Painting Wagner: Celebrated Artists’ New Work for the Opera Stage
By A.J. Goldmann
MUNICH — From Pablo Picasso to David Hockney and from Jean Cocteau to Marc Chagall, celebrated painters and visual artists have worked their magic on the operatic stage.
This summer, some of Germany’s most noted artists are lending their talents to two high-profile productions at prestigious music festivals. In late June, Georg Baselitz furnished somber and mournful sets for Pierre Audi’s production of “Parsifal” at the Munich Opera Festival. Meanwhile, in Bayreuth, the husband-and-wife artist duo, Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy, are working on the new “Lohengrin” overseen by the American director Yuval Sharon, which is set to open the annual Wagner Festival on July 25.
While it may be coincidental that two “painterly” Wagner productions are going up within a month — and 140 miles — of each other, these are not isolated occurrences. More and more, artists from outside disciplines are being coaxed to opera, perhaps as a way to keep the art form vital and contemporary.
Last year’s Salzburg Festival featured new productions from William Kentridge and the Iranian film and video artist Shirin Neshat. The German enfant terrible Jonathan Meese, fired from directing Bayreuth’s “Parsifal” in 2016, recently staged his irreverent, B-movie rewrite of that work in Vienna and Berlin under the name “Mondparsifal.” Further back, the American video artist Bill Viola designed a now-legendary production of “Tristan und Isolde” for the director Peter Sellars in 2005.
“Working together with artists is a great love of mine and I think the opera needs them,” Mr. Audi, 60, said during a rehearsal break from “Parsifal” at the Bavarian State Opera, shortly before the production’s premiere. “Virtually everything’s been done in opera with sets and an artist can help bring things that stage designers can’t bring,” he added. For 30 years, the French-Lebanese director has led the Dutch National Opera, often collaborating with artists from various disciplines. The list of artists he has worked with over the past decade includes Mr. Meese, Mr. Kentridge and the British artist Anish Kapoor, who designed an earlier “Parsifal” in Amsterdam.
He insisted that the best collaborations are the ones that develop organically from friendships with artists. “For me, it needs to stay like that,” Mr. Audi said. “You must never force it.”
In the case of the Munich “Parsifal,” the Bavarian State Opera’s artistic director, Nikolaus Bachler, courted Mr. Baselitz, 80, one of Germany’s most revered artists. Mr. Baselitz, an avid operagoer and frequent guest at the Bavarian State Opera, proposed teaming with Mr. Audi, with whom he worked 25 years earlier to design a production of “Punch and Judy” by the British composer Harrison Birtwistle.
“It was a totally different period of his life where he was using many more colors, which suited that piece,” Mr. Audi explained. “And now, it’s ‘Parsifal,’ but it suits his current period. But he’s also gone further back to his work from the ‘60s to fill in. It’s like a sort of remembering of a whole lifetime.”
One of those touchstones is Mr. Baselitz’s monumental “Heroes” paintings from 1965-6, hulking figures that seem to carry the weight of German history on their shoulders. “Surprisingly, the ‘Heroes’ from my early pictures correspond directly to the figure of Parsifal,” Mr. Baselitz wrote in an email. “But that’s something that only became clear to me while I was working on the production.”
While Mr. Baselitz considers painting and opera natural allies, designing for the opera does require him to adjust his working habits, he said. “The main difference for me is that when I’m in my atelier, I work all alone,” he added. “Clearly that doesn’t work in opera. You can introduce your ideas, but they need to be practical.”
Aside from making viable artistic proposals, Mr. Baselitz said that working in opera required being open to compromise. “My original idea for the set was a black box and nothing else,” Mr. Baselitz explained. “Nothing much needs to happen during this opera. What I would like most would be for the audience to just sleep through the whole thing. That would be amazing! But of course that would go against everything that the director is there to do. So sadly I wasn’t able to get my way.”
Unlike Mr. Baselitz, the two artists behind the stage design of Bayreuth’s new “Lohengrin” are not opera fanatics. Nor had Neo Rauch, a leading exponent of the New Leipzig School of Painting and his wife, Rosa Loy, also a noted artist, collaborated on an art project with joint authorship before working at Bayreuth.