JD: What does it mean to you personally to be directing Parsifal?
SL: I first saw Parsifal in the Hans Jürgen Syberberg film version as a teenager, and loved it… but in my twenties I really fell out with the piece (loathed it), and only in the last few years have I returned to it. But even when I hated it I was always aware of its enormity and importance. Now I find myself moved by its simple humanity and complex almost desperate scrabble for spiritual meaning in life.
JD: Please tell us something about what you're doing with it in this new production?
SL: There are a couple of clear developments the piece which emerge from a close consideration of the story’s background and when you take the characters seriously as people rather than symbolic representations of an idea. One is the effort to effect a paradigm shift – to move from a world ofschadenfreude, cruel mocking laughter at another’s suffering, to one of mitleid, compassion. The other is from a hierarchical, closed and exclusive spiritual community, to an uncovered Grail, where each person must make their own connection with the numinous. These ideas are on one level, simple, but Wagner is not simplistic, and he forces us to experience very dark twists and turns on the journey. Our attempt is to tell a clear story, but to allow the piece to keep its mystery: to find recognizable humanity in the characters, but also to keep the magic of the myth.
JD: Many opera-lovers (myself included) feel that Parsifal is itself a kind of Holy Grail... What are its biggest challenges, excitements and dangers for you as director? Do you see it as in any way a story for our times?
SL: Parsifal is like the Holy Grail if you are ever tempted to think that there is a perfect way to do it, which will be forever relevant. Its philosophy and even its narrative are slippery, contradictory, intangible. It is a huge piece - not just in terms of length - through which there are probably as many journeys available as there are people to engage with it. As a director I suppose the main thing is not to be overwhelmed by its performance history, but to listen openly as if for the first time, to focus on the human moments that resonate and move us. Is it a story for our own times? Yes – but perhaps this could be a definition of any masterpiece, when a piece’s multifaceted complexity reveals itself anew to each generation.
JD: Wagner has become desperately associated with the Nazis and anti-Semitism. How can we best deal with this today?
SL: Wagner was anti-Semitic, and he wrote and said poisonous things. But I think he composed beyond his bigotry, plunging instinctively into deep myth structure. I don’t think that we need to present his operas to comment on his horrible views. If I felt that was all that was going on in Parsifal, I wouldn’t direct it. It’s right to continue to examine and expose Wagner’s views and behavior, and to wonder at this same man being able to compose such sublime music, and to dedicate his last work to the idea of human compassion. In the stark contradiction sits flawed humanity.
Parsifal, Royal Opera House, from 2 December. Box office: 020 7304 4000
And here is a video preview in which Gerald Finley talks about singing the role of Amfortas.