Weber’s Der Freischütz is about to get a brand new Australian outing, with a distinctly cinematic treatment.
Melbourne Opera Company have just started rehearsals in Melbourne’s Athenaeum theatre and excitement is mounting. This is the first production of Weber’s Romantic masterpiece Der Fresichütz here since 1969. This opera has terrific music, a familiar overture, and the famous Huntsmen’s Chorus as well as many other glorious numbers making this a turning point in the development of German opera, a major influence on Wagner and a perennial favorite in German opera houses. So why has this neglected masterpiece sat on the shelf in Australia for so long?
In brief, Der Freischütz tells the story of Max, a marksman who has lost the ability to shoot straight on the eve of his wedding to the Master Huntsmen’s daughter Agathe. If he fails to win the shooting competition held on his wedding day he will not be allowed to marry her. Another marksman, Caspar has previously made a pact with Zamiel, the Demon Huntsman, and traded his soul for seven magic bullets. Casper exchanges his soul for Max’s with Zamiel and in a demonic ritual casts seven new magic bullets. This means that Max is now able to shoot, win and be wed with the help of these magical bullets, however one bullet remains in the control of Zamiel to kill whomever he chooses. Complete disaster is only averted by the intervention of a Holy Hermit on the wedding day. Our challenge as a creative team is to convey this elaborate story and its themes in a way that communicates to a contemporary Australian audience whilst still serving the intention of the composer and librettist.
There are incredibly difficult staging issues around the magic that occurs in the piece, such as the notoriously tricky Wolf’s Glenn scene where the devil Zamiel is conjured. Among the impractical stage directions in this scene are the need for wild boars, eagle’s falling from the sky, meteor showers, wheels of fire and hurricanes, just to name a few… you get the picture for some of the challenges here! So, how to interpret this in a way that does not read as comedy to contemporary audiences accustomed to the fantastic special effects they can see in films? Melbourne Opera is not a big budget company, so a lot of design savvy is required. It is important not to be comedic with this because of the narrative gravity of this scene. Der Freischütz is a deeply Germanic work, and while the folklore is well know within Germany, it won’t be so familiar to us here. I never knew (before working on this opera) that to this very day there are Schützenfest (Shooting Carnivals) held throughout Germany and there is even one being held in the Adelaide Hills on the day our production opens! German children know well the story of the Demon Huntsman.
By isolating the very core situation of the work we were led to an exploration of ‘angst’, which, despite being about a century before this became common psychoanalytical parlance, is in a large part what the piece is about. Crucially this provides a way in for an audience who won’t be familiar with the folklore of this narrative, so making the most of this relatable aspect is key. In this case, Max’s angst comes from his fear of failure. Though created in a pre-Jungian time the characterization in this piece very much relates to the archetypes that Jung built many of his theories upon. We wanted to find a way to express this alongside the imagery of horror and angst that felt true to the Germanic spirit of this story but reached into a time closer to the birth of contemporary psychoanalysis. As an artform Expressionism primarily examined angst and this led us to look at the works of the German expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu and in that we found an aesthetic not so distant, suitably dark and not as quaint as the sylvan glades filled with people clad in lederhösen that the original work required. Taking this notion of Expressionism as a subjective expression of emotion, for us Der Freischütz could become an outpouring of Max’s angst.
After much viewing and discussion amongst the creative team felt we were really onto something, the pieces fell into place and we resolved to approach the work in the style of a 1920’s Expressionist film. Most of the opera is being staged looking like a black and white film but layered with contemporary VDO projection and mapping technology to realise the magical effects in vivid colour. This magical world will appear part dream, part nightmare. In an age when popular culture is full of fantasies like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings we hope this larger than life tale of the Demon Hunter and Max’s angst will strike a chord with a whole new audience and give those who know and love this opera a chance to see it in a new light.
The Melbourne Opera Company’s production of Der Fresichütz opens 31 January.