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Like other great concepts of his century, Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total work of art’) still has something fascinating and utopian about it. It was also a highly individualistic idea, for in the early years of Bayreuth, the many interwoven elements of an opera came solely from one great spirit. Seen from the point of view of our century, the inherent dangers of this ideal are easy to recognize: if we consider theatre as a mirror of social relations, Wagner’s creative process can appear problematic in its extreme ‘monomania’. The consequences of this model have strongly influenced world history – and not in an always positive way. But even when something has been created in such a monological manner, the resulting work can nevertheless be quite anti-authoritarian. Loveless or soulless authority in Wagner always represents the greatest opponent to the open or free-thinking individual, and Lohengrin, written in the turbulent years leading up to the 1848 revolution, has a particularly anti-authoritarian character.
That is precisely what working with painters Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy here in Bayreuth, the home of the Gesamtkunstwerk, has meant to me: to create an alternative way of working and expand the concept of the ‘total work of art’. To unite different ideas into a single stream and merge them into one collective creation; to create a multiplicity or, better yet, to realize the multifaceted nature of the work itself: that was the task. This production, therefore, is the intersection of many ideas, just as harmony is created when different voices come together to sound as one.
Electrifying a nation
In their first stage design, Neo and Rosa put an electric pole in the middle of the stage. It bore the murky, melancholic color of a relic and served as the ‘judgment tree,’ just as a ruined insulator acted as the king’s throne. This image suggested that Brabant was a land fallen from grace, without electricity or energy, and which had elevated that lost power to a divinity. In other words, Lohengrin must bring electricity into the darkness of Brabant, similar to Lenin’s electrification of Russia. Lohengrin and Lenin: models of visionary leaders who embody an ideal and yet were torn apart by their contradictions. Lohengrin as an idea, a vision, a deus ex machina, seems wonderful, but the longer his ethereal toes touch the ground, the more he is corrupted by the influence of reality. He speaks valiantly of his virtuous intentions and visions: to save an innocent woman and elevate her to an angelic state. He proposes a society not dissimilar to Lenin’s, with social equality between men and women. A highly laudable and necessary intention, but unfortunately still difficult to realize today, and neither Lenin nor Lohengrin could realize them in their private lives. In the third act, Lohengrin forces his wife has to obey him in the bridal chamber and fulfill his desire: in private, he insists on the very domination that he fights against in public. This all-too-familiar hypocrisy does not make Lohengrin evil, but it does make him appear as a tragic exponent of the imperfection and injustice found in any ideology. The tragedy of the piece is not Elsa’s failure, but Lohengrin’s.
Must all ideals which are at their core good and redemptive fail in reality? Wagner pondered this desperate question as he made his way to the Dresden barricades.
Fairy tale and violence
The fairy-tale color of the opera does not have to be perceived as harmlessness. Fairy tales use abstraction and unexpected, imaginative breaks in order to create distance from history and emphasize an essential human circumstance. The fairy-tale world of Lohengrin is a mask behind which Wagner staged his passionate critique of his society.
This fairy tale tells of a hero who strictly forbids any questions. But the theme of ‘blind obedience’ does not begin with Lohengrin’s ban on questions but with the religious show trial in the first scene. It is no coincidence that Marx’s statement ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ dates from 1844, around the same time as Wagner was writing this opera. Lohengrin shows the harmful consequences of religious intoxication: a society in which religion and govern-ment are inseparably linked all too often uses an idea of ‘God’ as a means of oppression. Such societies constantly need sacrifices to confirm their power –preferably women, the ‘root of all evil’ in many religions. The guiltless are punished without proof, the truly guilty remain in the king’s favor, and the people (the opera’s chorus), easily distracted by spectacle, do not perceive the paralyzing effect of this opium.
The kingdom shown in Lohengrin is not exemplary, but a neglected land frozen in fundamentalism. We must not confuse King Heinrich’s ‘God’ with our concept of ‘goodness.’ The king puts on a show of humility in order to maintain his power and keep his subjects in a subservient position. (‘So help us, God, at this time, because our wisdom is simplicity!’) He presents an official mask and uses superficial terms and political slogans the men happily echo – all to distract people from their unjust society. (‘A German sword for German land! That will prove the empire’s power!’) Unlike Meistersinger, there is no trace of longing for ‘the good old days’ in Lohengrin; Wagner’s earlier social vision depicts a cruel situation that urgently needs to be overcome, reflecting his view of the bourgeois society of his time.
Elsa’s burgeoning consciousness and the positive influence of Ortrud
Elsa stands in stark contrast to this land lacking free-thinking individuals, and the main plot of the opera shows her two liberations. The first is achieved by Lohengrin in Act I, when he saves her from death and hostile Brabant society. Yet the second liberation in Act III is much more important, for there she frees herself from Lohengrin’s impossible expectations. ‘Can this be love?’ she asks herself doubtfully. No, she realizes, in the moment she breaks Lohengrin’s ban. ‘A joy without remorse’ cannot be blind; it must be knowing, open, and free. Elsa’s development offers an alternative to the social doubts plaguing Wagner: If you want to turn your ideals into reality, you must also question and explore the ideal and reconcile it with actuality.
Elsa requires Ortrud’s help to achieve her liberation. Ortrud is a survivor, a kind of ‘Satan,’ demonized by the institutional church. The best friend of humankind. Mikhail Bakunin, Wagner’s friend at the time he was writing Lohengrin, describes Satan in God and the State as follows:
‘God wished, therefore, that man, destitute of all understanding of himself, should remain an eternal beast, ever on all-fours before the eternal God, his creator and his master. But here steps in Satan, the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds. He makes man ashamed of his bestial ignorance and obedience; he emancipates him, stamps upon his brow the seal of liberty and humanity, in urging him to disobey and eat of the fruit of knowledge.’
We can thus understand Ortrud as a positive influence: she is a freedom fighter, rebelling against the hypocrisy of the Brabantian society. As a woman in a male-dominated world, she must act with particular skill and discretion (as we see in her nearly silent appearance in Act I). But as a revolutionary with matriarchal roots, Ortrud plots to overthrow this society and re-establish her vanquished tribe. In the scene between the two women in Act II, productions often suggest that the ‘snake’ poisons Ortrud and Elsa’s purity with doubts. But one can easily see this another way: Ortrud can save Elsa from the poisonous society and encourage her to think for herself. After all, Ortrud is absolutely right to question Lohengrin – and so is Elsa.
In the end, Elsa leaves this society and its false faith and goes away, but where to?
We don’t find out, but we see her moving out into the world, stronger and smarter than before, and less naïve. Ortrud stays behind to reclaim her flame-scorched land.
And they lived happily ever after…