Safety Curtain 2009/2010

Safety Curtain 2009/2010: Franz West, Drei – Vom Vorgang ins Temperament

Si alza il sipario – this is the moment when most directors, singers and répétiteurs are beginning to take the opera really seriously. What happens before the lifting of the curtain is usually only interesting for the conductor, who marks the beginning of the music with his baton, and the stage manager, who has to make sure that all performers are on stage in time. The period of time before this event varies a lot: In Tosca it is less than ten seconds, in Die Meistersinger it is almost five minutes – and this is, of course, also dependent on the conductor and his temperament. For the audience this before, prelude or overture is the beginning of the performance but not of the story presented on stage and has thus an ambivalent significance: tuning in, concentrating, waiting.

All the more remarkable is the Vienna State Opera House's initiative in collaboration with the museum in progress which deals with the situation before the beginning of the performance as such: the annually changing adaptation of the fire wall between the stage and the auditorium, which is also called safety curtain.

Franz West's contribution for the season 2009/2010 titled "Drei - Vom Vorgang ins Temperament" is a collage of tempera works from the nineteen seventies and eighties which he painted during several stays in Greece. The carefree nudity of the three figures reminds of beach nudists in almost statuesque poses which at first sight don't have anything to do with an opera or the opera as such.

The female, not completely visible figure seems as if she is partially disappearing in the blue of the background. Euridice almost vanished from the void or just vanishing again in the void? – still not or again not saved by Orpheus? The second male figure behind her – Hades himself or Heracles as the savior in a waiting state according to Ch. W. Gluck? Orpheus, Euridice and a second alpha male? The constellation – two men, one woman – allows for many interpretations with regard to storylines in the world of the opera:

Parsifal (R. Wagner), for example: Kundry, Parsifal and suffering Amfortas (or the waiting Klingsor?); or Il Trovatore (G. Verdi): Leonora, quarrelsome Manrico and despaired Count Luna (or vice versa?). In the 20th century, too, this principle is omnipresent, such as in Lady Macbeth (D. Shostakovich): Katharina, Ismailow and Sergei, and, of course, also dominant in the 18th century, like in Idomeneo (W. A. Mozart): Illia, Idamante and the stranded Idomeneo. This list could be arbitrarily extended into all directions of time's arrow and filled with further examples.

In this sense Franz West's piece may be understood as a reflection of a dramaturgic basic principle of opera as such. This assumption, of course, also goes for drama but in opera the music, the text and the plot are mutually dependent so that a psychological dimension between the characters can unfold. That's why the plot of an opera is usually more foreseeable and simpler.

Yet not only is the erotic side of this constellation of two men and one woman worth considering but also the gender aspect, which has already been hinted at in many operas such as, for example, in La fanciulla del west (G. Puccini), with the extremely self-confident girl Minnie, fickle Dick Johnson and frustrated Sheriff Rance, or, in Fidelio (L. v. Beethoven) with Leonore (Fidelio), Pizarro and Florestan. In the same way the constellation in the painting may correspond to power games: like in Lulu (A. Berg) with Lulu, Alwa and Dr. Schön (or Schigolch), or in Salome (R. Strauss) with Salome, Herodes (or Jochanaan) and Jochanaan (or the already dead Narraboth).

Let us return to nudity now. Franz West's first musings on the subject of the safety curtain were of a quite ironical nature: covering the work by Rudolf Eisenmenger, which is widely regarded inappropriate for the artistic weight of the Vienna State Opera House, with nudity. Yet, this line of thought is only at first sight humoresque because, as Egon Friedell wrote (in A Cultural History of the Modern Age), "[.] human beings have a deeply rooted urge to prostitute themselves, to reveal themselves, to present themselves in the nude: Only they can satisfy this urge almost nowhere. This was already at the root of the age-old cults of Dionysus where men and women were tearing off their clothes in total inebriation. But the ancient Greeks did not call this a shameless orgy but a 'holy ecstasy'."

In the sense of a modern-age conception of theatre he continued only a few lines later: "In their everyday lives human beings are faced with the task to avoid being themselves as skillfully as possible, to always wear all kinds of coverings, drapes, or veils. The curtain is always down; only once it is up: in the theatre. Right at the site that a layperson regards as the domain of mask, disguise and dissimulation humankind flashes up unhooded, more unvarnished than anywhere else." And as a comprehensive explanation of the universe of the stage: "As a matter of fact the theatre is more than most of us believe: no colourful surface, not just play-acting but something unsealing and redeeming, something absolutely magic in our being."

This magic, this "presenting oneself in the nude", has returned to the State Opera House, as a site of "holy ecstasy", for one season thanks to Franz West's work. This is what we should consider when viewing it.