Searching for Salvation

In his mesmerizing production of Parsifal, which premiered in 2013, Canadian director François Girard explores the diverse spiritual influences of Wagner’s meditative final masterpiece as well as what the piece has to say to modern-day audiences. The Met’s Jay Goodwin spoke to Girard about what he sees as one of the most challenging and rewarding projects of his career.

Parsifal is one of opera’s richest and most enigmatic works, but if you had to describe in a couple of sentences what it’s about and why it’s so important, what would you say?

First of all, Parsifal is the culmination of the incredible musical journey that is Wagner’s body of work, and it’s a crucial turning point in music history that in many ways brought Romanticism to an end and paved the way for the music of the 20th century. Beyond that, it gets complicated. Parsifal is probably the most commented-on opera ever. Everybody—musicologists, literary scholars, Ecclesiastics—has weighed in, with often-contradictory opinions. You lose yourself in reading about Parsifal. But fundamentally, it’s an incredible meditation on humanity and the loss of spirituality, and how the discovery of compassion can save the world.

You’ve set the action in an ambiguous place, but in a roughly contemporary time. What does that mean for the dramaturgy of the piece?

Well, the starting point was the question of how best to engage today’s audience and make the piece meaningful, and not a remote legend that they might struggle to connect with. So we’ve tried to emphasize that the temptations and suffering of Amfortas, the compassion of Parsifal, the sexuality and spirituality of the piece—it’s not something to be looked at passively. It’s about all of us.

Your production is visually compelling not only in its scenic tableaux but also through the use of stylized poses and movements. What was the inspiration for those?

The gestural language is a response to a fundamental question about the piece that people have been asking since it was first written: Is Parsifal a Christian liturgy, or a pagan meditation, or something else entirely? One of the foundations of our production is a crucial Buddhist aspect. With Parsifal, at the end of his life, Wagner was trying to reconcile his various spiritual influences, and there is a definite Buddhist and Orientalist, or Schopenhauerian, vector in the piece. Our choreographer, Carolyn Choa, is from Hong Kong and has a Buddhist education, and so she infused the production with Buddhist gestures and a Buddhist spirit. Of course, all of the obvious references to Christianity remain, but we’ve tried to highlight the necessary Eastern influence.

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And how do you think that struggle with spirituality speaks to us today?

The piece, and our production of it, is very open for interpretation and self-projection. The first thing that happens in our staging is the constitution of a community, which we’ve made clear is a reflection of the audience. And the progressive decadence of that community, its loss of spirituality and the attempt to regain it, is what the piece is about. So we’ve invited the audience to think about those themes in our time. That can take many different forms, and it’s not our place to come up with a definitive read. The door is open for each person to project him or herself into the discussion.

Another overriding theme of the piece is the relationship between the masculine and the feminine—physically and spiritually.

Absolutely. The first act is male-dominated except for Kundry, who has just come back from another world, one that is definitely feminine. In Act II, we visit that other world, the world of temptation and of the sorcerer Klingsor. Then, in Act III, we return with Parsifal to the world of the knighthood. So there’s a male-female-male structure to the piece that is ultimately resolved at the very end as the Holy Spear meets the Grail, in what can only be seen as a reference to the Great Rite and an ultimate male-female reconciliation. But in our staging, for our community to mirror the audience, we can’t have only men on stage. So we’ve multiplied Kundry, creating a chorus of women who echo her spirit and her gestures, and who follow her in both worlds. This also emphasizes the complexity of Kundry’s character and her nature as multiple beings in one.

You mentioned that the community’s salvation comes through the discovery of compassion. Can you elaborate?

Well, the knighthood has been told to await a “pure fool”—naïve and spiritually pure—who will be their savior. In the first scene, Parsifal kills a swan and doesn’t understand why it was wrong. He doesn’t understand suffering, and therefore doesn’t understand compassion. Ultimately, to understand, he will need to go all the way down to Klingsor’s world, be exposed to the same temptations that Amfortas succumbed to, and be reminded by Kundry of the death of his mother. Through all of that, and through Kundry’s kiss, he finally realizes the suffering of the world and discovers compassion. And it’s that spiritual and compassionate awakening that might allow him to save the community.

For Klingsor’s lair, you’ve created a giant pool of blood that covers the stage. And in the knights’ realm, the land is divided by a river that runs red with blood. Obviously blood is an important symbol in your staging.

The conception of our staging for this piece has been one of the most complex journeys I’ve been through in any project. But the first time I began to feel that I had a grip on the piece was when we started playing with blood. We didn’t impose the blood on the opera—it’s clearly present. It flows from Amfortas’s wound, which is first perceived in our production as a drying land—a metaphor for climate change or for whatever we perceive the threat to our world to be. That wound, also a parallel to Christ’s wound, then opens, which is how we enter the world of Klingsor, where the sexual resonance of the blood becomes obvious. It is through these connections that the piece becomes visceral and not only spiritual. It connects the work with the flesh, with temptation and sexuality and suffering. That’s ultimately where the highest voltage is.

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And it must help to have such an exceptional cast to collaborate with.

Certainly. Jonas Kaufmann is the dream for Parsifal. He can sing the music better than anyone, but he also has acting skills that we don’t always see in singers. He’s also a beautiful man with a pure face that this young fool calls for. Not to mention, Katarina Dalayman [Kundry], Peter Mattei [Amfortas], René Pape [Gurnemanz], and Evgeny Nikitin [Klingsor], who bring it to the next level and only elevate things further.