Interview: Lang on Der Hetzer

Interview: Lang on Der Hetzer

The pandemic has resulted in several postponements of the world premiere of Bernhard Lang’s opera Der Hetzer, originally planned for March 2021. The May/June issue of the magazine ORPHEUS contains an interview about the premiere, what had initially been postponed to May 2021, in which Bernhard Lang talks about his compositional principles and related stylistic elements, about the introduction of rap, and the socio-political intentions of his opera commission Der Hetzer, an adaptation, or “overwriting”, of both Shakespeare’s and Verdi’s Otello.

Your world premiere of “Der Hetzer” at the Dortmund Opera has been announced as a “rewriting” of Verdi’s “Othello.” Due to the current circumstances we can’t see it yet, but we should certainly talk about it because it raises a few questions! Let’s start though with the fundamentals: What does “rewriting” mean for you?

“Rewriting” is a technique I have been working with since 2007, with the first of my “Monadologies.” On the one hand, I borrowed it from the visual arts, such as from the work of Jonathan Meese for example. On the other, metafilm and experimental art film are also an important point of reference. These works are films about films – that is, existing films are almost recomposed or created anew. I am additionally inspired by the idea of remixes in the DJ scene, where you draw upon what is there rather than playing the role of an inventor who is creating something new in every minute of a work. You end up as somebody who thinks about works.

This metamusic also sounds similar to Liszt’s Opera paraphrases, where he would transfer pieces for the stage or orchestra to the piano. Are you also moving within the classical tradition of musical quotation and transcription?

That is a practice that was commonplace previously: enacting mutual exchange, but also the reworking and revising one’s own work. “Rewriting” goes one step further though. It has a deconstructivist approach that is meant to elicit deeper layers from the primary text, and peel back new layers of meaning from it. It’s like a psychoanalytical approach to the piece. In my “Othello” the original structure – the four acts and the characterization – remains for the most part intact. Within these limits, within the exact outline of the original, is where the reinterpretation and rewriting take place.

The “rewritings” are frequent guests in your oeuvre. You have already used them, for example, to work with Bruckner’s 1st Symphony or in the grand style of Wagner’s “Parsifal.” How did you come to choose Verdi’s “Othello”?

In music theatre, is it exactly the play with the original brought by “rewritings” that is interesting. Many listeners know “Othello,” and despite its strange content it remains one of the most frequently-performed pieces. That opens up the possibility for comparison, remembering, and recognition. The “Der Hetzer” project was born in Dortmund. I had been discussing political music theatre with the opera director Heribert Germeshausen for many years. While brainstorming with him, the Dortmund chief dramaturge Merle Fahrholz, and Ricordi’s promotion manager Daniela Brendel, it became clear long before the commission how well suited a rewriting of “Othello” would be for political music theatre today. On one hand, the piece is insanely current – its protagonist comes from Africa and now makes his career within a western context, he is confronted with mobbing, defamation, psychological warfare, and fake news. We hear about these things every day. It is a topicality, almost strikingly so to the point where one must be careful. And on the other hand, “Othello” is actually impossible to perform today because of the definition of its roles, which makes clearer the need for a “rewriting.”

World premiere of Der Hetzer, Dortmund 2021

What is the relationship of “Hetzer”– of your “rewriting” – to the original? How much remains of Verdi’s opera, what is to be reinterpreted completely, and how did that work with you?

My “Coltello” is a refugee on a ship. The opening scene from the original has been reinterpreted here as a shipwreck in Italy as the refugees arrive. Coltello ends up in Dortmund and becomes a police officer – the role already places him between good and evil. What is essential is that Coltello will realize that he is being manipulated and bullied by Jack Natas, an inverted "Satan" from a right-wing group: "I will not be made into the monster you want to see me as," is the message of the key scene of my opera. In the original he doesn’t grasp the fake news at this moment and becomes a killer. It is in this respect that Verdi’s, Boito’s, and Shakespeare’s Othello follow Rosseau’s image of “a black man” in which he is “the savage” unable to control himself or his feelings. He is to become a criminal because “that’s the way he is.” It shouldn’t be played on stage because it is so discriminatory, even if it is set in another time or place. I almost despaired at the scene where he kills Desdemona (here Desirée). I spent weeks going back and forth, and I thought again and again that this scene simply cannot remain as it is, and cannot be staged in such a way today. I would only have shot myself in the foot with my own message had I come across as discriminatory with a current, political, critical musical theater piece.

And musically?

Of course, a lot of the original text was changed through the reinterpretation, but the music from Verdi’s “Othello” can be indeed recognized. I still work a lot with my loop technique – there are two areas to apply this. One can be seen in the overture of “Hetzer” for example, in which Verdi’s diction is essentially preserved, but has been furnished with loops in the large dramatic passages. Listening to the overture, you think you’re sitting in the original for a few minutes, until the small imperceptible changes become increasingly apparent. The other situation where I use loops is for underscoring certain words and lyrics. Lyrically at the center of the scene where Coltello turns away from his violence against Desirée is his “No.” This “No”” becomes a giant loop – “No, no…” – which goes on and on – “No, no…” – and the choir kicks in – “No, no…,” and suddenly Coltello negates himself. Here the meaning of the statement turns and Coltello recognizes what has happened to him: “No, no… that’s not it, they have brought me exactly where they want me.” So, these lyrical loops engender on one hand a rhythm and certain poignancy but can also turn the meaning around.

World premiere of Der Hetzer, Dortmund 2021

And then there is the interdisciplinary device in “Hetzer”: Rappers interrupt the orchestra with statements by young people from the outskirts of Dortmund.

These interventions are especially important in order to release the message from the theatre bubble, from our hermetic biosphere. The themes of the piece – envy, jealousy, hate, and love – affect us all. And the texts from these young people from Dortmund are so unbelievably direct that we came up with the idea to have them interpreted by rappers, opening a door to the outside world. We hope that people from the outside will also come to the performance, and that in this way the system will become more permeable – that’s the thinking behind it. In the score it is written that these statements do not come from me, but should be created anew in each city, and interpreted by rappers there.

Now, let’s consider the “rewriting” of an old work with regards to cultural policy. It isn’t easy for contemporary opera to make it onto big stages nowadays. Is it less complicated to bring a new opera to the institutional stage if it has a connection to canonical repertoire like “Hetzer” has?

I don’t think so. Whether it works or not depends more on the intrinsic quality of the piece. But there is already the position of cultural policy to deny new opera its clientele. The weighting between new creations and the repetition of what has come before isn’t right. If we think of the fact that during the second half for the 18th Century over 1000 works were created within a single year, and that people really were curious about them, then the situation in which we find ourselves now is a disaster. The old works were never meant to be played to death in such a way. The only way out then, is to compensate for the lack of musical difference through difference in direction – but that only works to a certain extent. The music remains the music. Perhaps the technique of “rewriting” is a possible way forward.

But do we have no themes for really new operas? Why does there need to be this recourse?

Because I have fun with this game. For me, it is an artistic idea to say: “Everything has already been, so I’ll do it again.” My entire existence and consciousness is nothing other than a reflection of what has gone before. I am what was. And creating something out of this contradiction provides me with my initiative and motivation. Of course, the criticism that I only work within the archive is always a huge challenge for me. But if you were to ask a DJ that, he would roll his eyes and wouldn’t recognize the question. In some respect repetition is duplication – but at the same time it is also an escape to the new.

The interview was conducted by Maike Graf and first published in ORPHEUS 03/2021. Published with kind permission by the author and ORPHEUS.

Photos: Thomas Jauk, Stage Picture
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