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Stefan Herheim: Opera director as 'renewer'

Sunday - 8/4/2013, 8:14pm  ET

In this picture taken Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013, Norwegian opera director Stefan Herheim smiles during an interview with the Associated Press in Salzburg, Austria. Stefan Herheim started directing operas at age 6, moving puppets around a tiny stage to recordings of his favorite works. No surprise then that the man known today for the intellectual rigor of his productions also infuses them with a sense of childlike wonder. Herheim's father played viola in the Norwegian National Opera in Oslo, and as a youngster he often attended performances and then re-enacted what he had seen. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)

MIKE SILVERMAN
Associated Press

SALZBURG, Austria (AP) -- Stefan Herheim started directing operas at age 6, moving puppets around a tiny stage to recordings of his favorite works. No surprise then that the man known today for the intellectual rigor of his productions also infuses them with a sense of childlike wonder.

Herheim's father played viola in the Norwegian National Opera in Oslo, and as a youngster he often attended performances and then re-enacted what he had seen.

"It was my need to be God and have my own opera house and conquer this world of my own," Herheim said in an interview a day before his latest production -- Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg" -- opened at the Salzburg Festival on Friday night. (It plays five more times through Aug. 27.)

Conquer this world he has, at the age of 43, and though he doesn't have his own opera house, he works regularly at Europe's best.

And now he's coming to the U.S. as well: Peter Gelb, who runs the Metropolitan Opera, was in the audience for the "Meistersinger" opening and afterward made preliminary arrangements to bring it to the Met in a future season.

Herheim got his musical training playing cello, then spent time as a production assistant at the Oslo opera and even ran a touring marionette troupe. In his 20s, he moved to Hamburg, Germany, to study opera production with the legendary Goetz Friedrich.

Kasper Holten, head of London's Royal Opera where Herheim will debut this fall directing Verdi's "Les vepres de siciliennes," calls him "maybe the most gifted younger director of opera in the world."

He said Herheim's productions are unusual for their "real analysis into why did the piece end up being like it was ... why the composer wrote the piece at this time and for this location."

This might sound awfully academic and a recipe for dull viewing, but Holten said, during an interview earlier this summer, "with Stefan, it's spectacular, it's always very beautiful to look at, it's funny, there's an abundance of creativity."

And puppetry still makes appearances in Herheim stagings: His 2009 production of Wagner's "Lohengrin" for Berlin's Staatsoper included a pantomime during the Act 1 prelude with a marionette version of Wagner himself conducting and then ascending toward heaven.

Another composer Herheim has put on stage is Puccini, who makes a silent appearance in his "Manon Lescaut" for Semperoper Dresden earlier this year. In staging Puccini's "La Boheme" for Oslo last year, he stripped away the sentimentality by having Mimi die at the beginning rather than the end.

Perhaps his most acclaimed production to date is "Parsifal," first seen at the Wagner shrine of Bayreuth, Germany, in 2008. Setting the action inside Wagner's own home, Herheim interweaves Parsifal's growth from birth to adulthood with the history of Germany and the Bayreuth Festival itself from Wagner's day through World War II.

The "abundance of creativity" that Holten praises is certainly on display in his "Meistersinger," a breathtakingly imaginative, frequently hilarious and often moving interpretation of Wagner's beloved comedy.

Herheim sees strong parallels between Wagner and the opera's hero, the shoemaker and poet Hans Sachs, who actually lived in 16th century Nuernberg. For one thing, Wagner wrote the opera in the years following his infatuation (possibly unrequited) with the married Mathilde Wesendonck; in the opera, Sachs, a middle-aged widower, renounces his love for the beautiful Eva so she can marry her younger suitor.

Herheim sets the entire opera inside Sachs' workshop, but furnishes it with items from Wagner's own era. "This piece has everything to do with the first half of the 19th century and very little to do with the German Renaissance," Herheim said. "Wagner's ideal picture of the romantic city of old Nuernberg never existed the way he tells it."

The curtain is already up when the audience enters the auditorium of the Grosses Festspielhaus, and Sach's workshop is spread out in loving detail across the wide stage. Even before the first notes of the prelude strike up, Sachs (or is it Wagner?) rushes in from his bedroom dressed in his nightclothes, hurries to his desk at stage right and begins furiously writing, perhaps completing the opera we are about to hear.

Then, as the prelude melts into the first act, Herheim and his production team engineer a feat of stage magic: Through a gauzy curtain, we see the desk become bigger and bigger until it takes over the entire stage and turns into the interior of St. Katherine's Church. A similar transformation occurs at the beginning of Act 2, when two cabinets and a doorway leading into Sachs's storeroom swell into a Nuernberg street scene.

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