Lepage’s Siegfried and baby thievery

Not Lepage (Parsifal in Bayreuth)

Later I’ll have much more on last night’s premiere of Siegfried from the Met. But I wanted to deal with one point independently, because if I explained it fully in my real review it would hijack the whole post.

In Robert Lepage’s new production, we see Mime find the infant Siegfried during the Prelude. He sneaks up on the dying Sieglinde, grabs her baby, and runs off. (Please correct me if I missed something here, I was in the Family Circle and it was dimly lit. But that’s what I saw. It was quick.) This directly contradicts his later accounts of Siegfried’s birth, where he says Sieglinde also gave him the pieces of Nothung the sword and told him to name the baby Siegfried (and also presumably the identity of Siegmund, which Mime does not tell Siegfried). OK, Mime is plausibly an unreliable narrator and found those things out in other ways. But Lepage never does anything else to show or explore the implications that Mime is lying when he is talking to Siegfried about his birth, it’s left hanging.

But much more severe is the implication that Mime is not an accidental adoptive father but rather a baby snatcher. The character of Mime is already a locus of several topoi of antisemitism: greediness, a whining voice, a hunched walk. The idea of Jews stealing (Christian) babies is part of blood libel (a short history of the term is here), the accusation that Jews will use their blood in some ritual, historically one of the nastiest myths of anti-Semites. I may be hyper-aware of this particular idea because it was self-consciously presented by Stefan Herheim in his Bayreuth production of Parsifal. Kundry, dressed as a nurse, steals the baby Parsifal from his mother Herzeleide (see photo above).
I am honestly rather shocked that Lepage did this. There is no Get Out of Jail Free card when it comes to antisemitism and Wagner, you absolutely have to be aware of the issues and either avoid presenting racist stereotypes at all or clearly foreground them (as Herheim does above). (Following three sentences added later to clarify:) Lepage’s lack of dramturgical context makes the moment interpretively messy, but more grievously he replicates the dog whistle way that these topoi work. It seems like a random insertion if you aren’t familiar with the ideology, but if you know anything about the history of antisemitism you will make the association right away (Mime = Jew = bad). And I don’t think that this is an association that needs reviving.

I’m sure that this is cluelessness or naivité from a director who shows that he doesn’t know much about Wagner, but that no one else pointed it out is distressing.

Updated to add: my regular Siegfried piece is here.

More on the rest later today. Thanks to the Zwölftöner for his lecture on Mime and antisemitism when we saw Siegfried in Vienna last April.

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  1. I mentioned it in my review but I didn't make the blood libel connection. Now that I think about it, its inclusion may have been naïvete on the director's part. I've always thought the contradiction (that Mime lies to Siegfried about knowing Siegmund's name) connects with the idea that yes, he did steal the baby, but I didn't read it as Lepage making a statement about Jews or anti-Semitism.

  2. Lepage has engaged with issues of antisemitism before notably in Jesus of Montreal where he played the Christ figure, Rene, and in The Seven Streams of the River Ota. I wouldn't attribute cluelessness to Lepage ever but overstretch I would. I get the strong impression that "his" productions these days are very much a corporate brand bearing his name.

  3. Paul, the problem is he didn't make a clear statement about Jews or antisemitism. He PRESENTED one of the biggest anti-Semitic myths without any context or comment. If he made a coherent argument that Mime stole Siegfried and found out Sieglinde and Siegmund's names through other means, I wouldn't have a problem with it, actually that might be interesting! But to just throw it in there is a nice tablespoon of anti-Semitic spice in your stew.

    operaramblings: hmmmmm, interesting but I don't see much evidence in this Ring that Lepage has really thought through these characters.

  4. Zerbinetta,
    I think the implication that Mime stole the baby has always been in that scene–something about the way the descending minor-third "Mime interval" (what Ernest Newman called the 'Reflection' theme) keeps appearing when he tells that story, indicating that he is (to some degree) inventing this story to tell Siegfried.
    In some productions, (Chereau, Kupfer) he is finally telling Siegfried SOMETHING to prevent his young charge from killing him in a rage. The interval is most clearly heard in the way he sings "Sie starb." "She died." No details given and he moves on quickly. So perhaps the implication belongs to Wagner himself and not Lepage?

  5. But if that's the conclusion you're going to draw you have to problematize it! You can't just blithely put this kind of thing onstage without coming to grips with the background and consequences of what you're doing. The history is there and even if most people do not recognize it–which it seems they do not–he's still ADDING to it and that's horrifying.

  6. There's also a possibility that a scene of baby-snatching will not be read as anti-Semitic in the NYC at the MET in 2011. (Even if it's in the forever suspect Wagner!)

    Which, I think, is good news. Because it means that one topos of racial prejudice ended its life at least in a particular geography, period and context. To insist that it's there when nobody else read it there is a bit like reviving it, in a way.

    I love your writing about Lepage's Ring. I learn a lot and I laugh a lot. But with this one, I can't agree (and besides, doesn't Norma Lebrecht specialize in this kind of thing?) This appears to be a lucklustre staging in search of an identity, and that's bad enough as it is. No need to look for unwitting anti-Semitic mythology in it on top.

  7. This is nitpicking from opera fans that have very little knowledge of Mr Lepage, his view of the world and his theatrical background.
    First in his theatrical sagas Mr Lepage has used actors from many different cultures and background and his themes were always about inclusiveness over cultural differences.
    As per the Jewish slant let me just state that one of the major character from "The Seven Streams of the River Ota" was a Jewish escapee from concentration camp. The scenes in the camp where even more poignant as you did see only the actors from waist down except for the little girl that escaped through a magician prop. In fact if I remember well the magician was homosexual while the other camp inmates were Jewish and he willingly went to the gas chamber while using one of his former prop to save the life of the little Jewish girl.
    It is also notable that Mr Lepage is gay and, I don't know if he was projecting himself in the magician but he certainly knows what being part an opressed minority is. Plus Mr Lepage suffers from a very rare kind of alopetia that striked him when he was already in the first or second grade so talk about being bullied and doubly sensitive to minorities and working against stereotypes!
    I must also add that Mr Lepage doesn't speak German, cannot read music (as far as I know)so he has a very close music consultant that sang for him in Erwantung many years ago. She is Dutch and speak German but it is her second language so, even with a word for word translation on the side side he might not have grasped such arcane references. On the other hand she probably pointed to the "Mime interval" and it's possible meaning and Lepage decided to exploit that idea.
    May I also remind everybody that Robert Lepage is from Québec City and still lives there, yes there were some antisemitic people around there at the time of WWII and just prior or afterward (some French collaborators migrated to Qc) but that is really past history and, anyways, the real nazi supporters in the Province were quite stupid people or very soft supporters just going with the flow. So limited in fact that they probably were not even aware of the main anti-Jewish claim: the Sion Protocol.
    So please give me a break on such a far fetched supposition. So even with his huge cultural background I am almost certain that Mr Lepage has never heard of this "blood libel" thing (neither had I until now and I am of the same generation and same cultural background as Mr Lepage) and that this statement about antisemitism is just presumptuous, far fetched if not total poppycock!

  8. Def, but it's become part of the work over time and is still something the director needs to be aware of. Not to the degree of, say, The Merchant of Venice, but it's a similar situation. Thankfully it's not a live connection anymore, but I'm going to be a hard-ass on this one and say that doesn't matter. It's sloppy work.

    Anon, most of that isn't very relevant, except it further convinces me that Lepage didn't do his homework on this production. I never suggested he did this with malevolent intent. This is NOT arcane, it's Wagner 101. Not being aware of the issues surrounding Mime is inexcusable when you are staging the Ring at a giant opera house.

  9. I hope it wasn't so much of a lecture because I'm really not in that Wagner camp (meaning Adorno and Weiner rather than 'that' Wagner camp). Ok, so with Mime maybe a little, but I find decoding Beckmesser pointless unless the person doing the decoding has sorted out their view on Teutonic supremacy and where it's coming from in that opera, among other things.

    I think you're absolutely right to point out that staging is where this ceases to be academic, however unintended the implied anti-Semitism may be, and I don't hold much truck with the *if the general public doesn't notice, it's OK* view expressed earlier. And defending Lepage by saying that's he totally uninformed, well, I don't need to point out how silly that looks.