“No bastion of elitism, but a hall for everybody.”
“I believe the work is bigger than the performers,” says Hamburg State Opera’s artistic and musical director, Simone Young. It’s fitting, too, that Hamburg State Opera’s artistic and musical director, Simone Young, is largely a self-made woman. The Australian pianist came to music relatively late, at age 15 and as Hamburg is not a land of Kingdoms, Young is not a woman of a privileged, musical family, but was self-motivated to study piano. To ‘study’ is key to her nature. The ‘nerd’ in her (her term, as she describes her drive) loves the research, the meticulous look at the score, recovering elements that had been lost throughout interpretations.
Young added this opera to her repertoire more than ten years ago. She pored over the original Ring scores housed in the Bayreuth archives to bring as much depth to her production as possible. Bayreuth is quite simply ground zero for Wagnerphiles worldwide as it’s both the location of his historic home and archives, as well as the theatre (Bayreuther Festspielehaus) he had specially constructed for the performance of his works with the financial backing of supreme Wagner worshiper, Ludwig II of Bavaria. Young’s attention to minute detail in orchestration provides us with layers, rather than walls, of sound. Her goal is to present the entire Ring as close to what Wagner intended, musically, as possible.
The irony, then, is that Young’s approach to Siegfried is quite unlike the character of Siegfried himself, who is not one to pore over a history book, a score, or a blueprint for a magnificent building. “In Siegfried knowledge (knowing) is no longer valued, it is superseded by energy,” says Young at a breakfast press meeting the day after the Siegfried debut, “Siegfried is energy—that is valued over knowledge, these days.” Impatient and demanding, but not entirely a fool, Siegfried cleverly crafts his sword (Nothung) from, among other things, the whirling, sparking drum of a disemboweled washing machine. Swords in the era of washing machines may ring anachronistic, but remember; Young remains true to the score, and the sword is vital. In this production, that he forges the ancient instrument from scraps of the modern world do not deter, but delight, as literal sparks fly from Siegfried’s theatrical rage.
“Wagner’s Siegfried signifies the end of the gods, the end of wisdom, the turning away from the knowledge passed down through the ages,” says Young, “In the not too distance past, Siegfried might represent atomic energy—and its simultaneous promise of hope and destruction. So, too, we are at an age on the precipice of change, as the modern world values knowledge, ideas, concepts, over production.” Indeed, that sounds very much like … our modern world.
Young, in collaboration with Director Claus Guth (stage design and costumes by Christian Schmidt) captures perfectly the clumsy, unwitting hero who saves us from the gods that are driven by the desire for power. We have Siegfried to thank for our allotted time on this earthly paradise, such as it is. Siegfried’s world is far from the ideal of paradise. Each opera of the Ring in this production is staged as a room; each room is a place of contemporary knowledge. By the time Siegfried arrives, the setting is some time in the modern world; it could be anywhere on the outskirts of any powerful city, where the gloss is long gone and the inevitable, encroaching signs of destruction and decay are everywhere.
Siegfried (portrayed by Christian Frantz) is dressed in ghastly American-Apparel-style, minus a few washings (recall, we mentioned that the washing machine is broken, after all). Indeed, all the characters are dressed down but for the handsome, commanding Wanderer, Wotan in disguise (Falk Struckmann) in his long dark coat wielding his powerful staff. Siegfried, apparently unaware of the walking fashion disaster that he is, is brash, full of swagger, arrogant, even. And he’s frustrated about the state of things—the whole damned world is falling apart. Like Shakespeare’s ubiquitous gluttonous, crude, big-bellied Falstaff whom we all see in a neighbor, if not a relation, Siegfried, too, is an archetype that lives on through our stories, through the ages.
That he or his kind survive at all—that we as a species survive at all—is a miracle, given that this man who wields great power recklessly—at time rashly, at others, unwittingly—has no sense of place, no sense of history, no sense of his own mortality even (let alone the mortality of others) and, it seems, up until an alarmingly late stage in his development—he possess not even one wit of common sense about the broader world. But as for the world at hand, he’s a ‘can-do’ kind of man, forging a vital, shining sword from whatever resources are readily found; he is a roll-up your sleeves kind of man.
Siegfried Forging Nothung / Photo: Staatsoper Hamburg
Thus, Siegfried’s story is well suited for the city of Hamburg, a port city of the Hanseatic League, a city state in central Europe, built on muscle, might, with a brainy sensibility, a city that eyes the future and all the opportunities that can be drawn, persuaded, wrested from it. In all stories, be they of cities or the retelling of ancient myths, there are heroes, but it is the story itself that carries throughout time; the story merits new tellings, new interpretations. This opera had a cast of varying experience level from the seasoned and well-renowned Frantz in the lead and the celebrated Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde to the young Ha Young Lee from the Hamburg ensemble with role as the forest bird (Stimme eines Waldvogels) singing a tempting melody that Siegfried attempts to mimic and lure the dragon out of his den. “I believe the work is bigger than the performers,” says Young. No doubt Wagner, and the founders of Hamburg, would agree.