Parsifal director John Caird takes questions from Lyric
Opera dramaturg Roger Pines.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
You’ve spoken about the brotherhood in
this opera as “a hermetically sealed male society.”
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.
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.
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.
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
RP: Is Parsifal a truly religious piece?
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?
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
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!
Wagner is pretty amazingly detailed in
his stage directions. How closely do you intend to follow them?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
using people to play the swan. And aren’t you planning to use the swan at the
end, instead of the usual dove?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
What should the uncovering of the Grail
represent to the audience?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Let’s talk about the labyrinth onstage in
Act Three of this production.
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
RP: In the final scene you want Amfortas to
die and Kundry to live, correct? Why?
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
What about the unity of men and women in
the finale of this production?
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!
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.”
What about your collaboration with Johan Engels
– how did you develop your vision for the piece?
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.
We haven’t said much about the music up to now. What episode do you find most
memorable and why?
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.
What suggestions can we offer to audience
members who are new to the piece?
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!
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