A brutal manslayer ?
Andreas Homoki in conversation about his staging concept for Siegfried
Interviewer : Werner Hintze
In the literature on Wagner's Ring, the comparison of the tetralogy with a symphony in four movements appears again and again. From this point of view, Siegfried is assigned the role of the scherzo. Can you make anything out of this approach?
I think it is pointless to press the tetralogy into such a formal scheme. But if you want to do that, the assignment is certainly correct, because Siegfried is undoubtedly a comedy, if you like, it can be called the scherzo.
Do you really find the piece funny?
If you look at the cycle in its context and in its contrasts, it presents itself roughly like this: Das Rheingold is a light-footed conversation piece, almost something like Boulevard Theater. In the sharpest contrast imaginable, Die Walküre comes across as an almost superhuman, monumental tragedy. Siegfried is a comedy marked equally by grotesque moments and situation comedy as well as by moving scenes touching on tragedy. Götterdämmerung summarizes elements from the previous pieces as a conclusion: tragic, grotesque, touching and ironic. In all four pieces, as always with Wagner, there are also humorous moments, but in none do they dominate as much as in Siegfried. Just consider the dragon fight that is at the center of the play, or the talking bird that intervenes in the action, or the dwarf who would so much like to rule the world - these are all elements that show clearly enough that playful wit and ironic fun play a major role in this play. After all, you can only seriously offer such things if you approach them with a wink.
Does this also apply to the title hero? The blond, blue-eyed hero of the North?
Absolutely! We experience the story of a boy who grows up in the middle of the forest, far from civilization, and is therefore completely ignorant. He knows the forest and the animals and has observed a lot there, but he knows nothing about people and gods, not even that there are other people besides Mime, not to mention women. This alone provides plenty of material for comic situations. But he suspects that something is wrong here and he has a deep longing for tenderness and love. He has never experienced this, but has seen among the animals of the forest that there is such a thing. Listening to him describing these observations with such sensitivity, one realizes that he is by no means the brutal manslayer he is traditionally seen to be. Wagner has created a Siegfried that is quite different from traditional portrayals of this character.
He portrays his ignorance and his yearning for love with loving irony. This is often at once as funny as it is touching, but it also leads directly to the utopian core of the character that Wagner had in mind: the hero from the forest, who is untouched by civilization and only understands love as a natural drive, is the only one who is able to initiate the overcoming of the corrupted world and who carries the seed of a better, because more loving, world within himself.
However, this utopian comedy hero has two deaths on his conscience. Is Siegfried a murderer?
Actually not, because once he acts in self-defense, once he kills in the heat of the moment: the lindworm wants to eat him, Mime wants to poison him. He has to defend himself against these attacks, and how should he do that if not with his sword?
Nevertheless, two lives fall victim to him. Is he still suitable as an identification figure?
There is a traditional image of this character that is not at all correct when examined closely. According to this view, Siegfried is a more or less moronic slaughterer who has, so to speak, internalized Wagner's anti-Semitic clichés and sets out to purge the world of everything deviant. This image, whether positive or negative, is so universally prevalent that one has to look closely to really see the character and not the cliché. Indeed, such a title hero would hardly be suitable as an identification figure - at least for me.
And how do you see him? Do you like him and do you want the audience to like him?
Yes, I like him. The more I get to know him through this work, the more I like him. If you make an effort to listen to the music as unprejudiced as possible, at some point you realize that it's not so massively "German" as fits his image. Of course there are enormous emotional outbursts, but these are counterbalanced by at least as many, if not more, passages of touching tenderness. Looking at the part of Siegfried in this way, one discovers him to be a sensitive young man, capable of love, who grows up in terrible circumstances: with Mime, who continually lies to him and only wants to exploit him for his own purposes. He feels the unkindness and has only one wish: to get away from it as quickly as possible. Siegfried, like all great comedy characters, is a combination of comic and tragic elements, and that is precisely why he can grow so close to your heart. At any rate, he has grown on me, and I would like the audience to feel the same way.
But what about anti-Semitism? Is it to be found in this piece?
There is no doubt that Wagner's anti-Semitism has been handed down, and much has been written about the fact that he endowed unsympathetic characters with anti-Semitic clichés. The musicologist Jens Malte Fischer, whose research has greatly expanded our knowledge of this subject, repeatedly refers to a well-attested story about Gustav Mahler, who, after a performance of Siegfried, expressed his annoyance with the actor who played the Mime: "It is, after all, indisputable that Mime is disposed by Wagner to be a caricature of a Jew, but surely it is not necessary to exaggerate this trait so shamelessly." This incident alone shows clearly enough that contemporaries saw the anti-Semitic elements in this character and in this play quite clearly.
It is all the more remarkable that Mahler, who was Jewish, nevertheless conducted this piece.
Of course, this was only possible because he clearly saw that such elements are present, but do not constitute the substance of the piece. There is, after all, a considerable difference between Wagner endowing a character with characteristics attributed to people whom he considers contemptible and writing a piece whose central message is the incitement to hostility against these people.
But despite everything, doesn't one have to somehow relate to this problem and make it an issue?
If one wants to do that, one will certainly find material in the play to deal with the subject. But it seems to me that you are then dealing with a meta-problem, that is, one that is present in the play to some extent, but only at a higher level of abstraction, not in the narrative itself. If I want to tell the story of young Siegfried, the thought of Wagner's anti-Semitism does not get me any further. If, however, I were of the opinion that the story is anti-Semitic and can only be told as such, I would drop it. I couldn't do that at all.
By the way, what I said earlier about Siegfried's music also applies to Mime. His music by no means makes only fun of him. Mime also has his tender and sad moments. Again and again, a glimpse into his battered soul opens up for a moment, where we become aware of the suffering the dwarf has endured in the hunt for the ring. Here again we see: Wagner was a great theatrical expert and he knew that only contradictory figures are interesting on stage. And so Mime, too, is a vibrant theatrical figure that is always very popular with the audience.
Back to Siegfried: wherever one sees depictions of this hero, be they from ancient or modern times, he cannot be separated from his sword. However, Siegfried must first produce his sword, an event around which the first act revolves almost exclusively. What is so significant about this?
That and how Siegfried forges his sword has to do with the utopian potential of the character. Here, too, the music provides the decisive clue: when Siegfried does not glue the fragments of the old sword together, as Mime has tried to do, but shreds them and melts them down again, the orchestra plays music of almost apocalyptic violence, which elevates the process far beyond simple forging. It makes the anarchist Bakunin appear behind Siegfried, Wagner's friend from his Dresden days, who demanded that everything old be destroyed so that something new could emerge from the rubble. The music of the blacksmith, which overpowers the entire world, as it were, and purifies it in the fire, refers to the revolution for which Wagner went to the barricades in Dresden, together with Bakunin. At the same time, and closely related to this, the scene can also be read as a metaphor for dealing with tradition: Wagner rejects an understanding of tradition that involves the careful preservation of the brittle old and makes an emphatic plea for a radical approach to what has been handed down, which is only worth preserving insofar as it can be renewed and be of use to the new.
Does that also apply to dealing with old pieces? Do you take the advice and shred them?
If you shred something, you should only do so if you are sure to produce something better afterwards. Which is not at all necessary in this case. The piece is not a collection of useless fragments, but a very powerful organism. In order to create it, Wagner, with the audacity of his Siegfried, shredded the old Norse tradition himself, so to speak, melted it down and forged something new, something entirely contemporary out of it. And we are in a living dialogue with this work, in which there are contemporary answers to significant questions. Wagner would surely have been happy to subscribe to Jean Jaurès' well-known saying, "Tradition is the passing on of fire, not the worship of ashes."
Wotan and Alberich are the two main antagonists in the tetralogy. It is all the more surprising that in Siegfried both contribute virtually nothing to the development of the plot ...
Although Wotan has declared in the Walküre that he wants to renounce his power, he obviously finds it difficult to actually leave the active events - an all too familiar, timeless phenomenon especially with dominant leaders. But one has to give him credit: he feels responsible for keeping Alberich from achieving world domination through the Ring after all. At the beginning of the second act, Wagner lets the two antagonists loose on each other for the last time - an encounter that makes it abundantly clear that both of them have actually run out of time. It is a nice touch that the tragic decline of both characters is revealed in a comic scene. The play is indeed a real comedy. Wotan's real focus is now primarily on Siegfried, because he finally represents the "free hero" he has long desired.
Unfortunately, the meeting with his eagerly awaited grandson goes conceivably wrong due to a stupid misunderstanding. A quarrel ensues because the free hero does not respect or fear the god. His newly forged sword shatters the spear that symbolizes the old order. Only then does Wotan realize that he has played his part and finally leaves the stage: we will not see him again in the Twilight of the gods.
When Siegfried shatters Wotan's sword and reaches Brünnhilde, however, the comedic lightness seems to be over. The last scene makes even die-hard Wagnerians sigh because it seems to drag on so endlessly. Why this long road to the happy ending?
There's no denying it: the final scene is a tough nut to crack, one that many have cut their teeth on. Not only does it last almost twice as long as the second act of La bohème, but it seems to have no plot at all. But if you measure the length of the scene with a clock, you have actually learned nothing, because Wagner's music creates a time structure all of its own. It allows for a stretching of all the action, which leads to a considerable amplification of the emotional effect, so that the stretched time is filled nevertheless. When successful, this can produce an almost intoxicating effect, and no doubt the almost religious Wagner worship has its origin precisely in these ecstatic experiences that the composer creates with such scenes.
But this is only one aspect. The other, more important for the theater, emerges when the music is closely examined in its theatrical meaning. From this point of view, it reveals a great variety in this scene as well, an always astonishing precision in the shaping of the respective gesture. In fact, it is one of the most important scenes of the whole tetralogy, whose basic conflict is that between power and love. Up to this moment, it was shown again and again how love falls victim to power and the lovers perish while the power-hungry triumph. Now, on the Valkyrie rock, in the no man's land far from the world, love can finally come to its full expression: in the encounter of two people who complete the path from initial strangeness through erotic desire to complete surrender. They recognize that they must give up themselves in order to find themselves anew and richer in the community with the beloved person. This however, is, in it's most concise formulation, the ideal of the future humanity as Wagner had it in mind, this is the utopian core of the entire tetralogy.