‘The Valkyrie’ in Abu Dhabi: a modern opera for millennial audiences

Abu Dhabi audiences will be treated to a rare international performance of Wagner’s epic, accompanied by a live-action film, writes Rob Garratt

The Bayreuth Festival is one of classical music’s most renowned annual events but there are no plans to screen ‘The Valkyrie’ film in this traditionalist haven in Germany. Courtesy Bayreuth Festival 
Powered by automated translation

Could the Bayreuth Festival's ­untested multimedia production of Die Walkure (The Valkyrie), to be performed at Emirates Palace Wednesday and Friday, ­represent the way ­forward for opera in the internet age?

It is headline-worthy already that the 100-piece house orchestra of ­Richard Wagner's famous opera house will make a rare international ­engagement in the city. It performed at the same venue in 2008 the ­ensemble's second show outside Europe in 120 years.

But amid the historical hubbub and banner names – Stephen Gould and Daniela Kohler voice Siegmund and Sieglinde, respectively – the most noteworthy feature of the concerts has been somewhat overlooked.

The ­full five-hour ­performance will be ­accompanied by an ­all-new, specially ­commissioned, live-action film that may never be screened again.

You do not need to be a ­hardened Wagnerian to know that such a stunt is likely to ruffle the feathers of ­traditionalists, but could it also provide a new ­avenue for opera, an ­outreach to ­hyper-aware ­millennial audiences?

Opera for the 21st Century?

Opera is a costly ­business and, for logistical and ­budgetary reasons, it is not uncommon for famous works to be staged as audio-­only "concert" versions that feature live singers on stage and an orchestra performing the ­complete score, without the drama, costumes, stage sets or spectacle. That is ­particularly the case with ­Wagner, whose 10 mature ­operas are lengthy and ­grandiose epics.

But this production of Die Walkure promises to inject the ­adrenalin and tragedy of a blockbuster through ­director David ­Kasperovski's ­accompanying film, ­recounting the five-hour saga in real time. Live actors play out ­Siegmund's battle with Hunding for Sieglinde, and god Wotan's ­banishment of ­meddling daughter Brunnhilde.

he ­full five-hour ­performance will be ­accompanied by an ­all- new, specially ­commissioned, live-action film. Courtesy Bayreuth Festival 
he ­full five-hour ­performance will be ­accompanied by an ­all- new, specially ­commissioned, live-action film. Courtesy Bayreuth Festival 

This surprise turn ­represents the reversal of a trend. More and more ­symphony ­ensembles and concert halls are boosting their ­seasonal turnout by staging live ­orchestral accompaniments to classic Hollywood films – such as The Godfather and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, screenings coming to Dubai Opera in February and March, respectively.

Abu Dhabi Classics' ­production flips this ­concept on its head, giving the ­stages back to the canonical composers they were built for, while injecting fresh, fidgety audiences with the ­visceral ­excitement of film. And, in this Game of Thrones ­climate, the outlandish gods and ­dragons that inhabit the fantasy world of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle – of which Die Walkure is the ­second and most popular of four chapters – seem to be the place to start.

New voices, new approaches

Such an approach might only be possible under the direction of Katharina ­Wagner, the German composer's great-granddaughter, who has spent the past decade ­modernising his work for younger and more diverse audiences.

"This is a big thing," says Wagner, 40, who oversaw ­Kasperovski's direction. "It's a real movie telling the whole story of Die Walkure, which is just bizarre – it's like, you hear what the singers are singing and then you see it in the movie."

There are no plans to screen the film in the ­traditionalist haven of Bayreuth in ­Germany, and ­neither are there any plans to take it to other cities, nor film other operas. But ­Wagner ­acknowledges that if the ­production proves to be successful in Abu Dhabi, the concept could be emulated
in future.

"If the people want it, we will see how it works, but we're pretty convinced," she says. "The movie has some very ­dramatic pictures, so ­probably it will work. I'm excited ­because it's another way of making a show – and the only way you can see it is by ­travelling to Abu Dhabi."

ABU DHABI. 25th. October 2008. Katharina Wagner, the great granddaughter of Wagner arrivng for  a roundtable discussion at the Emirates Palace hotel, last night (sat) Stephen Lock  /  The National.  *** Local Caption ***  SL-wagner-003.jpgSL-wagner-003.jpg
Katharina Wagner is bringing ‘The Valkyrie’, the most famous opera written by her great-grandfather Richard Wagner to Emirates Palace. Stephen Lock / The National. 

Wagner – who is also the great-great-granddaughter of ­composer Franz Liszt – took over as co-director of the Bayreuth Festival in 2008, following the retirement of her father, the renowned opera director Wolfgang Wagner. One of her first steps was to start hosting casual, free, outdoor screenings of Bayreuth's famously well-heeled ­performance, and to present condensed, hour-long ­children's versions of ­Wagner's epics.

Both steps were divisive among opera enthusiasts, many of whom part with thousands of euros every year to keep their beloved Bayreuth afloat. Indeed, tickets are priced on a sliding scale from 10 euros (Dh42) to 416 euros, but customers typically have to apply annually for a decade or more for the chance to get their hands on them, while priority goes to patrons and donor members of the Society of Friends of Bayreuth.

Tickets for Abu Dhabi's concert, priced between Dh200 and Dh1,195, may be a steal by comparison, although the aural experience at the fabled Bayreuth Festival is something of a once-in-a-lifetime honour.

There’s no place like Bayreuth

Founded by Richard ­Wagner ­and named after its host town, the Bayreuth Festival may be classical music's most renowned annual spectacle, with close to 60,000 opera fans descending on the modest Bavarian city every summer for five weeks of Wagnerian operas.

Legendary composers Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Anton ­Bruckner, Edvard Grieg and Liszt ­attended the 1876 ­performance of Das ­Rheingold, which inaugurated the Bayreuth Festspielhaus – the 1,925-­capacity theatre Wagner commissioned to ­accommodate his large ­orchestras and ornate sets – where the festival ­continues to take place.

"It's always a ­misconception that [Wagner] expected Bayreuth to be like this – he didn't want it to last so long," says his great-granddaughter. "But it still lives and that's a miracle.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883), German composer. His romantic works revolutionized opera, with his use of leitmotif and dramatic power.    (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Gallo Images)
 Richard Wagner. Getty 

"In Bayreuth you have the special acoustics. It is a unique place, but it also has a unique, special orchestra, so why not bring it to other places, too?"

How might that orchestra adapt to the multi-purpose Emirates Palace Auditorium? "Well, we'll see. Our ­orchestra is very good and we have a very good conductor, and I'm pretty sure we will solve this problem."

A new generation of Wagner

Katharina became the sixth direct ­descendant of the composer to take stewardship of Bayreuth when she assumed duties in 2008 alongside half-sister Eva Wagner-­Pasquier, who stepped down to leave Katharina full control in 2015.

"There's nothing worse than lukewarm. When they bravo or boo, something happened to them. And that means the whole experience means something."

Her reign has not been without controversy. Other than her free screenings and condensed productions, Wagner's 2007 Bayreuth directional debut, Die Meistersinger von ­Nurnberg, was met with widespread booing, and her productions continue to divide critics. "The level sinks and sinks," declared online German news website inFranken in an end-of-decade wrap last summer.

But she remains undeterred. "If you have a position that is public, it's normal that people love you, or criticise you," she says. "If you can't stand that, you shouldn't have a public ­position. More or less, the ­people are pretty happy, and that's why we do it. So, if they're happy, I'm happy."

But are they happy? It is still not uncommon to hear booing at Bayreuth – ­including at a 2015 production of Tristan and Isolde attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "It's very common in ­Germany to boo – normally it never ­happens that you don't have some boos," says ­Wagner. "I have had performances at other houses where people would just clap and go out very soon. But if they boo or bravo, you've somehow got their ­emotions, they are into the piece they see.

“There’s nothing worse than lukewarm. When they bravo or boo, something happened to them. And that means the whole experience means something.”

The Bayreuth Festival’s Die Walkure takes place at Emirates Palace Wednesday and Friday at 6pm. Tickets from Dh200 and are available at www.ticketmaster.ae