A World of Its Own

The 2017 Salzburg Easter Festival stands under the banner of the ‘re-creation’ of its production of Die Walküre from 1967. By re-encountering the stage aesthetic of the time – as conceived for Herbert von Karajan by legendary stage and lighting designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen – this operatic project enables us to cast a glance back at the founding era of the Easter Festival itself. This coming together of the present and the past offers the potential to ask exciting questions, not least because it is not Karajan’s production from 1967 that is being re-created; director Vera Nemirova will be directing a new production in the reconstructed sets. Stage and costume designer Jens Kilian, who has worked with Vera Nemirova for many years, is responsible for reconstructing the stage designs from 1967, as well as adding a further element from our own time, in the form of new costumes for the production. He explains how he has approached the task of re-creating a 50-year-old set design and when he found inspiration for his new costume designs.

The mock-up set rehearsal for Die Walküre
The mock-up set rehearsal for Die Walküre (c) OFS/Forster

What is it like to re-create the sets from the 1967 production of Die Walküre, given that it means the new construction of an old design?

In the first place, it was a huge challenge. It meant engaging in detective work to find out what motivated Günther Schneider-Siemssen and Herbert von Karajan back then and how they tried to realize their ideas and visions on stage. But you also have to put aside your sense of reverence to a certain extent. You have to track down what they really meant. So it was not a matter of building something new, but about getting as close as possible to Schneider-Siemssen’s design and then finding our own interpretation for it. We took the original – at least, what was still to be found in the archives, specifically drawings and sketches. The scenery itself no longer survives. And then we went on a hunt to find out how everything functioned back then – what the lighting design was, how the scene changes were organized, what the atmosphere was. That’s a fascinating story, of course. You feel a bit like an archaeologist who uncovers something and then reveals more and more. For example, we also found sketches for ideas of theirs that couldn’t be realized on stage. We think it was because some things simply weren’t technologically possible at the time, such as projection techniques that we can employ today.

What is your assessment of the 1967 production of Die Walküre in the context of its time?

I think Schneider-Siemssen and Karajan created a world of longings back then – it’s a model of how to take a step back, to contemplate things, and then try and discover the essence that lies behind the work Wagner created. In this sense, their Walküre was clearly in contrast to what was happening around them in the world: pop art, the hippie movement, the Vietnam War and so on. The production harked back to archaic things, to nature and myths. A 1,500-year-old sequoia tree essentially represents everything in the first act. The backdrops are highly atmospheric, making you think about the creation of the world. I think they were hunting for meaning in the midst of the turmoil, unrest and upheaval of their time.

Jens Kilian (c) OFS/Forster
Jens Kilian at the mock-up set rehearsal (c) OFS/Forster

You are also responsible for designing the new costumes. Your sketches prompt associations with TV series and films today such as Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings. Where did you find your inspiration for this world of gods and legends?

To start with, we want to take a journey through time with this re-creation of the production of Die Walküre. We are living in the here and now, but we’re looking at a stage design that’s 50 years old. This is initially a reminiscence of Günther Schneider-Siemssen; it’s like we are looking at archival material. But then we have to see how we can create a connection to the present and also jump from the Now into the Then. Today’s reactions to the series and films you mention, all based on legend, show that we still have a desire to deal with these topics, to create another world of legends and gods and myths for ourselves, in contrast to the reality in which we live.
Today, we are casting our gaze back at this stage design, which is very much bound up with nature – it’s fantastical, loaded with myths, and has this giant tree in the middle of it. I couldn’t imagine simply designing modern costumes to go with it. Nor will anyone be wearing tights in our production, like Siegmund did back then. I would like to have a world of its own emerge, an archaic world, a world of people who are all searching for something, who are all wanderers, restless. Wotan has given up an eye for this, Hunding is a driven man, Siegmund doesn’t know where he’s from or where he’s going – here, people come into conflict who are all seeking something. At the beginning of the opera, Wotan, Fricka and Hunding appear in seemingly modern clothes and then they emerge transformed in this archaic world. I familiarized myself with various depictions of the Nordic gods that I found in reproductions, books and films and I am working with combinations of different textiles and materials: leather and leather meshwork, hides, wool, jute and silk. They are meant to be ‘lived-in’ costumes, so you you can see their history.

How are you going to realize the reconstruction of the stage designs in technical terms? Both opera and technology have undergone tremendous developments since 1967.

We’re using modern technologies to try and realize things more simply that were rather difficult back then. We’re using lifting platforms, for example. We’re not just moving things by hand. Lifting platforms did exist, but using them was very cumbersome. And the projections created back then using painted colour screens will be re-created too, only we’re going to use today’s technology to take the original designs and develop them further. For example, we’re trying to get movement in them. We’ll also be using video for this – though always carefully, of course, because we’re not making a science fiction film. Everything is being done ‘in the spirit of the author’.

Is the music also a source of inspiration? You know Wagner very well, due to your previous work for the stage.

Yes, I did the whole Ring with Vera Nemirova in Frankfurt and I’ve also done Parsifal three times. You might imagine that at some point in that process you’d get a direct line into it. But every time I hear Parsifal, I discover new things. That also has to do with the fact that the older you get, you’re suspectible to more influences and you also tend to know what you don’t want. So how you listen changes all the time. Wagner is like a musical drug for me, you lift off and go into another world. Even the text shifts constantly in its relationship to the music. You are always getting a new perspective, new inspiration and new points of access.

This interview was conducted by Hannes M. Schalle and Martin Riegler. Translation: Chris Walton