Deed of Conveyance
Plain as a pikestaff
Having worked for two years on my now cancelled production of the Bayreuth Ring cycle I feel the urge to draw up a kind of deed of conveyance in which I describe some of (what I regard as) the fertile ideas and results I arrived at, partly in cooperation with Kalli Juliusson, the designer.
I’ll start with my qualifications for directing an opera: none, apart, perhaps, from an instinctive yearning towards and away from the medium. However, I have always had affection for Wagner: mostly for his music and the monumental aspects of his life and work; less so the singing, which I had skimmed lightly, regarding it as less accessible. But perhaps it was precisely because of my reservations that I felt very clearly that I had something to offer vis-à-vis the Ring. I had the willpower and love, and my lack of operatic upbringing and knowledge was something I felt could be turned to advantage.
To me, opera is a curiosity, whereas singing seems perfectly natural. On this point my view is probably shared by most other people who lack cultivation in this field. It seems reasonable that we may tell stories in different ways, and that one of them is stylized, tuneful, and is known as song. But to populate the world in which a tale is set exclusively with singing individuals (with no explanation given) is a quantum leap. I am sure there are explanations (historical and experiential) but it’s tough, and we have to accept it at an instinctive level.
So when faced with the Ring I was forced to draw various conclusions about opera: any stylization had to have a purpose. It was obvious that music accompanying a narrative could underline emotions and moods, and occasionally help to tell the story itself (the way music is often used in films, as a rule without the provision of the slightest explanation for this abstraction); it was thereby also obvious that the words presented by the singers could also be enriched in the same way. But opera is not just enriched theatre; it is an independent form and style, the purpose of which is to reach places you cannot get to by any other means: experiences that cannot be provided otherwise.
Experiences can, of course, take many forms ... but with regard to Wagner (and opera in its traditional form in general, I felt) I soon saw only one possibility: that the experience ought to be an emotional one for me; and how do you achieve emotional contact with an audience? Or rather, how do you make sure you don’t prevent it? You allow the audience to apply the range of emotions it knows from real life by insisting that the performance IS real! A stylized reality, a poetic reality in which the voices possess melody and the silence has notes, but reality nonetheless!
In my view, then, Wagner must be experienced emotionally. This is and always has been the idea (although as a member of the audience you can always train your way to an abundance of experiences that are just as good, of course), and emotions are permitted only when you accept the medium as real. This acceptance starts with the director! Siegfried, Wotan, Fafner, Brünhilde and the rest of them are real and alive and inhabit a real world. First and foremost they are NOT symbols or illustrations or decorations or abstractions. They all have their psychologies, and via them the conflicts and thereby the empathy and emotions of the audience arise.
That was a long introduction but it pays to be thorough even when dealing with something as plain as a pikestaff. Once I’d understood the emotional bit I was ready, I felt. And after all: everything was already there in the words, which made it quite unnecessary to invent and add any new layers. It may be fine to make Wagner’s amazingly human Gods populate English industrialism or the Third Reich, but it doesn’t improve things. We don’t need parallels! Actually, parallels are directly confusing! Leave parallels and interpretations to the audience! As the recently deceased opera buff Gerhard Schepelern so persistently reminded me, “The director must not try to be cleverer than the work!” No, he must be the servant of the original intentions he finds in the words and music, and the harder the task, the more persistent he must be. If Fafner is meant to inspire terror, the director is firmly obliged to apply all his abilities to invoking terror. If Siegfried is a hero (however psychologically complicated) he must be presented as such, no matter how unfashionable, ungrateful and politically incorrect it may seem. If the Ring contained and contains humour, it is this humour that the production must bring out and not the prejudiced wit of a casual director.
If we want Wagner, we want Wagner. And that’s that. Anything else is pusillanimous. He is not to blame if his work made such an impression that posterity often – for the sake of convenience – almost regards it as a comic cliché. If he was inspired by the era of the great migration, this must also be the dogma the director submits to, and if Wagner’s artistic starting point was a view of humanity that we find hard to swallow, the production must submit to his original intentions, no doubt about it; squeezing Wagner’s Ring into the confines of modern humanism is just as misleading and incorrect as basking in the classic by drawing parallels or poking fun. Wagner made a myth of the myths, and if you are afraid of it, you should steer clear.
But how do you relate to a production of the Ring when, as I do, you believe you have an emotional understanding of and respect for the original work? How do you imbue the visual staging with the necessary reality?
Wagner faced the same problem when the Festspielhaus was finished. He staged the first production of the Ring. He was not satisfied. Not at all. Creating the musical, abstract world was one thing; the visual (and hence tangible) world was another. The singers annoyed him with their mannered gestures. The grandeur of the idea of the flying, armour-clad Valkyries paled disappointingly when shown on stage.
Realizing his mythological world caused him trouble. And we know that illusion mattered to Wagner. Consider the stage directions for the scene in which Siegfried fights Fafner: they meticulously describe the size of the cries to be uttered by the singer in order to provide the sound of the mighty beast’s voice before and after the coup de grace.
Wagner considered that all artistic effects should be employed for his production. He borrowed from other art forms and amalgamated them. He talked of a Gesamtkunstværk. He invented the concealed orchestra pit (the music was not to originate from instrumentalists but merely to exist in space). What Wagner wanted to achieve in those days sounds very much like what we would call cinema. Would Wagner have made a film? Perhaps. To me, the Ring as cinema would lose its vitality. It would betray the concept of opera, which to me, besides illusion, is also the performance. High wire acts and conjurers fail to come across on film; so does opera. Because being there is a vital ingredient. Opera must be performed live, with the unique quality of the moment, for live human beings by live human beings.
The challenge was now obvious: a performance that would use illusion and presence to convey the emotional qualities I and many others had found in Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs: a production the composer and librettist did not think he had achieved; a staging to which I had not found any obviously satisfying contemporary counterpart. I had to seek the commonplace, the essential ... the illusion!
The essence of illusion is that it does not exist; or more correctly, it only exists in the mind of the spectator. How do we put it there? Simply by implication. By showing things that cause the spectator to deduce and “see” the illusion that is precisely not shown. It is simple dramaturgy: if A via B leads to C, we show A and C, and let the spectator deal with B! It’s the simple recipe for conjuring tricks. We see the presentation and the result but never the actual transformation. It is the spectator’s acquired knowledge of sequences of events that creates the magic and the illusion.
It doesn’t take much brainpower to deduce from this that all that is really interesting about the Ring cannot be seen! Like conjuring tricks, the visual mythology is a definite B! So I concluded without hesitation that the ultimate production would have to take place in total darkness! By not showing the characters, scenery and action, you allow your audience to build up images of them solely on the basis of the music and the words, the value of which any director would be stupid to question. But to a director, in addition to being consistent, total darkness is also rather meager and unsatisfactory. And anyway, Wagner’s words also include a small but very important and far-reaching number of stage directions.
And to make this long story a bit shorter, permit me to take this chance to present my scenic conclusion! A conclusion partly in line with “theatre noire” but which I would rather call direction using “enriched darkness”.
Modern productions employ a maximum of visual impressions from start to finish: usually grandiose, partly abstract sets in which an act of the opera takes place. With a bit of luck the sets allow a few different places to position the characters so a smidgeon of visual development does take place. Inevitably, however, the result is that the audience reads the set in an instant, where after it simply becomes a place where the whole thing happens. At worst the audience soon begins to wonder how on earth the large number of performers can make their entrances, let alone their exits. This can be quite entertaining for an audience trying to kill time, but it does not promote positive communication with the production on the part of the spectator.
It didn’t always use to be like this. The lighting at the Festspielhaus was surely very different in the early days. In Wagner’s day gas light was used. It wasn’t until electric lighting was introduced that you could distinguish the singers’ faces properly (and that would have really given Wagner problems with the tangible!). So Wagner actually wrote for a much lower level of lighting. Mystery originally enjoyed far more favourable conditions. My idea was to go back, and more than that. To go into the darkness, which modern stage technology enables us to position with considerably more precision and purpose.
Actually, the concept is filmic. In horror films in particular, the technique of hinting without showing has been tried and tested, and adopted to great effect by electronic games. In both media we are familiar with arriving at a darkened house with the frail beam of a torch our only source of lighting. Not to mention in real life: at night, no matter how delightful and safe our neck of the woods may be, it inevitably becomes populated by demons, evil and mythological forces; and as we all know, they are all the more real and terrifying for not being illuminated.
A via B to C: imagine two spots of light on a stage. Top and bottom. We see the top and bottom of an old ladder. The ladder is rotten and the bottom half is split. In a horror film blood would be dripping from the darkness above. As somebody climbs the ladder and disappears into the darkness the ladder begins to shake violently. If the person had been armed his weapon would have tumbled into the patch of light at the bottom. Then for a while neither end of the ladder would move until the top began to shudder more and more and two hairy hands emerged from the darkness above and whipped the ladder away. Perhaps it would prove to be a short length of ladder unattached to the length below ... etc. etc. This is just an illustration of the narrative potential of enriched darkness, familiar to us all; how by seeking the great impression amidst the smallest ones we can achieve more than by employing maximum power. Our observation of the person on the ladder in what is surely a perilous, claustrophobic situation somewhere in the midst of the darkness may be compared in a small way to our observations of the tiniest particles in physics, which we cannot observe directly but only on the basis of the effects they must have on things around them big enough to be visible. That we can’t see atoms doesn’t make the atomic any less fascinating!
But before I make enriched darkness sound trite, let me say that it is a tool to be used in far more sophisticated ways than just telling linear stories. In the case of the Ring I think it would prove to contain a good deal of what Wagner dreamed of: by not lighting “democratically” but – on the contrary – manipulating to the extreme (as we determine absolutely the amount of visual information the audience is offered at any given moment), we could control the way the set and the world grew and evolved in the minds of the audience as the performance proceeded.
As is the case when using other clearly defined techniques, it is important to treat enriched darkness with care. When we make a limited light field follow a character through the landscape or a building, we must meet the audience’s logical requirements. As we only see tiny sections of the set, and together they must make up the complete picture in the minds of the audience, we must provide some help. If we sense a room at first floor height and then perceive a staircase somewhere, it is generally expedient to link the two in a logical way. I.e. the character followed by the spot climbs the staircase to the first floor at some stage, thus meeting our expectation that there is a naturalistic building. By presenting this kind of gift to the audience we can use the gradual revelation of the building to reflect developments at the dramatic and psychological level. And once we render the cohesion and logic of the set plausible like this, we can introduce surprises such as trap doors suddenly turning out to link two completely separate rooms. It also provides opportunities that are more like extensions of dream and myth: we can fool the audience, its memory and sense of place by exploiting the absence of light to change the basic dimensions of the set, all in order to convey the qualities of the work in the best way: an enrichment of the darkness in which the original musical and textual work of art is played out in such a way that it finally proves to be a decent, not to mention challenging, arena for it.
Another advantage of the technique is the way it allows us to make the stage infinite (no bad thing when you’re dealing with mythology!). Using the dark suddenly makes it a lot easier to introduce visual layers from outside in a credible amalgam with the components of the stage. The use of video projections for adding scenic motion in the big scenes, drastically extending the stagescape, and rendering many of the special effects or conjuring tricks the Ring has to offer is an obvious option. As in any illusion, it is important to conceal the technology so that it is not apparent how the various visual effects are created. We are in the world of suggestion, and this is precisely why we can use the most sophisticated mechanical and electronic technology, as it will never result in effects that draw attention to themselves and divert attention from the content of the whole.
I wanted to extend the stage even further by adding another layer of abstraction, as via TV and film audiences today have been reared very differently from those in Wagner’s day. That is to say: using the spot light technique would allow me to make the proscenium into the visual equivalent of a silver screen or TV screen, introducing pans, tilts, and movements of the visual surface that would give the illusion of dollying and crane movement. (Hence we developed a technique that would enable the second act of Die Walküre to consist of a single continual illusion that the stage picture was rising constantly upwards, following the trek to the Valkyrie mountain right to the top, just as a similar horizontal movement would show Siegfried approaching Fafner’s lair.
Using technology with a maximum lighting quotient of five percent (sometimes distributed among a number of lit areas, too) obviously detail would matter. If enriched darkness was to enrich the Ring by turning much less into much more, the quality of suggestion would have to be high. Working with Kalli Juliusson I accumulated an extensive picture library of relevant details from nature and the countryside; and we conducted extensive historical research. If we were to comment on and substantiate the dramatic and emotional progression of the opera for every metre through which our spot of light moved, we would need a library of hundreds of different kinds of Northern European moss, for example, and just as many lava outcrops, because in my view the mythological landscape can only be created from relentlessly naturalistic components. Dock leaves and mortised beams from the era of the great migration would have been presented with the same authenticity, even if only in glimpses and in such tiny sections that perhaps only the front rows would have benefited.
I know it is easy to invoke such high quality requirements for a production that has been abandoned. But if you want to know the thinking behind it, that was it; greatness in the tiniest detail and divinity in nature. That was what my Wagner was like!
If I’m to end by touching on the difficulties of the complete project, well, theatre noire, magic theatre or enriched darkness are not easy quantities, particularly with the quality requirements outlined above. Compared to the implementation of a modern, professional US magic show on stage (where the importance of presence and human performance are vital, just as in our case), the technology and sets easily run into millions of dollars, as one trick that doesn’t function perfectly can kill the whole show. The same applied here. Not only would my version of the Ring require the terrifyingly precise, expensive development and synchronization of everything from the many video screens to advanced hydraulic stage machinery, a large number of hidden stagehands (who would have to be equipped with night vision), and thousands of lighting cues (the follow spot was soon abandoned in favour of lots of loose lights that moved the light via tons of coded fades), not to mention the problems that would arise in simply maintaining the divine darkness (both in the auditorium, despite the covered pit, and on stage, where light spillage from within the desired limits was a gigantic problem that could not simply be solved using bobbinet scrims, which had disastrous effects on the acoustics anyway, etc); the production would lose all its authority and be brought down to earth with a thud if just one of these procedures went wrong. I am not saying it could not be done; just that with my morbid craving for perfection (which has kept me from producing predefined images for my films for years now: i.e. in practice, any planned camera positions) it would have been hell.
But as I say, perhaps other people might feel inspired by my deliberations; hence this article; also in order to purge my mind and get rid of the whole monstrous burden that the Ring also comprises, especially when you have painted yourself into a corner from the conceptual point of view (even a really successful one, as I still believe it is), and which was the emotion that overwhelmed me a few months ago and was the main reason for my pulling out.
Lars von Trier, 22 June 2004
PS If anyone would like to look at and maybe use my rough notes for the two operas I drew up, Die Walküre and Siegfried, they will be freely available at this homepage from around a month from this date, located here with the kindly cooperation of Wolfgang Wagner and the Bayreuther Festspiele.
Also, in Danish and German, Von Trier´s detailed stage directions for parts of Siegfried and Walküre may be viewed here, clicking on the header "links"