Interview with Jochen Biganzoli, the director of the Dresden premiere of Mathis der Maler
Hindemith‘s opera Mathis der Maler will now receive its Dresden premiere at the Semperoper almost 80 years after its world premiere in Zurich. How did this come about?
It has long been overdue for Dresden to take on this major work of twentieth-century operatic history. Efforts were made in this direction already in 1957/58: at that time, Hindemith was to have been involved in directing the opera, also conducting at the premiere. Eventually nothing came of this collaboration, for political reasons, and after the Berlin Wall was built the plan ended up in the desk drawer for a long time. Part of our work is to make use of this abandoned plan, to more or less refurbish it.
After the three early one-acters Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen, Das Nusch-Nuschi and Sancta Susanna of 1919-1921, which you staged in 2013 in Osnabrück, Mathis der Maler is your second directorial encounter with Hindemith. What is your impression of this work?
In the one-acters, one notices that this is a composer in his mid-twenties who composes in a carefree manner without consideration for losses – a young hotspur who tries out the most widely varied things and obviously has fun doing so. By comparison, Mathis der Maler makes the effect of being far more deliberated and structured, but also more serene. Here we have a composer, meanwhile almost forty, creating out of the rich source of his experiences as a musician and composer of stage works. The dramaturgy of the opera is precisely planned as well. Unlike the three one-acters, for which Hindemith used pieces by Kokoschka, Blei and Stramm without any changes, he himself wrote the libretto to Mathis der Maler. The long, painstaking work on this is an indication of the extent to which he was occupied with the questions raised in the opera: why do we create art, and what is the function of the artist in society?
What attraction do you personally find in this material?
Amongst other things, the work on Mathis der Maler signifies for me the exciting continuation of my work with operas from the 1930s: Simplicius Simplicissimus by Karl Amadeus Hartmann and Dmitri Shostakovich‘s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. In both of these operas there are interesting and very different parallels with Hindemith‘s opera: Hartmann’s subject is a life in the environment of atrocities of the Thirty Years‘ War using the example of the „pure fool“ Simplicius Simplicissimus; at the end of the opera, he confesses to a vision of a better world without violence and war. Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was banned in the Soviet Union two years after its successful premiere because the music did not conform to Stalin’s conceptions and was designated as „alien to the people“ and „decadent“.
How will you deal with the historical figure of Mathis der Maler?
Aside from the fact that very few biographical facts are known about Mathias Grünewald or Mathis Gothart Nithardt, the creator of the Isenheim Altarpiece, what happens to him in the opera is fiction in historical clothing created by Hindemith. For this reason, it cannot be my objective to tell a story from the Middle Ages. My grasp of the subject is from a present-day vantage point in which I point out the many reference levels offered by Hindemith in his scenario. For example, the burning of Lutheran books at the beginning of Act Three is surely a reference to the concrete experiences of his own time. Simultaneously, Mathis der Maler can also be interpreted in the context of current political events. At the beginning of the opera, we see Mathis’s need to become socially committed; this followed a year during which he was able to dedicate himself exclusively to art thanks to a subsidy from the Cardinal. He is also prepared to renounce certain privileges to do this. The courage needed for renunciation is a subject that is currently topical, precisely in view of today’s refugee debate: why is it so difficult for a society, as affluent as ours is, to demonstrate solidarity?
What influence do Grünewald‘s altar paintings have on your staging?
During the course of my preparations for this project, I visited the Karlsruhe Kunsthalle to see the „Tauberbischofsheimer Kreuzigung“ by Grünewald exhibited there. When one walks through the „Sacred Art“ section there, one first passes by works by such masters as Hans Baldung Grien, Cranach and Dürer. The dominant colours are brown, gold, dark red and a great deal of gold leaf, and one is impressed by the splendour of these paintings. But when I reached the „Tauberbischofsheimer Kreuzigung“, I spontaneously broke out in tears. The incredible intensity of this painting, its realism and the effect of its colours make a direct emotional impact. This artist paints truths, he doesn’t look away but perceives the pain of the world and excorcises it on the canvas. I believe that Hindemith, for the subject of his opera, very consciously concentrated on an artist who did not bow to the artistic mainstream, but created works of existential effect.
Could you please tell us which scenic impressions we can expect to have on your stage?
Mathis der Maler is, to the best of my knowledge, the first opera in which a work of art not only functions as decoration, but is also an integral component of a stage work. In the sixth scene of the opera, Hindemith took the altar tableau „The Temptation of St. Anthony“ as the visual point of departure for the events on stage. We have continued to pursue this approach and – I can tell you this much – shall place well-known and less well-known works of art of various epochs on the stage which allow for references to the plot – whether affirmatively, forming contrasts or as provocations. It this way, we wish to create a „space for thought“ enabling the audience to make associations with the various themes of the opera: questions of civil courage, cultural politics and the function of art. Below the surface, Mathis der Maler also conveys Hindemith‘s personal fate during the Nazi period. One may mention here Wilhelm Furtwängler‘s failed attempt in „The Hindemith Case“ to demand the independence of art from political influences; the attacks and animosities against Hindemith‘s music and person, leading in 1936 to a ban on performances of his works in Germany; the world premiere of Mathis der Maler in Zurich and the composer’s emigration to Switzerland and then the USA. Finally, the following question is raised as well: how would I have behaved in 1934?
Jochen Biganzoli has been a freelance director since 1999 and has worked successfully in a wide variety of theatres. His staging of Paul Hindemith’s triptych of one-acters Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen – Das Nusch-Nuschi – Sancta Susanna at the Osnabrück Theatre was nominated as „Performance of the Year“ for the 2012/13 season in the critics‘ questionnaire of the magazine „Opernwelt“ by Gerhard Rohde (F.A.Z.). This production also received mention in the category „Outstanding Contribution to the Current Development of the Opera“ in the authors‘ questionnaire of the magazine „Die deutsche Bühne“ – 2012/13 Season.
In September 2013 Jochen Biganzoli successfully made his debut at the Hamburg State Opera with his production of The Master and Margarita by York Höller, for which he was awarded the Rolf Mares Prize 2014 of the Hamburg Theatre in the category of „Outstanding Production“.