Matthias von Stegmann creates a modern German myth for Japan

by Kris Kosaka

Special To The Japan Times

Modern and mythological perspectives converge as the New National Theatre Tokyo’s Opera Division looks to its past to envision the future. From June 1-16, German-Japanese director Matthias von Stegmann guides this new vision of Richard Wagner’s opera “Lohengrin,” last produced at NNTT in 1997, when the composer’s grandson Wolfgang Wagner directed for NNTT Opera’s inaugural season.

“Lohengrin” weeps with German medieval pageantry. The curtain opens on betrayal and subterfuge: Unjustly accused of murdering her own brother, the heir to Brabant, the young Elsa despairs until her prayers are answered and a knight magically appears to save her from her accusers, Count Telramund and his wife, the sorceress Ortrud. The mysterious knight betroths himself to Elsa and vows to defend her, requesting only that she never asks his name or origin.

Peter Schneider, former principal conductor at the Bavarian State Opera and renowned maestro in German opera, will conduct. Esteemed headliners Klaus Florian Vogt and Ricarda Merbeth take the lead roles in this romantic, three act drama, with Gerd Grochowski as Telramund and Susanne Resmark as the villainous Ortrud. Sets, light installations, and costumes by one of Europe’s best known stage designers, who goes by the name “rosalie,” promise exciting innovations. The production is sung in German with Japanese subtitles.

Although based on German myth, Stegmann’s interpretation pulls the opera into the 21st century, drawing from his experience in a variety of dramatic fields. The son of a German teacher specializing in history and literature and the first Japanese national to sing in the choir at the Bayreuth Festival, an annual celebration of Wagner started by the composer himself, Stegmann grew up surrounded by stories, historical myth and Wagner. As a young director, Stegmann spent 15 years assisting at the Bayreuth Festival but his directing experience also took him to the forefront of modern media, as a dubbing director on numerous films and TV series in Germany. Also active as a stage performer, Stegmann returned frequently to opera, working regularly under Wolfgang Wagner, including as first assistant for the 1997 NNTT production of “Lohengrin.”

Stegmann acknowledges his own history with NNTT, working closely with the late grandson of the composer. “I don’t think anyone in the world knew more about the pieces, about the history of the pieces, than Wolfgang Wagner,” Stegmann remembers. “I realize sometimes when I rehearse I still quote him, since I learned so much from him.”

Stegmann also created a one-hour children’s version of Wagner’s “The Ring” for NNTT; the opera is now a regular part of the repertory at the Vienna State Opera and the Zurich Opera House.

Rooted in the inaugural production, Stegmann’s vision nevertheless stretches toward the future.

“Fifteen years have gone by and opera should be something that is alive and transformative. We are choosing, aesthetically, a fairly modern approach to create a modern myth,” he explains. “Wagner is mythological. Therefore, we are trying to create a mythological space with modern means: the objects we have on stage or the way the costumes look or the modern lighting. It will be interesting for the modern eye without compromising the truth of the original piece or the integrity of the music.”

Stegmann enjoys creating in Japan, returning every year for work or pleasure since he was 16 years old. Although raised in Germany, he acknowledges a connection to Japan, both professionally and personally.

“The Japanese audience is comparable to any educated opera audience in the world; some of my best friends are Japanese, and I feel very connected to this country,” he says. “I am half Japanese, and the older I get the more I realize that I have a lot in common with the Japanese, that there is a genetic connection.”

Equally strong is Stegmann’s connection to the music of Bayreuth’s masterly dramatic artist and myth-maker, Wagner. The great composer called “Lohengrin” “the saddest of my creations.” It was completed when he was just 35 years old, one year before his revolutionary activities in the Dresden Uprising would see him exiled from Germany for the next 12 years. With fans looking toward 2013 as the bicentennial of Wagner’s birth, this restaging of “Lohengrin” can be viewed as both a homage to opera’s great past, and a celebration of the future for NNTT Opera.

“Lohengrin” runs at the New National Theatre Tokyo in Hatsudai at the Opera House from June 1-16. Tickets range from ¥5,250 to ¥25,250. For more information and showtimes, visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp/english/opera/e20000465_4_opera.html.