Bayreuth Christian Thielemann Interview

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lennygoran
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Bayreuth Christian Thielemann Interview

Post by lennygoran » Wed Aug 01, 2018 7:38 pm

Trade Secrets From the Wagner Festival Whisperer


By Joshua Barone

Aug. 1, 2018

BAYREUTH, Germany — The Bayreuth Festival Theater famously leaves audiences sweltering. When I arrived here last week, my Airbnb host warned, “If it’s hot outside, it will be even hotter inside.”

Imagine, then, what it’s like to be in the orchestra pit.

Some of Wagner’s operas — his 10 major works are the only ones presented by the 142-year-old Bayreuth Festival — run well beyond four hours. But the pit is cradled under the stage, virtually hidden from view. So conductors can get away with a lax dress code.

“I wear jeans and a T-shirt, maybe a polo, and I change every act,” Christian Thielemann, the festival’s 59-year-old music director, said in a phone interview before a performance of “Lohengrin” this week. For curtain calls, he quickly changes into what he calls his “Mao suit,” sweats through that, then escapes offstage for a cognac or whiskey and a shower.

“It’s good that you don’t see everything that happens here,” he said with a laugh. “It’s funny, very human.”

Mr. Thielemann is something of a rarity, a conductor who has thrived — so much so that his title, music director, is more or less unprecedented — at a festival that is known to challenge even the most established maestros. The design of that sunken pit is the problem: Its idiosyncratic design makes for awkward delays as sound travels to and from the stage, and to the audience in the theater. Some guests never return after one season.

But when the pieces of this aural puzzle fit together, the results are magical. Sound emerges from the pit perfectly balanced with the chorus and soloists, as if the performance were being edited in a recording studio and broadcast in real time. Mr. Thielemann’s “Lohengrin” Prelude enveloped the house with a mysterious, sublime shimmer.

“When I need my Bayreuth ears, I have to cut my normal ears off, and then someone puts the new ears on,” said Mr. Thielemann, who tends to speak poetically. “At the end of the summer, the new ears are cut off, and then I have my old ears back.”

For all his artistry, Mr. Thielemann approaches his work with a craftsman’s care. Indeed, he’s even a bit old-fashioned and regularly praises the traditional role of the Kapellmeister in German churches and theaters. His beliefs have also earned him a reputation as a conservative, even far-right, sympathizer.


He didn’t go out of his way to dispute that perception in the interview this week. When asked about theater and opera companies — state-funded institutions in Germany — engaging in politics, he spoke vaguely and suggested that taking a liberal stance was fine as long as organizations also made room for “other opinions.” When pushed on the matter, he apologized and said, “I’m sorry, I have to leave for the ‘Lohengrin’ now.”


Fair enough: It was after 3:30 p.m., and the curtain at Bayreuth is a strict 4 o’clock.

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How do you change your conducting for Bayreuth?

The sound is so different that you have to do certain things like a mechanic: You close a window here and you open another there, or you need some more hot water or cold water. It’s kind of like an electrician or plumber, how you try to get the right mixture of sound. It’s very much a Kapellmeister task. I know that in the English-speaking world, the word Kapellmeister has not a good sound: boring, uninspired conducting. But when you have these skills, the conducting becomes second nature, and then you can make your art.

Where do you see yourself in the tradition of Bayreuth conductors?

I have my own point of view, but yes, I think the traditional Kapellmeister tradition has been good for Bayreuth. If you see all the great conductors, they were Kapellmeisters: Karajan, Knappertsbusch and Furtwängler. They were successful here, but you will see they had this typical Kapellmeister career.

What is your philosophy for hiring singers?

I like singers who do not bark too much. It’s strange, but the singers who give too much voice are not good for Bayreuth. And everyone, even famous singers, have to make an audition. It’s not really an audition for the opera, but for the house. The house lives; I try to explain to them that the house is living as an animal. The house, like a dog, wants to sniff a little bit and see if you are nice to him. Not everyone wants to do it.

Right-wing politicians have criticized theaters for taking stances on political issues and the refugee crisis. Where do you think the Bayreuth Festival does or should fit into this?

Don’t forget Bayreuth is a provincial city. It is famous because the sister of Frederick the Great and Wagner, but it is very calm and in a good way provincial. I find the mentality is very laid back. You can see how because so many people are overweight: They love eating and drinking wonderful beers. It’s very different from Berlin and the bigger cities, so the political earthquakes are far away.

But there were protesters and counterprotesters at the opening night of “Lohengrin” as politicians walked the red carpet.

They are carried out here just to appear on television. Don’t misunderstand that. I don’t know that they were really from Bayreuth. Protesters and politicians come, and you can write something for the newspaper, but one day after, everything is gone. It is a storm in a glass of water.

Regardless, what should a theater’s role be in engaging with politics?

My opinion is that I’m a little bit overfed with politics in a theater. I think you should say something, but you also allow for other opinions. You have to have respect for even people you don’t respect.

So you think liberal theaters should make room for conservative opinions?

Well, you are doing something wrong if your view harms another person. Certain opinions are for a good reason forbidden. That’s when you’re going to far.

Like what?

You know, if you say racist opinions or whatever. There are certain things that are forbidden. They are banned. That’s very good. But you can still express things which are a bit uncomfortable. You cannot say every opinion; there is a limit, and you have to stop at a certain point. But before we come to that stop, there is so much space left, you see?




https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/01/arts ... perer.html

maestrob
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Re: Bayreuth Christian Thielemann Interview

Post by maestrob » Thu Aug 02, 2018 10:38 am

So, after all these years, why don't they install air-conditioning?

Just asking! :mrgreen:

John F
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Re: Bayreuth Christian Thielemann Interview

Post by John F » Thu Aug 02, 2018 11:58 am

Or comfortable seats? I suppose they don't want to change a thing for fear of altering the special acoustics.

Thielemann only describes some of the difficulties of conducting in the "mystic abyss." Others have said that it's impossible for the conductor to hear the singers' voices when the orchestra is playing at all loudly, they can only see the lips moving.

Georg Solti conducted the Ring one summer at Bayreuth, then quit, though usually the same conductor stays with a production for several summers. One reason given was the brutal heat, but he had also requested that part of the Schalldeckel be removed so the orchestra would sound more brilliant in the auditorium, and of course this wasn't going to happen.
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Rach3
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Re: Bayreuth Christian Thielemann Interview

Post by Rach3 » Sat Aug 04, 2018 2:33 pm


John F
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Re: Bayreuth Christian Thielemann Interview

Post by John F » Sat Aug 04, 2018 5:57 pm

This is really strange. Bayreuth is not presenting the Ring cycle this summer, and for the first time ever, "Die Walküre" is receiving three performances as a separate opera. This is not uncommon in normal opera houses; Lorin Maazel conducted "Die Walküre" at the Met ten years ago (and did it very well). But for Bayreuth to indulge a celebrity in this way is unheard of, or it was until July 31. It can't have been merely to sell more tickets, as the demand always exceeds the supply. If that's no longer the case, it's a much more significant story than Domingo's reception.

Booing from the audience is not uncommon at Bayreuth. Ordinarily singers are spared, but from time to time they let a conductor have it, and it's become almost routine with each new production summer after summer. Of course the orchestra knows the opera well, much better than Domingo who had never conducted it or any other Wagner opera before, while they've played the Ring several times a year since 2013. Domingo's tempos can't have been slower than under Knappertsbusch in the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe the audience thought Domingo shouldn't have been there at all; that's what I think.

P.S. In the German newspaper Merkur I've found more. For one thing, a few weeks earlier Domingo did conduct a concert performance of "Die Walküre" at the Mariinsky Theater, whose orchestra has played the Ring often under Valery Gergiev. The last 15 minutes are on YouTube, and it's pretty awful:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3XJ45D61Rxk

Here's the article, which includes a damning review of the Bayreuth performance. Sorry, it's too much work to translate into English.

https://www.merkur.de/kultur/strauchele ... 85978.html
John Francis

maestrob
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Re: Bayreuth Christian Thielemann Interview

Post by maestrob » Sun Aug 05, 2018 10:28 am

Too bad for Domingo. I've seen him conduct on TV at the MET (Romeo & Juliette, Boheme), and he's clumsy, but he got the job done well enough. Leading Wagner is somewhat at a different level of difficulty, especially at Bayreuth where the orchestra knows how every bar should go, and so does the audience. Thus the booing. OTOH, I would take the Maryinsky Orchestra with a grain of salt: they've only played the music under Gergiev, who, as you know, is not my favorite conductor, so they'd really need managing under Domingo, and he failed them. I would also note that the audience is pretty sparse, lots of empty seats.

John F
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Re: Bayreuth Christian Thielemann Interview

Post by John F » Sun Aug 05, 2018 1:43 pm

Whatever your opinion of Gergiev's conducting, the Mariinsky orchestra also knows every note of "Die Walküre," having rehearsed and performed it often in Russia and abroad, so Domingo could as easily get through it as a passenger as he could at Bayreuth - probably more easily, considering the special handicaps that the Festspielhaus pit imposes on the conductor. In the video clip, when the orchestra doesn't come apart as it does near the beginning, they sound as fine as they always do whoever is conducting, no particular thanks to Domingo for that.
John Francis

maestrob
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Re: Bayreuth Christian Thielemann Interview

Post by maestrob » Mon Aug 06, 2018 12:20 pm

John F wrote:
Sun Aug 05, 2018 1:43 pm
Whatever your opinion of Gergiev's conducting, the Mariinsky orchestra also knows every note of "Die Walküre," having rehearsed and performed it often in Russia and abroad, so Domingo could as easily get through it as a passenger as he could at Bayreuth - probably more easily, considering the special handicaps that the Festspielhaus pit imposes on the conductor. In the video clip, when the orchestra doesn't come apart as it does near the beginning, they sound as fine as they always do whoever is conducting, no particular thanks to Domingo for that.
Actually, they don't sound fine, IMHO. I can feel them struggling to stay together throughout the excerpt you posted. Domingo clearly lacks a sense of the glue that holds the music together. No amount of rehearsal can compensate for that. Even the best orchestra can be sabotaged by a clumsy conductor who has no feel for the music. We've all been to concerts like that, and this is one of them.

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