Now for a completely different posting from Bayreuth, Germany – the spiritual home of Richard Wagner and the location of an annual opera festival dedicated to the Master’s works.
I am here to watch the Ring, a tetralogy (four works, in other words) which many consider to be Wagner’s crowning contribution to the world of opera. The Ring comprises four evenings of music drama dealing with gods, mortals and residents of the underworld – linked together through a complex tale of greed, love, ambition, betrayal, corruption and (ultimately) redemption. It is a sweeping and universal story which can be interpreted in many different ways with relevance to us all.
I was very disoriented at the opening night of this production of the Ring two days ago. The tale of Rhine maidens, gods and dwarves has been translated into a 1950s gangster movie, set in a cheap motel on Route 66 somewhere in America. This is Bayreuth – Wagner’s legacy and the defining voice of how the world looks at Wagner. What is going on?
These days we examine Wagner’s works from a much broader perspective than when they were first written. But we still argue about how far the boundaries should be pushed before really innovative stagings of the Master’s works can be accused of going too far. Many people I have talked to here (and many opera critics) feel this staging of the Ring has indeed gone out of bounds.
But what relevance do these musings have to Singapore and The Flying Dutchman? Why am I going off on a tangent in this posting?
Our Singapore Flying Dutchman is a small contribution to the global push to interpret the Master’s works in different ways of relevance to today’s audiences – which are much more global than in Wagner’s time. Through our staging of The Flying Dutchman we are seeking to make the work accessible to local audiences, and at the same time to show global audiences what an Asian interpretation of this work can bring.
Asian audiences are largely new to Wagner. Maybe Wagner is regarded with suspicion – too long, too complex, too ‘cheem’? Maybe he is viewed as irrelevant to our societies? Maybe he is just not worth the effort? Through our production of The Flying Dutchman we are aiming to break down these barriers.
Firstly, it must be said that we are presenting the work in the highest quality way possible in Singapore. This is a show with high production values – from our choice of theatre directors, conductor, cast and chorus, set and costume designers we have carefully selected those whom we believe will deliver a show worthy of our aspirations. We have been daring in our choices, particularly given our mission to look at Wagner differently. But our view of Wagner nevertheless presents the opera uncut and in its original musical form as in any top opera house in Europe. And we have a first-rate, award-winning International cast to deliver this.
What will be different is our staging. Our creative team is now hard at work refining a staging incorporating Chinese opera aesthetics, Wayang Kulit shadows and Indochinese-inspired costume design. These elements are being incorporated in a meaningful way into the Dutchman story – to support and reinforce the core messages of the story and to resonate with the Asian public.
Bayreuth has taken the step of staging a very radical and different interpretation of the Ring, which has been the target of scathing criticism, although also some critical acclaim. We are pushing the boundaries with our Singapore Dutchman too, and certainly plan to be daring. However, we seek to work within the spirit of the original composition, reinterpreting it to build on the work rather than completely reinventing it.
Wagner’s works have universal appeal. The Flying Dutchman was the first of Wagner’s mature music dramas. While less evolved than the Ring, it nevertheless touches on many issues, concerns and truths which are still relevant to all of us 170 years after it was written.
Bayreuth’s leadership in innovative stagings reflects Wagner’s legacy. Wagner was a visionary and a change-maker. I believe he would have supported the level of experimentation and reinterpretation of his works which now prevails around the world.
We are doing our small part to contribute to this reinterpretation in Singapore and in the process we also aim to introduce new audiences to Wagner. We are starting with The Flying Dutchman – Wagner’s shortest and most accessible work. It will be a moving and dramatic show. Choose how you wish to view it – as entertainment with stunning visuals and a grand sound stage, or as something deeper to explore the psychological and societal messages which underpin all of Wagner’s works.
I am looking forward to seeing the production come together over the next three months – it will truly be a landmark for opera in Singapore.
(story by Ronald Ling, images by Badische Zeitung/dpa, Kunstkopie, Nordbayerischer Kurier and Pierre Marc through Panoramio)