Q & A: Dr. Ronald Perlwitz On The Bayreuth Festival In Abu Dhabi

By David Salazar

Over the last few months, one of the biggest headlines has been the announcement that the Bayreuth Festival would be taking its forces to Abu Dhabi for a couple of performances of Wagner’s “Die Walküre.” The Bayreuth Festival isn’t known for traveling abroad for its productions and Abu Dhabi is not among the recognized homes of opera.

But this shift is representative of something larger at work for both organizations, with the performances of the organization in Abu Dhabi coming with the support and patronage of His Highness Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates.

OperaWire recently had a chance to speak with Dr. Ronald Perlwitz, Head of Music, Arts Department, Department of Culture and Tourism in Abu Dhabi to talk about the process for making this ambitious project come to life.

OperaWire: How did this opportunity come about? What were some challenges to getting the Bayreuth Festival to come to Abu Dhabi?

Dr. Ronald Perlwitz: We created this opportunity. Unlike other Music Institutions and Festivals, the Bayreuth Festival doesn’t have a touring tradition. Its purpose is to present the musical dramas of Richard Wagner in the city of Bayreuth every year from end of July to end of August. So when we approached the Festival in 2014 for the first time, it was clear that many challenges were lying ahead and as expected: the project took many years to prepare. It soon became a common project and effort with the artistic direction of the Festival and in particular with Katharina Wagner. This background makes the concerts in Abu Dhabi for me even more special. We are bringing a whole Wagner opera to the capital which is all together a logistic but also an artistic challenge, because we obviously have to aim to recreate here in the UAE the highest artistic standards and the atmosphere of the Bayreuth Festival.

OW: How important is it to have an arts institution of this magnitude come to Abu Dhabi?

RP: It is very important. There is first of all the vision that Abu Dhabi is aiming to be the place of excellence in the field of cultural dialogue in the Middle East and beyond. The Bayreuth Festival definitely fits this criterion. But I think that the connection goes deeper. Richard Wagner, like many thinkers of the 19th Century and especially of the Romantic period that he was intellectually very depended upon, had made the discovery of other cultural systems. Like Friedrich Schlegel for example, he saw in the dialogue between these systems the basis for a new artistic and philosophic approach in Europe after the triumph of the Enlightenment in the 18th Century. Wagner had a genuine interest in the Arabic World, its history and thinking. Bringing his operas here is like closing a circle. It is also a proposal for discussions about cultural exchange, creativity and inspiration. For the culturally interested people in the region and beyond this project is definitely something to reflect about.

OW: What is the opera landscape in Abu Dhabi and how do you think that this kind of cultural experience will help it develop further?

RP: The opera landscape in Abu Dhabi has for sure developed over the years, not only with Abu Dhabi Classics, but also with the initiatives of ADMAF, NSO, NYU and other major intuitions. But of course there is still a long road ahead. With the imminent opening of the Culture Foundation in Abu Dhabi a new important venue will be added to the landscape and an element that will help take the opera experience in the Capital City to a whole new level.

OW: Was the choice of the opera, Die Walküre, made by the Bayreuth Festival or how much input did you and your colleagues have in picking the opera you would be bringing to your citizens?

RP: The choice of “Die Walküre” was a common choice and indeed not an easy one. We finally opted for “Die Walküre” because it is an opera bringing all the very characteristics of a musical Drama from Wagner together: The first act is utterly romantic, presenting an impossible love story very similar to “Tristan and Isolde,” but condensed in a one-hour act. The second act puts the focus on the mythical world and thus has this epic grandeur that has always fascinated the Wagner public. While the third act unfolds a true tragedy with a family story at the level of an ancient Greek Drama: it is a face-off between Father and Daughter determining the destiny of the future world. And all this of course with a musical language that is at the same time incredibly complex and extremely straight forward. “The Ride of the Valkyries” is without any doubt one of the most famous musical themes ever written. Listening to it live, not just as a piece in a “best of” concert, but in its genuine context as part of a romantic and tragic story will be an unforgettable experience.

OW: Are there any other future projects that you hope to do of this magnitude? Can you tell us more about those projects?

RP: It is difficult to speak about future projects as especially projects of this magnitude require so complex preparation that you really only want to speak publicly about them once all contracts are signed. Yet, we would certainly be happy to pursue our common work with Bayreuth. There is still so much to do in this regard. Here “Die Walküre” should only be the start

OW: What is your own personal interest in opera? How did you first come to experience it / love it?

RP: I have to admit: I started opera with Wagner. I was nine years old when my father gave me “The Flying Dutchman” to listen. And I haven’t stopped with Wagner since. Today my perspective is certainly different and Puccini, Rimsky-Korsakov, Gluck, Richard Strauss are among my favorite opera composers. I believe that in general, the fascinating aspect of opera is that it represents in a way an attempt of squaring the circle: bringing words and music together. Combining the highly emotional musical aspiration with the rational density of words. Of course words are porous to music and the other way around. Poetry is the best example for it. But opera goes even one step further in bringing both forms of expression together: it is the making of the impossible. Maybe that is why it is such a fascinating form of art.

OW: What do you envision as the future of opera in the UAE?

RP: I believe that the UAE is a perfect place for opera. It is a place where poetry has a century-old tradition and is still very present in today’s daily life, which is a core difference to Western Societies for example, where contemporary poetry has become a more than confidential art form. Considering also the rich musical tradition of the UAE, we are in Abu Dhabi in a place that offers ideal conditions, not only for playing operas, but also for creating operas. This is the next great step and we hope to participate a bit in initiating it. Abu Dhabi can become a place of unique opera creations, a place where this central art form of human expression could take a new start.


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