Parsifal and religion: a conversation

I went to the final performance of Parsifal at the Met last Friday night,
in the company of an old friend and great Wagnerian who also happens to
be a religious studies and South Asian scholar. Since religion is a part
of the production that I didn’t mention at all in my earlier review, I chatted
with him about it a bit.

Since we don’t talk about the musical side of things: Asher Fisch conducted this performance instead of Daniele Gatti. I found him perfectly fine but not as compelling. I think he was obliged to more or less follow Gatti’s tempos (the performance was a mere five minutes shorter), and I don’t think that conducting at Daniele Gatti’s tempos is advisable for anyone who is not Daniele Gatti (and, in some cases, perhaps not even then). I was actually more conscious of the slowness this time around, since he didn’t find the same amount of detail and shape inside those very drawn-out phrases. The Flower Maidens’ scene, however, was noticeably less hard-driven than it was under Gatti.

Now for the conversation. You may remember “Pelléas” from our earlier post on Die Walküre.

Pelléas: Let’s talk about balance. Because that’s what I think the big theme of the production is. The balance of men and women is the most obvious way that the theme is expressed, but it’s much larger than that.  We can think of balance between humanity and the natural world, but also a proper balance in the religious sphere that the protagonists of this opera operate in.

Zerbinetta: I agree that’s the theme but I want to hear more. Because honestly I hoped that I would see the production differently this time but I really didn’t. This may be due to the thought processes required to write my review of it, organizing your thoughts like that kind of fixes them in place.

Pelléas: Basically we’re in this post-apocalyptic world and the knights (men) have no idea how to deal with it, so they retreat into their own world. But they don’t just separate from the women, they also practice this strange version of Christianity that is wholly centered on the Eucharist, which they also pervert. But they forget everything else that is part of Christianity. The Eucharist is but one sacrament, sexual asceticism is but one lifestyle, men are but one gender. The production seems to be saying that the knights have gone down this greatly restricted path (and in so doing they’ve also forgotten even what they deem most important) but that they must more fully embrace the world, even the aspects that they may find to be sinful.  One image that perfectly represents this balance is Christ being pierced on the cross.  Both blood and water flow from the wound, the two central symbols of the production.  Now the piercing can seem like the most sadistic, vindictive act of violence, yet it also leads to the conversion of Longinus and is therefore celebrated.

Zerbinetta: Who is Longinus?

Pelléas: The Roman soldier who pierced Christ’s side on the cross. With the spear that is central to the opera.  The blood from the wound represents the Eucharist, whereas the water symbolizes baptism (I’m not reading anything into that; it’s standard Christian symbolic interpretation of the image).  In this production the blood is associated with the men, whereas water, and therefore baptism, is associated with women.

Zerbinetta: Which is why there isn’t very much of it. I thought the production could have done a better job telling us what Kundry’s deal was, too. Anyway, go on.

Pelléas: The dried-up river bed separating the men from the women represents this lack of balance.  Yet there’s memory of water flowing through the river (when Gunermez first goes to the bed the river briefly flows with water).  But the water will only actually flow through the river when Parsifal baptizes Kundry in Act III, beginning the process of joining men and women, eucharist and baptism, asceticism and sensuality back together. But the majority of the time the river only flows with blood if it flows with anything.

Zerbinetta: Remember, the riverbed is also the wound!
Pelléas: Yes. But in the knight’s lack of balance they only are concerned with the Eucharistic aspects of Christianity: the blood. If they participated in the balance of Christ then Amfortas’ wound would pour forth with both water and blood, but instead it is only blood, and it never heals. The choreography of the Eucharistic scene makes it clear that the knights remember some aspect of the ritual, but they don’t really know it. Their hand gestures mix Christian aspects of prayer with vague new-agey Eastern motifs. Additionally, the way they participate in the feast has this strange melding of the Kiss of Peace, with the men dipping their fingers into the grail, touching their mouths, and then bringing their fingers to the mouths of other brothers. But while the knights are busy pressing their fingers to each others lips the women are miming a more traditional Eucharist, lifting an imagined chalice to their lips. They remember the proper aspects of this ritual.

Zerbinetta: I got that it was a new Eucharist but I sort of assumed that was because the production wanted it to be abstract and not built on specific Christian doctrine.

Pelléas: I saw too much literal, traditional Christian symbolism to think that the director was trying to distance himself from Christianity.

Zerbinetta: But the wound isn’t a natural condition, it’s the cause of their problems! It’s because Amfortas was enchanted by Klingsor and gave in to Evil Woman.

Pelléas: Amfortas was enchanted by Klingsor to give in to his version of Evil Woman. The flower maidens don’t represent real femininity. They represent the overly sexualized, virginal fantasy of men.  (Come on, white dresses [more like night gowns] gradually bloodied by dancing around in the pools of blood; you can’t represent an imagined or fantasized deflowering any more literally than that!)  They’re under Klingsor’s control. It’s because of this idea of women that the knights separate themselves from other women, but the only place that this fantasy actually exists is in Klingsor’s domain. The actual women are normally sexualized (they leave on their high heel shoes whereas the men take off their dress shoes) but they aren’t hyper sexualized.

Zerbinetta: So my next question is, I guess, what prompts Parsifal’s turn towards Mitleid? And why does he have to wander however many decades between Acts 2 and 3? Did not really come up with an answer to this myself. 

Pelléas: Water represents the form of balance that the knights lack. It is the water that comes from Christ’s side, the water of baptism, to complement the blood. There are projections of rippling water throughout Kundry’s seduction of Parsifal in Act II. It starts out rather small and subtle and then builds in intensity. The fact that her seduction is NOT sexy is important I think, it’s enough to be believable, but not as over the top as the flower maidens. Her costume as both flower maiden (in Act II) and normal woman (in Act I) represents her ability to be a bridge between the unbridled sexuality of the flower maidens and the unrealized sexuality of the normal women. When she kisses Parsifal the water images begin to be broadcast around him. They’ve never been projected for him before.

He’s been exposed to the proper balance of sexuality, but he’s so startled that he can’t accept it yet.  So he wanders. But then in Act III he has finally come to accept it. He’s able to embrace water for himself, most importantly in his baptism of Kundry which brings water to the stream again.  Only after he baptizes Kundry can he step into the women’s realm. Although he and Kundry have been the two characters who have been able to really approach the border and pass things across it, no one has actually crossed that border until this point.  (As a total aside, for a wonderful book on the many valences of water as a female symbol, especially for female sexuality, that is both celebrated and denigrated in the Christian tradition, check out Catherine Keller’s Face of the Deep.)

Zerbinetta: I did notice that was when he crossed the river! That’s also a key point in the musical development–the pure fool diminished seventh that represents Parsifal is heard with the grail rhythm underneath it for the first time–so I really appreciated the timing.

Pelléas: Well, I can’t comment on that bit of music theory 😉

Zerbinetta: In general this was not the most Leitmotiv-conscious production but they did get that one perfectly. You said that balance is the most important thing, but I think of this as a more Buddhist concept than a Christian one. In a similar category, there’s the Schopenhauerian negation of the Will which you haven’t really mentioned but still seems to me to be very important element of the work, though perhaps not of Girard’s interpretation of it. (Also in the Eastern category, there is a LOT of obvious yoga in Act 3.) But the symbols you are discussing here are all very specifically Christian. What do you think of this mixture?

Pelléas: It strikes me very much as a 19th century orientalist looking at Buddhism or The East.  A lot of philosophers at the time viewed India as this pristine, primeval abode of uncorrupted man.  None of this really had much to do with India, but with projections of what these Westerners wanted their present, future, or past to be.  I think it’s appropriate to have all of the symbolism be Christian in this context, because it’s honest about what Wagner and a lot of other philosophers were doing with India at the time; the philological study was excellent but the philosophical understanding was a mess.  So we’re getting at this concept of balance, but balance such a vague idea that it could be Western, it could be Eastern, it could show up anywhere.  The wound in Christ’s side is just as good a metaphor of balance as Buddhist equanimity or Vedantic absorption of the Self into the Ātman.  But even if we’re using Eastern ideas to get there our aims are fully grounded in Western sensibilities and desires, in this case to realize an authentic, historical, dogmatic, balanced Christianity. 

The moment when Parsifal tells the women to intersperse with the men he comes closest to giving an authentic sign of the cross as he does in the entire production (and blesses not only those on stage, but the audience too). So even in this cathartic moment Girard is opting for something akin to Christian orthodoxy. 

Zerbinetta: On a more basic note, do you have any comment on the interplanetary projections? I wasn’t sure about them and some people in my comments section were as well.

Pelléas: I have no clue. It seemed rather lame to me. Definitely not symbolically interesting.

Zerbinetta: They didn’t bother me too much one way or another. OverallI I thought the production was very clean and elegant and modern. It might be a little too minimalist for its own good, though.

Pelléas: I still have questions about the production. It seems that the men are the ones who are reacting baldy to the ecological disaster. They separate from the women. They become ascetics while convinced that women are hypersexualized (when they aren’t), they misremember the Eucharist (whereas the women remember it but can’t perform it), they forget baptism. Yet why are the women basically passive the entire time? Why do they wait calmly for Kundry to seduce Parsifal and then have Parsifal convince the men of their folly? Why aren’t they more active in trying to restore the balance that the production says that they hold the key to?

Zerbinetta: Yeah, that is a problem. I am tempted to say “because Wagner didn’t write them in the score, and Wagner’s music is so gestural that it’s pretty hard to add that much” but then you look at Herheim’s Parsifal and, like, NO. You could. That’s what the ladies in Act 1 and Act 2 have in common, passivity, and it’s why I didn’t really think that there was an existential difference between the two (as in one group was real and the other was enchanted or projections of Amfortas’s or Klingsor’s desires).

Pelléas: Well, the lades in Act I are simply passive, but not under anyone’s control. The flower maidens are definitely in control of Klingsor. The way they all writhe in unison is like a creepy anime film. Whereas in the prelude I believe the men separate from the women, but it’s only when the men depart that the women move to coalesce into their own group. They passively accept their rejection, but aren’t actively controlled by anyone.

Zerbinetta: Also it occurs to me that, intellectually, this production is very French. Is it OK to say that? I mean, it gives you these big ideas that are kind of vague but immensely evocative, it’s like reading Zizek or something. (I am aware that Zizek isn’t French. And that Girard isn’t either.) You like it and it’s kind of inspiring but at least for me you try to really process its meaning and it ends up like mist, or, well, Wagnerdampf. I can’t help it, I’m intellectually Germanic, I want everything to be logical and add up.

Pelléas: I feel that it’s important to try to point out the deep symbolic nature of the production. Because when you approach it in that respect it’s all actually quite coherent and logically argued. It’s quite ingenious actually, because so much of this symbology is in the libretto itself, so Girard isn’t upsetting the traditionalists.  But he supplements it in subtle ways and makes it much more intellectually compelling than they would be otherwise.

Zerbinetta: Well, I like your reading, but it’s relatively narrow. While I find it overall more convincing, ingenious, and detailed than Opera Cake’s, I’m not sure about treating these things like puzzles, and this one in particular seems almost actively resistant to specific interpretation. Kind of like Parsifal itself, I guess. You used to have to haul out to Bayreuth just to see it. It does a lot to present itself as a mystic, precious artifact that is full of meaning–but just try explaining exactly what all of that meaning is!

At the same time this production leaves open so many ways of thinking about it, and I think most of them are on the whole progressive and positive. There are poisonous, dangerous messages in most traditional readings of this piece (arguably the most Wagner-adjacent ones), whatever the beauties of the music, and this production seems to avoid those pretty much entirely. That’s important. To salvage a message like this out of it seems to be a significant achievement.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

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  1. This was my first experience with Parsifal and I really wondered about the weird theology. I wasn't at all sure what Wagner was driving at and how much he was setting up the theology of the Grail Knights as, in some sense, legit. Pelleas' comments help me a lot with understanding what was going on.

    Also, I saw this on the HD, not live, and the projections didn't register at all.

  2. Thanks for this neat discussion! Perhaps because of the presence of balance in multiple religions, I didn't see the production as anchored to orthodox Christianity, particularly, but I really liked Pelleas' points about the misinterpretation and misuse of the Eucharist. Worth noting, perhaps, that water is always mixed with the sacramental wine, representing also the mingling of humanity and divinity in the nature of Christ. And now that you mention the male/female symbolism of blood/water in the production, I can't believe I didn't see it! I'll have to look for the rippling water in Act II on the DVD, and I'll definitely look for The Face of the Deep as well.

  3. What an interesting interpretation and thank you for this conversation.

    I went back to the encore and saw many more things than I did the first time (also had new glasses on). I had said that I thought it was a feminist production, but now I believe it is more gender neutral with no real or overreaching feminist viewpoint. I felt Girard's take on it (when he commented for the big general HD audience) was that our spiritually should transcend any ideas of gender identification.

    I think your point about the subtle interpretation being too puzzling, but yet, overall compelling and positive, may be the most important point of the day.