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See why TOSCA is “as pitch perfect as opera gets”

Lyric's Diamond Anniversary season continues with another acclaimed production; this time, critics are loving the new-to-Chicago production of Puccini's Tosca. It's on stage at Lyric until March 14. If you're not convinced yet, here are just a few reasons to see this dramatic, passionate blockbuster.

Lyric's Diamond Anniversary season continues with another acclaimed production; this time, critics are loving the new-to-Chicago production of Puccini's Tosca. It's on stage at Lyric until March 14. If you're not convinced yet, here are just a few reasons to see this dramatic, passionate blockbuster.

"Highly Recommended" - Chicago Sun-Times 

"…a mesmerizing night of music theater imaginatively staged, perceptively conducted and gloriously sung." - Chicago on the Aisle

"this Tosca is as pitch perfect as opera gets" - Le Bon Travel and Culture 

"…this production, staged by John Caird with sets and costumes by Bunny Christie, offers something more: a fresh approach to staging as evocative as the singing." - Chicago Sun-Times 

The Glorious Music

"Let me end by praising one of the great performances of the night: the orchestra's. Under Dmitri Jurowski's baton, this night saw the Lyric's house band find again and again an exquisite late 19th century sound, the winds and brass speaking gorgeously from within beds of strings." - Bachtrack 

" the Lyric's production features Puccini's glorious musical score that soars under the Lyric's exceptional orchestra led by Dmitri Jurowski in his Lyric debut. " - Le Bon Travel and Culture 

"Jurowski consistently and fetchingly underscores the opera's emotional surge, with deft shifts into sweet comedy and arching lyricism. Both the Lyric Opera Chorus, in the grand Te Deum that crowns Act I, and the Orchestra distinguish themselves with performances that bloom and soar." - Chicago on the Aisle  

The Electrifying Cast

Tatiana Serjan and Brian Jagde are "an inspired pairing: two wonderful acting singers with the extraordinary voices that make for opera legend." - Chicago Reader 

"Tatiana Serjan commanded the stage, tracing the arc of Tosca's journey from capricious, jealous diva to a woman driven to desperate action in a frantic effort to save the life of her lover." - Chicago on the Aisle 

"the Russian soprano showed she truly is the complete package as a singer and actress, with her Tosca as affecting and vulnerable as her Lady Macbeth was chilling and evil." - Chicago Classical Review 

"One could go a lifetime and not hear a finer “Vissi d’arte” in the theater than the one Serjan delivered Saturday night." - Chicago Classical Review 

"Making his Lyric debut, the American tenor [Brian Jagde] declares his love for Tosca in his opening aria, unleashing his supple, warm-toned tenor in a passionate outpouring that set the audience cheering." - Chicago Sun-Times 


Photo credits:

  • Tosca production photos credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago


Opera 101: Q&A with TOSCA Assistant Director Shawna Lucey

It takes a village to put together an opera, and one of the most important roles is the assistant director. Shawna Lucey, who is assistant director for Lyric's production of Puccini's Tosca  (on stage now through March 14) gives a quick overview of her linchpin role as keeper of the "opera playbook."

It takes a village to put together an opera, and one of the most important roles is the assistant director. Shawna Lucey, who is assistant director for Lyric's production of Puccini's Tosca (on stage now through March 14) gives a quick overview of her linchpin role—essentially acting as the translator for the director's desires to the rest of the company and the keeper of the "opera playbook."

Can you give a basic description of what an assistant director does? What is your role in the opera creation process?

An assistant director on an opera has many responsibilities—both assisting the director of the show as well as communicating the desires of the director to many departments of the opera company. The AD creates and maintains the blocking book—this has the entire score as well as pages with diagrams of the set to document the movement and motivation of every character onstage. This book is used as a reference tool when rehearsing understudies or when a production is shown at multiple theaters. It's almost like an NFL playbook!

The blocking book and production photo from Act 2 of Tosca with Tatiana Serjan (Tosca) and Evgeny Nikitin (Scarpia)

The AD is responsible for helping the director coordinate the schedule—making sure the correct people are called to rehearsal at the correct times. The AD communicates the director's desires to the chorus as well as to any supernumeraries in the show, making sure that they understand any notes given by the director. The AD also works closely with stage management and the technical staff to execute the necessary technical elements so crucial to the production.

The blocking book and production photo for the opening bars of Tosca with
Richard Ollarsaba as Angelotti

How does the assistant director collaborate with the director, in this case John Caird, before and during the rehearsal process?

It's been absolutely wonderful to work with John (pictured right). I think we've both enjoyed the collaboration on this show. John Caird was directing Bohème in San Francisco this fall, where I was assisting on productions of Norma and La Cenerentola, so we went out to dinner and had a great conversation—both about the production and his vision behind it as well as theater, politics, and football (we're both Packers fans). Before and after rehearsals we've discussed major ideas as well as truths about the characters. His patience, kindness, and cleverness have led to a delightful rehearsal process.

What do you find most exciting or thrilling about this production of Tosca?

John's directing is so detailed and so precise; this is a thrilling production of Tosca. He has put his heart and his mind to the text as well as the music, and what's resulted is a Tosca that hits deep in the audience's hearts and minds. I think the design is brilliant as well and welcomes us in. Each act is full of subtlety and excellent storytelling, so that when the opera reaches its tragic conclusion—which most people already know coming into the theater—John's directing creates the tragedy anew, having so delicately built the story to that irreversible point.

Scenes from Tosca starring Tatiana Serjan (Tosca), Brian Jagde (Cavaradossi), and Evgeny Nikitin (Scarpia)

What has drawn you to opera more generally? What is your educational background?

I majored in Italian at the University of Texas at Austin. I followed graduation with a post-baccalaureate semester at the Moscow Art Theater. After working in New York theater for two years, I decided to pursue an MFA (Master of Fine Arts). Not satisfied with the choices here in the U.S., I decided to move to Moscow and study there. I had heard that learning a third language is easier than learning your second. I didn't realize that didn't apply if the third language was Russian! While I was completing my MFA in directing at the Boris Schukin Theater Institute of the Vakhtangov Theater, my directing mentor said I should look into directing opera, since languages and music are two of my passions. I went to Santa Fe as a technical apprentice and fell deeply in love with opera. I haven't looked back since! 

Did your fluency in Russian help with this particular production of Tosca, which has several Russian artists? 

Yes—my Russian background did come in handy with this cast. Ms. Serjan speaks Russian & Italian, but not English. I was originally contacted by Lyric to work on this show because they knew they needed an assistant director who spoke Russian. I translated for Tatiana throughout the process. Evgeny Nikitin and Mo. [Dmitri] Jurowski both speak English, but it's been great to have an almost "secret" language that we can joke with each other in.

What's your favorite opera or what opera do you dream of directing one day?

My favorite opera changes all the time! It's so difficult to say because there are so many great operas to choose from.

This is your Lyric debutdo you have any observations about working with the company or being in Chicago so far?

This is my Lyric debut and I'm having a wonderful time. The staging staff, many of whom I knew from other houses, are some of the best in the country. That and the excellent crews here make for a fantastic first experience. The strength of these departments is reflected in the excellence of the productions here at Lyric. It's an honor to be here.

And what about when you're not workinghow do you enjoy Chicago?

I'm really enjoying the city! It seems like a lively place. I saw a puppet show by Blind Summit at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, which was excellent, and I am looking forward to checking out the jazz scene here! 

Photo credits:

  • Shawney Lucey portrait courtesy Shawna Lucey
  • Blocking book photos courtesy Shawna Lucey
  • Production photos from Tosca at Lyric Opera of Chicago credit Michael Brosilow (first photo) and Todd Rosenberg (remaining photos)
  • John Caird portrait courtesy John Caird


An Insider's Guide to TOSCA

Puccini's Tosca is opera at its finest, combining a heartbreaking story with achingly beautiful music that puts it on par with the composer's other beloved masterpieces Madama Butterfly and La Bohème. Learn more about this magnificent opera with interviews, audio previews, and more.


Puccini's Tosca  is opera at its finest, combining a heartbreaking story with achingly beautiful music that puts it on par with the composer's other beloved masterpieces Madama Butterfly and La Bohème. Learn more about this magnificent opera with interviews, audio previews, and more. 

Tosca, an impulsive opera star, is in love with a rebel artist—but he is hunted by a villainous police chief who will stop at nothing to capture his prey. What price is too high to save the man you love? For more than a hundred years, audiences have watched and listened spellbound as the cat-and-mouse game between diva Tosca and the devious Scarpia plays to its deadly conclusion. 

Lyric Opera presents two dynamic casts to bring this dramatic story to life. Tatiana Serjan (Tosca), Brian Jagde (Cavaradossi), and Evgeny Nikitin (Scarpia) portray this deadly love triangle from January 24 through February 5 and all make their Lyric debuts. Then from February 27 through March 14, Hui HeJorge de León (debut), and Mark Delavan take over the roles of lover, artist, and police chief. Dynamic young conductor Dmitri Jurowski makes his podium debut in this new Lyric coproduction from director John Caird, who dazzled with last season's Parsifal. 

Click here to read the full plot synopsis, director's note, and more
in the complete Tosca program book.

Articles with insights from the cast and creative team

Tosca through Scarpia's Eyes
Mark Delavan, who stars in Tosca as Scarpia for Lyric's second cast February 27 through March 14, gives some of his insights on this villainous character, one that he is able to reinvent each time he performs it. Delavan is certainly an expert, having performed this role more than 100 times around the world. READ MORE 

Opera 101: Q&A with Tosca Assistant Director Shawna Lucey
It takes a village to put together an opera, and one of the most important roles is the assistant director. Shawna Lucey, who is assistant director for Lyric's production of Puccini's Tosca (on stage now through March 14) gives a quick overview of her linchpin role as keeper of the "opera playbook." READ MORE 

See why TOSCA is “as pitch perfect as opera gets”
Lyric's Diamond Anniversary season continues with another acclaimed production; this time, critics are loving the new-to-Chicago production of Puccini's Tosca. It's on stage now through March 14, so act fast! If you're not convinced yet, here are just a few reasons to see this dramatic, passionate blockbuster. READ MORE

Tosca: A Lyric Photo History
Gobbi. Tebaldi. Bergonzi. Martins. Tucker. Pavarotti. Domingo. Scotto. Ramey. Morris. Voigt. These are just some of the amazing singers who have appeared in Puccini's Tosca  on stage at Lyric throughout the company's first 60 years. Learn more about the history of his magnificent opera at Lyric before seeing it on stage from January 24 to March 14. READ MORE

Lyric Libations: Tosca
Puccini's passionate tragedy is so intense that you will definitely need a drink afterwards to calm your nerves. And what better way to imbibe than with this set of four cocktails inspired by the opera? Channel your inner Tosca, Cavaradossi, and Scarpia—or learn how to make the potentially deadly concoction we like to call "Tosca's Kiss." READ MORE

A Tosca of Many Nations
There's no composer in opera more popular worldwide than Puccini, and it's not only in Italy that great Puccini interpreters are produced! Look, for example, at Lyric Opera's Tosca—the two trios of principals and the conductor together represent five different nations. READ MORE

On the Couch: Tosca
Opera divas are intense and dramatic—and perhaps in need of a bit of counseling, especially if you’re the tragic heroine of Puccini’s Tosca. Read notes from her therapist as he tackles Floria Tosca’s—FT for anonymity!—most persistent psychological traumas and provides an interesting alternate ending to the story. READ MORE

Lyric U: Sopranos – how high can you go?
Tosca contains one of the most beautiful and famous arias in the whole soprano repertoire: "Vissi d'arte." This glorious lament describes how the heroine Tosca has lived for art and love, only to have fate turn against her. Lyric's own Anthony Freud, Sir Andrew Davis, and Renée Fleming talk through what distinguishes the soprano voice in opera, with bonus video examples of other great soprano arias on stage at Lyric this season. READ MORE

Lyric U: Baritones in opera
A survey of great baritone roles in opera would not be complete without Scarpia. His Te Deum provides one of the most powerful scenes in all of opera, as the villain sings of his lust and his horrific plan to force Tosca into loving him, all against the backdrop of a prayer. Looking for more great baritone showcases? This Lyric U post highlights some other notable scenes. READ MORE

Patter Up! with Brian Jagde

Tenor Brian Jagde makes his Lyric debut as Cavaradossi in the first cast of Tosca (January 24-February 5). Learn more about his favorite foods, his go-to karaoke song, and his adorable dog Cav. 


Tosca Audio Preview

Music director Sir Andrew Davis shares the synopsis and excerpts from Puccini's Tosca. Recordings used by permission of EMI Classics.

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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