Dec. 27, 2023

Parsing Parsifal

Celebrated director John Caird on his interpretive approach to Wagner’s final opera.
John Caird's Parsifal. Photo credit: Robert Kusel

Some consider redemption to be the overall theme of Wagner’s Parsifal. Just as frequently people seem to think it’s all about compassion. But it’s about both, isn’t it?  
John Caird: Compassion and redemption. Yes, one is very dependent on the other. The theme of redemption—Parsifal’s redemption—is entirely tied up with whether or not he learns compassion. That’s the fundamental story of the work that the opera is based on: Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival from the early 13th century. Parsifal has to grow up and become a proper man by understanding what compassion is. In the original story, his inability to feel compassion for Amfortas when he first meets him is proof that he needs to redeem himself before he is worthy of the Grail. Wagner has closely followed that story line.  


You mentioned the idea that Wagner was using the piece as a vehicle to redeem himself. How is it an autobiographical work, and what was he redeeming himself from? 
Caird: Wagner seems to fill all his characters with some autobiographical elements. Most obviously he is Parsifal, the questing knight, just as he was in life. Wagner quested after new developments in music—in a long and quite lonely aesthetic journey, just as Parsifal, the holy fool, quests for the truth in his journey. But Wagner is also present in Amfortas, the psychologically and sexually wounded man. He was, all his life, an extraordinarily self-inquiring man. He couldn’t leave himself alone in terms of his thought processes and artistic accomplishments. He felt slights against him very deeply; indeed, he felt all his personal relationships very deeply, with family, friends, and enemies. The portrait of Amfortas as a man who needs healing, who needs redemption, is undoubtedly autobiographical.  


Wagner is there, too, in Klingsor, the libertine, the sybaritic man who kicks against the conventional world by indulging himself and defying the social proprieties around him. In a strange way he’s even present in Kundry—as the man who just wants to serve others. All of this is another way of saying that Wagner’s writing technique involved steeping himself in the  
characters he was writing—acting them out in his imagination as he wrote them, which was why they’re all written, in their way, so sympathetically. There aren’t villains and heroes in the sense of one character being evidently superior or more morally worthy than another. Even Klingsor is written passionately from Klingsor’s point of view. You can feel the pain of the man, and the deep emotional commitment needed to conquer his enemies as he develops his stratagems. 


You’ve spoken about this being “a hermetically sealed male society.”  
Caird: This is the theme from which Wagner has strayed furthest from the original source material. In the Wolfram von Eschenbach story, the exploits of the knights are all being done in service of ladies. The knights’ primary mission is to be worthy of their womenfolk. Indeed, that is the overriding theme of most medieval romance literature. Wagner has chosen to lose that side of the story completely, and it’s interesting to ask why. It explains a lot about Wagner himself: he wanted his hero to be motivated by a pure sense of self-exploration untainted by the weakness he associated with sexual desire. His radical simplification of the original story also had a musical motive, because he wanted Kundry to be the only female voice in the work. The only other women he is interested in are drawn from Eschenbach’s original story—the women who are imprisoned by Klingsor. Wagner seems far more fascinated by women who need rescuing than by women who require to be served! They seem to be the women he found most alluring.  


But having said that, in Act Two he does write a wonderfully semi-erotic scene with the Flower Maidens and Parsifal—with Kundry at the very center of an absorbingly female world. His writing is glamorous there—and sensual. Wagner’s need is to have Parsifal strong enough to deny himself the pleasure of those females, and indeed, deny himself the pleasure of a real relationship with Kundry when she tries to seduce him. This provides a difficulty for the performers and director. Kundry is for the most part painted quite sympathetically, but at the heart of Act Two she is required to be a heartless femme fatale. And having experienced that sensual scene, Parsifal then returns to Monsalvat seeming to have forgotten about her and indeed about all the other women. But Wagner leaves us a clue in Act Three: after the repentant Kundry has washed his feet, Parsifal sings about the beauty of the countryside and remembers the Flower Maidens, wondering if they too will be redeemed.  


Is Parsifal a truly religious piece?  
Caird: It is a religious piece; there’s no question of that. Wagner’s decision to present the dénouement of the work on Good Friday and to infuse Parsifal’s quest with so much Christian imagery—it can’t be regarded as a completely secular piece. But I think it’s also a deeply philosophical work. Toward the end of his life, Wagner got more and more interested in Buddhism and Asceticism. He was also deeply influenced by the work of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer—and especially fascinated by his theories about collective consciousness, the subjugation of the will, and compassion toward the animal kingdom. Parsifal is a strange and rich mixture of Schopenhauerian philosophy on the one hand and Christian mythology on the other. It’s almost as if Wagner is trying to reconcile the two ideologies, partly because he was so influenced by both and at the end of his life wanted to reconcile them within himself—and partly out of a brave though rather grandiose desire to distill the real truth about human existence into one great work. 

Photo credit: Robert Kusel

When you hear from people or read that this is the most explicitly anti-Semitic and ideologically suspect of any of the Wagner operas, how do you respond?  
Caird: I don’t think the text of the libretto supports that argument, and it’s rather a circular one. It never would have occurred to anyone to suggest anti-Semitic elements in Parsifal if Wagner himself hadn’t written anti-Semitic essays earlier in his life, which he certainly did. And there’s no question at all that Wagner was anti-Semitic. But I don’t believe there is evidence that his reprehensible views make any appearance in Parsifal, or that he was writing the opera as a way of expressing those views. 


Bryan Magee has written very eloquently about this in his book Wagner and Philosophy. Wagner’s anti-Semitism was so extreme that he publicly repudiated the idea that a Jewish character should even be represented on stage. Of course, one could say that the complete absence of any reference to Jews or Jewishness constitutes in itself a kind of anti-Semitism, and one might have a reasonable point.  


It is also widely believed, but completely untrue, that Parsifal was a work greatly favored by the Nazis, the exact opposite being the case. The work was banned in Germany from 1933 onward as being “ideologically unacceptable.” 


Buddha explained in his first sermon that desire is the cause of suffering, and taught that to realize enlightenment, a person must develop two qualities: wisdom and compassion. Do you think the Buddhist element at all important? 
Caird: It’s part of the central theme—Buddhist philosophy overlapping with Christian faith. And of course, the two have a great deal in common. The central event of Christianity, the crucifixion, tells of the death of a man who has the wisdom and compassion to understand that he is laying down his life for his fellow man. 


How do you view the idea of the piece as a “stage-festival consecration play”?  
Caird: The action is static, and what drama there is takes a long time to develop. For its period, the libretto is not standard operatic fare: there’s nothing melodramatic in it, the plot doesn’t rely on weird coincidences, there are no romantic heroes and villains, there isn’t a central romantic love story in it. In Bernard Shaw’s phrase—it doesn’t have a soprano and a tenor trying to make love and a baritone trying to stop them! Parsifal is far more contemplative than most operas of its period. But it’s an opera, nonetheless! 
Amfortas speaks of “the agony of ecstasy”—is that a useful idea?  
Caird: Amfortas is a man whose wound is as much psychological as it is physical. If it was simply a case of a man with a painful illness or disease, then that’s not a very dramatic event on which to build a whole story. His real agony is that he needs the Grail to continue living. But his continuing life is a torture to him because he feels unworthy of the Grail, and unworthy of the respect of the brotherhood because he knows he has let them down. He’s a man living in the grip of a terrible failure.  


I suppose, in a way, that is the most mortal of all wounds, especially for someone who is in any way a moral or spiritual figure, or in the case of his creator Wagner, an artistic giant. His agony is that his journey is incomplete, that his relationship with God has been sullied, that he can’t live happily and he can’t die happily. That’s his great torture. 


Having said that, it is hard not to imagine that the woman who seduced Amfortas in Klingsor’s realm was Kundry in one of her many incarnations. So, to some extent, one might think of him as suffering the pangs of unrequited love! It is certainly significant that Kundry is with Amfortas at the end of the story when Parsifal salves away his pain with the spear. 


The ritual in the second scene of Act I: How specific and detailed do you want this to be? What’s the overall spirit of the moment?  
Caird: What is being sung by the brotherhood is an anthem of faith in God, faith in one another, faith in the spiritual world, faith in something beyond the physical. They proclaim their faith in the future in the face of deprivation and suffering. It’s interesting: in the source that Wagner is drawing from—the Eschenbach source—the Grail is described as a stone. It’s Wagner who has made it much more an emblem of the Christian faith, like the chalice of the Last Supper. Eschenbach describes something more like a philosopher’s stone, an alchemical force that can create magical feasts and effects, with an array of different drinks and meals. But if Wagner has created his own form of Holy Communion, he has added some highly original touches. He has his younger squires singing a verse about their expectation that the Innocent Fool will come one day and bring enlightenment to all. Again, the dramatic focus here is the all-important element. While the service continues, Parsifal witnesses it, unaware that he himself is the Innocent Fool who will one day become the Redeemer.  


What is your vision for Klingsor, and the red world he’s in? 
Caird: It comes from feeling that there is a great deal of imagery in the piece about blood. The killing of the swan in the first act, Amfortas’s wound, the blood of the Saviour, Klingsor’s self-mutilation. Amfortas and Klingsor are really different aspects of the same character, both suffering similar fates. Klingsor has castrated himself and is living in a sexless world but holding to himself all the available females in the story, including Kundry. Klingsor is ruling over a world of the purely sensual and purely selfish. It’s a world that has one man at the center controlling everything around him—all women, all men, the future, anything that comes within his ambit. In other words, he’s set himself up as a god, just as Lucifer did when he fell from grace.  


How do we make sense of the totally different sides of Kundry, the opera’s most complicated character?  
Caird: Wagner only wanted one major female character in the piece. I think musically he didn’t hear another female protagonist, and he didn’t want Kundry just to be the mighty sorceress who affects the plot against Parsifal in the first instance and then his favor in the second, as in the Eschenbach. He wanted her to represent all the other aspects of the feminine; the maternal, the sexual, the alluring, the manipulative, the caring—so he’s rolled all these all these female attitudes up into one character. Inevitably that makes for a complicated mix!  


Photo credit: Robert Kusel

She’s longing for Parsifal to yield to her, yet at the same time longing for him to resist her, since that way she’ll be redeemed.  
Caird: Wagner makes it very clear that she is unwilling to seduce Parsifal until Klingsor threatens her and forces her to do it. At the start of Act Two, she is completely under Klingsor’s magic control. As such, it is Parsifal’s perceptiveness in interpreting the way she behaves toward him in their long scene, he works out that he is making love to a woman—or he is talking love to a woman—who is not being true to herself. In other words, he sees through her false seductiveness to something underneath. In fact, he sees his mother, or perhaps all women in the form of his mother, a psychologically fascinating and potent moment. In doing so, he sees that there is something more important than sex—or something more important than mere sex, put it that way. 


What does the Good Friday Spell represent to you in the piece, and how do you hope to represent it onstage? 
Caird: Amfortas has Christ-like aspects to him—but so does Parsifal himself. If Kundry is Mary Magdalen and Mary Mother rolled into one, Amfortas is the crucified Christ and Parsifal is Christ on the road to Emmaus. Wagner keeps changing the emphases of these religious allusions, partly because he wants to create his own mythology, and partly because he was perhaps a little scared of getting too specific. He was writing at a time when one couldn’t mimic the rituals of the church without getting into considerable difficulty. 


The end of Parsifal has always felt to me like the end of a war: as if everyone has been wounded, damaged by a long period of terrible experience but finally released from pain into salvation, just as the great Passions of Bach end by celebrating the peaceful joy and deep rest that are the natural successors to pain and death. I think Wagner was very influenced by the Passion story and the long journey that finally ends with a homecoming of happiness, resolution, and compassion. Personally, I can’t see how that story can possibly end with only the blokes as celebrants. That’s not how stories have their happy endings. With only men onstage at the end, all I would be able to think is, Here we go again: Parsifal is the new Amfortas, Amfortas is the new Titurel, and we’re back at the beginning. Nothing’s been decided, it’s the same dysfunctional all-male society, and nobody’s learned anything. That’s why I bring the Flower Maidens back from Klingsor’s realm in the Good Friday scene and then integrate them in the previously all-male society of Monsalvat. That seems to me to constitute both a cure for Amfortas’s wound and a healthy recipe for a functioning society in the future.   


What can we say to people who are new to the piece? 
Caird: Newcomers to Wagner can look forward to one of the greatest operatic works by one of the greatest 19th-century composers, in the form of his artistic and philosophical masterwork. For anybody who has a real interest in religion or philosophy, in the spiritual life, this is a beautifully contemplative way of thinking about the most important things in this world—humanity, compassion, and man’s relationship with God and nature. It’s an opera that will be well understood by people who are ready to sit and listen and appreciate—and not be in too great a hurry to get to the end! 


You need to be ready to invest emotionally and intellectually in a production of Parsifal. You won’t sit there in floods of tears from one moment to the next as the protagonist characters tear themselves and one another to emotional pieces—this is a very different palette of colors from that of Puccini or Verdi. But you will sit there and have profound thoughts about the nature of human life and how philosophy and religion, bravery and self-knowledge can combine as a salve to the greatest tribulations in our lives.  


This interview with director John Caird is presented courtesy of Lyric Opera  
of Chicago. 

about the author
Lyric Opera of Chicago Staff
Lyric Opera of Chicago