The German Gadfly Christoph Schlingensief at MoMA PS1
When Christoph Schlingensief’s restless, raucous staging of Wagner’s “Parsifal” opened at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany in 2004, it set off a lively furor in a place where aesthetic indignation and artistic debate are a way of life.
Even for Bayreuth, this German artist and director’s vision of Wagner’s final opera pushed the audience’s tolerance for provocation and invention to the limit. The turntable stage was lined with chain-link fencing and barbed wire, the villain Klingsor appeared in blackface and departed the earth on a rocket — and, most notorious, the hovering dove described in the libretto’s final page was replaced by video footage of a rotting rabbit.
“It got booed, and a lot of people did not care for it,” the mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, who starred as Kundry, said in a recent telephone conversation. “But I had other people coming up to me saying, ‘This was the first time I really understood “Parsifal.” ’ ”
It was on this line between incoherence and illumination that Mr. Schlingensief (1960-2010), the subject of a large and aptly (if dauntingly) chaotic exhibition at MoMA PS1, open through Aug. 31, made his home. His two opera productions — the Bayreuth “Parsifal” and Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman,” staged as a fourth-wall-breaking spectacle in Brazil in 2007, complete with samba dancers — account for just a late fraction of his output. He considered himself first and foremost a filmmaker, and his work encompassed theater, performance art, sculpture and political action.
But opera kept finding its way into his career. When he arrived on Liberty Island in New York, in costume as a Hasidic Jew, for the 1999 performance “Sinking Germany,” a guard asked him to turn down the Wagner he was blasting. The work to which he committed his final energies before his death was the creation of Operndorf Afrika, an improbable “Opera Village” in Burkina Faso, currently being built, which includes spaces for health care, education and art, including opera.
The MoMA PS1 show in Long Island City, Queens, has flown under the radar of most New York opera lovers, but it is important, even essential viewing for them, and not just for the rare pleasure of hearing strains of “Parsifal” echoing down a museum hallway. Beyond issues of taste — of liking or not liking his directorial choices — a crucial aspect of Mr. Schlingensief’s legacy is a reminder that opera, and particularly Wagner, is a natural site for the kind of radical approaches that are largely shunned in America.
“For Christoph, opera was a revolutionary force, and he used it like that,” Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS1 and one of the exhibition’s curators, said in a telephone interview. “And that is something unheard-of in New York.”
Born in Oberhausen, in the Ruhr Valley, Mr. Schlingensief (pronounced SHLIN-gun-zeef) came to prominence in the 1980s as a filmmaker specializing in fierce, funny satires. One of his best, “The German Chainsaw Massacre,” was made in 1990, at the moment of German reunification: Inspired by the slasher movie “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” it depicted East Germans being ground into sausages in a post-Berlin Wall burst of violence.
It became more challenging to find financing for films, and Mr. Schlingensief turned increasingly to theater and performance, finding an aesthetic home at the audacious Volksbühne in East Berlin. Several of his productions can be seen on video in the MoMA PS1 show. But it may be hard for New York audiences, trained to dismiss even much more naturalistic European direction as mere Eurotrash, to get a handle on the Volksbühne’s brand of “post-dramatic theater,” which abolished the building blocks of character and plot and instead privileged improvisation, political statements and an active relationship between actors and audience, in plays that stretched for four hours — or 24.
As he became a celebrity, known for hosting surreal talk shows, Mr. Schlingensief was among the first artists to appreciate, and savvily exploit, both the hilarity and terror of reality television. A biting imitation of “Big Brother,” which had just had its premiere on German TV, his ferocious, uproarious 2000 masterpiece, “Please Love Austria,” was a weeklong response to the victory of far-right, anti-immigrant factions in that year’s Austrian elections.
Twelve “asylum seekers” — it was never clear if they were actors — were housed in shipping containers installed, significantly, in the plaza adjoining the opulent Vienna State Opera. The public voted daily to eliminate “contestants,” who were forced to leave the country immediately, until the last person standing received an Austrian spouse and, therefore, a visa to remain.
So the organizers of the Bayreuth Festival — then, as now, members of the Wagner family — knew what they were getting themselves into when they hired Mr. Schlingensief to stage “Parsifal.” The production arose out of his increasing interest in Africa, South America and the history of European colonialism, but this was not “Parsifal” as a straightforward political critique — or a straightforward anything.
“I mean, who talks clearly today?” Mr. Schlingensief said in an interview in 2006. “Our age is not so clear as everyone would like. It’s complete nonsense.” Your openness to his work may be related to the degree to which you think theater should mirror reality, in all its messiness, as opposed to giving an alternative to it.
“Parsifal” was set on a turntable, interlaced with layers of projection screens. It was sometimes difficult to pick out the singers in the midst of this grand multicultural ritual. The costumes were an eclectic mix of nationalities and time periods. Mr. Schlingensief was, not unlike Wagner, a Romantic maximalist: He preached a gospel of transformation through overload. Ms. DeYoung said that he “would give a general idea of what he wanted, and then he would tell me what I needed more of.”
Rehearsals were unusually acrimonious — public accusations of Nazism and racism flew between Mr. Schlingensief and the tenor singing Parsifal — and Mr. Schlingensief later told journalists that the process gave him the cancer that eventually killed him. But Ms. DeYoung said that when the show was revived the following summer, with a different, more receptive tenor as Parsifal, Mr. Schlingensief seemed even more daring. Some of the characters now had body doubles, who appeared onstage with the singers and acted as strange echoes, and the sexual content, already explicit, was now even more vivid. The decomposing hare remained.
Film also dominated Mr. Schlingensief’s “Flying Dutchman,” staged at the ornate Amazon Theater in Manaus, Brazil, made famous by another German provocateur, Werner Herzog, whose film “Fitzcarraldo” opens with a scene of Caruso performing there. The night before the premiere, Mr. Schlingensief hosted a parade and a late-night river journey that culminated in a fireworks display; at the premiere, the theater doors were opened and the space filled with the sound of samba drumming.
His Opera Village — the Gesamtkunstwerk to end them all — began as an idea even more elaborate and less plausible than Wagner’s construction of a festival theater in Bayreuth. Mr. Schlingensief sought to create an open-ended set of buildings and practices based not on traditional concepts of aid and international development, but on a communal space of creation and experimentation. The overarching idea was not that Africans lack things that Europeans can provide for them, but that collaboration between the two might lead in unexpected directions.
Its cornerstone laid in 2010, six months before Mr. Schlingensief’s death, the project is now overseen in part by his widow, Aino Laberenz. The first class at the village’s school was enrolled in the fall of 2011. Mr. Schlingensief will be remembered as a purveyor of exuberant anarchy, but this, his most lasting memorial, is a supremely pragmatic one.
American opera companies, and too often American critics, have offered operagoers a damagingly false dichotomy: Against the traditionalism of Otto Schenk or Franco Zeffirelli, they have counterpoised ostensibly modern productions like Robert Lepage’s recent “Ring” cycle at the Metropolitan Opera, which despite some whiz-bang technology still featured breastplates and spears. Both these tendencies in American opera are anti-modern; both make a religion of textual purity; both place virtuosity ahead of risk.
Occasionally, a more trenchant production makes inroads, like Willy Decker’s spare, single-set “La Traviata” at the Met. But when Mr. Decker’s relatively conventional “Traviata” hits the American high-water mark of daring, what are we critics and audiences possibly to do with Mr. Schlingensief, who made much greater use of improvisation, chaos and surprise? How are we to understand an artist who not only showed that risk and seriousness can go hand in hand, but expected the same seriousness and risk taking from his audiences as well?
Jumbled and affecting, the MoMA PS1 show reminds us here that the future of opera has been taking place without us, accessible — at least in part — online or on video, but not to be seen on our stages. It is revealing that it took a museum, rather than an opera house or a theater, to bring Mr. Schlingensief’s brave and radical vision to the United States. In contemporary art, he is becoming an essential voice of the post-1989 era: He posthumously represented Germany in the 2011 Venice Biennale and won the top prize.
But in the world of opera, at least in New York, he and voices like his still struggle to get a hearing.