Richard Wagner, Neo Rauch and the Distortions of Art’s Presuppositions

Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin opera is a classic from 1850. The music has remained unchanged, but the direction and staging have changed over the decades. The versions performed at the Wagner shrine, i.e. the Bayreuth Festspiele, this year are directed and staged from 2018. Neo Rauch is responsible for the staging, together with his artist wife Rosa Loy.

I had the pleasure and privilege to experience Lohengrin this year on the spot. I imagined that I knew the piece well enough, so I didn’t rely too much on finding out all the backgrounds of this opera version in advance. However, I couldn’t avoid the unpleasant news and media publicity that I encountered recently in my home country Finland right after the Wagner festival started: the supremely talented Wagner conductor Christian Thielemann was the target of accusations of sexism and harassment. Thielemann, known as a difficult practitioner and supervisor, had behaved according to his notorious habits, and ended up at the center of various claims and accusations. Without going deeper into them, it must be stated that under Thielemann’s direction, the music played on the second Sunday of August, was purely wonderful and accurate, just as good as expected.

The audience agreed, cheering and stomping their feet like a mob of rabid football fans. They weren’t wrong. In the same way, I was pounding the weathered wooden floors of Bayreuth’s historic hall just like everyone else. Camilla Nylund’s Elsa was full-blooded Wagnerian soprano art, but at the same time sensitive and precisely articulated. Klaus Florian Vogt as Lohengrin was a direct hit. The further the piano, the bigger he grew.

Black ties, jewelry, patent leather shoes, sublime atmosphere, beer, sausage… there is magic in the spirit of Bayreuth.

Richard Wagner Festspielhaus, or Bayreuther Festspielhaus, was built between 1872 and 1875 based on Wagner’s plans. The acoustics is considered on of the best.

The building itself, the Festspielhaus, at least from the inside, was anything but fancy. It is harnessed only and ONLY to serve Wagner’s art and ideals. The seats are hard and cramped.

The Festspiel’s steeply rising auditorium resembles an ancient amphitheater. The acoustics of the hall is improved by the wooden structures. The stony effect comes from the plaster with which the wooden structures are coated. The auditorium can accomodate almost 2,000 listeners.

But art wouldn’t be art if it weren’t subject to presuppositions, both internal and external. Conscious or unconscious.

Presuppositions are naturally first caused by Wagner itself in all his conceptuality: anti-Semitism, strangeness, artificial mythicism and ideas that certain wretched characters of history have seriously relied on when realizing their own sick fantasies.  

Music itself is fundamentally an abstraction, the essence of which as a narrative art form has been debated for a long time. The most well-known cultural controversies are probably the commitments of Brahms and Wagner and specially their supporters from the 19th century. Of these, the former represented as absolutists, and the latter referentialists, drama and a perspective based on overall artistic thinking. When in Wagner’s context, the focus is strongly on references, where the important elements along with the music are the texts, the direction and the visual environment in which the whole takes place. 

Bayreuth’s newest Lohengrin was premiered on July 25, 2018, with soloists Piotr Beczała and Anja Harteros, and Christian Thielemann as conductor. The direction and staging were the same as 2022.

Unknown Set Designer, Known Painter

So, I hadn’t bothered to find out about the set designer and his or her possible artistic aspirations beforehand. I was prone to my own preconceived notions of how the stage should look or not look.

I immediately found myself thinking: where are the videos, where is the Digital, where are the modern expressions? And I find myself staring at slightly shabby sets and hand-painted mountain-cloud landscapes that almost seem to parody Wagnerian over-romantic pathos. To me the stage trees looked kind of raffishly painted, and their outlines nonchalantly cut. Around the leaves and branches, the white edges of the large-scale die are visible. What’s da thing? At my lowest, I find myself thinking that these are almost unfinished. Large prints taken from clumsy paintings, which are moved mechanically like in the 18th century. Again, what’s da thing? There must be something here I don’t understand.

Eyes get used to it. The wind bending stalks and straws and the threatening clouds are starting to look better – especially when they are not moving or mechanically moved. I try not to think about the alternative, typical video implementations in contemporary theater, and I try to find things in the painted sets with a more open mind. In the first act, the mind does not open.

From the program leaflet, I notice the information of the set designers: Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy. Formerly unknown names to me, but that’s my own fault. They are certainly people that should be recognized. They are not accidentally hired in Bayreuth.

It later turns out that Neo Rauch (b. Leipzig 1960) is a visual artist born in East Germany and raised in Leipzig, who, according to his own words, has had little exposure to Western Avantgardeism. It is said to show in his expression. Rauch’s paintings, he is essentially a painter, look eerie, full of oppression and destruction and stone-faced people, but not completely evil in his opinion. Rather life-like, as living creatures. In terms of expression, they lie somewhere between surrealism and socialist realism. By looking at the independent paintings, Rauch’s imagery begins to feel logical, even comforting. Now even the pictures of the sets are getting brighter. Aha, point taken, capiche.

Marina, 2014, oil on canvas
Der Übergang, 2018, oil on canvas
Der Former, 2016, oil on canvas

Neo Rauch’s working partner has been his wife Rosa Loy (b. Zwickau 1958), whose visual language is consistent, but Rauch’s touch feels stronger on the sets. In the article image you see Loy’s Am Zaum, 2011, casein on canvas.

However, the bigger question remains: does Visual Art work as a stage?

Der Gleiter (“The Glider”, the same element was seen in the set – a reference to the swan that originally pulled Lohengrin), 2018, oil on canvas

Boo or Bravo?

Bayreuth’s infamous tradition is to boo at premieres, at least the directors and set designers. My guess is that the staging and direction can (must) never reach Wagner’s greatness, and the most imaginative forms of boos, starting with the duck whistle, which emphasize the role of music in Wagner’s overall works of art, have become a built-in license.

Directing and Stages therefore basically remain in the supporting part. That can happen in opera. But they can still tell a good sub-story, even destroy or change the basic story, if you’re really cunning. Whether the public realizes it, it’s always a place of risk, but if the artistic freedom is given, it’s always worth trying. At its easiest, the Wagner stage designer succeeds if the setting is as grand as the music itself. But it is tentatively difficult to express one’s own artistic idea in the context of Wagner. It may be possible to understand by the audience if you know your Wagner carefully enough and have possibly familiarized yourself with the set designer’s, or rather, the Artist’s aspirations in advance.

Unfortunately, Rauch and Loy’s effort opened to me only afterwards. There was no way I could see the East and West Germany references, I didn’t immediately understand the leveling role of blue and gray, although underlined – although I understood the apparent counterforce of orange – or the dimensions of insect wings or the electrification of the 1930s. And little did I know the Stages were actually hand-painted: on icehockey rink-sized canvases. A set that was worked on for over six years!

In the original libretto of Lohengrin, Elsa was supposed to die at the end. But in this version, Elsa is saved by a green man (Ampelmann reference) from the traffic lights of East Berlin,  (“my Husband!” whoops Elsa) – a tragicomic character.

The last scene was probably the most startling part of the tame direction. Yuval Sharon, who speaks perfect German btw, is the first American director in Bayreuth. The task fell to him a little ungratefully. Sharon had to jump into the directing role in the middle of everything after the previous director dropped out for political reasons. Sharon maybe thought it would be wiser to give the main roles to the music and the set. Honorable decision in a way. In general, Yuval Sharon’s name in the heavy context of Bayreuth’s history brought a breath of hope.  

P.S. Around the Festspiel and on the streets of Bayreuth, you can’t help but see Wagner everywhere. Some serious, some playful. Whether the residents wanted it or not, Wagner defines Bayreuth. In 2013, a sculpture series was ordered from the artist Ottmar Hörl in honor of the composer’s 200th anniversary..