German stage-director Hans-Joachim Ruckhäberle studied literary science, history, philosophy and sociology. Since 1982 he began to devote himself to the opera, firstly as a dramaturge and later also as a stage director. Now he is a professor at Kunsthochschule Berlin – Weissensee at the Department of Scenic and Costume Design. In the actual season he accepted the opportunity to work on stage direction of opera Salome by Richard Strauss.
You are working now on a stage direction of Salome by Richard Strauss in Bratislava. Was it your own decision or somebody inspired you to do just this opera?
It was actually the invitation by maestro Friedrich Haider, the Opera director, as he knows me from before. He asked me if I would like to do Salome in Bratislava and I saw it´s interesting opera. Other thing is that I have never been in Bratislava, so for the first time I came here to get the first contacts and discussions on casting, concepts and ideas of staging. Now, I am five weeks here for rehearsing and, as you know, we are almost done. I like Bratislava as well as the Opera House, there are really wonderful performers and the contacts with all the technicians, the costume people, the excellent light people and others are also wonderful. I am really very glad to be here.
Have you done Salome before?
I was a dramaturge of Salome 20 years ago but that was totally different from what I am doing here. I was also working as a dramaturge on Elektra by Strauss. These are two operas with the strong women in the middle. I did not much other operas by Strauss so that I am not a specialist for this composer. Last two years I worked on the complete Wagner´s “Ring des Nibelungen” for the Grand Theatre in Genf in Switzerland. It´s a long piece, four operas, this was almost two years work.
Salome by Strauss is not so long opera but it is fairly compact and dramatically concentrated. Could you say something to the conception of your stage direction?
It is, like you said, a very compact, very complex work. This is surely in intentions of Strauß because he, let say vulgar, wanted to be better than Wagner. He wanted his own “Gesamtkunstwerk”, but he didn´t call it so, he called Salome “Musikdrama”. It is also very well-known that in literature to Strauss everybody speaks on his special “Orchestersprache” (language of the orchestra). There are not just the accompanied singers but he understood the orchestra with his own kind of language as a part equal to the soloists. Just this I like very much for the ideas of the stage directing. There are not “die Übergänge” (passages) but lot of changes, ruptures etc.
The interesting point is that when Richard Strauss saw the drama by Oscar Wilde he instantly realized that he can make a very dramatic opera after it. Not only this theatre production in German translation seen by Strauss adapted the story of Salome but it was in those times a real hit. Salome was done by all the modern dance people around 1900 and also the classical dancing was very often connected with this subject. It was really markedly popular in the trivial culture like vaudeville, dance clubs etc. The avant-garde feature of opera Salome is that Strauss got the subject with the content popular in both E- and U-culture (E “ernste” – serious, U “unterhaltende” ‑ entertaining).
He made his own libretto where he took out everything what could be considered as a “prehistory” of the material. This means that he just put the whole subject into presence. Therefore, the reasons why somebody acts just by this way are not given in the libretto; it is just “let´s some act”. And therefore the impact of my directing is that everything follows from the immediate situation. Everybody reacts on other people, in each new situation there is a new reaction. There are the people following no big plans. In my eyes, the ideas, conception and images of the whole story are from today. It is a story of the consumer capitalism and I see it as a story of very highly eroticized, sexualized society where the images of sexuality, naked bodies, love and partner exchange are highly important.
In my meaning, the opera Salome is as the absolute love, which evokes for me an often asked question on violence and tenderness. In the piece, this is always most important because, saying simplified, it is like an experiments of love, violence and tenderness. There exists the love of Naraboth – Salome plays with it and uses it in certain, not too functional way, which also comes from the just passing moment. Then she wants to see, kiss and in one moment definitely to have Jochanan although she knows that this is not for life, she can just have only one moment. The really important is that she does everything to get this kiss. In the times of Strauss the discussions on Apollonian contra Dionysian cultures were very important. The same could be said also about Nietzsche and Wagner. And this all is symbolized here: somebody cuts somebody else as he wants to get an orgiastic point in life, but it is just for this one moment, because he cannot alive him.
There is also Herodes and Herodias, which could be considered as a modern couple with the useful connection between them whereby they are so rich, so powerful… In their relations as well as in the whole opera I am seeing a lot of points in terms of our society. I really want to show a story and a situation from 2014 and not from 1996. Therefore this is the reason why we have actual costumes and the people are moving like the actual people.
Let´s switch to the characteristics of the individual roles. In this opera there is a lot of passion approaching to the obsession…
Well, I am not very interested in the point of the Freudian let say psychoanalytic or psychologist standpoint for the piece. The obsession and the sense of psychological analysis or therapy like Freud are rally not in my interest. I want to see the people wishing to experience the absolute moment.
So, Herodes is somebody who wants to buy everything. However, if he wants to buy he must also give. He says, “O. K., I give it” but in one moment he comes to the consequence that he is able to promise more than he has. And he is also somebody, who is and till the end wants to be a power man. In fact he is a model of modern power man who wants to show that he is always the master of situation. This is really similar to the modern dictators, oligarchs and luxury people, which use to be exceptionally demanding as it is illustrated by the situation at the end of the piece: when Herodes have lost absolutely everything the moon starts darken. At this moment he says to the servants “Put out the lights” because he wants to be master of command even if he cannot change anything.
His connection to Herodias is explained only in Wilde, not in Strauss – Herodias was first married to the brother of Herodes who is the father of Salome. In Wilde he is in prison twelve years at the same place where we play now with Jochanaan. Then Herodes kills him, marries Herodias and becomes the father of Salome. Thus, also such can be the connection of power, capital and money and just this it is the functionalized example of how the power can be kept.
The reactions of Herodias are very various and diverse because we hear from Jochanaan that she is a pre-Christian goddess of sexuality. She is like a God of love sleeping with beautiful men in the world, wonderful Ethiopans and other absolutely picturesque bodies. I mean this is really in mind of love goddess yearning for passion sex: nothing Christian but everything totally anti-Christian.
Strauss, speaking about his own composition said “Herodes is very ʻspiesigʼ but although very sensitive, Jochanan is like a sectarian and cannot be serious – a guy who says ʻI´m not anyone, I am just a body for the voice of my God, I don´t love womenʼ – that´s not normal.” He was speaking about Jochanaan like on clown. I don´t agree with him here because his music speaks a bit in a different language – it is pretty impressive although Strauss as a person croaked fun about Jochanaan. When I look on these different characters from various angles I found that my aspect is always the contemporary one from the present time. Not every opera could be set as a present piece but this one is absolutely a present one.
There are two worlds in the play: the first one is the inner world of the Herodes´ party symbolized by the golden wall. Herodias and other guests, indeed Salome are a part of it. It is like a gated community, which can be seen nowadays particularly everywhere in the world. In such communities the rich people live in totally different systems than the poor ones. These so called “gated societies” are in fact the societies in societies and they occur not only in the East European, African or so called Third World countries, but also in the Middle Europe like France, Germany, and other ones. There are still bigger, greater and more visible separation between the rich and very poor people with a mass of outside worlds replenished with a poor ones. I think that we showed as great as possible the picture and images of the inner world symbolized by golden walls, separated from the outside world.
Salome tries to avoid, go out from all these worlds. At first she comes out of the world bordered by golden walls but she finds a world which is not much better ‑ she says Jochanaan “Look at me” but he refuses her. We also can hear her voice “I cannot stand it anymore” All has finished when she got the contact with Jochanaan´s head. Then the only solution can be “It´s over”.
Herodes is also a person acting according to the instant situation but in the case of him the reasonable acting appears, as he, for example, keeps Jochanaan alive…
Yes, this is an interesting moment; he is like a good usurper or capitalist, as somebody who has feeling for a lot of things. At first, he wants to have power. That is about he tries all the time. He mixes power tricks as much as he can. He is a dictator in the occupied land where the Rome and Caesar are the foremost. It is similar to the U.S. Americans in Iraq. So he is a dictator who has a power and reigns for some Jewish tribes, five kingdoms. And he plays a game of “distribution and power” by means of “I listen to you a little bit and then I listen to you”…
Up to this situation suddenly comes somebody who says that the next step will be that a great God will come, Jesus Christ. He – Jochanaan – says “I am the Baptist, his Baptiser, I am just prophet”. Herodes considers: “O.K., I give this prophet on a secret place” – which looks like in Guantanamo – “I do not put him in a regular penitentiary system or prison system, I put him on a special place in an abandoned system.” So he takes Jochanaan out of justice system, he does not have a process, he just keeps him like the people in Guantanamo who never saw a judge, but they are kept there. And he says “I won´t kill him because if the real God comes, I have him”. This is also related with the next point, which is much more complicated than whoever thinks: Herodes has some kinds of visions. He says “I hear the wings of the death-bird, I hear it´s cold here, don´t you hear it?” These are some kind of short absences, where he wants to destroy time. He says “Who has taken my ring, who drank my wine?” This is really not conscious.
There is also another moment in the situation-game: he figures out that for him there would be a possibility to stay on power and besides this get a younger woman, the daughter of his brother, a little heritage of the kingdom as we hear from Herodias saying: “You are just an usurper, but my family, we are the royal family”. Thus Herodes got a chance for a new life like powerful, old rich man, who sometimes marries young woman. I suppose it appears not so seldom even in Slovakia and Germany that an elder man possessing money marries young woman. Such situation gets critical for Herodias because if her husband would divorce then he would keep her over. Moreover if he marries her daughter then in her life nothing worse could happen anymore.
As you see, in the opera Salome there are really a lot of various connections. We shouldn´t think that the dictators, capitalists or powerful men are dummies. Herodes is not stupid, he is highly sensitive. He has a feeling for many impulses and on the basis of them he concluded that for him it would be better to keep Jochanaan alive than to kill him.
At the end of the opera Salome is usually killed. As follows from your intensions, in this setting it is not so.
No. Salome as an opera is a part of certain kind of utopia, if you want. Maybe it´s not a bourgeois live, not just an everyday life, it´s just a life of great tenderness and passion also combined with brutality but it´s not life you can live for a long time. Somebody should fulfil it but in such case he has perhaps a life with one Dionysian moment and that´s more than having every day a cunt. This is different and, I mean, since this point it has something a little bit with Nietzsche.
And you have also another model here, it´s not big role, a page. She is female voice as well as female person and she is in love with Naraboth. Just this is the love, which is not egoistic but takes a care of the other. She tries to avoid Naraboth from falling in the hopeless love with Salome, and takes care of him till he kills himself. This is one of the other extremes of experimental love in this piece.
And the love of Naraboth?
But this is a kind of, I would say, the ideal or romantic love. As I said to the singer at the beginning of rehearsal it´s sometimes like Rilke or even Baudelaire. Narraboth sings sentences like “Wouldn´t you go with me in the garden where are the flowers … (etc.)” It does not seem truly, this is one of the conventional models which I would call “romantic vocabulary” or “poetry”.
Thank you very much for the interview
Richard Strauss: Salome
Premières, Friday 14. November 2014 – 19:00
Hall of Opera and Ballet, the new building of Slovak National Theatre Bratislava