An Interview with Hartmut Haenchen
In February, Andris Nelsons told VAN about conducting Wagner in Bayreuth: “You enjoy it masochistically.” On June 30, he asked to be released from his contract, with the festival citing “a differing approach in various matters.” The performance artist and provocateur Jonathan Meese, the director for this year’s production of “Parsifal,” was let go. It’s this chaotic environment that the German conductor Hartmut Haenchen was dropped into. I met him at the Hotel Goldener Anker, where he’s staying as he works on the production.
VAN: Congratulations on the second performance, it was very well received! How do you feel on the day after?
Hartmut Haenchen: The second performance is behind us, but there are more coming up. Each performance should be better than the last, especially considering the conditions we’ve been working in. We’re rehearsing between the performances. I can’t work with the orchestra now, since they have to play a different opera every night. But I’m working with the soloists to flesh out my concept.
You and Germany haven’t always been on good terms. Under the East Germany regime, you were prohibited from practicing your profession. After reunification, West German critics called you a “solid Kappellmeister,” often condescendingly. Do you feel like you’re finally showing them what you’re capable of?
First of all, Kappellmeister is an honorable title. In my opinion, it’s important to have mastered your craft. There are a lot of famous conductors out there who are basically dilettantes. So in that sense, I took it as a compliment—even if it wasn’t not meant that way. It’s true that I’m better known internationally than in Germany, and there are a lot of reasons for that. One is that I’m from the East—and I’m not ashamed to admit it [laughs]. I left in 1986. Then, for 20 years, I became known as someone who doesn’t conduct all over the place. I took my music directorship duties very seriously. At the opera in Amsterdam, where I was music director, I personally conducted 700 performances, and almost as many orchestra concerts. You can’t travel with a schedule like that.
How was the second day in the pit different from the first?
It wasn’t as warm as at the premiere. That night was 98 degrees in the pit. That’s close to the limit, for players and for the conductor. But the musicians are used to suffering. The pit is very deep; it’s hard to see. If I’m looking for the trombones, I need to tilt my head to one side. I need to adjust my movements, because I only have about a foot of space above my head. If I want to give a bigger upbeat—that’s when things get tricky…
How tall are you?
I’m about six feet tall. Wagner was shorter [laughs]. But what’s really complicated is that you don’t hear the same thing as what the audience hears. I’m always doing conversions in my head to try to imagine, from what I’m hearing, what the audience will hear. I haven’t had much time to figure it out. To be successful, you need a phenomenal assistant. I brought Walter Althammer with me—we’ve done “Parsifal” three times together, so he knows exactly how I want it to sound. I’ve got my phone pressed up against my left ear and he’s telling me how it sounds in the hall, what I need to do differently. There’s also the fact that this is the only opera house in the world where you need to have the singers sing later than you so that they sound together with the orchestra in the hall. The orchestra sound gets caught up by the stage and arrives to the audience late. That’s something you’ve got to learn very quickly.
The positioning of the strings and the bass instruments is unusual, too.
That’s true. It’s an idea that Wagner had and that he did in concerts as well. I’m thinking about trying that out some time soon. He splits up the basses, one group on the right and the other group on the left. There are so many pizzicati in “Parsifal” where I’m trying to keep them together even though they’re like 50 feet apart. It’s not easy. But the sound is wonderful, because the cellos sit in between the basses. The fundamental of the chord is spread throughout the width of the orchestra, which gives the sound a wonderful base. In the U.S. the bass is on the left, in Germany it’s on the right—like on stereo recordings.
So I know that conductors don’t have to be in a tuxedo in the pit. James Levine was known for wearing a tracksuit and a towel around his neck…
…and it never slipped, not each an inch! If I tried that it would just fall off.
What do you wear?
I’m in street clothes. Though the singers and I have discussed what kind of shirt I wear so they can see me. It makes a difference whether it’s a light colored shirt or a darker one—you can see my hands better against a dark background, so that’s what I wear. The real Olympics start after the piece ends. Because you’re drenched in sweat, and then you have to change into your tux and rush on stage to bow. It’s a power workout for learning how to change clothes quickly.
Hartmut Haenchen rehearses “Parsifal,” at the Paris Opera, in 2008.
You didn’t have much time to prepare for Bayreuth this time. What was your process like?
My vacation—at the Baltic Sea—had just started when I got the call. The next day, I drove home, got my “Parsifal” score and my orchestral material, and the same night we have our first orchestra rehearsal. I mean, I couldn’t prepare especially for Bayreuth. But over the years I’ve done very thorough work on “Parsifal.” The important thing to know is that the first edition of the score wasn’t authorized by Wagner. Engelbert Humperdinck put it together, but Wagner died before he had a chance to look through it. So it’s not really a good source; but most conductors work with it anyway.
I was aware that I was getting into something that could be very problematic with so little time. I brought my own materials, which I’ve used in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Copenhagen, that have bowings that aren’t particularly comfortable, but which are there to create a particular sound. There are physical limitations that come up with string players who’ve been in Bayreuth for 20, 30 years. We had the first rehearsal, and then we talked. Then I sat down at a big table, spread out the parts in front of me, and compared them. And I realized that there were literally thousands of changes from the original materials.
The most important thing for me is the articulation markings. At the time, tenuto and staccato markings couldn’t be printed over the same note, but they represent a light, short, accented note. But Wagner took those kind of things very seriously. The acoustic here has a lot of resonance, so it’s important that things don’t melt into a kind of stew that’s typical of Wagner performances. Wagner shouldn’t sound like stew.
How did you go about convincing the orchestra to go along with your changes?
I only had two orchestra rehearsals before the first stage rehearsal. And during the stage rehearsal, the concertmaster and several first and second violins came up to me. They were friendly, but assertive, and they asked why they couldn’t play from the parts they normally use. They made some very reasonable points, not just because it would have been easier. In my score, it’s like there’s a set of instructions for every single note. It’s hard to read, because the strings are divided; and then I divided them up further into groups with different bowings, so that you end up with one long line. I admit: it’s hard to read.
At first I said I’d see if we could find a compromise where we transferred some of my markings to the old parts. But then I realized that that wouldn’t work. Besides the bowings, there were 175 changes in the first violins in Act I. I gave a little speech, and the orchestra agreed. I would have liked to explain the reasoning behind things in certain places, but I just didn’t have the time.
First reviews of your “Parsifal” have emphasized the tautness and transparency of your interpretation. But what I heard reminded me more of Mozart or Mendelssohn. What are you doing differently?
I’m trying to communicate the entire spectrum of Wagner’s music. People tend to look at everything as if it were one endless melody. People always use that phrase…
…it’s in the music history books!
It’s simply not accurate. By realizing all of the different phrasings and articulations in Wagner—that’s how you get a beautiful sound. But just a beautiful sound for four hours is boring. That’s true of “Parsifal” even more than the other operas. The first act is basically a staged oratorio. The words have a flow, and you have to give the singers a chance to be able to breath in the right places, which is impossible if the tempo is too slow. The reviews have said that I’m “faster than Toscanini,” which I don’t like at all. It’s not about setting a new record tempo.
We know how long the premieres were. What you notice is that, up to Siegfried Wagner, there was a very small margin of difference. And when he died there was no one left who knew what Richard Wagner wanted. It got lost. In the Nazi era, it was all about emphasizing the pathos—which, of course, is a big part of Wagner, but they squeezed even more out of it. Wilhelm Furtwängler had a good flow, in the 1930s, and then he got caught up in this Romantic-pathetic style and changed completely. Him and Toscanini were the major role models; everyone wanted to be like them. But then it got slower and slower. [At the 1882 premiere] Hermann Levi did [the first act] in one hour and 47 minutes, and Wagner thought that Levi was too slow. Mine was an hour and 39 minutes, and I think that’s pretty much exactly what he would have wanted.
How has the atmosphere been? We know that contributed to Andris Nelsons leaving…
There haven’t been any disturbances. There have been funny situations though. At the end of the second act I wanted to add a tam-tam to the thunder sheet that Kirill Petrenko had built here. From what I’ve read, Wagner did that in performances. So I asked for a tam-tam, and there were definitely strong reactions—that’s what happens when you add an instrument to Wagner in Bayreuth, where he’s so deified. But I was prepared with good arguments. And so the tam-tam played. [laughs]
What have you been up to between rehearsals, when you’re not studying scores and adding instruments? Have you had beers with Christian Thielemann yet?
No, I don’t even know if he drinks beer. But his mother is staying at the same hotel as me and we’ve seen each other a few times. Our green rooms are next to each other, too, and so we’ve talked about some of the problems. My assistant told me that he’s been to a few of our rehearsals too.
So he wasn’t giving you recommendations, like he apparently did with Nelsons?
Being here, you hear a lot of things [laughs]…you hear things, and you read things. I wasn’t there, but I know my colleagues. And all I can say is that when you know exactly what you want, you’ve got to separate out that part of it, and then it’s a wonderful experience.
You were born in 1943 in Dresden. You were 10 years old when Russian tanks put down the Uprising of 1953.
There’s something I’d like to say about that. On that day, I auditioned for the Kreuzkirche boys’ choir. I had to walk 15 miles on foot to get there, because all of society was on strike. I was walking, and it’s a very vivid childhood memory, how the tanks drove into the mass of people and ran them over, killing them. For 50 years, nobody talked about it. I was told: “That’s impossible, you didn’t see that.” Now there’s a memorial. I grew up with some pretty traumatic memories. I also passed the audition.
Wagner lived in Dresden for 20 years. When did you first come across his music?
It was in the boys’ choir. Wagner went to the church school there, but he wasn’t in the choir. But particularly in terms of “Parsifal,” the city of Dresden had a major influence on Wagner. The choirs in the Frauenkirche are especially high up—they’re not as high in Bayreuth, but he wanted to have them built and decide where exactly to put them.
When East Germany was formed, there were a few performances of “Parsifal,” but between 1955 and 1977 there was nothing. I was always interested in things that weren’t allowed. I tried to perform it during my first music directorship. We were almost at the dress rehearsal, and then it was censored. The program of every opera house had to be approved—the problem was the “Christian symbols.” For me it’s not a Christian work, but there are Christian symbols, and the government thought there was something suspicious about that.
Have you seen other performances so far while you’ve been here?
Just “Tristan.” I’m a little worried that if I see much more, then things will start to get mixed up in my head. I’ve conducted the “Ring” 32 times—I might even be in contention for the Guinness Book of World Records. When I start listening to it, it’s immediately so present for me. I’ve listened to a few rehearsals.
Long before your Bayreuth debut, you worked as Pierre Boulez’s assistant here, in the 1970s.
Yes, on [director Patrice] Chéreau’s “Ring.” Boulez was a relief, because his idea of Wagner was similar to mine. Very different to that of James Levine and others of my colleagues. Without having the confirmation, through a master, that what I was doing had something to it, things would have been much more difficult. I remember having four Stasi agents around me all the time—it’s funny looking back on it. It wasn’t so funny then. They were there to prevent me from being in touch with musicians who had escaped East Germany, and they would interrupt us when I was talking to people. One of them would be standing around with a pack of cigarettes, and there was a hidden camera inside it.
After the Wall came down, I got some of my Stasi files, and one of the things I found was an invitation from Wolfgang Wagner to conduct “Der Fliegende Holländer.” I had never received it, because the Stasi blocked it. ¶