Capturing the Zeitgeist of an Era – Interview with Opera Director Jochen Biganzoli

I have had the chance to ask Jochen Biganzoli various questions about the future of opera and why he chose the Kassel`s State Theatre for staging a Bach piece. About his artistic career: Biganzoli studied theatre and music science at the University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Bavaria. He worked as a director`s assistant before becoming an opera director himself. Biganzoli was nominated for the renowned German theatre price “Faust” twice, in 2020 for staging Wagner`s Tristan and Isolde as well as in 2016 for Schostakowitsch`s Lady Macbeth von Mzensk. His opera productions cover composers such as Puccini, Bach and Hindemith.

Biganzoli`s fascination with the composer Richard Wagner

What does Wagner mean to you? Biganzoli: “I try to make the complexity of a piece visible. First to find it and then make it visible. Naturally, at some point, I have to decide which interpretation I choose, because Wagner`s pieces are highly complex and offer many interpretations. The focus depends on the director`s personality, his or her own life experience, education and the director`s team. The reception history of a piece plays a certain role, because if we take a piece which is 150 years old, the world has changed since then. Our perspective originates in this time. All pieces from the 19th century come from a pre-Freud Area and since Freud, one cannot neglect certain things. Psychological aspects were only known unconsciously. Mozart was Freud pure, although he did not know him. With this in mind, we have to take into consideration the psychological perspective.”

How do you treat the aspect that Wagner is a known Antisemit? “In the 19th century, Antisemitism was a phenomen in society. There is a discrepancy between what Wagner writes about Jewish people and how many musicians where Jewish in his environment. I do not want to excuse any statement Wagner made, but we have to read his statements in the context of the times.

Opera in the past and present

I am curious about the development of music theatre and ask Biganzoli: What has changed over the years?

Biganzoli: “Carl Maria von Weber attached great importance to having an eagle owl with illuminated eyes by candlelight in the “Wolfsschlucht” (wolf`s ravine) in his opera Freischütz. At present time we have different possibilities with light and technology which, in my opinion, we are obliged to use if we want to go with the times.

The text is old – nowadays, things are expressed differently. In production, the modern narrative clashes with the old language. To renew the lyrics of an opera would be a too extensive change, however, I would wish for more freedom to change the narrative. Drama plays already tell classical pieces distinctly different.

Opera has strict rules, everything but the music is outdated. Mozart is still modern with his music, same as Wagner. There are composers whose music I would not describe as timeless. As a director of music theatre, the score is after all fundamental for me. Nonetheless, I would wish to be able to treat the score more openly. Different views exist in this regard. More conservative voices, usually conductors, say that the score is unchangeable. Formerly, composers changed the score when it was necessary like Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. Also, contemporary composers add transitional music if necessary, e.g. for a first release. Baroque music is related to Jazz music. Changes and adjustments are part of the music. There are more radical approaches to the material too. As directors, we are not only responsible for the entertainment of the public, first of all, we are artists aiming for artistic development. Ideally, opera productions are capturing the zeitgeist of an era or even going beyond.

Future of theatre

According to Biganzoli, music theatre is in a dead end due to economic pressure. The audience is not so eager to tolerate experiments which may result in lower attendance. Due to Coronavirus, the habits of many people have changed. It is questionable if the attendance numbers will ever go back to normal when and if the restrictions are lifted. In January 2022 at Kassel`s State Theatre, the rule is that a visitor has to be either vaccinated or recovered from the virus as well as being tested negative on the same day. The theatre in Kassel has its own test station in front of the building. The number of seats is limited to 250.

Weihnachtsoratorium by Bach in Kassel

In December 2021, Biganzoli directed the Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio) of Bach at Kassel`s State Theatre. It was the first time that the composition was accompanied by a staging. Initially, Biganzoli rejected the offer to direct Weihnachtsoratorium, because he could not identify with it. However, the offer by Staatstheater Kassel`s artistic director Florian Lutz convinced him.

What intrigued Biganzoli was the space stage in Kassel named Pandaemonium. It is a scaffold on stage, precisely, on the sides of the stage. The construction was developed by Sebastian Hannack and has three levels where the public can sit in addition to the conventional audience seats. This is a great advantage in Covid times because more people can fit in. According to Biganzoli, the space stage represents one possible way of the future of opera. Music theatre in this way is approachable and as close and personal as possible. This is guaranteed by the space stage because one can see the singers and musicians performing from a three-meter-distance, you are almost part of the scene, the music affects you directly. It touches upon all senses and creates thus a lasting memory. It was a unique feature in Kassel until the end of December 2021 and one of the reasons why Biganzoli chose to stage Weihnachtsoratorium in Kassel. Another aspect was the given artistic freedom.

Biganzoli on his interpretation of Weihnachtsoratorium: “We told the story of a typical evening on Christmas day. Families of the higher middle class in Germany usually visit a performance during Christmas. So Weihnachtsoratorium is itself an integral part of Christmas.” A novelty was a choir of Kassel`s citizens on stage as well as the musician Bassem Alkhouri who sang and played the Kanun, a string instrument from the Middle East.

Part of Biganzoli`s team are costume designer Katharina Weissenborn and stage designer Wolf Gutjahr. Their upcoming production is Faust – Margarethe by Charles Gounod at the Staatstheater Augsburg. The premiere was postponed in 2020 due to Corona, but the premiere finally took place on 29 January 2022.

The audience

When do you know if you reached the audience? Biganzoli laughes: “You can never reach all the people. The ideal case is that those people who did not like the piece experienced altogether an exciting evening. Not in the sense of a thriller, but sharing the thrills of emotions. The high tension may even result in a concert of booing during the final applause which I experienced with TOSCA in Halle. That is fine for me.” Biganzoli tells me that he is one of a few directors who watch the premiere. I am surprised. “They cannot withstand the stress and nervosity“, explains Biganzoli. However, he enjoys seeing the staging, because he is interested in the audience`s reaction.

Purpose of theatre

Finally, I ask him if there is something he wants to communicate to the readers. “I try to bring the layers of a piece on the stage, not with a moralising undertone, but to give a chance to the viewers to see the piece through their eyes. For example, in Weihnachtsoratorium, I gave a variety of associations, and every person can interpret it in his or her way. Theatre has the unique chance to reflect the condition of society in a sensual way. I mean not only intellectually, but also emotionally. I try not to provoke emotions in the audience with music theatre, I try to make them feel uneased, concerned, ready to act upon their feelings.”

Thank you for the interview! 

Author: Julia Solbach 

Editor: Julija Laurinaitytė

Title photo: @Jochen Quast

Photos: Jochen Biganzoli (private use)

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