Ariadne Auf Naxos

In German with English Captions

Chris Alexander on Ariadne auf Naxos

interviewed May 7, 2003 by Ed Hawkins

Chris Alexander has directed more than sixty plays in Germany and Switzerland and was the founder of the Bremer Shakespeare Company in Bremen.  For that company, he has translated and directed several of Shakespeare’s plays.  Since directing his first opera in 1990 for Bremen Opera, he has worked extensively in German, Austrian, and Swiss opera houses.  Alexander made his Seattle Opera debut directing Boris Godunov in 2000, and he returned in 2001 for Verdi’s Falstaff.  He spoke with Ed Hawkins on May 7, 2003, while in Seattle to stage Fidelio.

Have you ever staged Ariadne auf Naxos before?

No.  It’s actually my very first Richard Strauss opera as a director.  I’ve seen it quite often and my father [baritone Carlos Alexander] sang much of it.  So I know the music very well, not as well as Elektra and Salome, but I’m well acquainted with it.  I’ve seen quite a few productions of it – not only of this version that we’re doing here, but also the original Molière play in combination with the opera, which is very fascinating. 

It’s been reported that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf used to turn down invitations to perform Ariadne auf Naxos because she felt that the productions that were being proposed to her lacked sufficient rehearsal time.  Do you think that this piece presents any particular challenges in terms of rehearsal?

Well, it’s incredibly sophisticated music.  Incredibly challenging music.  And the thing about [librettist] Hugo von Hofmannsthal writing for Richard Strauss is that he’s incredibly wordy.  The challenge of language is quite significant and more so than some operas.  And I think that’s a challenge of all Hofmannsthal/Strauss operas:  how you cope with that – that so much is transported not so much through action or story, but through thought and through the way that music places that. 

So Schwarzkopf was definitely right in that way – if you don’t have a very detailed and fine interpretation of the music then you lose a lot of the quality because that’s in the words.  And so you want to be very prepared.  And I think we will be.  Angelika Kirchschlager has sung the Composer several times, and Jane Giering-De Haan has played Zerbinetta a lot.  Gerard Schwarz is going to conduct it, and he’s burning to do it.  He’s never done the opera yet, although he’s conducted practically all of it in pieces.

Because most of the music exists in purely symphonic form as well, right?

Yes that’s right.  And Schwarzkopf was right:  you should only do the opera if the people are really well prepared for it.  And in that sense we have a good basis for our production.  And when you have a strong basis, you can try things.  You can say, "This is tricky, but you know it, yes?  So, now how about we try it this way?  Let’s give it this indication.  Let’s take this flavor."  I am happy to have that luxury.

I’ve done a lot of theater myself, and Ariadne auf Naxos initially struck me as having great theatrical potential.  Prior to seeing it at a summer festival in 1999, I read the synopsis, which indicated I’d be witnessing a head-on collision between the conventions of Italian Slapstick and Greek Tragedy.  I gleefully imagined all sorts of ensuing hilarity.  The performance began with a suitably madcap prologue that seemed to suggest that the opera proper would be a dynamic clash of worlds and styles.  By intermission, my interest was piqued.  Yet the overall tone of the evening’s second half was actually quite subdued and restrained.  Everything was very soothing and lovely in terms of music and design, but in some ways it felt like the prologue had never happened.

Well, yes.  I must say that I’ve mostly seen rather traditional productions as well; the type that you describe, with this very strong separation:  First Part.  Second Part.  All put on in a very "pretty" way.  You know: "Ah!  Isn’t it pretty?  Isn’t it lovely to look at?"  I don’t complain about that, you know.  I like that.  But it’s not all that’s in it.  You know?  There’s more to it.

Such as?

Well, I think that there is an aggressiveness that underlies it throughout.   It’s a real battle between commedia and tragedia.  That’s something that interests me very strongly:  that strong emotionality and tension between these two worlds.  Those are the aspects of it that I go for.

I also come from drama.  I do a lot of Shakespeare, and what is often mentioned as being so masterful about his work is the mingle/mangle between tragedy and comedy

There’s so much variety in this work: a broad range of performance styles, multiple settings, competing subjects and characters.  Do you think that there is such a thing as "too much" variety?  That such diversity prevents the work from being a unified whole?  Or do you think this is a singular, albeit broad, piece that hopes to expand tastes and encourage us to embrace all forms of art?

I would say that last sentence of yours is quite well put.  It’s a sentiment that Hofmannsthal and Strauss would write their names over, you know.

You mentioned earlier that this was an opera with lots of conflict, tension, and underlying aggression.  There is this debate between the Composer and the commedia troupe, an ongoing battle between high art and the lowbrow.  Do you think that these conflicts reflect what was going on in the world of opera at the time it was composed?

Oh yes.  Definitely.  And also I think it had something to do with what was going on at the time in the world at large [1912].  It was such a time of turmoil.  I think it has very much to do with history as such and also with the history of theater at that time.  And that debate, that questioning, that battle was raging in the world just as it is portrayed in this opera.

In some ways Ariadne auf Naxos, an entertainment in which disparate groups of artists are forced by a wealthy patron to perform simultaneously, can be compared to Shakespeare’s "when worlds collide" masterpiece A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  But while Shakespeare managed to mine the meshing of worlds to great effect, the libretto for Ariadne seems to leave some of that potential untapped.

I can completely agree with you there.  As great a writer as Hugo von Hofmannsthal is, there is something missing in his libretto.  But that is partly a result of Richard Strauss’s strong influence on Hofmannsthal.  I’ve been reading the correspondence between Strauss and Hofmannsthal, and it’s clear that Strauss very strictly wanted it that way.  He wanted to divide it into the commedia dell’arte "appetizer" and the mythic/tragic "main course."  And in presenting Ariadne’s tragedy as the main course, he wanted very few comic relief elements coming over from Zerbinetta and her commedia group. 

Now, I have read that when they were first working on Ariadne, Hofmannsthal actually thought about having the Composer come back at the end, you know, to make the "appetizer" more of a "frame," you see.  And also to have the character of the Composer stop the opera at one point in the middle and really be furious about the way that it’s being done – to have an ongoing battle between commedia and tragedia.

And as I read about this, I can’t help but say to myself:  "Hey!  That’s the stuff I want!  I would love to do that on stage.  I would have great fun with that!"  Because I think that, as people are watching something, the more you can keep them in motion, shifting from happiness to despair, from one tone to the next, that’s the best way to engage them.  It’s something I tried to do here with Fidelio, and it’s absolutely something that I have learned from Shakespeare.

But Strauss was…reluctant, or at least anxious, about getting from comic relief back into the tragedy.  He didn’t trust that as much as Hofmannsthal would have trusted it.  And Hofmannsthal was a scholar of Shakespeare as well.  However, Hofmannsthal very often gave in to Richard Strauss; or at least that’s my impression of their collaborative relationship.

But I would completely agree with you that there are all these opportunities there that could be so wonderful to play out.  You know, it has something in common with the play Noises Off.

That’s exactly the type of show that came to mind when I first read the synopsis!  Noises Off, or even something like The Muppet Show, where you’ve got these chaotic "offstage" happenings affecting what is being presented to the "audience."

Exactly.  And I adore Noises Off.  I think it’s a great play.  I love the whole set-up of it.

Well, it’s a set-up that has a real payoff.

Yes.  Huge payoff.

Do you hope to deliver a satisfying payoff in staging this new production of Ariadne?

Well, yes.  First of all, I think this is a very satisfying piece already, in terms of the music and the story and the themes.  And I want to make it even more satisfying by making sure we don’t separate the two halves so strictly that we lose that aggressiveness I mentioned earlier.  Shall I give you a little indication into where I would like to go with our evening when we do it here next Spring? 

Yes, please.

I’m wondering:  what aspects of the first part can we have leak into the second part?  You know, we don’t really have the music for it, we don’t have the dialogue for it, but we have characters, scenery, etc.  For instance, we could have a continued onstage presence of the Composer.  Because usually when the prologue ends, the Composer gets her applause and she’s done.  But if she would be willing to stay on and go along with the entire opera, to at least be present throughout the piece, it could be very helpful in better integrating the two parts.  There’s also the possibility for the continued presence of the Majordomo, the Dancing Master, and all the other people from the prologue.  Keep them around to indicate that the "frame" story is still going on.  I’m wondering if there are limits – how much of that I can do.  We’re just starting to think about that, but I’m eager to see how it can be worked out.

By the way, I’d say there are at least three worlds clashing in this piece:  the commedia, the tragedia,, and the people who buy theater.  The patrons.  The Composer is crying, screaming, stamping and everything else due to the demands of this Majordomo, who is not an artist, but who is speaking on behalf of the guy who has commissioned this work and therefore really owns it.  It’s as if a billionaire was throwing this party and saying to these artists:  "No.  What I want is entertainment plus tragedy.  Tragedy alone?  No way!  I want to entertain my fellow friends who come to see this.  So you must find a way of putting those two things together." 

And when those three worlds clash — that’s what it’s really all about. 

So another thing that I would like to suggest, perhaps using supernumeraries, is the typical behavior of the patron’s guests who are attending this performance:  sometimes they’re interested, and sometimes they’re completely bored.  We can have a situation where the guests are standing there with their champagne flutes, watching the beginning of this lovely opera with great interest and then, when Ariadne starts in with her solitude lament, going on and on about how sad she is and how tragic is her tale: off they wander and she’s all alone!  Life imitates art, you know?  And then when Zerbinetta comes out, the guests all rush back in to watch and listen and be entertained again.  Getting at this typical response to comedy and tragedy — that’s another way we can sustain this tension that is set up in the prologue.

You also mentioned using the set as a tool to link the two parts.  As written, the prologue takes place in a private dressing area of a large mansion, with the opera itself set on the deserted island of Naxos.  In terms of the design of this production, will the opera portion retain any attributes of the rich man’s home?  Is there any hint of our still being in the home once we’re into the opera?

Well, in this case what we have in mind is not really a private household but rather a modern art gallery that could be here in Seattle.  I think this idea will work very well.  These extras that we will have walking around in the gallery, with their champagne, these people are the millionaires.  They are the patrons that spend, I don’t know, thousands of dollars, to wonderfully sponsor Seattle Opera and are the people who finally say, "This is how we want the performance to look."  Like that.

So the entire evening takes place at the opening of a new exposition.  And what you see for the prologue is the restrooms of the gallery, which have been temporarily turned into the changing rooms for these performing artists.  During the prologue, in the background, you see the gallery: huge paintings, grand piano standing there; but along the front is the hallway with the doors to these restrooms where the artists will be dashing about, you know, doors slamming, all of that.

You’re really going to go for that choreographed chaos, then?

Oh yes.  We’ll go for it, of course!  And as they’re getting ready you’ll see all the caterers with all the platters going by for the big meal that’s taking place in the main gallery.  And meanwhile you’ll have all these guests dressed up like they were attending a modern day opening night at a gallery here in Seattle.  Really modern.  Everything modern.

Will the look of the opera proper be modern as well?

No.  There’s already a set of very beautiful costumes by Bruno Schwengl which Seattle Opera owns which we will be using for the opera itself, but everything around that: the prologue, the guests, and the servants, Cynthia Savage will be designing all of that and it will be really ultra-modern so that you can think "Ah yeah!  I’ve seen that, I recognize that."

And then the centerpiece for the opera that follows is like a Richard Serra, you know, one of these monuments standing there.  He always worked with steel, making these cubes and things.  And so we’re going to have this sculpture showcased in the gallery that will then become Ariadne’s cave on Naxos, you see.  The performers have chosen something on display in the gallery as their stage set.

How will you shift between the hallway and the main gallery?

What we’re planning to do, very simply, is just move the angle.  We have one overall gallery set and we’ll just move the angle at which it is positioned on the stage.  For the prologue we will have this backstage perspective where we are looking mainly at this hallway off from the main gallery, and then for the opera we just shift it around and change the focus.

How do you see the evening ending? 

Well, at the very end, I would like to offer the audience different questions for them to think about.  And not just to leave them saying "My gosh, was that ending gorgeous!"  Beautiful, yes, and the classic ending of the myth, right, but leave it open.

It’s sort of like what you did with the final image of Fidelio.  After that joyous final chorus, you had everyone disperse except for the poor family who was not reunited with their lost member, as if to say: "Not everyone is so joyful."  The music lifted the audience’s spirits, but your staging left them with questions. 

Exactly.  That’s the way that I like to work.  Because I definitely don’t want to preach – I definitely want everyone to enjoy the thrill of the ending of Fidelio, which is so incredible and glorious, but also, just give that little occasion to say: "Don’t stop thinking, folks."

Will Ariadne auf Naxos end with the final moment of the opera proper as the mythological lovers retire in bliss, or do you want to stage some sort of epilogue to demonstrate how all of the participants in the evening’s presentation have emerged from the collision?

Well, that’s where I’m at work right now.  To end it only blank, with just the exit of the two lovers, Ariadne and Bacchus, going into their cave, that’s not enough for me.  I hope to find a way to bring the frame back around all four sides.  That’s the ending that I still have to find.  There’s a clue to how to find that in that it is the arrival of Bacchus at the end.  Because, although Bacchus is a mythic figure, he is the god of celebration and wine and all of the things Zerbinetta represents.  And so in a way it is Bacchus who ties it together.

So do you think there is a clear winner of this battle of aesthetics?  That Zerbinetta gets the last word?

Well, I think the music at the end has this incredible beauty.  I mean it’s absolutely gorgeous.  So despite Zerbinetta’s "last words," Richard Strauss is scoring lots of points for music at the very end.  What I like about the battle is that it’s elegant.  It leaves it up to the audience to decide.  And that’s what I like about these two working together.  You know:  Strauss does everything for the music and Hofmannsthal does everything for the words.  And in his last opera, Capriccio, Strauss stated the debate outright:  "Prima le parole – dopo la musica," [Olivier the poet sings, and Flamand the musician replies,]  "Prima la musica – e – dopo le parole."  So the battle between them lasted, unresolved, until the very end.

But it was a very courtly thing, you know, it was more of a courtship really.  That’s what I admire so about them.  Hofmannsthal and Strauss:  two gentlemen fencing against each other with very sophisticated instruments and at the top of their art.  And they’re always doing it with a great pleasure, with a smile on their faces:  "En garde!  Is it the music?  Is it the word?  Make your choice.  What do you think?"

Ed Hawkins, a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle's fringe theater community as a director, actor, copywriter, and playwright.  He appeared as a Tower Soldier in Seattle Opera’s production of Fidelio directed by Chris Alexander.

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