Die Walküre – An Interview with Edith Podesta, director

Edith Podesta

5 Jan 2020 will see the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) perform the Singapore premiere of Wagner’s epic Die Walküre at the Esplanade. In this feature, Aileen Tang speaks to director, Edith Podesta, to learn more about this semi-staged production. 

The Flying Inkpot: What is the significance of Die Walküre to you?

Edith Podesta: The significance for me is about the visceral reaction I have to the music. It’s been around me since I was young but I never could articulate it or put my finger on it – who is this and what is this music? I was trying to recall when I first heard any part of the Ring and I can’t actually tell you. But I know that when I listen to it, I have a reaction because I’ve been listening to it in the background of my life for goodness knows how long. Now I get the chance to dig more deeply and question why it reverberates so much when I listen to it.

I think Walküre is within our collective imagination even though we may not know it – whether we were first introduced to the Ride of the Valkyries watching the film “Apocalypse Now” or if a documentary used the music. The audience – whether they realise it or not – are going to be manipulated. That’s what the leitmotifs do. They cause us to have a visceral reaction, like we’ve heard this before. I think that visceral reaction comes with the Ride of the Valkyries at the beginning of Act 3, so we’re all going to be waiting for that!

TFI: Is there a way that you’re going to represent the musical leitmotifs visually?

EP: The leitmotifs for me will be in the multimedia and also in our lighting. It’ll be in whether it’s cooler or warmer lighting, as well as what we’re seeing in the multimedia at the introduction of each of those leitmotifs.

But any opera exists in the audience’s mind so it’s not just what they see on stage but also how they react to it, what each of them sees differently. Every single audience member, regardless of race, gender or nationality, will have their own entry point into the opera.

TFI: You also played a lot with lighting and multimedia in your previous productions with OMM (Hansel and Gretel and Bernstein’s Mass).

EP: I always do! And I think Wagner backs me up in that there has to be a total artwork. That’s what we’re creating. None of my work is separated from lights, multimedia, costume or staging. Having a look at that total artwork has always been an integral part of how I break down any kind of artwork and then build it back up again.

TFI: There really isn’t a large enough venue anywhere in Singapore to do a full staging. Do you think that a semi-staging is limiting in allowing the audience to fully appreciate the opera?

EP: No, not at all! Semi-staging does not give limitations. I wouldn’t do it if it were limiting. I’ve never stayed within the boundaries of semi-staging. For me, it’s a full staging. It’s just that the aesthetics that I’m dealing with are different because the space is not as deep. So we’re gone high this time! I was very inspired by Wagner’s time in Switzerland (where Wagner wrote much of the Ring cycle), and there are a lot of essays about how the Swiss Alps really engaged his imagination (Zurich formed the backdrop for the bulk of the Ring cycle). I’ve made sure to use that mountainous feel and we’re deploying the fore-stage in a different way. We’re building upwards so there will be six levels – seven with multimedia, and eight with the lighting!

TFI: What is going to be the visual highlight of the production?

EP: The costumes are amazing and really beautiful. The lighting (by lighting designer Yo Shao Ann) is going to be great. But for me, it’s the multimedia (with multimedia designer Mervin Wong). It gives us the opportunity to go deep into the psychology of the characters and I’m doing that with extreme close-ups. Even the people sitting all the way back will be able to see what the character is thinking and feeling at any one moment. I really love that two-layered approach – where you see the characters within that space on stage but you can also see what’s happening in their eyes. When they feel grief or sadness, or when they realise something, you’re going to be able to see it on a massive screen. It’s going to be very massive but it’s also going to be very intimate. The audience will constantly be shifting between a very wide shot of the space and that insight into the characters’ emotions and psychology.

TFI: What is your view on some of the skepticism towards modern interpretations from those who prefer a more traditional approach?

EP: I respect both points of view. Whenever I’m looking at a classic work of art, I remember what film and opera director Jim Sharman once told me: “When you look at a classic work, you have to look at it as if it’s never been done before, as if it’s a contemporary work. And when you look at a contemporary work, you have to look at it as if it’s a classical work, as though it’s been here for 2,000 years.”

So when I’m looking at Die Walküre, I’m asking why now? Why is it still resonant? What is it pulling from our collective consciousness today? I have to respect the fact that it was written 150 years ago. I have to respect that there are ghosts attached to it – all of those previous productions. But I’m not intimidated by those ghosts. I’m not haunted by those ghosts; I stand on their shoulders. I also have to respect the fact that we have our own visual language as an audience member. When I’m working on costumes with designer David Lee, we’re looking at what actually makes a god, god-like because we all now have our religious iconography. Also, I think all that work that has already been done with Marvel Cinematic Universe and Lord of the Rings is really interesting, You have to take that into account. Why are we still telling the same stories in lots of different ways?

I don’t think people who are coming to see a classical or true-to-the-classics staging are going to be disappointed by what we are doing, nor do I think people who are coming to see something new are going to be disappointed. We’re using media – and Wagner never had media! I have to put that into the total artwork because it’s here in our modern lives. I have to respond to the audience that’s coming in. But the one thing that’s freed me is that this story is away from our time and space. The gods and this story exist outside of our time and space. So I can do whatever I want!

TFI: There’s a lot of buzz about the production, given that it’s a Singapore premiere, but at the same time there is a fair bit of trepidation about the presumed complexity – and even the length – of the opera. What do you think is this great fear that people have – not just of Wagner, but of opera?

EP: I understand the trepidation and yes, it’s 5 hours long – but we shouldn’t be scared of that because we watch Netflix all the time! And this is really interesting to me because the only time you could binge-watch anything in the past was to go to a theatrical event like the Ring. Previously, the layman could only watch something for 2 hours and then had to wait for the next movie or episode to come out. Now we can just watch it all on Netflix. And that’s what the Ring gives us. It’s not frightening because 5 hours is nothing when you’re binge-watching! And you do the same thing – you stop and have a snack, you stop for dinner, and then you go back (Ed: there are 2 intermissions of 30 and 90 min for Die Walküre). Basically, that’s what this is – a binge-watching experience!

TFI: Why is Die Walküre such an event? Why should we catch it?

EP: The question today is why you would come and watch this opera when you can listen to it at home. And that’s the thing for all live musical events. But for me, it’s not the same. The frequency is not the same. When you’re listening to it at home, you’re just listening to it in the space between your two ears. When you are dealing with 113 musicians, it’s affecting every part of your body. The sound waves are coming to you not just through your ears but through your fat and muscles and the cavities in your body.

You’re going to be watching athletes. The opera singers are always athletes. And when you watch the orchestra, you’ll be watching athletes. The orchestra will be really working hard for Wagner, the opera singers and you. There’s going to be a lot of sweat! And you can only experience that if you come for the live performance. You can’t experience that when it’s telecast.

You’re going to get something from it whether you know the story or not. But because we have Lord of the Rings and the Marvel Comic Universe, everyone knows the story now. Thank you, Hollywood, for saving me! The names might be different but you know who these people are. So if you want to imagine the opera singers then meeting the Hollywood actor and you want to think about popular culture references, go ahead. I encourage that!

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