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Don’t expect much from this year’s Ring, says Bayreuth director

Frank Castorf has been talking to Der Spiegel about Bayreuth. He’s not happy with Katie and Eva Wagner, who seldom turned up at rehearsal and, when they did, complained of his unpunctuality. And he’s even less happy with the rehearsal time he got – just nine days for Rheingold.

The full text has not yet been published but here’s a first summary of the interview from Agence France Presse.

frank castorf


German theatre director Frank Castorf, who is staging Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at this year’s Bayreuth Festival, dampened expectations for his much-anticipated production in a magazine interview on Saturday.
“I’m not looking to come up with a ‘Ring of the century’,” 62-year-old Castorf told the weekly magazine Der Spiegel in excerpts of an interview released ahead of full publication on Sunday.
“I’d be happy with a ‘Ring of the year’,” he said.
The iconoclastic director, a self-styled “bad boy” of theatre, is notorious for his punk-styled and anarchic re-interpretation of the great classics of spoken theatre.
And he has been invited by the management of the Bayreuth Festival — the legendary annual summer music fest dedicated exclusively to Wagner’s works — to direct a brand-new staging of the composer’s massive four-opera “Ring” cycle for this year’s bicentenary celebrations.
Wagner would have turned 200 this year.
The choice of Castorf has been extremely controversial, given that he is more or less a novice to opera, with only a single foray into the genre previously.
Indeed, he was only recruited when negotiations with the German film director Wim Wenders, the original choice, ran aground. And Castorf has had just two years to come up with a concept for the 16-hour cycle, a mammoth undertaking even for the most experienced of opera directors.
Castorf complained to Der Spiegel about the working conditions in Bayreuth’s legendary Festspielhaus theatre where the annual festival is staged.
He had had “just nine days” to stage “Rhinegold”, the first of the four operas that make up the “Ring,” Castorf complained.
“That is sheer madness, of course,” he said.
Working in Bayreuth was like working on a television soap opera, Castorf said.
The festival’s co-chiefs — half-sisters Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner — had “not shown themselves all too frequently.”
And their main worry “was my punctuality, which is not one of my strengths,” he said.
The curtain is due to go up on the Bayreuth Festival next Thursday, with a gala performance of Wagner’s first mature opera, “The Flying Dutchman”.
Castorf’s new “Ring” is the festival’s main attraction and begins with “Rhinegold” the following day.
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  1. Michael Schaffer says:

    “And their main worry “was my punctuality, which is not one of my strengths,” he said.”

    Kind of important though to show up on time for rehearsal, especially if he complains he already has too little time, isn’t it?
    Is having the whole cast wait for him to show up part of being “a self-styled “bad boy” of theatre” or is it maybe just unprofessional?

    • Is there anything in the text above which suggests he was ever late for rehearsal, or is that jumping to conclusions (unless, of course, you know that he was).
      The text merely suggests he is often late in arriving. So are many of us, and many musicians too, for some things, but maybe he, like almost all musicians, manages to be on time for rehearsals?

  2. Yet another self-indulgent director ruining great works. Yawn yawn.

  3. Mark…don’t jump to conclusions !

    Punctuality is very important. How would he feel if the cast wandered in late ?

  4. harold braun says:

    Haha!If you have so little rehearsal time and you arrive late,you shouldn’t complain.

  5. Mike Schachter says:

    Wagnerians are an endless source of entertainment. Not always on stage, of course.

    • Steve Foster says:

      On behalf of “Wagnerians” from around the world, let me just say “Thank you for the compliment.”

  6. Theodore McGuiver says:

    Storm in a teacup. I’ve seen the Rheingold and Walküre dress rehearsals and iconoclastic is not the word I’d use. Musically, it’s very promising and the sets are awe-inspiring.

    • Musiker says:

      Actually, after reading the full interview (unavailable online), the situation doesn’t sound nearly as alarming as the few excerpts make it sound. There is also a picture of one of the sets from Rhinegold.
      All in all, I’m rather looking forward to seeing Castorf’s Ring at the end of this week.

      • Neil van der Linden says:

        A good director from any background makes sure he has a team of dramaturgs and musicologists around him, and perhaps one of the singers, and if possible the conductor, when preparing the production. History knows many examples of such teams. Chereau initially was not a music man, he came from the theatre. But he teamed up excellently with Boulez, and by the way initially their cooperation was not always received favourably. Now their Lulu, Ring and House of the Dead have become benchmarks. Max Reinhardt was another one. Peter Brook was an anthropologist theatre maker. Pierre Audi came almost from outer space to drop benchmark Monteverdi’s and a benchmark Ring upon us. Nobody is born an opera director. Frank Castorf is a very experienced theatre maker. German style that is, yes. But Wagner is quite German style too, so they can handle each other hopefully. And unles you make a very dull stage adaptation of a work, you never know for sure how things will work out. Nowhere in the report it is written how the conductor is involved. In the past the conductors teamed up strongly with the director. The eternal team of Boulez and Chereau is a proof. And with Audi it was Hartmut Haenchen, who were indispensable for each other. For years Sylvain Cambreling coached newcomer directors on the opera stage of Brussels, to often excellent results.
        With the current condutors’ star system it is difficult for a conductor even to communicate the minimum with the director.

        • Theodore McGuiver says:


          Not the case here, fortunately. Petrenko has, apparently, been at every single staging rehearsal since they began. He and FC work well together.

          • Theodore McGuiver says:

            @Neil (again!): I copied and pasted the last line of your post, but it disappeared.

          • Neil van der Linden says:

            Thanks for your addition Theodore. Yes, if the handicap of having to have started too late does not have influence, we might be looking forward to a perhaps indeed controversial, but on the other hand worthwhile staging.

    • I always thought that with the privilege of being allowed into a company’s general/dress/other rehearsals came an unwritten obligation out of respect to all members of the production team – NOT to talk about it until after the first night.

      • Neil van der Linden says:

        I would rather think that in a case like this with a selected audience the purpose of inviting IS ‘leaking’. Controlled leaking, but leaking anyway. Hopefully one day we can invite Snowden, Assange and Manning to the dress rehearsal too. By the way I am sure Wagner would have loved to make a work on these three. And this is a giveaway for the director of the next Ring.

  7. I enjoy the commentaries !

  8. Michael Hurshell says:

    The continued invitation of “opera novices” to direct Wagner works merely proves that so-called up to date stage directing assumes (if not requires) zero pre-requisites as far as opera stage directing skills go. Those who assume that it makes no difference whether a director knows opera or comes from some other field are again proving their own (shocking) lack of knowledge and know how. Very sad indeed. As for Bayreuth’s repeated essays in this direction, draw your own conclusions.

    • Fabio Fabrici says:

      The conclusion we must draw form this, is that the wider audience, not the insiders, those who pay for the majority of the expensive tickets, do not care about musically sensitive stage directing.
      A good opera director must command extensive knowledge about music, singing and acoustics, in order to transport the score as well as the drama to the audience.
      Maybe we must conclude, that the primary problem is the lack of a good enough audience?

  9. Neil van der Linden says:

    Yet Bayreuth several times has had a lucky hand in bringing in relative opera novices, like Patrice Chéreau, and, yes, Wieland Wagner. The seasoned opera directors have sometimes meanwhile come up with very uninteresting results, like Peter Halll and Wolfgang Wagner.

    Theodore McGuiver’s remarks sound very reassuring.

  10. Gurnemanz says:

    Castorf’s stage desinger Aleksandar Denić is my countryman. A couple of months ago I listened to a radio interview of his where he gave away some spoilers when it comes to sets and staging. I can not of course repeat the exact word or the interview in it’s entirety but the main idea is that the “Rheingold” everyone is chasing will actually be oil and that Wotan will be some kind of a ruthless oil magnate. My reaction was “Well, at least it has a remote connection to the work”. But as they say, the Devil is in the details.

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      Denic is a genius. his Ring sets are mind-blowingly good. He’s already explained each model’s relevance to Castorf’s concept and it all hangs together very well. Nothing arbitrary in his designs at all.

    • PS. Note glaring typo: Austrian film director Michael Haneke gets transformed into Michele Haneke…..

  11. From the Goethe Insitut’s site on 50 German Directors

    Portrait: Frank Castorf

    Frank Castorf’s best theatre evenings are demanding, long, complex, loud, exalted and illogical. They reject a linear narrative and conclusive interpretations. Psychological interpretation of characters is anathema to the manager of the Berliner Volksbühne am Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz and undisturbed acting is right next to the trivialisation of reality by art as an object of hate. For almost fifteen years now, this concentrated “anti” position has resulted in the most important contemporary theatre in Germany.
    The tremendous energy that characterises Castorf’s productions comes from the confrontation of harmony and violence. When he was a young director in the GDR, bureaucratic socialism provided the first opposition for Castorf’s anger. Banished to Anklam in the provinces, he continued to offend against the tolerated canon of hidden criticism of the system that was established in East German theatre until he was allowed to produce in the West. After Unification his revulsion at false common features, and especially of the “all’s well” politics of victorious capitalism, exploded. Nowhere in the art of the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall was the smile of the state power so fiercely confronted with the depressing reality of the system take-over as in Castorf’s theatre.

    • Neil van der Linden says:

      Wagner himself had an ambivalent somewhere between ultraprogressive and reactionary. If he had lived today (and most of the composers and other artists and other thinkers from whom we would have liked to know more, this is – obviously – completely hypothetical) perhaps he would have had very priggish ideas about the staging of his works. But on the other hand his ideal for Bayreuth always has been a ‘Werkstatt’, a ‘work space’ or ‘worshop’, where minds would meet. I think by now that he would have realised that his original staging instructions might have become a bit outdated after about 150 to 125 years. Musically he was very progressive and politically he was a mix between socialist and reactionary elitist. So extrapolating from that, he would perhaps not minded bringing the most relevant and outspoken theatre directors and designers together around his works in his own theatre. It is a pity that Castorf had a late start, after Bayreuth first tried a false start with three others, all of them film directors by the way rather than stage directors, so it is perhaps a blessing that in the end they came up with a theatre man. Having staged so many pieces from the German canon, I am sure he is pervaded by this most German of German stage work, the Ring, even if he never has directed a full opera. I now read in the Gramophone that his conductor Petrenko spent five years at the Komische Opera, so he is experienced in bridging between the score and the director. And finally, a stage director in Opera still is not a musician, but a stage man/woman. Even though the composer might sometimes not seem to like that, paradoxically, it is what the composer in his heart demanded when he started to write something for the stage.

  12. You can’t believe these guys! Complains of lack of rehearsal time then rolls in late!
    Mind you, having looked at some of the Wagner sisters productions, I would have thought there absence would be considered an advantage!

  13. I wonder how Theodore McGuiver saw Walküre, as the dress rehearsal was closed to all. Even Bayreuth staff watched it via monitor only. I was at the dress rehearsal for Siegfried tonight. The production is a complete and unmitigated disaster in my opinion (sorry Theodore…). At least Catherine Foster sang beautifully and Petrenko and the orchestra were wonderful. Petrenko may have worked well with FC, but FC was not actually in the hall tonight for the dress rehearsal! He remained seated at a table in the pavilion across from the Festspielhaus throughout the duration of the afternoon/evening …

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      @Aimee: No, the Walküre dress wasn’t closed to all. It was open to anyone in possession of a valid pass (Hausausweis) and was virtually full.

      I was at Siegfried, too. Catherine sounded rested and sang pretty well. Petrenko is marvellous and Frank hasn’t been to any of the dresses so far. I wouldn’t say it was an unmitigated disaster; the first act is actually rather conventional. The Woodbird is on stage and very active in Siegfried’s dealings but the final scene, well, there I think we might be in agreement…

      • Neil van der Linden says:

        If there is a big stylistic gap between the first two and the third act, that is in line with the music, and the composing history of the piece.
        (I am always happy that Wagner did not have the means and the energy to continue the Ring project at some point between the second and the third act of Siegfried, which meant that we get the mature Wagner in the third act of Siegfried and all of the Götterdämmerung.)

    • Michael Schaffer says:

      Can you elaborate a little on why you found the production you saw so disastrous?

    • Musiker says:

      I think the misunderstanding here is between the different sets of rehearsals, Hauptprobe vs Generalprobe.
      The way I understand it, selected people were allowed into the HAUPTPROBEN of both Rheingold and Die Walküre, but were suddenly turned away for Siegfried or Götterdämmerung.
      But for the dress rehearsals or GENERALPROBEN, the situation was clearly different because you were allowed into the dress rehearsal of Siegfried.

      But could you elaborate on “complete and unmitigated disaster”?
      I’ve seen the photos of the sets and read the interviews with Denic and Castorf and the whole thing sounds really quite intriguing, so I’d really be interested to hear what appalled you so much from what you saw in the dress rehearsal.

      • Theodore McGuiver says:

        The way I understand it, selected people were allowed into the HAUPTPROBEN of both Rheingold and Die Walküre, but were suddenly turned away for Siegfried or Götterdämmerung.
        But for the dress rehearsals or GENERALPROBEN, the situation was clearly different because you were allowed into the dress rehearsal of Siegfried.

        Rheingold, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung all had HPs but Walküre didn’t. It seems to be some kind of tradition. There were staff members in all these rehearsals though all were asked by Eva Wagner to leave at the end of the act just performed before Petrenko started his corrections. Of the GPs, only Walküre was closed to the public (for reasons no-one really knows) yet, as I mentioned, was virtually full as was open to those in possession of a current house pass.

        Some things in the this Ring are questionable but it’s a damn sight better than the last one…

        • That’s not hard, Theodore. Tankred Dorst’s Ring was really quite the most boring and inane one I’ve ever seen.
          But never mind. Really looking forward to Friday.

          • Theodore McGuiver says:

            True, true…I realised how faint that praise sounded after I’d clicked ‘send’.

    • Neil van der Linden says:

      Not everybody is ‘all’ ;-)

    • Theodore McGuiver says:

      @Aimee: Those watching the Walküre GP on the monitor were employees’ friends and relatives with a Tagesausweis sitting in the Musical Assistants’ room. It’s the only stage monitor in the complex. Tagesausweise weren’t valid for entry into the auditorium. As Walküre had no HP you must have meant the stage and orchestra rehearsals, and I can’t remember if they were open to staff or not.

      • Theodore, I was referring to the Generalproben.

        I’m not against conventional stagings per se. And I’m no fan of the Dorst Ring. But I just didn’t see or feel any tremendous energy resulting from the confrontation of harmony and violence in this Castorf staging. What I saw in Siegfried was a lot of busy activity on stage, running up stairs and down stairs and running up again, a tie-in to current events that didn’t lead anywhere, some gags. I called it an unmitigated disaster because mediocrity at Bayreuth in this anniversary season IS an unmitigated disaster. Thought back to Harry Kupfer’s Ring – original idea, creatively developed. And spellbinding. Am sure there are more current examples out there of this level of work…

        • Theodore McGuiver says:

          Theodore, I was referring to the Generalproben.

          Then who told you that nonsense about nobody being allowed in?

  14. Bassolirico says:

    Has the German opera scene really nothing more relevant to offer? Where have such complete talents as Jean-Pierre Ponnelle disappeared? Are there only speech theatre provocateurs left?

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