On spaces and interstices in Mozart's „Le nozze di Figaro“

© Thorben Schumüller

Mozart's „Le nozze di Figaro“ will celebrate its premiere on 18 June in the Max Schlereth Saal at Mozarteum University. The director of the production, Alexander von Pfeil, and set designer Thorben Schumüller talk about the creation process, inspirations and the opera's major themes: hierarchies, power relations, gender roles...

Thorben, you completed your stage design degree at the Mozarteum University in 2022, how did you come to work with Alexander von Pfeil and the Opera Department again? 

Thorben: Alexander and I worked together for the first time in 2020, on Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. I've been freelancing for a year now and hope to deliver a brilliant conclusion to my time in Salzburg with this Figaro. It is difficult to gain a foothold in the opera industry, especially as a newcomer. To be given the opportunity to make great opera in such a large space with a large ensemble is fantastic! A piece like Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro isn't exactly thrown at you at the start of your career! Smaller offers tend to land on my desk (laughs). That's why it's really quite cool to be able to try out my skills again in this environment.

Alexander: Thorben did a great dissertation on Kafka's The Burrow. Even back then I had a primal feeling that the atmosphere of Figaro had something to do with Kafka - the labyrinthine nature of the play is very Kafkaesque, the stage has to breathe in this confusion. It needs a space for these many small scenes, the countless "entanglements" require a visual idea. 

How can we imagine an initial rapprochement between director and set designer at the start of a new production? 

Thorben: With this production in particular, it was very special and individual because we had to work under extreme time constraints. With Figaro, we were able to skip the discovery phase a little because Alexander had already brought ideas with him and brought the Kafka reference into play. Many decisions that we often had to make instinctively and with little contact during the rehearsal process are currently being finalised.

Alexander: The good thing about working together repeatedly is that you know how the other person works, you can throw chunks of associations back and forth without long explanations and you know that the other person can continue to think and work with them. I had the confidence from the outset that Thorben could do a lot with just a few chunks, that we both have a very similar view of the development of the piece - also due to our intensive work together on Titus a few years ago. Of course, Figaro is completely different material, a completely different genre. And yet the social issues that are dealt with there are similar in both operas: it's about power, about its legitimacy, in other words about major socio-political issues at the time, but which are just as valid today. 

Where do you draw your inspiration from, both for the direction and for the stage design? 

Alexander: My first search for inspiration began with a re-reading of Beaumarchais' Figaro trilogy. One aspect of it is the sprawling nature, the many storylines and parallel stories, a structure of contradictory characters, conceived in a similar way to a Dostoyevsky novel. The narrative technique is modern, a panorama full of details, which finds its - ingenious - counterpart in Mozart's extremely complex, multi-layered score. Questions arise: Where does the story begin, where does it end, where does it go and where else should it have gone had the author not died over it? For example, there is a shadow over Cherubino's passionate devotion to the countess - in La mère coupable (Beaumarchais' sequel to Figaro), Cherubino has gone to his death: After the birth of Cherubino's illegitimate child, the Countess feels guilty and no longer wants to see Cherubino and swears off him. Small details from the original play help the audience to understand the context. For example, the Count is referred to as the Grand Corregidor of Andalusia, meaning that he is the supreme judge of a huge territory and therefore has great power, which he clearly knows how to use for his own purposes. This leads us to a central Kafka building block in the play: there is a trial (which almost ends in an Oedipal catastrophe, as Figaro must actually marry his mother - unrecognised - as the outcome of the trial); for censorship reasons, this trial was not allowed to be shown in the opera, nor was the famous Figaro monologue in Act 5, which reveals Figaro's rollercoaster-like biography in this era bristling with grievances: Figaro, bursting with spirit and talent, can be happy if he doesn't go to the dogs as a barber or valet de chambre. And this brings us to the main conflict of the play, the relationship between the master and his servant. The master desires the servant's bride. What to do? The servant is left to vacillate between rebellion and powerlessness.

Thorben: I see our stage for Figaro like a big game board. At first glance, the stage space doesn't give us much connotation as to where exactly we are. It is only enriched by the play of the characters and provides information about the changes in relationships and hierarchies during individual scenes and throughout the play. The stage is like a living organism of its own, against which the characters have to work, but in which they can also play out their intrigues and games in a marvellous way. We had exciting conversations about spaces and interspaces, about positive and negative spaces and the question: What kind of space is it that Susanna and Figaro are actually setting up in the first scene? The ruler on the right, the ruler on the left - doesn't the couple live in the wall? Where is actually a "place", what happens "between" the places? How stable are these spaces? Do they perhaps collapse or are they displaced by others? These are very abstract questions about how hierarchy can be shown in a stage set. These considerations resonate in my design. 

How do you bring themes such as "The Right of the First Night" or hierarchical structures of the time into the present day? 

Alexander: In the play, the "right of the first night" is only a marginal aspect. This right didn't exist at the time. At most, there were aristocratic individuals who exploited their position of power as they saw fit, but blatant abuse happens today just as it did back then. There is a reason for the #MeToo debate, there is still a top and bottom, there are modern hierarchies. In opera, there are very blatant, sometimes impermeable conditions of class thinking. We are trying to create a sphere that is neither historical nor set one-to-one in the present day. Rather, we are interested in an "invented reality" in the sense of Giuseppe Verdi. We tell the cosmos of a castle, we have a hierarchy of servants and those who are in charge there. 

How do you categorise the relationship between men and women? 

Alexander: Figaro is a play about an evil, male-dominated order. There is the leading wolf who believes that he can have everything. Interestingly, the Count is basically an enlightened type who doesn't take what he wants by force. In each of his plays, the great mind of Mozart made sure that people were not blatantly divided into black and white. Even in his fragment Zaide, one character says "I am as evil as I am good" - this Shakespearean ambivalence also characterises the figure of the Count: He is not just evil or just a sex offender, but first and foremost simply madly in love. He can't resist any woman, tries like a child to get what he wants and doesn't understand when someone doesn't go along with him.

Thorben: In some places, he is perhaps also a victim of a system that he has to operate like everyone else and in which everyone has a clear role to play.

Alexander: You could say it's the women's revenge: After they try to turn the tables as part of their nightly clothes swaps. To put it bluntly, these are terrible manipulations, seducing someone in someone else's clothes and getting close to them under the cover of night. These are all very dangerous love affairs! And to quote Falstaff: "Tutti gabbati!" Everyone comes out of the great hour-long love battle with emotional wounds.

How comedic will your Figaro be? 

Alexander: Comedy is always the funniest the more seriously you take it - that's an old law of theatre. A comedy is actually a tragedy without a bad outcome, with a happy ending, so to speak. Although Figaro's happy ending is a very dubious one. I think if you feel every moment deeply, it becomes tragic and comic.

Thorben: For me, the excessive demands in this respect already start when I read the libretto: who actually knows about which plan, which plan has changed? Who doesn't know that the plan has changed? It's all so tense and confused, and sometimes becomes unintentionally hilarious when you read it. You have to look behind the scenes and ask who is doing what for what reason? We break it down completely and thus get away from this striking absurdity.

Alexander: We scrutinise what it means that a countess has to disguise herself in order to get close to her beloved husband in the dress of her servants. What overcoming is involved? What happens to people's bodies and their inner selves? The same goes for Susanna: it is actually her wedding day on which she plays these cruel games and virtually seduces her future husband in her mistress's dress. The secret really is: the more seriously you deal with it, the more believable the story becomes, the easier it is to follow.

Thorben: And yet there will still be situations with humour in our production, there is so much absurdity! We're simply trying to undermine the so-called "joke figure" that exists in the history of the play - the count as a representative of the nobility - and thus weaken the silly poking fun at something or someone and instead show seriously funny situations.

Alexander: It's often about superficial humour and we're back to Kafkaesque moments that arise from reality and only become incredibly humorous when you look closely.

Finally, a practical question: the ensemble is very large due to the double cast. How do you manage to communicate your ideas to the more than 30 performers in such a way that all the singers have internalised them by the premiere and actually bring them to the stage?

Alexander: You have to think of double casts and the whole ensemble as a team. For us, this starts at the beginning of each semester with physical training with Martina Peter-Bolaender. The students not only get to know their own bodies and how they express themselves, but also the bodies of the others - and their impulses - and learn to work as an ensemble and react to each other. Natalie Forester then continues this as part of her acting classes. The double casts work together in small teams that can coach and mirror each other. We are a bit like a big football team with substitutes and substitutes who sometimes have to step in outside of their role if someone is not present. I try to train our students to become multiple players, which can also help them on their further path as singer-actors. We want to convey to everyone involved that it is fundamentally important to work together constructively, to help and support each other.

The singers not only have to understand our ideas, they also enrich them with their personal horizons. It is only through the performers that these ideas come to life. We have a cosmopolitan ensemble that brings with it a large pool of experience from many corners of the world. The production process is a great collaboration.

Thorben: For me, the beginning of the rehearsal phase is always very important. If you manage to get everyone in the team on the same wavelength, their ideas, which then come playfully, are often self-starters because everyone is in the same boat and has internalised the same atmosphere. This makes it much more than just what the directing team wants to realise.