Gundula Kreuzer is a renowned musicologist currently serving as Acting Chair of the Yale Department of Music. Born in Hamburg, she earned her D.Phil in musicology from the University of Oxford before joining the Yale Music Department in 2005. Kreuzer serves on the editorial boards of the Cambridge Opera Journal, Musiktheorie, VerdiPerspektiven, and the “Opera Lab” series of The University of Chicago Press. She has also published several popular books, including the award-winning Verdi and the Germans: From Unification to the Third Reich, and Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of the 19th-Century Opera.
Interview by Alkis Karmpaliotis
August 18, 2023
Alkis Karmpaliotis: While attending the Yale Young Global Scholars program this past summer, I had the pleasure of reading some of your books at the library, including Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of 19th-Century Opera. One thing you mention in the book frequently is the concept of “historically informed performance,” or HIP, which is to say, productions that are based solely upon the limited knowledge we have of composers’ original intentions. However, you differentiate between HIP as an end — as in Robert Lepage’s Ring production at the Met, which used modern, inauthentic tools and machinery to realize a vision of what we think Wagner would have liked — and HIP as a means to an end — as when performers use period instruments and old-fashioned costumes (a-la John Eliot Gardiner). How can we, in the modern opera world, balance historical accuracy and loyalty to the composers’ intentions with freedom of artistic interpretation?
Gundula Kreuzer: That's a huge question. I want to start with a clarification; I did not mean to say that productions like Lepage’s Ring fall in the HIP category of historical performance. He wouldn't claim that, and nobody else would. However, what they at the Met did claim was to try and be faithful to Wagner’s intentions. That's very different from using actual historically faithful hardware like historical instruments. I was part of a conference last year where we explored the possibility of historically informed staging; what would it mean to recreate historical stage technology? Is that possible, and to what end? I'm very skeptical of the whole thing.
The other question is one that's constantly being asked. Opera audiences constantly ask, “Well, this wasn't what I expected,” or “This wasn't the opera as it is meant to be.” One example: I was just at the Glimmerglass opera festival and saw a production by Louisa Proske, who came out of the Yale Drama School and was one of the co-founders and co-directors of Heartbeat Opera, and has now moved on to be Associate Artistic Director and Resident Director at the Halle Opera in Germany. She directed a production of Handel’s Rinaldo at Glimmerglass, and it was put into the context of a 21st-century, contemporary Children's cancer ward — you might have read or heard about that production. It has nothing to do with the original setting of Jerusalem in the 11th century; it’s not what Handel would have wanted and nobody would claim that. In a later discussion, audiences were very divided. The majority liked it, but some people felt offended and said, well, “This is not the original.” So that's a very, very old conflict. Now, how can we resolve this? It depends a little bit on the time and on the composer — but the idea that we can be faithful to intentions is very fraught because each historical era has its own technologies and its own means: the auditorium is different, the seats are different; there were no toilets back then. Also, the viewing conditions are very different, which means that, even if we put the same thing on stage now as we would back then, it would be received differently. More importantly, our horizon of experience and expectation has changed. We have been immersed in so many different media now that what was a technical miracle back then strikes us as child's play today. So, I think there's no way to really recreate what the composer would have wanted — if we even knew what the composer wanted. And, even in the case of Wagner — who is one of the composers who has spilled the most ink on how he wanted his operas to be staged — even in that case, we have many contradictory claims. The other thing, of course, is that it can be politically, and in other ways, problematic to stage the operas, the stories, the way they were intended in the libretto. For Rinaldo, in my view, there's no way that we can stage it literally as a story of white, male, Christian, European knights conquering exotic, other, non-European, non-white, female-codified countries. That's just not OK. So we have to do something to that text.
AK: On the topic of Wagner… In his 1849 essay “The Artwork of the Future,” he repeatedly discusses “the Machine,” referring to the technological aspect of performance. Funnily enough, despite the heavy dependence of his works upon it, Wagner scoffed at technology, calling it the “cold and heartless benefactor of luxury-craving mankind.” How do we effectively use technology to supplement (rather than distract from) Wagner’s works? What really was ‘Wagner’s dream’?
GK: Another big question. And, again, another clarification: Wagner did not write about machines in the theater; he wrote about the machine in his own time — it was the smokestacks and the steam of the steamboats that he hated. He associates the machine with everything negative in civilization, which in turn he associates with the West, with France, with something that’s not German, something which estranges humans from themselves, from each other, from nature. So, the machine becomes a cipher of something that's not good and that has led humans astray. And as you said, the deep irony of that is that he was dependent on machines in his own theater for the staging of his own work, and, of course, Bayreuth was dependent on machines to the extreme because he needed the steam train to bring in audiences. No train, no audience at Bayreuth.
So that's one of the deep conflicts. Another one is, as I alluded to earlier, that we don't fully know what Wagner wanted because there are many conflicting statements. With the Ring Cycle, which is the big four-opera cycle he was staging in Bayreuth and for which he built the Bayreuth theater in the first place, there are some documents of his assistants writing down exactly what he said and what he did in any one moment — actually not in as great a detail as we might hope — but there are these statements, and, of course, we have illustrations. We have performance traditions that are built on that. At the same time, many things went wrong. Practically speaking, that always happens in the theater; but many things did not, more importantly, achieve the effect that Wagner would have wanted. And so, at the end, Wagner was disappointed, and he said, well, in the end, this was just a normal child of the theater, which is the illusionary theater he had hoped to transcend. So, Wagner had the hope that, if he modernized the theatrical technology beyond anything that had been done before (but always in the framework, conceptually and literally, of the illusionist stage of the 19th century), then, somehow, he could escape technology, and technology would transcend itself and appear as idealized nature. And that is precisely what is not possible, and precisely where his original performances fall flat. Some of his advisers had warned him that he should not depict the battle of Siegfried and the dragon, that they should not bring out the pasteboard dragon that looks ridiculous and like child’s play, and should maybe rather just allude to it. And he didn't want that; he wanted to realistically depict everything.
And so, afterwards, he realized that was maybe the wrong path, but he didn't live to try another path. And, in fact, while he did not live to stage the Ring again, when other theaters tried to do it, he said, well, I’d rather they follow my path at Bayreuth than do something that I didn't authorize. When he did Parsifal in 1882, he said kind of jokingly (and, as always, ambiguously) that he might like to invent the “invisible theater” because he hated all the make-up and all the artifice of the theater – and at the same time, that's exactly what he did in Parsifal. And so, that was another illusionist staging using techniques that had come down to him, that he and his collaborators, mainly his technologist Carl Brandt, expanded beyond what had been done before with the moving canvases and the three-dimensional effects. But, because of this legacy where Wagner contradicts himself, where Wagner himself says, “Oh, it didn't quite work the way I wanted,” and because the way he wanted it was not possible, and because he did want innovation and he did want to leave behind the traditional staging world of 19th-century Italian and French opera, that leaves us with a quandary: there is no one answer to what Wagner would have wanted. And so, if we use technologies, it's really the question that you started with: What is our goal? What is each production’s goal? Is it to try and recreate some mythological cosmos as seamlessly as possible and use computer screens and LEDs and (as this year in Bayreuth) augmented reality projections? Or do we actually want to update the parable itself and make something out of the story? And those two are not mutually exclusive, of course. But it really is a question of what end we want to do this for.
AK: In chapter one of the book, you discuss the Venusberg scene from Tannhäuser as an allegory of Gesamtkunstwerk in the way Venus controlled every aspect of her world. This monomania proves to be Venus’s great failure, with Heinrich (or Tannhäuser) proclaiming, “Too much!” as he escapes; this story reflects the unattainability of complete control — and yet Wagner pursued this vision throughout his life, becoming, with the foundation of Bayreuth, ultimately like Venus herself. For those who haven’t read the book, please elaborate on this fascinating connection.
GK: Yeah, so this is a little bit tongue-in-cheek, right? Let me take a step back and say that, when I started writing this book, I was very critical of all the ideas that Wagner did everything for the first time, that he innovated, that he was a big revolutionary, because so much of it is political ideology. We know that he was a nationalist, we know that he was a racist, an antisemite, that he disqualified others from whom he actually took. So, my original idea was to look at how much Wagner took from others by looking at the “before.” That project failed for several reasons. One is that it's very hard to find the documents, and I would've had to spend many years in archives to try and find the documents on the technologies — so I just did case studies in very small examples. The other reason is that I had to start to admit that Wagner did do something that was, in the end, qualitatively new – even though none of the individual ideas were new. All of the instruments and all of the effects had been used before to a certain extent, but not to the extent and in the combination and with the goal that Wagner did in the end. But then my critique of Wagner comes in. First of all, he does, of course, take without acknowledging; he disparages Meyerbeer and grand opéra while taking the very means of that genre. But then, of course, he fails; he claims to do something completely new with that, and in the end, fails and admits to that failure. And I think that very failure is actually written into the scene of the Venusberg in Tannhäuser. Wagner himself claimed that, with Tannhäuser, he kind of found himself, and that he found a path for German romantic opera. (He didn’t yet call it anything other than German romantic opera.) But he has several comments where he identifies with the hero of the opera — or anti-hero — Tannhäuser, when he says that his artistic striving and his wrestling with society and the confinements of society are just like his own.
It then occurred to me as I read more deeply into Tannhäuser and also looked at some productions that, really, what Venus is doing in the grotto to which she lures Tannhäuser is precisely to stage an illusionist Gesamtkunstwerk in order to lure in Tannhäuser and not make him miss real life. She uses projections and, in fact, the way that Wagner describes it in his later version, the Paris version, it is exactly the technology of Nebelbilder, of dissolving views, where one vista blurs into another one. He is inspired by technological ideas of his own time. There's ballet, there's choreography, there's the way that all the different media interact; there are all the colors of the theater in the grotto; there's the vegetation and the plants that Wagner, later on in his treatises, described as crucial to the illusionist stage — that the stage looks like nature and that the walls of the stage are to be decked out with the appearances of nature. And that's exactly what Venus is doing in that grotto. Tannhäuser has these very, very elaborate stage directions with which the grotto is described at the beginning.
Also, what was, for me, a foreshadowing of the Gesamtkunstwerk idea is the way that the individual media come together. The protagonists are on stage from the very beginning, which is unusual for the opening of an opera; usually, the protagonists have a big entrance. They are sitting there, lying there, sleeping, and then they only talk in recitative after minutes and minutes of orchestral music and then an invisible chorus. Wagner here stages the significations of different media that he envisions in his theory of the artwork of the future, where each art form comes in only and precisely when the previous art form has reached its limits. So, we have the depiction of the orchestra. Then the curtain goes up, and we have the depiction of the scene. Then we add the invisible chorus — which really expands the stage space; it adds to the impression of the grotto being “endless,” as the libretto states, and so it is as much a stage setting device as it is an acoustic device. And then we have pantomime, and then we have the protagonists finally opening their mouths with recitative, and only after that comes the aria. So, really, it’s kind of an illustration of what he will soon theorize as Gesamtkunstwerk. And, yes, the fact that it fails in the end when Tannhäuser says, “This is too much artifice. I want the natural changes. I want lifecycles, I want to feel sadness, I want to experience the wind” and all that, again, allegorically, we could say that that's what happened to critics later on when they said that “Wagner is too dominant and too controlling, we want to be able to have our own experiences and our own interpretations of what's happening on stage.” And that is, of course, what Friedrich Nietzsche will most famously (and most acerbically) say. In fact, in my chapter, I made the parallel that what Tanhäuser says to Venus foreshadows what Nietzsche says to Wagner post-mortem.
AK: On the topic of Gesamtkunstwerk… Wagner cited Ancient Greek tragedy as inspiration for the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk. In the case of the Greeks, their texts and amphitheaters remain, but their music is lost. But with Wagner, we have access to his music, poetry, stage directions — even his custom-made theater. So I ask, was Wagner’s vision of a total work of art ever truly realized? And is it possible, so many centuries after his death, to replicate it?
GK: It wasn't; I don't think he ever managed to fully control every aspect because there were some things that just escaped his control. Famous examples include: the Ring production when the dragon that he ordered specifically from a specialist in London arrived at the last minute and without the neck — it looked hideous; in Parsifal, the moving canvases that his famed technologist Brandt created for him proved to take too long to unwind, and Wagner added music to bridge that time that the moving canvases needed. And then, later, he added a curtain. So he did not achieve complete control because it was impossible — impossible for anybody. But I think, more than those practical details, the question is, could he have controlled his own legacy? So, he achieved something that nobody else had achieved before and very few other artists have achieved since. One example that comes to mind is Andrew Lloyd Webber, with his specifically purpose-built musical theater halls to perform this one musical year after year after year. But before Wagner, nobody had done that. He had created conditions that allowed him to have more influence over every aspect of the staging than anybody had before. In the case of the Ring, the tradition didn't live on because first, he wasn't happy with the premiere; second, he ran into debt and, in the end, he sold off his decorations and costumes to a touring theater of somebody who he had come to esteem, Angelo Neumann, who had done the Ring in Leipzig and then retro-fitted it with the materials from Bayreuth and toured through Europe. And we could say that that touring production had a huge impact on theatrical culture in Europe and also in popularizing the idea that the Ring Cycle is doable for ordinary theaters. For example, steam, one of my hobby-horses, appeared on tour: they brought along their own little steam engine, which was, of course, not comparable to the two big locomotive boilers that Bayreuth had. But nevertheless, the idea of steam was popularized; every theater then started having its own steam technology to stage Wagner. Then, from there on, you know the rest of the history: every theater now uses dry ice for steam effects.
But, you know, it was an indirect tradition. With Parsifal, he also managed something new due to copyright: he managed to say that this opera could only be staged in Bayreuth, which means anybody in the world who wanted to see this opera had to travel to Bayreuth and see it exactly the way Wagner had staged it. That was unprecedented. But we can see in this example also how problematic it is to try and insist on that same production being the one forever staged. First of all, there were other productions — not everybody adhered to the copyright. But even in Bayreuth, the production did not survive changes in visual aesthetics, changes in new technologies, changes in expectations on the part of the audience. So again, what seemed to be a miracle on the stage in 1882 had by the early 20th century become kind of standard and no longer had that effect. Even in Bayreuth — with Cosima Wagner, who was so averse to changing anything that her husband had ever said and done — they realized that, very, very modestly, they had to innovate, and she would claim that she would stick to the original and do only what Wagner wanted, while secretly they would be updating and making changes.
AK: In your opinion, should non-Wagner works be performed at Bayreuth?
GK: That's a topic of big debate. I haven't really thought much about it. I mean, it could be really interesting. I think one of the really fascinating aspects about Bayreuth is the acoustics; to hear other works with those acoustics would be really interesting, and to put Wagner’s works side by side with those of others. So, now that I'm thinking about it, let's have Meyerbeer in the Bayreuth festival, and other composers who are very rarely performed these days — partly because of Wagner — and let's see how they fare in this amazing theater. And bring back the influences that inspired Wagner — that could be a really interesting and beneficial thing to do.
AK: In 2020, you conducted an interview with Met General Manager Peter Gelb, wherein you asked him about the future of opera — whether or not it can survive post-COVID — and he made an important distinction between the survival of operatic institutions — such as Opera News, which was unfortunately discontinued — and the survival of the art form itself. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future of opera and what institutions like the Met can do to preserve it.
GK: Yeah, that's a really important question. The demise of Opera News — or the reformatting: it's gonna be part of Opera magazine — is one part of it, but, of course, the opera industry has been struggling for a long time. Opera has been proclaimed dead so many, many times throughout its history, and it's never been economically viable. It is just a very expensive and expansive art form. So there, we have a problem. One of the problems is that human labor costs increase and opera cannot do without all those people. We need that orchestra. It's a live art form. If we want to preserve it in this shape, we need this orchestra of so many people, we need the singers, and we need the stage hands, even if some scenery gets moved electronically and digitally. And so, always, the cost will, I think, disproportionately increase.
But something that can be done to reinvigorate is something that Peter Gelb himself (one might say, a little bit later than other institutions) has taken on board, which is producing new operas that speak to new audiences about contemporary topics. The art form has always been evolving. Wagner, of course, is one big example — but Mozart wasn’t writing in the style of Monteverdi or Handel. There have always been changes in the art form. In fact, there have been movements away from storytelling altogether; you think of Einstein on the Beach, which really is at the crossroads of multimedia art and esoteric experiences much more than storytelling.
So, there have been experiments and new avenues in creation, and I think it's really important to support those and make those part of opera being a living tradition and speaking to people and audiences today. I'm very happy that the Metropolitan Opera has taken on so many new works and has been commissioning also from creators who historically have been vastly underrepresented. So, I think that's something that opera can do. And I think some of the most interesting productions have come from smaller companies that don't have big overhead costs, that maybe don't even have to maintain a theater. Of course, certain operas can only be performed in opera houses. But site-specific opera, mobile opera, and also the many experiments with opera on screen — although I think I prefer the liveness of the art form, the in-person experience — there have been many great experiments in that regard as well.
AK: Absolutely. It's always amazing to see big houses like the Met embrace newer works — works that broaden our appeal. Very often, as a community, the opera world is quite stubborn in its unwillingness to not only embrace new works by underrepresented artists but also allow for innovation in productions of canon works as well. One of the more fascinating questions you raise in Curtain, Gong, Steam is why Werktreue — faithfulness to the composer’s vision — is standard at the level of music and libretto, while, in production, we allow for such freedom of innovation. Why is this double standard of Werktreue the case? How can we use different, new, innovative productions of works to convey new messages and expand our audience?
GK: Yeah. So, there are two ways of going about this double standard. One, as has often been said, is Werktreue, which is a concept that revolved around German instrumental music originally; that’s the difference between opera and theater — in spoken theater, there are lots of changes, lots of adaptations. But, with opera, because of the music, that’s not the case. So, many people are against new, updated stagings and think we should have the same concept of Werktreue for staging as well. That is historically problematic because that idea of Werktreue applies only to a very specific repertory. Before the mid-19th century, roughly, productions would always change. And in fact, the music would also change — singers would stick in their own arias, their “suitcase arias,” as they were called.
So the idea of Werktreue has become big, but it is actually anachronistically applied to all of opera when it was only a few composers, historically speaking, over 400-plus years who would themselves have subscribed to that idea. And then, of course, the other reason why this is problematic has to do with many of the things I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation: that it is actually not possible to recreate exactly what audiences saw back then. We don't have the same materials, we don't have the same theaters, we don't have the same technologies. While we're still enchanted by the music, the visuals may strike us as hopelessly outdated and ridiculous. And that has to do with, I think, the much faster development of technology in the everyday world and the much faster aging of visuals. Think about how quickly a hairstyle looks dated or how quickly the shape of eyeglasses looks dated — but we still listen to music from that time. So I think there's a different speed with which different media develop. But we can turn this on its head and, rather than say that Werktreue should also apply to the staging, we can say, well, why not bring this creative, innovative approach that we have with staging — or, at least, that many directors have and many opera houses have, now, with staging — to the libretto and to the music as well.
And I think that's exactly what's beginning to happen at the moment; we've had examples of that coming out of Germany for some time. But this has been happening in many areas and actually for quite some time, and that movement has now reached some of the main opera houses. I’m thinking here of Yuval Sharon’s Bohème that he did backward. He cut it a little bit and made it around 100 minutes without intermission, beginning with the scene of Mimi’s death and moving the love story backward so that, at the very end of the opera, the new lovers walk out into the evening with all their hopes up. That’s a radical change in the score. That’s one example of how this innovative culture can be used in order to offer new messages, in order to bring hope at a time when there’s so much hopelessness in the world. A lot of companies have been doing that, like Heartbeat Opera in New York City, one of my personal favorites: they have been producing some of the classics with a very, very small ensemble and re-orchestrated the music. They might use an accordion and piano and a range of percussion instruments and then, maybe, two string instruments and a few wind instruments. This has made the music sound really fresh, but it also serves as a commentator, an interpreter of the music. And there are brilliant moments that I’d never heard like this before that comment on the action. And, of course, the action is updated as well in all the stagings — they try to address issues of racism and expose the underlying implicit biases that many of the composers of the 19th century had. And they address that by bringing the music in and re-orchestrating it, which I find very, very refreshing.
AK: As a teenager myself, I’m very passionate about this. I believe we need new things to keep this art form alive and vibrant. Opera has been proclaimed dead so many times because we, as a community, refuse to let it be reborn and refuse to let it adapt and evolve. Speaking of the future of opera… I founded my website, AppreciateOpera.org, to share my passion for music with other young people and show them that it's, in fact, not dead — that it can change and can be exciting. I also wrote an article for OperaWire a couple years ago called “How Young People Can Get Interested in Opera, which is all about these things. On that note, what can classical music institutions do to attract younger audiences? And what can children do to begin appreciating opera?
GK: Great! Some opera houses are actually doing great work in reaching out to schools; the Metropolitan Opera has a summer camp. Especially during the pandemic, they were very active, and they have guidebooks that they send to schools. Glimmerglass Opera has a children’s opera; I wasn’t able to see it this year, but everybody told me it was the highlight of the season and really delightful. So, there are works that are very, very open for young audiences, that are useful for young audiences. Also, I’m thinking of the Metropolitan Opera family version of The Magic Flute.
So, there are operas specifically written for children — it’s a whole genre, in fact. And there are operas adapted for younger audiences and for families. Those are great entry points. And, of course, I think it’s very important to have music education in schools, and that kids get an entry point to opera, among other genres. Something that struck me when I moved to the United States — I grew up in Germany and studied in the UK — is that opera in the United States has this ‘elite’ status in a way that it doesn’t have in Europe. And that has a very great economic fallout, which is that people, in the popular imagination, think that opera translates to high prices. But a cheap Metropolitan Opera ticket is so much cheaper than your average Broadway musical theater ticket! Not to mention Taylor Swift tours or any of the popular artists who are currently touring.
I think there’s a mismatch in the imagination that would be very helpful to address, to show that opera actually is, or can be, quite accessible. There are student rush tickets; of course, you know, the problem is that you need to be close to an opera theater. But I think that's where the HD broadcasts come in and the different media that we have online. Although, I think it is a very different impression to go to the opera house and experience the art form in the auditorium, in the theater. I know many families who every so often take the whole family to Broadway; what if that can include opera, and they can realize that opera is, on average, cheaper?
AK: I love asking that question because I always get such interesting answers. When I asked Anthony Roth Costanzo, he said “if you're taking a kid to see an opera, don't overwhelm them with the story, don't overwhelm them with the details of the different language and the plot; just allow them to sit down and immerse themselves in the performance.” And there are some productions that are just unbelievably immersive — I remember Akhnaten, which he was in, which I thought was spectacular.
GK: I talked to him last week in Glimmerglass as well. That might be important to mention as well in terms of this whole idea of traditional stagings. Kids are used to their tablets and multimedia worlds and video games. So I don't think that they can be really drawn in with the stories, right? And if there's offensiveness in the operatic stories, they will detect that immediately. You can't get that by children, which is, for example, why Julie Taymor’s Magic Flute was a nice family production to take opera novices to because they make Pamina more active and address the racism. If the production is visually stunning, that is something that can draw young audiences in.
I'm Alkis Karmpaliotis, and I'm a Junior at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. I hope you enjoyed this interview! I founded AppreciateOpera.org in 2019, and you can support my work by becoming a member and reading some of my other articles!