Theatre Scene and Trends

Christoph Schlingensief and Richard Wagner – The Will to the Total Work of Art

When Helmut Kohl had become obsolete as a bogeyman and Gerhard Schröder burst forth as too boring to arouse real excitement, a figure stepped onto centre stage in the work of Christoph Schlingensief to whom he addressed himself primarily not with aggression but with sympathy: Richard Wagner.

Richard Wagner
At first everyone believed that the composer, who had been haunting Schlingensief’s films and plays for many years, was only another anti-figure like Adolf Hitler or Guido Westerwelle -- personae that served Schlingensief as illustrations for his campaign against cant and mendaciousness. The acoustic irradiation of a colony of seals with music from Siegfried in 2000 in Namibia à la the famous scene from Apocalypse Now was just such an action in which Wagner was cited as the soundtrack for evil. Schlingensief’s big Wagner performances at the site of the German massacre of the Herero in Namibia (African Twin Towers, 2005) and at the graveyard for soldiers of the Second World War in Neuhardenberg (Odins Parsipark, 2005) also appear to use Wagner as elevator music to hell. But in fact Schlingensief’s interest in Wagner has decrypted itself as love – and that not only in his production of 2004 Parzival in Bayreuth.

The will to the total work of art

'The African Twintowers'
‘We are brothers in the flesh. He was exactly as driven as I am’, Schlingensief once said of his relation to the composer whom he ‘very much reveres’. In another place he has waxed enthusiastic about Wagner’s ‘authentic chaos’, for ‘his life was also a jumble’ – as much of a jumble as Schlingensief’s own life among the big theatres, foreign countries, pressing themes and his actual home in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. And it is just this associative power, this rather megalomaniac will to the total work of art, which does not always obey rational logic but rather an absolute personal sensibility, that unites Wagner and Schlingensief as artists: ‘Wagner interests me as a man possessed!’.

'Flying Dutchman'
Schlingensief’s second production of a Wagner opera even drove these obsessive demands on himself, which are the motor of his creativity, into climatic excess. In the Brazilian city of Manaus, in the fiery oven of the Amazon region, stands the famous opera house to which Werner Herzog’s film starring Klaus Kinski, Fitzcarraldo, already rendered homage. Here Schlingensief staged the Flying Dutchman. The premier on April 22 was preceded two days before by an open-air procession, likewise staged by Schlingensief, celebrating the opening of the festival, which led from the opera house, through the city, to the harbour. During his famous transformation of the Hamburg Schauspielhaus into a `district mission` (‘Stadtteilmission’) in 1997, he already demanded the façade of the theatre be pulled down so as to open up art to life. Ten years older and somewhat more composed in his treatment of total solutions, Schlingensief now contents himself with hauling the grand art of opera out of its isolation in the temple of art and popularising it by using the local means of the tropical Carnival.

Parzival 2004 in Bayreuth

Most observers, ranging from Angela Merkel to the German features pages, experienced Schlingensief’s opera debut at Bayreuth with Parzival as a storm tide of images, in which many props and even more films rotated on the revolving stage. But the audience noticed that something new had emerged in Schlingensief’s work. If hitherto Schlingensief had used persons and themes only in order to rock their alleged certainty through irony, cynicism, provocation and exaggeration, he now took Wagner and his work quite seriously. He attempted, in his volatile and very moralistic way, to interpret the opera as an existential experience.

Schlingensief – Wagner – Beuys

'Odins Parsipark'
Yet notwithstanding all the enthusiasm and veneration for Wagner, Schlingensief’s relation to the composer remains ambivalent. The drastic use of music in Schlingensief’s many indoor and outdoor performances alludes of course to the atmospheric proximity of the Wagner family and of Wagner’s art to fascist self-dramatisation. Schlingensief deploys the monumental effects with great accuracy. But where he attempts a serious rapprochement with the artistic substance of Wagner’s compositions, he actually introduces, as a means of contrast, the symbols and methods of another great artist whom he reveres: Joseph Beuys. In his Parzival, for example, Schlingensief presents the Grail as a decomposing hare, a direct allusion to Beuy’s symbolic animal for the Incarnation. And Schlingensief also needs the concept of artistic freedom propagated by the man with the felt hat to counterbalance the firmly established grandiose frame of Wagner’s mythic works. Between these two great political mystics, Christoph Schlingensief, a ‘metaphysically homeless metaphysician’, has successfully sought his own world. Now also in Manaus.

Christoph Schlingensief’s staging of the Flying Dutchman is a co-production of the Goethe-Institut and the Ministry of Culture of the Federal State of the Amazon. It is sponsored by the German Federal Cultural Foundation (Kulturstiftung des Bundes) and was premiered on April 22 at the legendary Teatro Amazonas as part of the ‘XI. Festival Amazonas de Ópera’. There was a second performance on April 25. The Festival was opened on April 20 with an open-air procession under the direction of Christoph Schlingensief.

Slideshow Christoph Schlingensief in Manaus
Till Briegleb
is a freelance theatre and art critic, and member of the selection jury of the Mülheimer Theatre Festival stücke

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
March 2007

Related links


News from Germany’s culture and society

Contemporary German Theatre in Lithuania

Curtain up! A look at Lithuanian theatres that are staging contemporary German plays

Amazonas - Musik theatre in three parts

In three parts, the music theatre play tells of the climate, political and cultural dramas that occur every day in the Amazon region.

After the Fall – Europe after 1989

A European theatre project by the Goethe-Institut on the impact of the fall of the Berlin wall