From silver screen to silver tones

German film director Werner Herzog also directs some operas, including the 'Tannhauser' opening here Wednesday.

March 12, 2000|By Pierre Ruhe | Pierre Ruhe,Special to the Sun

In our times, film is the extravagant, anything-seems-possible popular medium. In the 19th century, opera was surely its equivalent, the grandest entertainment spectacle of its day. Gingerly, acclaimed German film director Werner Herzog has been working backward from one to the other.

As a filmmaker, his substantive movies are the sort taken up by college film courses and analyzed for their deep psychological meaning, probed for what they reveal about the human condition. Since 1986, though, he's also been directing opera. On Wednesday his production of Richard Wagner's "Tannhauser" opens at the Baltimore Opera.

"Werner comes to this medium with fresh eyes and a fresh mind, and I think it's a very important point that he considers the music as being the starting point for his ideas," says Christian Badea, who'll conduct the six Baltimore performances of "Tannhauser."

Part of Herzog's freshness in approach is perhaps a result of artistic isolation. "I do not like to go to the theater. I have been four times in my life," Herzog says flatly. "And I don't go to the opera house.

"As a spectator, it's always disappointing for me to see someone else's vision -- their imagination never corresponds with my own. And when I have been in the opera house I get so fascinated by so many things, by the contrabass players, running their fingers up and down the strings. ... I'd watch them instead of seeing what goes on stage. It's distracting and disturbing and finally disappointing."

When he does listen to music, Herzog says, "I see things very quickly and clearly." For "Tannhauser," "I suppose the central metaphor of this staging is that there is no outside story at all -- everything is inward. There's hardly anything happening, just torment on the inside, souls in commotion."

That commotion, the plot of the opera, was cobbled together from several sources by Wagner. The basic story centers on the minstrel-knight and Tannhauser, torn between two idealized worlds and the women who inhabit them: the goddess Venus, ruler of some fantastical paradise of delights, and Elisabeth, a devout girl symbolic of the hard-earned pleasures of life here on earth. It doesn't spoil the experience to reveal that no adequate compromise can be found.

Herzog's vision for "Tann-hauser" is all black and white, with minimal sets (by his long-time collaborator, Maurizio Balo). "The material set is all black and is not really of any importance," Herzog says. "The way it's staged, we have souls floating around the people, and the costumes [by Franz Blumauer] are made of parachute silk and they float in the wind." An elaborate system of 28 ventilators is hidden in the scenery. Often, rather than make facial expressions or gestures, singers stand at just the right spot so their clothing billows in the breeze.

When he's directing singing actors in rehearsal, Herzog doesn't speak about intangibles like character development. "I particularly hate it when I see movie actors asking for motivation."

In practice, that's clear. At the Baltimore Opera's rehearsal space, Herzog watches the chorus trudge across the raked stage as a piano fills in for the orchestra. They're pilgrims, on their way back from Rome, bearing surprising news. Arms crossed, Herzog stands beside conductor Badea, scanning the scene. Over the music, arms flapping in time, Badea shouts, "I can't understand the words!" A few moments later, Herzog steps forward, and the music stops. He takes a tall staff from one of the singers.

"You looked too mechanical," he tells them. "You've been on a long journey, and now you're home. You need to look around before you stop, plant your staff." He pauses a moment and starts to nod. "Take in the landscape -- this is home."

"Opera singers are never in close-up like on camera," Herzog points out. "In cinema, you have only one perspective, and that's the lens of the camera. Here they have to act for over 2,000 people in the theater. That's 2,000 different angles and 2,000 focal lengths."

"It's like watching a basketball game or Wrestlemania," he adds. But it's tougher for his singers, he says, whose actions are less "archetypical" than those of athletes. Still, he says, "Sometimes I wish opera singers were as good at acting as the wrestlers in the World Wrestling Federation."

After earning wide acclaim as a film director and demonstrating his affinity for the sort of densely complex characters and extreme, unfamiliar situations often found in opera, Herzog was approached to stage an opera. He'd never directed conventional dramatic theater, a natural bridge between film and opera.

"I never volunteered to do opera," he says. "I was dragged into it."

Herzog's first production, a conception of Ferruccio Busoni's rarely heard "Doktor Faustus," took the stage in Bologna, Italy, in 1986. To no one's surprise, it immediately attracted the attention of the larger opera world.

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