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Interview with Stephan Rügamer
It occurred to him not long ago that he, too, could now count himself as one of the old guard at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. His elder-statesman status had crept up on him unaware. It’s a credible claim coming from the tenor Stephan Rügamer, a member of the ensemble since 1999. He hardly gives the impression of being the kind of antique stalwart occasionally encountered in opera houses, plodding through the familiar singing parts. Stephan Rügamer has caught some of the positive élan pervading the venue since the entire crew reoccupied the refurbished building on Bebelplatz. And now he’s gearing himself for his next role as the wicked witch in Engelbert Humperdinck’s Christmas classic “Hänsel and Gretel”, which is set to open at the Staatsoper for the first time in 21 years – on 8th December, the opening day of festivities to mark the 275th anniversary of the ‘Lindenoper’ venue. But how does it feel to be returning after a break of seven years?

It feels funny: partly familiar, partly a new experience. I keep getting this feeling of déjà-vu; you go onstage in the opera house and it’s like: “Hmm, nothing’s changed. The colours are the same, the aesthetics are the same.” But then you look up and go: “Not bad, it’s higher, and as for that lovely porcelain pattern…” The biggest difference becomes apparent when you start to sing. The acoustics are a masterful achievement. On the stage you get a much better feel for your own voice, you can hear the orchestra much clearer – and yet you get a very nicely blended sound in the auditorium. People will have their opinions on the visual aspect, just like the public debates we had before the refurbishment.

On 8th December you‘ll be treating the nice new boards as the wicked witch in Humperdinck’s opera “Hänsel and Gretel” I have visions of a classical Christmas pantomime with polystyrene gingerbread men and a carbuncled witch’s nose. But it’s too long and too late in the evening for a children’s event. So what is it? An opera for kids or for adults or both?

It’s a fairy tale, nothing more, nothing less. Obviously, Humperdinck made a very artful work of opera out of the story. But because he incorporated a lot of old folksongs into the piece – and made them recognisable as such – he kept it a fairy tale, and that’s something that’s really important to the stage director, Achim Freyer. He made that clear at the very first meeting. He’s staged the work in a way that children can enjoy it, too, and they can be scared and get the shivers and there may be bits they don’t get, it’s not important. Nowadays the big question occupying families and parents is: what kind of stuff are my kids able to take – and how much of it can they deal with? And if you ask me, a lot of stuff is much easier for kids to take on board if it’s beyond their ken at first, if they’re slightly weirded out. Achim Freyer’s production has multiple ways for people of all ages to latch onto the piece.

But the weirdness of having the witch played by a man is not Achim Freyer’s idea, is it? Was Humperdinck a century or more ahead of the curve where modern-day gender debates are concerned? Where did the unusual casting decision come from?

Humperdinck wrote the part for a mezzosoprano. I don’t know when it became a standard thing for men, too, to be cast in the role, but there have been many works in the history of opera where roles can be sung by men or women. It’s perfect for this production because Achim Freyer’s approach is to have the witch looking similar to the father in appearance. Many productions have the witch as the evil side of the mother, which in the minds of the children is projected into the other role. This production is different. Right at the start, for instance, the father dances a sort of witch’s dance because he’s glad his brooms have been selling well. And then, when the witch has her entrance, Hansel and Gretel have a kind of revisited sensation – and the audience, too, probably: Like “What’s she doing? She’s dancing just like the father danced.”

But your part really is as a woman, isn’t it?

Funnily enough, children are the ones who don’t pay much thought to external appearances. They’re interested in basic evil. Gender isn’t important to them. And anyway, the witch is a stylised character, sweet and menacing in one. But I don’t want to reveal too much. Spoilers, ‘n’ all.

A real witch, then. Not someone you should be trusting.

Fairy tales have these rigid forms and roles. There has to be Good and Evil and Good has to win out in the end – although it doesn’t always work out that way with the Brothers Grimm, which really narked me off as a boy. And the same goes for Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” and another story adapted for opera by Humperdinck, which is much darker and more frightening: “The Royal Children”. But in my opinion evil characters only work if you see them as human beings, if you take their dilemma seriously, too. And to achieve that you can’t stomp out on stage right at the beginning going “Hee hee hee, I’m the baaadie.” You have to have charm. That way it’s not just the kids who don’t see that they’re being drawn in; the grown-ups don’t pick up on it either.

Otherwise the witch would be in a weak position and Hansel and Gretel would never have followed her into her house.

Yes, the witch is a kind of multinational business mogul for confectionery! She’s been using sweets to seduce children the world over and has built up a global empire. This interpretation was really important for Achim Freyer. Right at the start of the evening, before the witch has even made her first appearance, the audience is presented with a welter of elements – especially projections – relating to her. There’s a lot of advertising for sweets and toys and such like. The result is a kind of New York Times Square. That’s Achim Freyer’s way of adding another layer of meaning: a criticism of consumerism. And that, in turn, is perfectly suited to Christmas, don’t you think?

Interview: Renske Steen