Grailing in Germany

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Grailing in Germany
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

When Pierre Boulez came to Los Angeles last fall to conduct the first operatic performance at Walt Disney Concert Hall, most people in the audience weren-t aware that it was a dress rehearsal for this summer-s biggest cultural scandal and perhaps the theatrical event of the year. In the 1960-s Boulez was classical music-s enfant terrible-he once infamously said that the world-s opera houses should be blown up-but now days he-s the music world-s eminence grise. Boulez appeared in LA as part of the opening season festivities, but his selection of Act Two from Wagner-s Parsifal showed he was also tuning up for his conducting of the full opera at this summer-s Bayreuth Festival.

The Bayreuth Festival is one of the most conservative cultural institutions in Europe. The festival was started by Richard Wagner who felt that the only way to stage his operas was to build a theater devoted to them. Since his death in 1883, the Wagner family has run the festival which only presents his operas and does not allow a note of music or line of text to be altered.

Enter Christoph Schlingensief, currently the most notorious bad boy of the European performing arts scene. Schlingensief is infamous in the German-speaking world for both his theater pieces-which involve incoherent shouting, on-stage pig slaughtering, and the artist himself soaking in tubs of excrement-and his performance stunts: which include taunting German politicians and creating a Survivor-like game on the streets of Vienna with real immigrants placed in glass cases, where passer-bys could vote on which ones should be deported.

Yet somehow, Schlingensief-who has never directed opera before-is at Bayreuth this year, staging Parsifal, Wagner-s final opera, which the festival treats as an almost sacred work. Even before it opened there was controversy as the singer playing the title role denounced the production as -an abomination.- This only ensured that the media frenzy would be at an even higher pitch.

Needless to say, Schlingensief delivered plenty of shock. The work, which is set in 12th century Spain now takes place in an Namibian refugee camp. Medieval knights have been replaced with hari-krishnas and african shamans-even Napoleon Bonapartre shows up on stage at one point. In addition, Schlingensief bathes the entire stage in video images, sometimes footage of seals on a beach, other times pictures of cemeteries or time-lapse images of rotting rabbit carcasses.

When the curtain came down at the second performance, the booing was so loud and so aggressive, one feared that the director might be injured if he took a bow. The ovations, which can go on forever at Bayreuth, were quickly halted as management brought down the fire-curtain to prevent an incident.

To describe what Schlingensief put on the Bayreuth stage would take pages, the most important thing that needs be said is, that it-s breathtaking. Often breathtaking in its silliness, but mostly breathtaking in its desire to create an entirely new world on stage. Perhaps this makes it less a staging of the opera, and more an art installation with singers and an orchestra-but whatever it is, it-s like nothing you-ve seen-at Bayreuth or elsewhere.

Many people-beyond those who are booing-no doubt feel that opera or theater should not be influenced by the growing fad of performance art, but it-s impossible to stop time and keep art from evolving-for better or for worse. Wagner and Boulez themselves were once revolutionaries-and saw their work heckled and booed-but the luxury of distance allows us to see their accomplishments as true innovation and not mere provocation.

Schlingensief-s work shows elements of both, and perhaps the future will reveal him to be only a provocateur; but right now, he-s brought a true sense of theatricality back to the musical stage. Pictures, anecdotes, even a filmed version of this production can not do it justice. Love it or hate it, Schlingensief-s Parsifal can only be experienced live in the theater-which is what the unique magic of theatrical performance is all about.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.