: How did you respond to Rusalka as a whole the first time you saw or heard it?

AMM: I felt inspired but also emotionally exhausted by Rusalka’s journey. In a good wayI have to emphasize that! It’s a cathartic experience that you have when you listen to this piece. I also felt, “Wow, I really, really hope I can do this and do it well.” When I was learning it, it felt like such a tremendous and wonderful undertaking, but wow! What a mountain to climb, on every level.

As with all roles, vocally you eventually figure out what you need to do in this piece. I was lucky to have seven weeks of rehearsal when I was doing it for the first time at Glyndebourne, but the work there quickly shifted into the emotional mountain I needed to climb. I wanted to try as honestly as I could to walk in Rusalka’s shoes. The journey she undertakes is really tremendous.

RP:What do you consider this opera’s greatest strengths?

AMM: Several things come to mind. Beginning with the very first notes in the orchestra, Dvořák is able to create an incredible atmosphereit’s quickly established and it remains present throughout. You’re in another world, and it’s an enchanted world. I think you can tell when you’re on land and when you’re in the wateryou hear it in the music! Everything is stated so clearly. The principals and supporting characters all have their own color, their own mood, their own story to tell.

Of course, the story has to do with love, but it has to do with the journey toward becoming. Rusalka wants to be human and, more than anything, she wants a soul  she’ll sacrifice whatever it takes to have that. The core of this piece is that quest, that desire, that journey. Even though I think I’m a pretty courageous, gutsy lady, Rusalka has far more courage than I could ever have. To step in her shoes makes me grow. My hope is that all of us  the entire cast, the company, and the audience – will take this journey with Rusalka. 

So there’s the story itself, but then there’s the emotional journey that’s supported through the music – and it’s heartbreaking. There’s the scene where she’s pleading with Ježibaba to make her human. She’s trying everything, and Ježibaba is so cold! “Let’s see if you’ve got what it takes, little girl – do you know what you’re asking?” That is a phenomenal scene. 

For me, what is the most touching and I think will have the audience sobbing is Rusalka’s duet with the Prince in the last act. Dvořák could have written it fortissimo – Rusalka could have yelled at the Prince, “Why did you lie to me? Why did you say you loved me when you didn’t? Why?”but it’s with the quietest of dynamics, the quietest orchestration. And then there is the very end of the opera, when it’s clear that Rusalka is destined for the worst type of existence – she’s neither dead nor alive. Anyone would wish death over what she has to endure for eternity – but this is expressed in such a quiet way.

RP: The emotional content of what Rusalka expresses in the final scene is actually pretty intense and complex.

AMM: We see in that scene that Rusalka doesn’t understand human passion. You feel she desires the Prince, but she’s incapable of completing that part of her woman-ness. It’s like when a girl is 13 or 14, she has a crush and dreams of being in the arms of the boy she has a crush on. She fantasizes, but when she’s in the moment, it’s “What do I do here?” Talk to anyone who had their first experiences with romance when they were quite young – it usually wasn’t great! They fantasize, but then it’s scary and they don’t know what to do. Perhaps if Rusalka were given the chance to go a little slower, she could warm up to that. But she’s doing this for the first time, and she’s out of her element, away from her whole support system – she’s been ostracized. Obviously she’s intelligent, her mind is constantly going, and the way she puts thoughts into words is tremendous, but she’s probably just freaking out! This also makes me think that the Prince is impatient and wants passion from her right away.

RP: Beyond what you’ve just discussed, what matters the most to you in your characterization?

AMM: When I think of Rusalka I just think of absolute, pure love, as much as we can fathom what that is. Love comes in all sorts of forms, and sometimes we have ulterior motives when we feel we love someone or want something. But if we were to think of the purest form of love in all its capacities, that to me is Rusalka. That is difficult to physicalize onstage. She loves life and she loves the concept of a soul, which also implies tremendous spirituality. She loves all that is living, vibrant, creative, and inspiring. She’s idealistic in that way. I think of her as this bright light, and profound. Here’s someone who is just all heart, with this being around it. That is her truth, where she gets her strength, her courage, her passion. We actually see her journey from pre-adolescence to adolescence to womanhood, always maintaining her love. She becomes a full woman in the confrontation with the Prince at the end. She reaches womanhood there, and in her ability to forgive the Prince at the end. That to me is love in all its facets, with the risk that comes with it. If you think of the definition of courage as being terrified by going through with it anyway, she was so sure she’d have nothing to lose in this venture, and she was losing from the get-go. Still, she remains steadfast. The witch gives her an out: “If you make sure that that man’s blood is shed, the curse will be lifted and you can go back to your life,” and Rusalka says, “Rather than cause him such harm, I welcome that terrible sentence you’ll have me undergo for the rest of my existence” – that existence being, in effect, living death. She takes responsibility for her choices, and always – even in such pain – she stands for love.

RP:What’s the toughest place emotionally in the role?

AMM: What really gets me is when her sister water-nymphs come back in Act Three. Their words rip her to shreds. There are performances when I’m sobbing at the end of that. It’s so powerful – that’s Rusalka’s rock-bottom.

RP:And what’s the most challenging portion of singing this music? 

AMM: The challenge comes when you’ve been quiet for so long. Remember, in Act Two, until the scene with her father, she’s unable to speak. He emerges, and suddenly she’s singing the aria to him. That’s the tough one vocally – it’s quite dramatic. Vocally speaking you have to be very grounded and not let the rage of the moment get in the way.

RP:This opera has one of the greatest final scenes in the entire operatic repertoire. What makes it so exceptional? 

AMM: Musically speaking it’s paced to show the journey of emotions in that confrontation between Rusalka and the Prince. She believes he lied to her, and now she’s genuinely asking, “Why did you do this? I really want to know.” In terms of the emotions, what makes it so extraordinary is that you’re able to have full closure in that dialogue. You can also express ultimate vulnerability and ultimate sacrifice. How many of us have had tremendous life-changing relationships that have ended, in which we’ve been betrayed and yet have not had the opportunity for that closure and that confrontation and honoring what there was at one point? In Rusalka this is depicted in the most human, honest, and fulfilling way. It really does show that type of need, which all of us have. On top of that, you add how it’s set musically – and the ultimate sacrifice that takes place. After he’s sacrificed himself, even though she didn’t want him to, she’s able to bless him. The whole scene is tremendous.

RP:How does it feel to play an otherworldly creature? 

AMM: First of all, her inner world is so rich in many ways, and I can identify with her dream-like thinking. I was very much like that as a child and teenagerI would escape a lot from the stresses of life. My parents are wonderful people, but they divorced when I was young. I was an only child, uprooted from Puerto Rico to New York City. Like many kids who undergo something like that, I’d just retreat to an inner fantasy world quite often. Rusalka’s thinking is quite infantile in that way, but we see how real she actually is when, in Act Two, she’s forced to enter a harsh human reality. How cruel that is! We’ve seen the cruelty of her father ostracizing her, saying, “Your only hope is to ask Jezibaba to make you human, and if you do that, good luck, I’m through with you, you’re banned forever from our world and will lose everything.” And she did, so she experiences abandonment and then cruelty, and has to fend for herself. She has to grow up pretty fast! Even though she’s from another world, she actually ends up being more of this world than anyone could be. Someone who comes from a different culture going into a new culture, another country, another way of thinking, can go through the same thing. So I think we can identify with her. I can’t just “put on” an emotion like wearing a jacket; I have to find my resources of personal experience and knowledge in order to portray her in an honest way.

As far as movement onstage in the role is concerned, I do have ballet training, although when I began rehearsing this role, I hadn't danced in a while. I looked in the mirror and said, “OK, I’ve got some work to do.” I changed my eating habits that day! During those seven weeks of rehearsal I was working with the dancers on a daily basis for at least an hour, while getting reacquainted with my body from a dancer’s perspective. By the time we opened, I was physically aware in a way I hadn’t been for a long time. In the scenes where Rusalka is silent, you need your body language more than ever. That’s where the tools of dancer training come in so handy. You really need to physicalize what she’s feeling. Since that production I’ve stayed in good shape – I’m a runner now, and I’m doing that to be able to add more physicality to my roles. That’s the demand of reality that we all face in the business now. I don’t know what David McVicar will have us do in his concept, but I’m prepared! I’m keeping up the running and working out and strengthening exercises so I can lend my body to what is necessary for the production.

RP: At Lyric you’ll reprise your stage partnership with Brandon Jovanovich, who sang the Prince opposite you at Glyndebourne. The two of you were able to achieve a marvelous chemistry in your scenes together.

AMM: Brandon has so many wonderful qualities as a human being and as an artist. In any role he comes first and foremost from his acting background, and he’s a very honest interpreter. When he comes into a rehearsal and onto the stage, he leaves Brandon at the door, and by the time he starts he is that character. He presents the energy and the thought, the emotions, and the body language completely. Mostly, though, he does it through his eyes -- they lock in with yours. I feel that he’s telling me volumes through his eyes, but he’s also respectful that this is our craft. I’m seeing the eyes of the Prince, which invites me to do the same with my character. A space is created in which you can give with complete abandon, and the two characters have this journey together. We both understand that we’re there to serve the story and the music. If we do our part with complete abandon, it will be that much richer for the audience. Brandon isn’t distracted – you know, “Here comes this vocal phrase,” or “I have to go over here and grab this.” Plus he’s also very caring, very attuned to what you need onstage, and I tend to be that way as well. It’s just the right fit as far as establishing that safety and trust – we’re always discovering something new. My background is also first in drama, in acting, so we know that about each other, so we can just go there. He’s inviting you to take that journey, and it’s a joy to do that with him.

RP: You’re also renewing your collaboration with Sir Andrew Davis, which was so rewarding in Lyric Opera’s production of Faust.

AMM: He’s so gifted, so musical, and so knowledgeable. I felt really taken care of throughout that entire experience. He’s so warm, gentle, and also at the same time beautifully demanding in what we’re there to do. He loves what he’s doing. When we’ve talked about Rusalka and how excited we are to do it, I’ve seen that joy in him. He’s also watching out for us at every moment. Sometimes these pieces have tremendous demands on us, but I feel he’s very attuned to what our needs are. In addition to his tremendous musical excellence and rich knowledge, he’s also a very caring conductor. I’m really looking forward to this experience with him.

RP:This will be your first time working with Sir David McVicar.

AMM: I’ve heard that he has a tremendously creative mind and wants to try all sorts of things. Very much an out-of-the-box thinker. I met him at Glyndebourne, and when he saw our production of Rusalka there he said to me, “Oh, goodyou want to play. You’ll try anything!” I’m excited about that kind of energy, and the desire to try all sorts of things to get the story told. 

RP:What do you want the audience to come away with after seeing and hearing Rusalka in the theater?

AMM: I want them to relish the experience of having entered a world of magic and mystery – a world that is so instantly and warmly defined. Through Dvořák’s music and his storytelling, you feel it’s OK to have this fantasy, OK to enter this scary but marvelous world. You never leave it until the piece is over. The beauty of it, the vulnerability, the passion, the rawness – everything is there. It’s glorious and spiritual and loving all in one.

Pictured above: Soprano Ana María Martínez as Rusalka in Glyndebourne's 2009 production. (Photo: Bill Cooper, Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.)

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Director John Caird on Wagner's PARSIFAL

Parsifal director John Caird takes questions from Lyric Opera dramaturg Roger Pines..."this is a very different palette of colors from that of Puccini or Verdi—but you will sit there and have profound thoughts about the nature of human life and how philosophy and religion, bravery and self-knowledge can combine as a salve to the greatest tribulations in our lives."

  John Caird

Parsifal director John Caird takes questions from Lyric Opera dramaturg Roger Pines. 

RP: I know you consider redemption the piece’s overall theme, and I’ve seen this stated a lot in print, but just as frequently people seem to think it’s all about compassion. But it’s about both, isn’t it?  

JC: Compassion and redemption. Yes, one is very dependent on the other. The theme of redemption – Parsifal’s redemption – is entirely tied up with whether or not he learns compassion. That’s the fundamental story of the work that the opera is based on: Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival. Parsifal has to grow up and become a proper man by understanding what compassion is. In the original story, his inability to feel compassion for Amfortas when he first meets him is proof that he needs to redeem himself before he is worthy of the Grail. Wagner has closely followed that story line.

RP: In your comments to our general director, Anthony Freud, you mentioned the idea that Wagner was using the piece as a vehicle to redeem himself. How is it an autobiographical work, and what was he redeeming himself from?

JC: It's a very good question. I think, in many senses, all of Wagner’s late work is autobiographical. He puts himself into all his characters in one way or another, especially in Parsifal. Sometimes with the work of great artists, you feel they are identifying more with one role than another. For instance in the late works of Henrik Ibsen, the central male role is always Ibsen himself, up against the rest of the world – a world that is always antagonistic toward him or uncaring about him.

In the case of Wagner, knowing as I’m sure he did that this was his last major piece, there is a sense that he is writing his own Requiem Mass, or Missa Solemnis – a piece that he knows will be his final artistic and intellectual statement. Because of this, he seems to fill all his characters with some autobiographical elements. Most obviously he is Parsifal, the questing knight, just as he was in life. Wagner quested after new developments in music – in a long and quite lonely aesthetic journey – just as Parsifal, the holy fool, quests for the truth in his journey.

But Wagner is also present in Amfortas, the psychologically and sexually wounded man. He was, all his life, an extraordinarily self-inquiring man. He couldn’t leave himself alone in terms of his thought processes and artistic accomplishments. He felt slights against him very deeply. Indeed, he felt all his personal relationships very deeply – with family, friends and enemies. The portrait of Amfortas as a man who needs healing, who needs redemption, is undoubtedly autobiographical.

Wagner is also present in Klingsor – the libertine, the sybaritic man who kicks against the conventional world by indulging himself and defying the social proprieties around him. In a strange way he’s even present in Kundry – as the person who just wants to serve others. All of this is another way of saying that Wagner’s writing technique involved himself in steeping himself in the characters he was writing, acting them out in his imagination as he wrote them, which was why they’re all written in their way so sympathetically. There aren’t villains and heroes in the sense of one character being evidently superior or more morally worthy than another. Even Klingsor is written passionately from Wagner’s point of view. You can feel the pain of the man, and the deep emotional commitment needed to conquer his enemies as he develops his stratagems.

RP: You’ve spoken about the brotherhood in this opera as “a hermetically sealed male society.”

JC: This is the theme with which Wagner has strayed furthest from the original source material. In the Wolfram von Eschenbach story, the exploits of the knights are all being done in service of ladies. The knights’ primary mission is to be worthy of their womenfolk. Indeed, that is the over-riding theme of most medieval romance literature. Wagner has chosen to lose that side of the story completely, and it’s interesting to ask why. It explains a lot about Wagner himself: he wanted his hero to be motivated by a pure sense of self-exploration, untainted by the weakness he associated with sexual desire.

Wagner’s radical simplification of the original story also had a musical motive: he wanted Kundry to be the only female voice in the work. The only other women he is interested in are drawn from Eschenbach‘s original story – the women who are imprisoned by Klingsor. Wagner seems far more fascinated by women who need rescuing than by women who require to be served! They seem to be the women he found most alluring. But having said that, in Act Two he does write a wonderfully semi-erotic scene with the Flowermaidens and Parsifal, with Kundry at the very center of an absorbingly female world. His writing is glamorous there – and sensual.  

Wagner’s need is to have Parsifal strong enough to deny himself the pleasure of those females, and deny himself the pleasure of a real relationship with Kundry when she tries to seduce him. This provides a difficulty for the performers and director: Kundry is for the most part painted quite sympathetically, but at the heart of Act Two she is required to be a heartless femme fatale. Having experienced that wonderfully sensual scene, Parsifal then returns to Monsalvat seeming to have forgotten about her, and indeed, about all the other women. But Wagner leaves us a clue in Act Three: after the repentant Kundry has washed his feet, Parsifal sings about the beauty of the countryside and remembers the Flowermaidens, wondering if they, too, will be redeemed. I’m taking that as a clue to bring these lost souls back in the third act – but as ordinary women. The Flowermaidens are women trapped into being the seductive lures of Klingsor’s empire. At the point when Parsifal overcomes his desire for Kundry, they are revealed to be what they truly are.  

In my interpretation of the work, I want Parsifal to be worthy of his redemption, and the redemptions of Amfortas and Kundry. But I also want him to understand that the only way the brotherhood can redeem itself is if it includes a sisterhood as well.

RP: Is Parsifal a truly religious piece?  

It is a religious piece – there's no question of that. Wagner’s decision to present the dénoument of the work on Good Friday and to infuse Parsifal’s quest with so much Christian imagery – it can’t be regarded as a completely secular work. But I think it’s also a deeply philosophical work. Towards the end of his life, Wagner got more and more interested in Buddhism and Asceticism. He was also profoundly influenced by the work of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer – and especially fascinated by his theories about collective consciousness, the subjugation of the will, and compassion towards the animal kingdom. Parsifal is a strange and rich mixture of Schopenhauerian philosophy on the one hand and Christian mythology on the other. It's almost as if Wagner is trying to reconcile the two ideologies, partly because he was so deeply influenced by both and at the end of his life wanted to reconcile them within himself – and partly out of a brave and grandiose desire to distill the real truth about human existence in one great work. 

RP: Do you think the Buddhist element is important? I’ve read that Buddha explained in his first sermon that desire is the cause of suffering. Buddha also taught that to realize enlightenment, a person must develop two qualities – wisdom and compassion. 

It’s part of the central theme – the way Buddhist philosophy overlaps with Christian faith. And of course the two have a great deal in common. The central event of Christianity, the crucifixion, tells of the death of a man who has the wisdom and compassion to understand that he is laying down his life for his fellow man.

RP:How do you view the whole idea of Wagner’s designation of the piece as a “Stage-festival consecration play”? Is this all that important? 

JC: Not really. At the point when he was writing Parsifal, the form of opera was beginning to go through quite a revolution, very much influenced by Wagner himself. At the time he may have been a little nervous that his piece would be misunderstood because of its lack of conventional drama. These days opera has become all sorts of things to all sorts of different people, composers and librettists included. So the Parsifal we know today is no more nor less of an opera than any other piece written in a groundbreaking way. There are certainly elements in Parsifal of oratorio and the Passion. The action is static, and what drama there is takes a long time to develop. For its period the libretto is not standard operatic fare: there’s nothing melodramatic in it, the plot doesn’t rely on weird coincidences, there are no romantic heroes or villains, there isn’t a central romantic love story in it. In Bernard Shaw’s phrase, it doesn't have a soprano and a tenor trying to make love and a baritone trying to stop them! Parsifal is far more contemplative than most operas of its period. Wagner perhaps felt that a subtitle would help to explain his chosen form. But it’s an opera, through and through!

RP: Wagner is pretty amazingly detailed in his stage directions. How closely do you intend to follow them?  

JC: As with all stage directions, some of them are useful, some less so. A lot of the stage directions were written in order to prove to his producers at the time that what he was writing was possible, and to help explain how elements of the music could be interpreted visually – perhaps because he started with a visual inspiration for which he then created music. Getting the visual elements right is crucial, but slavishly copying what Wagner has suggested is not so important. What he describes is mostly in a conventional nineteenth-century theatrical tradition. In many instances you really wouldn’t want to watch exactly what he’s written! But you get some good clues from it, as to the relative importance of the visual impact set against the musical impact, or the symbolic image he’s after as a way of underpinning the musical idea.  

RP: We hear so much from Gurnemanz. How do you as a director maintain interest through his whole big scene in Act One and bring the audience along with you?  

JC: There is always the risk of over-illustrating things. If a singer is given a long aria by the composer, the most important thing is really to listen to the artist, in our case Kwangchoul Youn. It will be a wonderful experience simply listening to a great Wagner interpreter singing that aria – just as it will be with Thomas Hampson singing Amfortas or Tómas Tómasson singing Klingsor. You don’t want to fill the stage with a lot of extraneous visual material that will stop you from enjoying the detailed interpretation the singer brings to the role. On the other hand, the context in which Gurnemanz and the other characters are singing is also very important. Who are they singing to? How are their listeners understanding them? This is crucial in terms of how well the audience will understand them.

RP: Amfortas speaks of “the agony of ecstasy” – is that a useful idea?  

JC: That’s a tricky one. His agony is from a wound that is, in a way, self-inflicted. In the original story, he is wounded in “the very place in which he sinned.” Klingsor is able to stab him with the holy spear because Amfortas’s fortitude was weakened by an irresistible woman in Klingsor’s realm. This makes him a mirror image of Klingsor, who has castrated himself as a punishment for his uncontrollably sinful thoughts. But Amfortas is a man whose wound is as much psychological as it is physical. If it was simply a case of a man with a painful illness or disease, then that’s not a very dramatic event on which to build a whole story.

Amfortas’s real agony is that he needs the Grail to continue living. But his continuing life is a torture to him because he feels unworthy of the Grail, and he feels unworthy of the respect of the brotherhood because he knows he has let them down. He’s a man living in the grip of a terrible failure. I suppose, in a way, this is the most mortal of all wounds, especially for someone who is in any way a moral or spiritual figure, or in the case of his creator, Wagner, an artistic giant. The agony of Amfortas is that his journey is incomplete, that his relationship with God has been sullied, that he can’t live happily and he can’t die happily. That’s his great torture.

Having said that, it is hard not to imagine that the woman who seduced Amfortas in Klingsor’s realm was Kundry in one of her many incarnations. So, to some extent, one might think of him as suffering the pangs of unrequited love! It is certainly significant that Kundry is with Amfortas when Parsifal salves away his pain with the spear.

RP: You’re using people to play the swan. And aren’t you planning to use the swan at the end, instead of the usual dove? 

JC: Yes, I am. The dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit descending, a symbol of the spirit of resurrection, a symbol of redemption. But it is Parsifal's destruction of a living creature in Act One that Wagner uses to show how morally worthless Parsifal is – and to illustrate his inability to understand human compassion. By using a human figure as the swan, one is able to make this clear. One can also draw attention to Wagner’s fascination with the idea of the “oneness” of creation. For the brotherhood, the life of a swan and the life of a man have an equal value. It’s therefore quite fitting that in the final analysis Parsifal, as it were, repairs the damage he has done.

RP: How specific and detailed would you like the ritual in the second scene of Act One to be? And what is the overall spirit of that episode?  

JC: It’s all in the content of the words there. What is being sung by the brotherhood is an anthem of faith in God, faith in one another, faith in the spiritual world, faith in something beyond the physical, faith in the future, in the face of terrible deprivation and pain and suffering.

It’s interesting that in the source that Wagner is drawing from – the Eschenbach story – the Grail is described as a stone. It’s Wagner who has made it much more an emblem of the Christian faith, like the chalice of the Last Supper. In Eschenbach it is more like a philosopher’s stone, an alchemical force that can create magical feasts and effects with an array of different drinks and meals. But if Wagner has created his own form of Holy Communion, he has added some highly original touches. He has his younger squires singing a verse about their expectation that the Innocent Fool will come one day and bring enlightenment to all. Again, the focus here is the all-important element. While the service continues, Parsifal witnesses it unaware that he himself is the Innocent Fool who will one day become the Redeemer.

RP: In this production we also see the gold hand. This will be a major topic of conversation, so we should be clear from the start as to how you want to use it. 

JC: This is an emblem invented by Johan Engels, the designer, as a metaphorical symbol of brotherhood – the clasping of hands, praying hands, the emblem that unites the brotherhood in its quest for simple humanity. But Johan has taken it into the realms of religious iconography, just as you have with crucifixes in church, or with golden Buddhas. Religions have a tendency, the more established they become, to express the metaphors of their beliefs in terms of solid objects.

The gold hand also helps us to tell the story of Amfortas’s father Titurel. There has to be a real figure of Titurel – it’s not just a light from above or whatever. His death is being mourned in Act Three, therefore he must be more alive than dead in Act One, or there isn’t a story. But this is a very strange character: he is partly a father figure, Amfortas’s father, the ex-king – or king emeritus - but he’s also a way of representing God the Father. Thus, in the dysfunctional brotherhood that Parsifal returns to in Act Three, the destroyed version, God the Father has died – constituting a shocking event in the history of the brotherhood, but corresponding very much to what Wagner felt happening to religious belief in the nineteenth-century. If God died in the Age of Reason, then coherent philosophies were needed to replace the time-honored religious dogmas.

RP: What should the uncovering of the Grail represent to the audience? 

JC: I think it’s a focal point for the brotherhood to be able to concentrate their minds on the things they find most important in life. It’s like any religious or philosophical metaphor – it’s the ability to focus on a solid object as a way of focusing the mind on something important philosophically or spiritually, in this case the need for reverence and compassion, brotherhood and humanity.

RP: What about your vision for Klingsor? It’s a red world he’s in, isn’t it? 

JC: It comes from feeling that there is a great deal of imagery in the piece about blood – the killing of the swan in the first act, Amfortas’s wound, the blood of the Savior, Klingsor’s self-mutilation. Amfortas and Klingsor are really different aspects of the same character, both suffering very similar fates. Klingsor has castrated himself and is living in a sexless world, but is holding to himself all the available females in the story – including Kundry. He is ruling over a world of the purely sensual and purely selfish. It’s a world that has one man at the center controlling everything around him – all women, all men, the future, anything that comes within his ambit. In other words, he’s set himself up as a god, just as Lucifer did when he fell from grace. So his world has to be intensely sensual, but completely unnatural. It’s a tricky world to find the right pictures for. But given that it’s full of Flowermaidens – flowers that have become women or women who have become flowers, or some mixture of the two – the visual decision by Johan and myself was to make that world the world of very vivid floral colors, the most vivid Johan could conjure up, purples and reds, pinks and oranges. By contrast, the natural world of Monsalvat is all in greens and grays and browns.

RP: Your view of Kundry, the opera’s most complicated character – how do we make sense of the totally different sides of her? She’s seemingly schizophrenic.  

JC: Yes, she is. And that’s a reflection of her origin as a character – or a conflation of characters. Wagner decided to subsume all the other female characters from the Eschenbach story into this one person in order to shape the plot to a specific musical design. The basic source for the character is Kundry the sorcerer, who in the Eschenbach story is a monstrously revolting creature – incredibly clever, intellectual, speaking dozens of languages, cleverer than any man alive – but she also has the features of a bear, huge claws – actually a devilish creation. She represents every possible threat to men, all wound up into one creature. But Wagner only wanted one major female character in the piece. I think musically he didn’t hear another female protagonist, and he didn’t want Kundry just to be the mighty sorceress who affects the plot against Parsifal in the first instance and then in his favor in the second, as in the source. He wanted her to represent all the other aspects of the feminine, the maternal, the sexual, the alluring, the manipulative, the caring – so he’s rolled all these female attitudes up into one character. Inevitably that makes for a schizophrenic mix! She has no choice but to be. It’s an understandable choice of Wagner’s, I think, given the subject matter. He could easily have written the piece with another female character – but it’s hard to see how she wouldn't have become some sort of romantic interest for Parsifal, and he really wasn’t interested in that. He must have been conscious, too, of writing a mighty part for a leading singer. He wanted the part of Kundry to be a fantastic vehicle for an artist to sing and act – and he obviously relished writing all these conflicting aspects of her.

RP: She’s longing for Parsifal to yield to her, yet at the same time longing for him to resist her, since that way she’ll be redeemed.  

JC: In fact, Wagner makes it very clear that she is unwilling to seduce Parsifal until Klingsor threatens her and forces her to do it. At the start of Act Two she is completely under Klingsor’s magic control. As such, Parsifal is perceptive in interpreting the way she behaves towards him in their long scene; he works out that he is making love to a woman – or he is talking love to a woman – who is not being true to herself. In other words, he sees through her false feminine seductiveness to something underneath. In fact, he sees his mother, or perhaps all women in the form of his mother – a psychologically fascinating and potent moment. In doing so, he sees that there is something more important than sex – or something more important than mere sex, put it that way. 

RP: Kundry says to Parsifal, “Let me love you and you will give me redemption.” How does the one follow from the other? I thought he needs to resist her and she finds redemption that way.  

JC: What one mustn’t leave out of account here is that Parsifal understands, in a sudden flash of perception, that if he yields to Kundry he will betray Amfortas, because he will become like Amfortas. He will be yet another man who went on a mission and came back with nothing but a wound. He understands where Amfortas’s wound comes from, and at that moment he knows that his true mission is to return to Monsalvat and express his compassion for Amfortas. He finally understands the nature of Amfortas’s suffering.

Until Klingsor’s grip on Kundry is broken, she’s still under his spell. She might think in that moment that she’s going to be redeemed by seducing Parsifal, but if she managed it, he would be yet one more name on her long list of seductions and she would be back in her agony again. Parsifal’s perception is absolutely correct: the only way he can save Kundry is by resisting her, and it turns out to be true. She follows him back to Monsalvat and is contrite. She becomes his creature, his worshipping mother/lover/Magdalen figure, but only because he’s managed to resist her, or rather Klingsor through her. He’s managed to resist becoming a selfish, sensual man and has come to feel compassion for people who are less fortunate and weaker than he is. 

RP: Let’s talk about the labyrinth onstage in Act Three of this production. 

JC: It’s another one of those very tricky things about the story: in the original Eschenbach source there is no way back to Monsalvat – you can’t get there by wanting to get there. You can only arrive there when you least desire it. It’s like the children trying to get into Narnia in C. S. Lewis's chronicles – if you try to get back, you never will. It’s only because of what you feel deep inside, or what other people’s needs of you are, that allow you to get back to Monsalvat. It’s a deeply philosophical and metaphysical point that the road to salvation is not necessarily one that is completely in your control; it is defined by how you live and not by what you want – so in that sense it is a labyrinth. You won’t know when you’ve arrived at the end of it until you suddenly find yourself there.

RP: In the final scene you want Amfortas to die and Kundry to live, correct? Why? 

JC: I’m still thinking about that – I’m not sure which way I’m going to jump there. The death of Kundry is frankly a little sentimental and uncalled for. It’s another example of the rather obvious sexism involved in the piece – the bad girl having to die in the last act. It’s not really fair, after all she’s achieved and all that she’s served, to suddenly kill her off for no coherent reason, whereas I think the demise of Amfortas is much more obviously called for. If Amfortas is completely cured again, why is he not re-crowned king? Given his mortal spiritual agony, he seems to me more like a man in desperate need of a dignified death than a man who would much savor a quiet retirement! But we shall see what the music tells us to do with these characters in their final moments.

RP: What about the unity of men and women in the finale of this production? 

JC: The brotherhood will never be the same again – it shouldn’t try to be the same again. What a grim place, where boys are chosen to become knights, locked away from their mothers and normal family life, and shut up in a monastery to be taught self-negation. Wagner has created a world that ignores the very existence of women as independent beings – and is therefore in danger of denying the power of his parable to half of his audience. On first analyzing the piece and listening to the music, and especially on reading the material from which it's drawn, I think my instinct was that Wagner was right on the edge of doing something with the story that he didn’t quite follow through. He has these wonderful female voices singing at the end, voices from heaven – not all boy-soprano voices – but  rather, a return to the sensual sound of the Flowermaidens in Act Two. Real soprano and mezzo voices, operatic voices. So there is a clear indication of a return to the idea of the feminine in the last five minutes of the opera. But Wagner kept his women in the wings – or up in the fly-tower – and it’s not that big a leap to let them appear and share in the redemption with everyone else. They've certainly earned it!

The end of Parsifal has always felt to me like the end of a war. It’s as if everyone has been wounded, damaged by a long period of terrible experience but finally released from pain into salvation – just as the great Passions of Bach end by celebrating the peaceful joy and deep rest that are the natural successors to pain and death. I think Wagner was very influenced by the Passion story – and the long journey that finally ends with a homecoming of happiness, resolution and compassion. Personally I can't see how that story can possibly end with only the blokes as celebrants. That’s not how stories have their happy endings. With only men onstage at the end, all I would be able to think is, “Here we go again – Parsifal is the new Amfortas, Amfortas is the new Titurel, and we’re back at the beginning. Nothing’s been decided, it’s the same dysfunctional all-male society, and nobody’s learned anything.”

RP: What about your collaboration with Johan Engels – how did you develop your vision for the piece? 

JC: I think the first thing I said to Johan was, “The music in Parsifal is shatteringly beautiful, so the set’s got to be beautiful – the world has to be beautiful.” There has to be beauty both visually and aurally throughout the evening. It’s not a sufficient response to the piece to create something ugly and barbaric onstage in response to the stunning complexity and beauty of the music. Perhaps not exactly as Wagner described in the stage directions, but we have to come up with a visual imagery that is comparable in some way with the sheer scale and beauty and majesty of the music. That’s where we started, and then we moved on to how we had to be able to present a natural and an unnatural world, a world of monasticism – and a world of sensuality. There are a lot of opposites in the piece – a world that is very strictly controlled and regimented that turns into a world that is destroyed and dysfunctional. Once we started to talk about the basic structure of the images, we went on to the specific staging difficulties demanded by the score, the very long transformation scenes in which something has to be continuously happening in order to keep the stage picture alive.

RP: We haven’t said much about the music up to now. What episode do you find most memorable and why? 

JC: So much of it is so moving – the Amfortas material is very beautiful and painful. I think the Act Two material between Klingsor and Kundry, and then between Kundry and Parsifal is absolutely spellbinding, musically and emotionally mesmerizing, wonderfully written and orchestrated. In the final 40 minutes – Parsifal’s return to the destroyed brotherhood and the restoration of the spear – the music is so beautifully conceived. But really, it’s too huge and complete a piece to be able to single out favorite bits. One piece of the musical experience leads seamlessly onto the next.

RP: What suggestions can we offer to audience members who are new to the piece? 

JC: Newcomers to opera probably shouldn't start with Parsifal. But newcomers to Wagner can look forward to one of the greatest operatic works by one of the greatest nineteenth-century composers, in the form of his artistic and philosophical masterwork. For anybody who has a real interest in religion or philosophy, in the spiritual life, this is a beautifully contemplative way of thinking about the most important things in this world – humanity, compassion and man’s relationship with god and nature. It's an opera that will be very well understood by people who are ready to sit and listen and appreciate, and are not be in too much of a hurry to get to the end!

You need to be ready to invest emotionally and intellectually in a production of Parsifal. You won’t sit there in floods of tears from one moment to the next as the protagonist characters tear themselves and one another to emotional pieces – this is a very different palette of colors from that of Puccini or Verdi – but you will sit there and have profound thoughts about the nature of human life and how philosophy and religion, bravery and self-knowledge can combine as a salve to the greatest tribulations in our lives.

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