Knights at the opera

Nikolaus Lehnhoff has some serious thoughts about his new production of Parsifal. By Edward Seckerson
The secrets of Nikolaus Lehnhoff's forthcoming English National Opera production of Wagner's Parsifal are contained on dozens of Post- it notes clinging, like a coded commentary, to the pages of his vocal score. There are diagrams, there are cryptic messages, there are questions, there are even answers. But they are for his eyes only.

The blocking is documented here well in advance of the first rehearsal - who stands where, with whom, and why. Likewise movement is carefully prescribed, precisely tailored to the demands of the music. The positioning of the 48 Knights of the Grail adorns one page of the score like alternative notes on an alternative stave or primitive sketches relating to some ancient masonic rite. It's all very mysterious; all very mathematical. And all subject to change, of course.

Lehnhoff insists that he is not one of those autocratic German directors whose first word is his last word - though he does refer to the score as his "Regie book", which may be translated as "stage-management" or "state-monopoly".

He arrives hot-foot from rehearsal, score in hand, an eager and highly loquacious man who simply cannot wait to let you in on his act. Parsifal, he tells you, has taken a long time to feed itself into his soul, almost as long as it took Wagner to write. Lehnhoff was always uncomfortable with it. The music was attractive, but not the ethos surrounding it. He had long felt that Parsifal had been hijacked for its religious symbolism. The character of Gurnemanz was not, in his view, "the Evangelist of the St Parsifal Passion". There was more, much more, to this piece than the triumph of Christianity over paganism. He would, in time, dig deeper. Since signing on for the ENO production, three other companies (including our own Royal Opera) have approached him to do Parsifal. "What was in the air?" he asks. His cue to do it.

Lehnhoff is a scholar of Theatre History and Musicology from the universities of Munich and Vienna. He grew up with scores such as Parsifal. He was weaned on Wagner. He knows how long everything takes ("Useful for that species of opera director who actually likes music," he adds pointedly). And he knows that the key to a thorough understanding of these prodigious (and elusive) works lies somewhere between the text, which says one thing, and the music, which might say another.

He slaps his hand down on the vocal score, drawing my attention to the bizarre illustration on its cover: a crumpled cartoon knight resembling something out of Asterix. "Isn't it extraordinary? Maybe this is how I should do Parsifal," he says, with sufficient conviction to have you wondering if he might indeed be capricious enough to do just that. He has a waspish sense of humour and a healthy cynicism. It's his way of wearing the scholarship lightly, of leavening the seriousness with which Germans traditionally labour their cultural heritage.

Lehnhoff is very much a part of that heritage, yet somehow apart from it. He is his own man, his own one-man show, if you like - no agent, no permanent posting, no ties. Conditions (a schedule and environment conducive to work) are more important to him than money. Which is why he loves working at Glyndebourne - scene of his highly-praised Janacek productions (he returns there this summer for Smetana's The Bartered Bride) - and why he empathises with Wagner, who built his own theatre - the Bayreuth Festival Theatre - in an attempt to insulate his works from what Lehnhoff amusingly refers to as "the fire-escape regime" of repertory opera.

Lehnhoff spent 12 precious years at Bayreuth working with (and at this point serious Wagnerians will bend the knee) the composer's grandson, Wieland Wagner, whom he assisted on (and really serious Wagnerians will now be prostrate) his legendary 1951 production of Parsifal. This production was regarded as the summation of all the then radical concepts of light and space and dimension that Wieland (a designer and photographer) had brought to his minimalistic Bayreuth stagings.

When Richard Wagner famously said that now he had discovered "the invisible orchestra" (the pit at Bayreuth is hooded from the audience's view) he would search for "the invisible theatre", Lehnhoff believes that he had glimpsed the future according to Wieland. Could less be more?

Lehnhoff's Parsifal promises less and more: an endgame for the turn of the century. He sees no point in merely playing out the rituals of Parsifal without seeking to confront and to explore the deeper and more uncomfortable truths that lie behind them. Parsifal, he says in hushed, conspiratorial tones, "is an opera about the homelessness of humanity in the 20th century". Each of the characters have lost their way, each has experienced trauma, each wanders aimlessly into an uncertain future, survivors in a wasteland. "This is a world longing for death," he says, "a world locked into a kind of standstill, stalemate - Totenstarre [rigor mortis]."

At the heart of his conception is the belief that the Knights of the Holy Grail and the perverted Christ figure of Amfortas symbolise the closed societies, religious ideologies, sects, denominations and cults that divide us. "All were founded with the best of intentions," he says, "but instead of bringing humanity together, they have torn it apart - and all in the name of God. Amfortas's wound is our wound - mankind, civilisation..." And to heal is to regenerate, to find a common language with which we - the human race -can begin communicating again.

And is that common language "Christianity" in the purest sense? A new world order? An end to ideologies and religious in-fighting? Lehnhoff will not answer directly, preferring to to let the production speak for itself (though 30 or so minutes have now passed since he opted "not to give too much away"). All he will say is that the character of Parsifal is "the force of nature", the catalyst through which the healing process may begin. A new millennium. A second chance.

Like all truly great works of art, Parsifal poses more questions than it answers. Today's answers are tomorrow's questions. Lehnhoff may think he has discovered why the knights' and flower maidens' music share the same key (because they both represent the extended arms of power systems?), but that realisation may have more dramatic repercussions in his next production, or even the one after that. All he can hope to do for now is clearly to represent his current thinking on stage.

Clarity was something he learned from Wieland Wagner. The rhythms and dynamics of staging; stillness that speaks; gestures that mean something. Lehnhoff learned how and why an operatic character standing in one place for 20 minutes could be exciting. He learned about the power of a single, central metaphor. In his thrilling Glyndebourne production of Janacek's The Makropoulos Case, the entire set moved inexorably, imperceptively throughout the evening, the ground literally shifting beneath the feet of the opera's heroine, Emilia Marty, shifting to the rhythm of eternal life. Because life moves slowly when you're 300 years old. The tension created was extraordinary, both music and drama heightened, extended, stretched to the limit.

Being a musical as well as a theatrical animal, Lehnhoff's relationships with conductors has always been unusually close. On Parsifal, Mark Elder has been present at every rehearsal - a rare occurence in opera, but one which mirrors the significant ties he established when he was assistant to such great names as Karl Bohm and Herbert von Karajan, who insisted that he was by his side in the pit during performances of Wagner's Ring at the New York Met, with a hotline to the lighting booth (Lehnhoff to lighting control: "More light on Wotan"; lighting control to Lehnhoff: "Which one is he?"). When Lehnhoff told Karajan that Wagner took only 2 hours 4 minutes over Das Rheingold (Karajan's favourite Ring opera), Karajan was determined to match it.

Back at the Coliseum, Lehnhoff will doubtless be reminding Elder of Wagner's speeds for Parsifal. Drama, he'll be saying; we're in the theatre, not in church.