Art on stage
A dog cocking its leg, the portrait of a sad lady, a paper plane on a table, crumpled up paper everywhere. The stage is one big still life, expressively painted and bearing the inimitable signature of Jörg Immendorff. When the curtain is raised on the next scene, it has become a lustily glowing space, a picture-frame stage lined with sultry red wallpaper. The right half is full of vaginas, the left is teeming with painted penises. Leaning over from his ladder, brandishing a paintbrush in front of a white canvas, is the hero of the piece, Tom Rakewell. In typical Immendorff garb.
Later the scene turns again from painter’s studio to a cityscape, with man-size cardboard boxes as houses and a sky emblazoned with portraits, caricatures, and brightly coloured riddles. Meanwhile, a horde of monkeys eagerly bustles about the stage.
At the 1994 Salzburg Festival, the painter Jörg Immendorff turned the stage for Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress into a larger-than-life brothel. And because Immendorff identified so strongly with the story of Rakewell and his rise and fall, he incorporated Lüpertz, Beuys and Penck – a few of his real-life friends – into his sets. These look like staged paintings, inhabited by the kind of notorious characters found in Immendorff’s paintings. They are the artist’s personal and contemporary retelling of the series of satirical paintings and engravings by William Hogarth that served as inspiration to the composer, Stravinsky.
Immendorff is just one of numerous visual artists who have carried their work over to Salzburg’s stages during the festival’s hundred-year history. That is not something that goes without saying – after all, theatre work follows its own laws, which have evolved and become consolidated through the centuries, and which in many ways contradict the free, artistic approach.
Yet that is exactly what has consistently drawn directors and composers, since the early 20th century, to work together with avantgarde painters, sculptors, and architects. With their radical approaches, they have shown ways of taking productions to further extremes and finally leaving traditional, on-stage naturalism and spectacle behind. For their part, visual artists from Picasso and Chagall to Hockney have been keen to see their static art transformed into a movable, immersive experience. And for the theatres and opera houses, the involvement of big-name artists promised more publicity for their productions. And so, the modern revolution in the performing arts coincided not only with the emergence of dramaturgy but also with some legendary artists’ contributions. These two tendencies were not always easy to combine: Evoking a stage work from a subjective, aesthetic perspective does not necessarily involve highlighting its dramatic significance.
The profession of the stage designer then emerged, to mediate between art and directing, building architectures in which to arrange the soloists and crowds (the all-important choruses in opera productions). In addition, stage designers create atmosphere and ensure suspense is generated by light and open scene changes. Above all, they create images that contribute as much to forming the dramaturgy as the performers’ actions. While theatre lives off teamwork, the directors usually call the shots. But working with visual artists means submitting to someone else’s visual narrative. So, for directors and artists to cooperate successfully requires enablers and a fertile ground.
The Salzburg Festival provides both, as well as working conditions that William Kentridge, who designed and staged Wozzeck here in 2017, called “luxury”. Gerard Mortier’s inauguration as director of the festival in 1991 marked the dawn of a new era that saw some legendary artist-director constellations. His successors from 2001, Peter Ruzicka, Jürgen Flimm and Alexander Pereira, continued along the same path. Since 2017 artistic director Markus Hinterhäuser has championed the same idea, though he concedes: “It remains the exception for directors to cooperate with artists whom they don’t know through having cooperated with them before.” (…)
The inaugural concept: The entire city as a stage
While new cooperations pose a risk, numerous directors “have developed their very own vocabulary, found a signature grammar that suits them” with one specific stage designer, says Hinterhäuser. But close links with visual artists are inscribed in the Salzburg Festival’s DNA. Dramatist and founding figure Hugo von Hoffmansthal enthused about “the magic script and inner vision of the world,” that fine art could bring to the stage. He and his fellow initiators – Max Reinhardt, Richard Strauss, and Vienna State Opera director Franz Schalk – were joined by Alfred Roller, painter, co-founder of the Vienna Secession, and pioneering stage designer whose aim was not to create backdrops but “spaces of meaning”.
In the postwar period, the festival was shaped by directors Wilhelm Fürtwangler, Karl Böhm, and especially Herbert von Karajan. Fürtwangler was experimental enough to engage expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka to design the stage set and costumes for Mozart’s Magic Flute in 1955. His acclaimed contribution featured a temple architecture and effective use of colour symbolism. But Kokoschka himself was apparently not so pleased: A note survives in which he complains about how badly his sketches were copied by the workshop staff. Obviously, they did not yet work to the high standards they do today. The workshops now demonstrate a level of skill and artistry that is unsurpassed. Conditions here are ideal, or as Jonathan Meese would say, “ballistic!”
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