South African artist and director William Kentridge has been responsible for three of the Met’s most thought-provoking productions in recent years, bringing his unique visual style and keen dramatic sensibility to a pair of 20th-century masterpieces: Shostakovich’s absurdist The Nose, Berg’s dizzying Lulu, and in 2019, the company’s first new staging of Berg’s Wozzeck in more than 20 years. Interview by Matt Dobkin; Edited by Jay Goodwin
Met Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin took the podium to conduct the new Wozzeck, a work he describes as “maybe the most complex score I know, and just devastating in its emotional impact.” He was joined for the December 2019 premiere by an ideal cast, headed by baritone Peter Mattei, who once again made an important role debut on the Met stage as the hapless title soldier driven by humiliation and jealousy to murder his lover, Marie, sung by soprano Elza van den Heever. Tenor Gerhard Siegel and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn were the Captain and Doctor, Wozzeck’s tormentors, and tenor Christopher Ventris was the dashing Drum-Major, who catches Marie’s wandering eye.
A brutal yet brilliant piece of music and theater, Wozzeck is based on Georg Büchner’s groundbreaking play Woyzeck, a searing, shockingly modern drama that was written in the 1830s but first saw the stage some 80 years later, as the First World War inexorably approached. Berg was in the audience for the play’s 1914 Vienna premiere and immediately resolved to adapt the tale for the operatic stage, though the outbreak of hostilities delayed his progress until the war had ended. Kentridge, who was similarly struck by the power of Büchner’s play when he first encountered it, recently explained why finding the violence within Wozzeck’s character is the key to the story, and how the conflagration of violence that consumed the world as Berg was composing his operatic adaption influenced the look of this new staging.
When did you initially become interested in Wozzeck?
My first encounter with Wozzeck was an old recording my father used to listen to with Walter Berry singing the title role, and I particularly remember the face on the album cover. But the first time I actually worked with the subject was in 1990, at Handspring Puppet Company, which wanted to do a piece that would incorporate my drawings and their puppetry. We ended up with Büchner’s Woyzeck, and I got completely hooked by this extraordinary play written in the 1830s, which seemed so contemporary. There was something of the absurdity and the cruelty in the play that held me.
Working on the play first must have influenced your thinking about the opera.
I was actually invited to do a production of Wozzeck before I did Lulu, but having done the play, I didn’t think I had anything new to say. After Lulu, however, it felt imperative to do the other great Berg opera, and I realized that I could find an entirely different kind of language from that of the theater production. In the play, you can expand, you can contract, you can hold moments for as long as you like. With an opera, you have the horses at a gallop, and you can’t slow them down. You have the score and the libretto, and you have to imagine everything within that space. And with that different structure, it became clear that there was a whole new world to imagine.
One of Kentridge’s charcoal drawings
Each of your productions has a distinctive “look.” How did you arrive at the visual language of your Wozzeck staging?
For every project I do, there needs to be a meeting of a material and the project—a theme in the project which can be thought about through a particular medium. With Lulu, it was the black ink, which was a kind of blood of all the victims, and the harshness of woodcuts, which suggested the tearing of paper and the fragmenting of desire. But whereas Lulu is an entirely interior opera, Wozzeck, by and large, is an exterior opera, set against the landscape that Wozzeck is imagining around him. To create that landscape, there was something about the graininess in the gray sky of a charcoal drawing, and the memory of First World War photographs, that felt closer than, for example, an ink drawing, or the torn paper drawings we used in The Nose. So the first work I did was a series of landscape drawings which hover halfway between South Africa and images of the First World War in Northern France and Belgium.
How does that World War I inspiration come through in the production?
There is a large backdrop on which we project drawings of explosions and fires, representing the imaginings of Wozzeck, which are consistent with what’s in the play from 1837. But, in a sense, they are also a premonition of what came to be in 1914—in the period when Berg was writing the opera—of these massive explosions going up to the heavens. There is also a smaller screen representing the Captain’s version of the world, and on that screen, there are fragments of archival footage.
What about the costumes?
Costume designer Greta Goiris and I first looked at German, French, British, and Italian military uniforms of the First World War. Because she lives in Belgium, a lot of that work involved going to secondhand and vintage stores, where actual garments and fabrics from that time, now 100 years old, can still be found. That gave us a lot of the textures. But the production is not set in the First World War, per se, so it’s not as if people are in authentic period uniforms. In a strange way, we also link back to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hieronymus Bosch, and the colors of Flanders from 500 years ago. So the costumes are not the black and white of the drawings; they have quite a rich palette. There is even a huge, outrageous hat with feathers for the Captain—which is no more outrageous than some of the historical Austro-Hungarian officers’ hats, which were in a sense a theatrical costume that they were wearing to go to war.
Did you come to the opera with a strong vision of who Wozzeck is—his identity and motivations?
The task is always to try to find at the end of the rehearsal period what our interpretation is, rather than to know it in advance. It’s discovering—between the libretto, the music, and the performance of the individual singer who’s playing the role—who he is. With Wozzeck, the key is finding the violence inside him that’s capable of driving him to kill the thing that he loves most, which is Marie.
Where do you think that violence comes from?
There are different ways of thinking about it, different psychological routes to take. Obviously, there’s a long history of men’s violence against women, and a long history of people who are depressed finding their only relief in violence—either to suffer it or to inflict it. But for me, it’s about the casual humiliation from the Captain and the Doctor. He’s seen as a pet, an object to be pitied, to be played with, to be fed, to be examined. And of course the further humiliation of the more powerful, more elegant, more desirable Drum-Major, who sweeps Marie off her feet. Eventually, it all comes to a bursting point, and he can find no other way to express it.
The general outline of the story feels very familiar even today.
It’s shocking, really. This kind of violence is a historical truth from the 1830s when the play was written, a historical truth from the early 20th century when the opera was written, and also a completely contemporary phenomenon. In South Africa, where I live, the rate of men killing their wives, and killing women in general, is terrifying. There, it’s not about a military humiliation but rather the desperation of poverty—the experience of not being the man you’re expected to be, feeling that you’re not living up to your masculinity, and then trying to show your masculinity in this completely destructive way.
In fact, all three of the operas you’ve directed at the Met have been complex works concerning somewhat disturbing subject matter. What draws you to these more difficult pieces?
I think I’m interested in awkward operas—operas in which there are unsolved riddles, in which there’s a space, both musically and thematically, for a world to evolve around the story, so that the production isn’t simply scenery, but a kind of essay. Obviously, I’ve got to find a rapport with the music, but sometimes that’s part of the work. With Lulu, for example, one of my reasons for doing it was that I knew it was one of the great operas of the 20th century, but it didn’t make sense to me. And I thought, if I work on it for two years, maybe I will understand why it is so great—and I did. So there has to be a challenge somewhere in it, rather than just relaxing into the beauty of a gorgeous opera and hoping that the designs are nice. It has to be a machine for thinking in.
Matt Dobkin is the Met's Creative Director, Marketing and Strategy.
Jay Goodwin is the Met's Editorial Director.