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"Everyone will think you're insane"

An interview with Christian Thielemann on conducting Wagner and the upcoming Bayreuth Festspiele

Conductor Christian Thielmann was born in Berlin in 1959. Between 1997 and 2004 he served as musical director of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, and he is currently principal conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Starting July 26, he will conduct the four operas that make up Richard Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" at the Bayreuther Festspiele, dedicated to Wagner's operas.

An office in Bayreuth's Festspielhaus, measuring around 6 square meters and with a view onto Siegfried Wagner Allee. It is warm, and Christian Thielemann, wearing a polo shirt and jeans, has procured an electric fan.

Christian Thielemann. Photos courtesy of the Munich Philharmonic.

Die Zeit: Mr. Thielemann, you look quite contented.

Christian Thielemann: I feel remarkably well here. The beautiful landscape, the Lohengrin Health Spa, the Frankish food…

…which leaves only the magic. Is the "Grüne Hügel" (the grassy knoll where the Festspielhaus sits) a magical place for you?

Yes! (Gestures toward the window with an outstretched arm) Just look: over there, across the parking lot, there goes Hans Knappertsbusch. And in the cornfield beside it, perhaps, lies Wilhelm Furtwängler. They're all still walking around here, that's the magic, Hermann Abendroth, Toscanini, Heinz Tietjen… and we have to hold our own against them. Awful, isn't it? On the other hand, it's such a tremendous honour to conduct the "Ring" at Bayreuth. What can possibly follow that: the "Ring" at Bayreuth!

Thielemann doesn't say "rinng," but "rink."

You're 47 years old. Could it be that this honour has come too soon?

For the "Ring," it's always too soon, and always too late. Scheduling is everything, you need an alarm bell in your head that says: watch it, be very conscious of what you're doing, don't exhaust yourself to quickly. You have to pace yourself carefully. Bayreuth fools many people, it's anything but a cheerful summer camp. At the 5 o'clock rehearsal of the third act of "Siegfried," nothing can go wrong, everything's got to come off without a hitch.

You conducted the tetralogy many times as musical director at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. What's so different about Bayreuth?

Bayreuth is more dangerous. To put it bluntly: no other opera house in the world would stage premieres of the four "Ring" operas in a single week. I think a great deal in terms of economy: how can I get as much as possible out of rehearsals without exhausting myself before the time is up? Yesterday for example, the second act of "Götterdämmerung." Terrific singers, the orchestra was cooperative, as a rule I don't stop when I start getting carried away. But this passage doesn't need 85%. 45% would have sufficed to show the musicians how to make things really take off that evening. So I became annoyed with myself.

It's said of Knappertsbusch that he rehearsed only with the greatest reluctance. And according to a persistent cliché, Furtwängler was a musician of the moment. Are you a rehearsal conductor?

Yes, very much so! And of course that's all nonsense. The old guys really worked - and how! But they did have it easier. They could simply call up everything, it was all still there, the upswing of pathos as much as the transparent buzz and hum. In most cases it doesn't work like that any more, certain connotations have become lost. Today we're familiar only with the rudiments of the tradition, or else with ill-intentioned defamations of it. Who has the confidence nowadays to use pathos, who even knows what pathos is? When the orchestra really lets it all out it very quickly sounds just loud or empty.

That sounds almost as if you regret certain intellectual attainments of the Federal Republic over the past 40 years.

There's no question, much of that has been valuable. Only: socially, politically, and artistically, we're in a very different place today than in, say, 1968. You can see it very clearly with Early Music. There I side with Daniel Barenboim: the knowledge gained through this movement has been of great historical interest, and we've all learned a lot. But it can't become a dogma for my work! I believe we should allow ourselves to venture once again, finally, towards the poetic, the unknown, the unsayable. In music as in life. I don't want to have to say everything. Some things you simply understand.

How do you view the current discussion about Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker? Much is being said about the loss of tradition and identity (more here).

A good orchestra plays Debussy in a way that's more French than any French orchestra can, and Shostakovich in a way that's more Russian than the Russians. They have to be able to. The Berliner Philharmoniker, the Vienna Philharmonic or the Munich Philharmonic. Everything else is a question of character, of mentality. What's behind this utterly embarrassing debate is the question of how we deal with our own tradition generally. Take Dresden or the Berlin Staatskapelle: of course, they're able to produce that dark, German sound.

Does it even still exist?

Of course, what do you think? That's what I really like! Just as there still exists a Rossini sound. A German orchestra will always play the first triplet at the beginning of Brahms' Second Piano Concerto like this: tyaaa-tyaaa-tyaaa-tyaa-tyaa-tyaa-tyaaa. An Italian orchestra, on the other hand, will play it: tyaaa-tyaaa-tyaaa-yapp-ta-ta-taa. There you have it! The question for Berlin, for Germany is: do we still have it, can it be recovered? Nothing else. Since I don't own a tradition, I have to acquire one – as Goethe said. This is the kind of reflection that the 68ers disrupted. It's idiotic to call someone xenophobic just because they use the word "Negerkuss!" (More here). I'm delighted to see things getting shaken up again, just as I'm delighted with the soccer World Cup: finally we're becoming a little less inhibited.

Partying or patriotism?

Both. It's wonderful, let's be patriots! In sport, that's normal, completely nonaggressive. Even Polish Airlines now advertise destinations like Wroclaw and Gdansk with their old German names, Breslau and Danzig. The world is becoming more relaxed. Marvelous (Thielemann holds his up key ring, from which hangs an elk's antler.) Look at that: East Prussia. Nice isn't it? I love these kinds of hidden regions.

But aren't the World Cup and the "Ring" cycle complete opposite reactions to a doomed political reality?

I'll be meeting Ms. Merkel here at Bayreuth, and I'll say to her: I'd hoped for more blood, sweat and tears from you. Let's finally tell it like it is. Let's be honest. Of course things will go on, the only question is on what level.

In art as well? How important to you is dramatist Tankred Dorst's work as director?

I can't conduct something that disturbs me visually. Up to this point, very little has disturbed me.

Which editions of the scores do you use?

The complete edition of Richard Wagner's works has a decisive disadvantage: you have to turn way too many pages. I've ordered some old Schott scores, three from the 1930s, from before the war, and one from the postwar period. Those are real editions! Have you seen the new one? Greyish notes on yellowish hectographed paper with a chemical smell! Appalling! The annoying thing is that all of the Festspielhaus scores were stolen in 1945. I'd give a lot to be able to work with Heinz Tietjens' notations.

Why specifically Tietjens, the director of Berlin's Staatsoper and Winifred Wagner's secret - or perhaps not so secret - lover?

He was a man who didn't worry too much about his appearance. Poker-faced, austere, almost pallid. At the same time, he was an incomparable rogue. That fascinates me.

Is that how you'd like to be?

No, but I would like to be just a bit like that. So that I wouldn't get so upset. Karl Böhm, for example. He looked like an accountant, with the corners of his mouth turned down beneath his glasses, besides which he conducted rather dryly. But you have to be able to interpret things like that, he was incredibly subtle in what he did. Inwardly, everything was there, otherwise Strauss wouldn't have liked him so much. It didn't have much to do with baton technique. I often ask myself just what this or that celebrated conductor actually did during the slow movement of Beethoven's 6th. How did they manage to get the orchestra to take the initiative? That's what the old ones could do so marvellously.

And you have to be a rogue to do that?

Prepared to take risks, absolutely. I roll the dice without knowing what will come up. But this also presumes a common sensibility concerning values, that's what I meant earlier about tradition. The Berliner Philharmoniker and Herbert von Karajan are a good example of this. In my case, it happens every so often with Vienna Philharmonic: it can be truly magical. Sometimes all you need is a look, or to move your little finger, and they understand without even looking up. That makes a very powerful argument against guest conducting, against spending your time sitting in airplanes and hotel rooms – which is why Bayreuth is so wonderful. As everyone knows, Wolfgang Wagner is not terribly pleased when people leave the Grüne Hügel during the festival.

Thielemann leaps up to turn down the fan. His hair has become slightly dishevelled.

What have been your greatest moments of personal fulfilment with the "Ring"?

Even if it sounds like a platitude: I look forward during all four operas to the funeral march in "Götterdämmerung"! "Nibelheim" is also lovely, and the finale of "Rheingold." The athleticism at the beginning of "Siegfried" is horrifically difficult to beat. Or in "The Valkyrie," Wotan and Brunnhilde, when father repudiates daughter, those are great moments: the blackest melancholy in the most magnificent E major!

How have conditions at Bayreuth altered your view of the work as a whole?

Colossally! It's like cinema, where rehearsing can become very intense. When you work on "Siegfried" in the morning, and perhaps the first half of "Rheingold" in the afternoon, you really notice where Wagner was consistent in his elaboration of motifs, and where he wasn't. The system, as it happens, is not as watertight as you might expect. And besides, each piece has a different sound. For me, it's a disorienting experience, the simultaneity of the divergent. "Götterdämmerung" has to be brutal, not greasily brutal and ugly, but beautifully brutal. And fluid. The piece degreases itself on its own, you don't have to do a thing. "Rheingold", on the other hand is playful, "Meistersingeresque", parlando. I have the feeling at the moment that these ambivalences are running through me as if through a filter.

During the first E flat major chord of the "Prelude" of "Rheingold," what do you already know about Brunnhilde's closing solo in "Götterdämmerung"?

Everything. Don't forget that the tension must be maintained throughout 16 hours of music! I find it always takes too long for the lights in the hall to go out. The orchestra has tuned up, you sit around and get nervous. With "The Meistersingers," I already begin conceptualising the conclusion before we even get started. Or "Tristan." In order to create the necessary tranquillity for the gruelling "Prelude," I ask myself: how does the "Liebestod" go? In this sense, Wolfgang Wagner is right. The "Rheingold" is a grand overture. That means: no endgame. The beginning is open. Would we be astonished if the "Götterdämmerung," the "Twilight of the Gods," never took place at all, if things just worked out? I think not.

Where in the "Ring" do we encounter the point of no return?

With Wotan in the "Valkyrie." There, it becomes clear that things can't work out with this personnel. Despite that, Siegfried is summoned, the hero. Actually, old Wagner could have spared himself that. It's the same with our debt-ridden state budget: we're bankrupt, but we still go on. When you hear the first measures of the scene with the Norns in "Siegfried", you realize it would take a miracle to bring things to a positive conclusion. Although I don't consider Wagner to be defeatist. For me, he was always full of hope. The mushroom cloud explodes, it rains ashes, but a few minutes later, the ants are already scrambling around. Mahler allowed intimations of the close of "Götterdämmerung" to enter, for instance in "Lied von der Erde" (Song of the Earth) and in the "9th Symphony." After that, nothing. Wagner finishes with a reconciliatory D flat major. That delights me.

And also because he - in contrast to Mahler - believed in art as a better world?

Life is much too serious to be nihilistic. That is why I'm more at home with Richard Strauss than with Mahler. As I've said, I like these brilliantly playful figures who never get lost in the House of Agamemnon, but instead find their way back, as far as I'm concerned, to the lederhosen idyll of Garmisch-Partenkirchen (a town in the Bavarian Alps). Take Joseph Fisher….

… Joseph "Joschka" Fisher (interview here) who just purchased a villa in Berlin...

From Molotov cocktail thrower in Frankfurt to German Foreign Minister, and now Berlin's Grunewald district. All I can say is: hats off! Welcome! It was exactly the same with Wagner.

Not only does one learn from life for the sake of music, but also from music for the sake of life. What has Wagner taught you?

He has energized and exhausted me. I am grateful to him for states of rapture, and for the insight I desperately need to escape from this addictive trap. Wagner can become toxic. You really have to give yourself up the music. But what happens afterwards? That's why I've decided to decline all "Tristans" for the time being. I can't endure the piece any more, it just wears me out. I have to avoid things that bore right into me. That's why I'm having so much fun with the "Ring:" It bores in, but not only that.

And what is the "drill" aiming to achieve?

I don't know. But the worst thing is, the more deeply it bores, the thicker the board becomes. And in the end, you think it's a question of life and death. That can't be the case for a conductor. I can't constantly be throwing myself out the window, as fascinating as that might be. You have to be able to live with art, otherwise it's not art. That's why it's never appealed to me to transgress genuine limits through drugs or other excesses. I don't need to know everything.

During work on "Siegfried's Death," the predecessor of the "Ring," Richard Wagner stipulated that after three performances, the theatre should be demolished and the score burned.

At this point, I can only quote his grandson Wolfgang: if you speak the truth, nothing but the absolute, naked truth, everyone will think you're insane. The "Ring" is excessive. It's like life itself. And we have to see it through.


The interview originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on June 29, 2006.

Christine Lemke-Matwey is a journalist for Die Zeit and Der Tagesspiegel.

Translation: Ian Pepper.

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