Repetitie Der Freischütz, Kirill Serebrennikov
Rehearsal Der Freischütz | Photo: Milagro Elstak

‘The world is more complex than good versus evil’

1 June 2022

Interview with director Kirill Serebrennikov and music dramaturg Daniil Orlov

Gone are the dense German forest and its community of hunters. Rather, the world of opera itself takes centre stage in Kirill Serebrennikov’s new production of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz. A conversation with Kirill Serebrennikov and Daniil Orlov.

Text: Laura Roling

How did you get the idea to direct Der Freischütz?

Kirill: ‘Actually, it wasn’t my idea. In my conversations with Sophie de Lint, we spent quite some time looking for the right title. I’m not a classical opera director, so not every opera is for me. I want to be able to do something that’s interesting, not just for myself, but also for opera and opera-making. One of the challenges of opera is that the music has stood the test of time, but that the plots are sometimes very disconnected from contemporary reality. 
When Der Freischütz was suggested to me by Sophie and her team, I immediately saw the possibilities. I had seen an old production of the work in Stuttgart by Achim Freyer, and I knew that the musical numbers and the speaking parts of the opera are not truly integrated. That makes it possible to take the opera in another direction, to do something completely different with it, while still maintaining Weber’s fantastic music.’

Daniil: ‘Because Der Freischütz is a Singspiel, the opera in some ways resembles a musical more than an opera. In opera, music and text are continuously deeply intertwined from beginning to end. In Der Freischütz, that’s not the case, which gives you room to alter the dramaturgy of the piece.’

What were the themes that interested you in Der Freischütz

Kirill: ‘The story of Max, Kaspar, Agathe and the other characters is nice and clear, but the moral statement of the work about good and evil feels very naive from today’s perspective. We now know that evil can win, that being good isn’t always to your benefit, and that sometimes true evil can exist behind a mask of goodness. We know that human beings are not either good or evil. The world is much more complex than that.’

Daniil: ‘In the original plot of the opera, we see this very clearly in the character of Max: he is insecure, lost and conflicted, which in a way makes him very modern. He is not good or evil, but moves along a spectrum. This doesn’t go for the other characters in the original opera: Agathe is purely good, an angelic creature almost. Kaspar is completely corrupted by evil.’

How did you get the idea to set Der Freischütz in the world of opera? To turn it into an opera about opera?

Kirill:Der Freischütz had a great influence on composers who came after Weber. It has a firm place in the history of opera. So I started thinking about opera itself. Not just the art form, but also the business and the effort that goes into it. Hundreds of professionals come together in the pit, in the wings, on stage, just to create something that is very fragile; something extraordinary that exists only in the moment and disappears when the curtain goes down. So I started seeing similarities between the world of Der Freischütz and the world of opera. People who want to make it in opera dedicate their lives to the art form. It’s like a monster or a black hole: it eats up time and energy, and requires a lot of sacrifices. That’s why faith, tradition and superstition also play a very important role in opera. It’s a way to try to control your environment.’

Daniil: ‘Like hunters hitting their target, opera singers have to hit their notes. If they fail to do so, they risk losing a lot, just like Max.’

Kirill: ‘The orchestra or even opera as a whole can be compared to the forest: a world that surrounds you, that can be threatening and comforting at the same time.’
‘And the conductor resembles Samiel, the diabolical supernatural figure in Der Freischütz, who is pulling the strings. He decides who gets a role, who deserves a place in the spotlight, and who is fired. Performers want to please him, get in his good graces. He has the power to make artists succeed or fail. That’s why the spoken part of Samiel is performed by none other than our actual conductor, Patrick Hahn.’

You also added a character called The Red One. What purpose does he serve?

Kirill: ‘He is like a mediator between the stage and the audience. In a way, his purpose is to explain what’s happening. He connects the original story of the opera and the music of Weber to our new plot. He points things out and connects them. But he’s not just there to explain; he also triggers responses from the other performers.’
‘But he’s not the only one to break down the fourth wall. The characters do so as well in short spoken monologues, in which they address the audience directly. In these monologues, they share very private, intimate things. These stories actually draw from real experiences. I would say almost seventy percent of it is true.’

But you also play with cliches of opera singers, don’t you?

Kirill: ‘Of course I do. As human beings, we have cliche ideas about pretty much everything. They’re deeply ingrained in us. So I start from the cliche, and then build from there to create thoroughly modern and complex characters. I just make sure to add the poison in drops.’

How do you add complexity and modernity to a character like Agathe?

Daniil: ‘In traditional German opera at the beginning of the 19th century, there is this ideal of women as childish, naive and pure. That’s what Agathe embodies.’

Kirill: ‘In Weber’s opera, Agathe is actually stronger than Max because she is steadfast in her faith, goodness and piety, whereas Max falls in with dark powers. How do you convey that strength to a modern audience and make her relatable? We decided to stick with her strong faith, but change her religion: our Agathe believes in music and that she’s doing everything right to serve it and her career.’

Why have you chosen to have one singer for the roles of Kilian and Ottokar and one for the roles of Kaspar and the Eremit?

Kirill: ‘Because the characters represent two sides of the same coin: Kilian is just a simple village boy with a lot of luck, while Ottokar is a king. In the case of Kaspar and the Eremit, we have pure evil and pure good.’

Daniil: ‘The roles require a similar voice type, so luckily it’s also possible for the singers to combine these roles.’

Even though they represent two sides of the same coin and are performed by one and the same singer, Kaspar and the Eremit have different roles in your production.

Kirill: ‘In our version, Kaspar is someone who started as a singer in the chorus and who moved up to become a soloist, of course with help of Samiel, the conductor. The Eremit plays a different role. The original story of Der Freischütz by Johann August Apel, which Weber and his librettist adapted, is actually very pessimistic: Agathe dies, Max ends up crazy. Everything and everyone is destroyed. Weber’s opera has a happy ending, which is brought about by the Eremit, a sacred person who appears like a deus-ex-machina to fix everything. That’s why we asked the question: who eventually rules opera? Who has the power that the Eremit has? Intendants, singers, directors, musicians? No. It’s the audience. The people who buy tickets. They are the ones who decide whether they want to watch something or not. So we decided to turn him into a member of the audience.’

Apart from Weber’s music, you have also included music from Tom Waits’ The Black Rider, a music theatre piece which premiered in 1990, with texts by William S. Burroughs and directed by Robert Wilson. Why?

Kirill:The Black Rider tells the same story as Weber’s opera, dealing with the same characters, but with a great sense of irony. For me, that was an important reason to include music from The Black Rider. For us, people living in the twenty-first century, humour is a strong weapon to help us see things more clearly. It creates a certain critical distance.’

Daniil: ‘We were very careful in finding the right place for the right music. We had a long list of favourites, but there was a lot that we simply couldn’t make work. What we have now are three songs, one in each act, that fit the dramatic and musical moment.’

How do you connect the music to your new dialogues?

Kirill: ‘With our new text, we are mirroring the plot of Der Freischütz. There is a connection between the characters and what is happening in the original opera. So rather than taking the opera in a completely random direction, I think we have added new layers to what, in a sense, was already there in the original.’