Sunday, February 18, 2007

My First Parsifal

My first Parsifal
(Schlingensief Parsifal of 2006 in Bayyreuth)
Elizabeth Gordon-Werner (October 2006)
The year 2006 held several firsts for me. I visited Bayreuth for the first time and I saw Parsifal for the first time. I saw Schingensief’s production of Parsifal.
I had studied the libretto before going to Bayreuth and I could imagine what a conventional Parsifal might look like. I also knew that Schlingensief’s Parsifal was not a conventional production as I had heard talks by members of the NSW Wagner Society who had seen it the previous year. I had also read several reviews. The reviews had all been bad or neutral, none of them were positive. They had told of clutter and chaos, so as I entered the hall I was prepared for a chaos that might detract from the music.
Instead I saw a Parsifal that I found profoundly moving, an experience for which I was quite unprepared given the reviews I had read.
I was so overwhelmed by Act 1 that I wept and in the first interval I walked off by myself to recover. Before my walk I bought an ice-cream to help the energy recovery process. I nearly left the ice-cream queue to escape the loud tirade of abuse the gentleman behind me was heaping on Schlingensief and his production. The man standing in front of me also overheard this loud commentary and commented to his wife “My feelings exactly!” Other overheard conversations around the Festspielhaus seemed to confirm that this was a production that everyone had agreed to hate.
Well, not quite everyone. As I wandered around the beautiful gardens eating ice-cream and waiting for my emotions to stabilise I spied a group of young people on a blanket having a picnic.
I paused as I passed them and inquired, “Are you liking the production?”
Two young female faces looked up at me with shining eyes and nodded slowly, smiling, unsure of my reaction.
“Oh I am so pleased someone else liked it,” I said, “ as I have been so very moved by this production.”
So what did I see and why did I react so strongly?
It is true that, as I had read, there was a lot happening on stage all the time. It is also true that there were a great many stage props and that most of them look like temporary building materials propped up any old way. Videos projected onto the props and several screens showed amoeba, blood rushing through arteries, pulsing fish and insects laying eggs. There were rabbits both onstage and in the videos. There was so much happening all the time at so many levels that it would be as difficult to capture this production on film as it is to describe it with words.
The knights were black, very black and in some sort of African like costume, as was Klingsor. (Do they belong together somehow?). Members of the choir were dressed in every religious costume and a few political or military ones as well and there was a very fat dark skinned nearly naked lady who took center stage. Everyone seemed to be worshiping this fat, dark-skinned, nearly naked lady or her image. Several times during orchestral parts a curtain came down and the video imagery continued on the curtain, often depicting some sort of sacrifice analogy or nature phenomenon.
Kundry appeared in several costumes, each of them very different, but we always knew it was Kundry. Sometimes there were two of her. There was one Parsifal but also a look-alike who looked and acted exactly as you would expect a storybook Jesus Christ to act. He helped people all the time and was generally very ‘good’.
So why was I so moved by this chaotic multi-layered production with its unusual staging?
In order to explain my reaction I think I must write a little about myself. I believe that people’s reactions to music, especially Wagner’s operas, can only be explained by their personal histories. Our reactions are informed by what went before just as Parsifal’s understanding is informed by his own personal history.
Schlingensief’s Parsifal seemed to take a lot of what I have been thinking about religion and life over these past 30 years and present it on stage. As the story and the controlled chaos unfolded I had the feeling that someone else had thought the thoughts that I had thought, someone had felt my feelings and, if I were to meet him, would understand without explanation. A rare gift.
I was brought up in a Christian family, though not a particularly observant one, and attended a high school run by the Anglican Church. I took the religious lessons seriously and at 18 I decided that if what I was being taught in religion classes was true, I should become a missionary or priest. We were taught we were all included, we were all important. At the same time I was a girl and therefore automatically excluded from the church hierarchy. In response to this duplicitous message I decided it was all a lot of tosh and left the church behind me with school. I became a card-carrying atheist, turned off by the discrepancy between what the church taught and how it acted. The closest thing I came to a religious experience over the next 30 years was doing courses to learn the Vipassana meditation technique. The course is not religious in itself, but it does include some explanation of Buddhist precepts. I discovered that Christian and Buddhist precepts are very similar and that despite having become an atheist I had lived by such precepts. They seemed like common sense rules for a good life to me.
I had not re-read the Parsifal libretto again before the performance as I had intended, but I speak German so I expected to understand everything immediately. However, when the curtain rose and Gunemanz sang to some very black people in weird costumes it took me a while to work out that these black African caricatures were actually the knights, keepers of the grail. Discovering that these people were knights, even if they did not fit the role model, gave me an immediate sense of identification. In the same moment I also realised that many of the audience would feel the direct opposite. They would feel that they had nothing in common with these pitch-black people with their odd costumes and weird symbols, would feel that their religion had been taken from them. Their Knights should be white, male, strong and with good teeth. These people were black, of both genders, and weird. I knew how most other people would feel as although the church talks a lot about inclusiveness, they would not imagine knights of the grail as black people in plastic skirts.
If we came back to earth in 3000 years,” I thought to myself, “this is what we might see.”
Parsifal is bemused by the grail, the weird symbols, the fat female figure everyone worships and the priests in many costumes and when Gurnemanz asks him if he understands what he has seen, he shrinks back and shakes his head. We can understand his reaction because we don’t understand what is going on either. All these odd men with their symbols, singing aggressively to Amfortas that he should do his duty. Instead of feeling cross with Parsifal for not understanding what he has seen, we find we identify with his confusion.
Amfortas, dressed as a hospital patient is despairing. We are too. We are overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all. I was reminded of how I felt when I went back to the church for a wedding 10 years after I left the church. I felt the same sense of strangeness and dismay that civilised people could worship icons and accept supernatural stories. In Parsifal the audience was obviously feeling as I had felt. I could feel the cringe from every corner.
Then there is Kundry. We are comfortable with Kundry as a fallen woman. We understand the role model and we can sympathise with her when we are feeling nice. However, we are not comfortable with the male ‘type’ that makes Kundry into a fallen woman. In this production every male apart from Gunemanz either wants or abuses Kundry. The Knights think that she hates them and they would have killed her if Gunemanz had not protected her. Parsifal and Amfortas both want her; Klingsor rapes her on stage. Kundry or her double in their black and white costumes are always on the defensive. She is abused; she is despairing; she would like to die but cannot. When Klingsor wipes blood on her slip at the place where her legs part we understand her plight and her despair. I doubt there is a man or woman in the audience who didn’t recognise our society in her story. There is a collective shudder when Kundry is shown with her bloody petticoat. We don’t want to think about how a fallen woman actually feels but here we have no choice. Abused, misused, despairing. She is a girl, unacceptable as a priest, abused by those who are priests. Remembering newspaper headlines of recent years, who wouldn’t shudder?
All though the Act 1 videos show pictures of nature. I am a biologist and these images made me feel as if I was back in the laboratory looking through a microscope with one eye while observing something else with the other, a familiar feeling for a biologist. A video maker from Bern told me later that he felt equally at home with the video imagery. It was second nature to him to have lots of movement and chaos and quick changes.
The video rabbits and amoeba had the effect of continually reminding one that nature is a cycle, that there is no life without death. Exactly the Christian message actually but not in a form that most would recognise.
(“What were those rabbits anyway?” one woman in the ice-cream queue asked.)
Schlingensief anticipates this lack of understanding and presents the rabbit again and again and finally in an inescapable way. We see a video of a dead rabbit, in quick time, as the blowflies visit, then the carcass is eaten by maggots. I grew up on a farm so these pictures were a life/death reality for me, but I still found it hard to watch. I closed my eyes. I had got the message.
When the man in the ice-cream queue spluttered angrily that ‘this production could have been put on 5 or 10 years ago, but not now’, I realised that many people would be confronted by the production in ways they could not verbalise and would have to find a way to discount what they had seen. ‘I am above this old fashioned production,’ this man was saying.
The second act depicted detention centers with Kundry as boat-person cum terrorist. We could still see her good but wounded heart though. Although this act fitted well with the previous one, I was not so affected. I am ashamed of our detention policy but that is not new.
In the third act Parsifal, Amfortas and Klingsor wrangle over Kundry, underscoring the wound that both men and women carry.
The final seconds were, for me, a masterstroke. After the rabbit gives life to maggots we see, through the curtain, a lighted doorway open on back stage. Light floods through and Kingsor, Amfortas and Parsifal walk towards it hand in hand.
That moment said to me ‘Klingsor or priest – it is all one. Good and evil. Opposite sides of the same coin.’
Kundry becomes the heroine. She is shown, finally, in a confirmation veil carrying the sword, which in this production is an enormous Sheppard’s crook. Oh the symbolism!

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