Herbert Wernicke and the essence of the opera

The staging of opera today is one of the most ephemeral of art forms. It defies video recording or television transmission or filming because it is about putting characters and their narrative in the expressive meaningful context provided by a stage setting and lighting. No number of cameras can convey the variety of visual and aural impressions that every member of the audience will form in the course of a live performance. Video recordings show an edited version of a single point of view, providing focus and linear coherence, whereas what audience members take away from a performance is their memory and personal engagement with everything happening on stage. It is the same with contemporary dance, in which one or more dancers move, enter and leave within the three-dimensional plane provided by a flat stage, wings and a neutral backdrop. What matters is how each person watching responds to a myriad of spacial relationships and expressive physicality between and among the dancers within that space - and also how an audience subliminally share responses and respond to each other. But you have to be physically there. A live opera audience is coming to see the autonomous creation of the director, though it may not be instantly obvious quite how the staging relates to the music, words and singing.
 Herbert Wernicke was one of the most original and successful of the new generation of modern (or perhaps one should say post-modern) opera directors to emerge in the late 1970s, at much the same time as Patrice Chéreau’s famous centenary Ring production revolutionised expectations at Bayreuth. He studied to be a stage designer in Munich with Rudolf Heinrich, a famous Komische Oper designer from Berlin who worked in the 1960s with Walter Felsenstein, Joachim Herz and Harry Kupfer on productions that aimed to provide singers with realistic, psychologically truthful motivation for what they sang and what they did. That was the previous generation: the old East German way of making opera coherent.
 But, as Wernicke told me when I interviewed him in February 1992, that Komische Oper kind of realism was itself a convention. By the time he started work as a designer in 1972 at the theatre in Wuppertal, the Felsenstein approach, he said, was already history. What he, by contrast, started to explore as a designer and then fully worked out as a director was how to put the essence of the work - the idea which, above all, it seemed to be promoting - at the very heart of the stage picture.
 Thus in Actus Tragicus we see the corpse of Christ laid out in his tomb in the cellar of the doll’s house that is the stage set: this stretched-out dead body (borrowed from a famous painting) in another sense provides the foundation on which rests the entire world of everyday piety, concern with sin and redemption, that the production physically and suggestively explores. Instead of experiencing these sacred Bach cantatas as concert music, no longer attached to the living religious liturgy in which they once played a crucial but now forgotten role, we see them functioning as the Gospel we know in action, affecting ordinary, mundane life that involves doing the ironing, pursuing crime, trying on a wedding dress, entertaining house guests - even confronting. the idea of our own death.
 The British bass-baritone Lynton Black (whom I often met up with in Salzburg, during the 1990s, in a bar across the road from the Kleines Festspielhaus after he had been rehearsing with Wernicke) was in the original Theater Basel production of Actus Tragicus. Aa Black recalls, Wernicke started rehearsals with the set fully constructed: “We all sat in the stalls while Herbert told us what was going to happen. The piece was to be a perpetuum mobile. Each of us would have a character, and would play out our routines over and over again. Only Death, represented by the coffin, never repeats, though the coffin is carried in and out of the house. Herbert knew everybody by name. He started with a young chap known for his sporting prowess and physicality, and got him to go through a keep-fit routine in a small room. We all giggled at this guy’s exertions. Next Herbert invited a dumpy couple to be a pair of couch potatoes watching television in another room; they took to it like ducks to water, asking props to supply a remote control - and, of course, crisps. Soon everybody was making suggestions: ‘What if I take the rubbish out...?’ ‘Can I be stressed and always late for work?’ We built up the characters communally.”
 Black spent many summers with Wernicke in Spain. The figure he created in Actus Tragicus was based on a blind man they saw who never used a stick. “Herbert was fascinated with the way this man could gently feel his way with one hand along the street where we were sitting drinking our beers. That man is still to be seen in that village, as it happens. It was a little slice of private life that was a kind of shared secret between performer and director - a sort of objet trouvé not unusual in his work. A hat thrown in Wernicke’s production of Don Carlos lay upside down as a token of bravado, just as in a bullfight. I used to tease him that no-one would notice. His reply was ‘If just one person gets it, I shall be happy’. It was his brushwork, like that of a painter.”
 Wernicke’s father was a picture restorer who specialised in Dutch painting from the time of Rembrandt. The family lived in Amsterdam and in Brunswick, and Herbert spoke Dutch as a child. He was a musician and was going to become a composer. At the Brunswick Musikhochschule he played the flute and was above all keen on early music. He spoke French and was a pioneering director (in Schwetzingen, Kassel and in Paris) of operas by Lully, Rameau, and Marin Marais. The Wernickes were Lutherans and Herbert played the organ in church. He said that he was not now religious at all. But he was extremely eager when we met about getting the chance to direct Handel’s Theodora and hopeful that when he, shortly after our interview, got to see Matthew Epstein the then boss of Welsh National Opera might agree for him to do that rather than Jephtha. He had already early in his career staged four Handel oratorios and Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans. The work he was rehearsing at the time of his death was Israel in Egypt for Theater Basel.
 Wernicke’s first encounter with opera was as a child dancing around in a production of Hänsel und Gretel. The first opera he saw (at the age of 12) was Gianni Schicchi. As mentioned earlier, he started his career as a designer - and was a busy one. When he started directing, however, “I stopped designing, almost. The design element became increasingly simple as the human beings on stage became more important. It is not possible to study directing. Why should you study literature to be a director - or theatre history, which is so boring?” He used to be a keen film-goer, but he found “the flood of images may be dangerous because it can influence me, interfere with the images in my head, my own images”. And, though he used to paint as his way into designing, “now I just do a lot of sketches,” working them up for building a model of the set. “My design ideas for a piece always stem from how I read it, and of course from listening to the music. Whether it’s the period of the story or whether it’s authentic is utterly irrelevant and uninteresting for me. Of course I read a lot of secondary literature about the period - in the case of Die Fledermaus all about Johann Strauss and his era: Karl Kraus’s attack on operetta, for instance. I read a lot about directing within the operetta tradition.”
 The point of opera - before cameras or mechanical recording were invented - was to exploit the ability of the singing human voice, with its dramatically telling attributes, to carry through an auditorium to every single member of an audience, close up and personal. Effectively, operatic arias fulfil the same function as close-ups in film. But whereas visual close-ups of filmstars exploit often a merely superficial beauty which excites by its apparent intimacy, opera by contrast is above all a truly confessional form in which the singing exposes a character’s innermost vulnerable feelings at the very point where the performer’s innate emotion and personal experience is genuinely engaged. Modern opera productions, additionally, add expressive, meaningful context to the way the performers are seen to live and move and “have their being”, though not often in conventional or realistic ways.
 In 1979 Wernicke staged a Carmen in Mannheim, for example, when he was still quite new to the business of directing. The Mannheim dramaturg at the time was Gerhard Persché, who subsequently edited the magazine Opern Welt and has latterly worked more as a critic. In the German-speaking world there is not such a division as there is in the English-speaking world between those who develop interpretations and those who write about them. Persché’s partner at the time was Waltraud Meyer (the Carmen in Wernicke’s production). He recalls that “In original discussions Herbert was talking about putting the production in a modern Baroque kind of staging. He had just done Tartuffe in the Schauspiel in Darmstadt, and we met there to discuss the Bizet in an Italian café round the corner from the huge new operahouse complex. He would have used a curtain to make the stage shallow or deep, with stylised folkloric costumes and everything happening in just over 24 hours. Carmen would have died in Lilas Pastia’s inn. But, before anything even got into sketches, we were told that it was not economically feasible to have lots of painted cloths and everything else he had been imagining. So he decided to put the opera on an empty stage, with an electric tramwire running down it and one of those poles they use to restore the electricity connection when it has been broken. Lilas Pastia’s bar was a caravan, and Escamillo, who was being played by Franz Mazura arrived in a Chevrolet at the back of the stage. A car on stage was one of Herbert’s early trademarks. The critics hated it, but it was a huge success with the students, and it kept being brought back. It always sold out.”
 Wernicke never worked as a director with someone different as designer. He told me “I need a very good assistant with me who can work on his own - though he is following my invention of course. He has to draw for the workshops, keep the process going, while I am busy with directing.” For the Mannheim Carmen Wolfgang Gussman, now a famous designer himself, was Wernicke’s assistant on the designs.
 Operas are of course staged to give an audience a very precise sense of what is really going on. But in opera there can be a lot more going on than immediately springs to mind - not least because operas are musical as well as verbal, and tell their tales often with the help of a chorus that is yet another given convention operating on a different plane of reality from the life of the individuals in the story reacting to each other. Bach’s Cantatas in an important sense are by no means typical operatic material. They are less operatic, even, than the Handel and Vivaldi baroque oratorios that Wernicke loved to stage - and with which he started his career.
 Wernicke’s genius was to release the essence of the material in a theatrical way that would intensify the audience’s experience. I met him in 1992 the day after seeing his extraordinary production of Die Fledermaus for Theater Basel. This he staged entirely on a circular staircase, with Eisenstein arrived at Orlofsky’s party desperate to have a piss but unable to find the toilet. It was a brilliant and unconventional effect that created an appropriate sense of infectious panic spreading through the audience as they laughed and laughed. Eisenstein’s need for the toilet was as symptomatic as his philandering, and as basic. This vulgar physicality anchored the entire production. He said, “the critics always accuse me of misrepresenting or destroying the operas I direct. But all I intend to do is to serve the opera. I want to read it a new way, to read it from the point of view of today. I want to explain it. I want to have almost a new first performance. But not a scandal.” Opera is an extravagant downloading of information. What the modern opera director and designer do, when they are good and it works, is to find a thrilling, sometimes even mind-blowing, coherence in the stage context and acting with which to explore the story.
 Wernicke said, “Maybe it is my style to have one set, as I did for The Ring in Brussels. You can set the story of The Ring anywhere of course - because it is about the creation of the world and its destruction. I like to construct a particular world for the story of an opera. For instance in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg the box set was like a Shakespearean stage. It stood for Nuremberg, the centre of Germany and of the world. I did not need to illustrate a church in the first act: I just needed the ritual of a church, the ritual showing how immutable was the social order of men and women there; then showing the conventions of the Masters and the way things are in the songschool. Sachs and Stolzing are artists of course. But that German world has rules about how an artist must be, and Beckmesser was the outsider - the Jew.”
 The libretto, he said, “is already music. A good composer understands it and writes in between the words - like Mozart did. And this is for me total theatre - the richest theatre that you can ever imagine, which is why opera exists. My biggest wish would be one time to be able to create a new opera with a real composer. Most new operas are bad because the composer takes literature and composes along the line of the words. Opera is more than just sung words.”   
 Wernicke’s brilliant Die Fledermaus in Basel which I saw the night before meeting him (I had also a few months earlier covered his Brussels Ring for The Guardian) was actually a production under the auspices of the Schauspiel part of Theater Basel, which was and is a classic German-style Stadttheater - in other words a town institution that includes under one administrative roof a theatre company, an opera company, a dance company, and an orchestra - though in the case of Basel the orchestra is constituted semi-independently. Wernicke was proud of the fact that he had cast Die Fledermaus himself entirely with actors, and just three singers (who were also excellent actors) in the roles of Rosalind, Eisenstein, and of course Adele. “At the time of Johann Strauss there were no special singers doing operetta, just actors who could sing - apart from the odd soubrette and some lyric sopranos. Of course it was hard work for them studying the music.” That production of  Fledermaus was rehearsed for more than eight weeks. Wernicke could not recall ever having had a bad experience with a singer in a production of his. Black says, “I never heard him shout at anyone - singer, conductor, stage technician. I saw him organise and motivate a double chorus on stage with just a whisper. All choruses loved him. He knew their job could often be boring - but it never was with him. He made every member of the chorus feel wanted. Actus Tragicus is a huge ensemble piece with soloists, but those soloists are just members of the ensemble.”
 Wernicke provided me in our interview with some fascinating tips about comedy direction. “It’s very difficult to make people laugh,” he said. “I have seen some comedies here in Basel where there is nobody laughing at all. When I did Cosi fan tutte I did not want too much laughter. I had the audience laughing for just five minutes I think. But the production was not silly comedy, more like a tragedy. As it should be with Don Giovanni, you did not know whether to laugh or to cry. During rehearsals if I find a joke makes me laugh I have to control my own humour, and study to be sure what kind of movement or context or situation will really come across to the audience. One’s aim of course is not enjoy the joke yourself, not to laugh on your own account. I do not laugh during my own rehearsals - afterwards I can laugh a lot, but not during. Because if you do laugh in rehearsal you can find that you get the actor into a kind of silliness - and that is when you have the result that there is no laughing in the audience. It is something which can very often happen.”
 Wernicke’s forthcoming assignment when I met him in Basel was a pair of zarzuelas - The Wedding of Luis Alonso and The Dance. He liked using cut down orchestrations and working with actors, who are of course better off not having to compete with an orchestra. In the Theater des Westens in Berlin he did Wiener Blut with just six grand pianos, and for his Belle Hélene in 1991 he used little more than a cello. He added that he had been responsible for half of the casting of The Ring in Brussels, with Gerard Mortier sorting out the other half.
 He added, “The issue of who is the conductor I work with matters to me very much, because I was almost a professional musician. I could perhaps have been a conductor, and maybe one day I will try that. I would love to conduct Handel.” He had been pleased to work with Sylvain Cambreling on The Ring, because Cambreling had been effectively learning the score as they rehearsed. Wernicke had not liked working with Wolfgang Sawallisch in Munich on Der fliegende Holländer which had been a famous scandal after which he was not invited back to Munich for a long time: “The dress rehearsal was when I saw Sawallisch for the first time, though he had asked my assistant for a sheet of paper to show him where the characters would be standing. With so-called Regietheater which we have had in Germany since Max Reinhardt at the start of the 20th century, the conductor in opera is an executant who negotiates between the music and what the director has created. The director, on the other hand, has to be an inventor, creative, an author. And this is very often a big clash. My relationship with Sawallisch was incredibly bad - and with Richard Armstrong who conducted my Elektra in Frankfurt in 1987."
 Wernicke was absolutely clear that in his work, as he said, “I do need a dramaturg.” He worked with just two or three dramaturgs who suited him - the main one being Albrecht Puhlmann who got him to do a great deal of work for Theater Basel. Wernicke lived in Basel because his partner after his first marriage broke up was an actress in the Schauspiel there. Puhlmann commissioned Actus Tragicus for his last season as opera director in Basel. It opened on 22 December 2000 and ran for a further 12 performances. Puhlmann revived it, and brought it into the Stuttgart Opera rep with huge success, four years after Wernicke’s death.
 At the time of his death Wernicke was much in demand. He had been working in major houses like Hamburg and Munich within a very few years of starting as a director. (In the event the only Wernicke production ever seen in Britain was his strangely misjudged Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House in 2000.) Wernicke told me he did not like repeating operas he had already done; ironically he died (in April 2002) while creating a second Ring production, this time for Munich. He was 55.
 (My book Believing in Opera (1996) contains more detailed description of Wernicke’s productions of Les Contes d’Hoffmann in Frankfurt, The Ring in Brussels, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Moses und Aron in Paris.)