The Most Beautiful Death Scenes in the History of the Opera directed by Alvis Hermanis. Photo courtesy of Zurich Schspielhaus.
Volume 6

Alvis Hermanis Productions in Latvia and German-Speaking Countries

The Latvian director Alvis Hermanis (b. 1965) had worked for approximately ten years when he “broke out” internationally by taking part in the Salzburg Festival’s Program for Young Directors with a staging of Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General, presented by the New Rīga Theatre. He won the competition and received a fountain pen of the founder of the festival, Max Reinhardt. Someday I will ask him whether he has written anything with that pen and whether it has influenced his handwriting. His handwriting as a director has certain similarities to the work of Reinhardt in that Hermanis seeks to harmonize set design and the theatrical space with the expressiveness of the actor’s body, as well as with music and words. Like Reinhardt, he knows how to stage major plays with extras, a choir, and horses, as was seen in his presentation of the Alois Berndt Zimmerman opera Die Soldaten at the Salzburg Felsenreitschule in 2012. Still, Hermanis positions himself even more as a supporter of the Konstantin Stanislavski method, saying that he is an heir of several generations of teachers because, as he puts it, “that is the most friendly work method for the nature of an actor.”[1] As a wise artist with good intuition, Hermanis is constantly in the context of various political, social and artistic movements. He resembles a complicated chemical compound that “absorbs” that which he needs in his creative work. He also understands what is necessary to attract the attention of audiences in different theatrical environments. It would be an exaggeration to say that there are two versions of Alvis Hermanis, one in Latvia, the other in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland, but it is interesting to look at the different way in which he stages the same or comparable materials in the East and the West. In this case, this has to do with Gogol’s The Inspector General, which Hermanis staged in very different times—at the new Rīga Theatre in 2002 and at the Vienna Burgtheater in 2015. The same is true with two plays about age: Long Life, staged at the New Rīga Theatre in 2003 and performed in more than 40 countries worldwide since then, thus largely ensuring the director’s global recognition; and The Most Beautiful Death Scenes in the History of the Opera (2015), which he staged at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich.

Director Alvis Hermanis. Photo credit: Kaspars Garda.

Director Alvis Hermanis. Photo credit: Kaspars Garda.

Laughing about the past and the present 

When Gogol’s The Inspector General was first presented at the New Rīga Theatre in 2002, critics wrote that the performance literally blew up the auditorium. The play was presented for twelve seasons and closed one year before the staging in Vienna. It is crazily funny from the first moment to the last moment. The play tells the story of nineteenth-century civil servants in a provincial town who accept bribes and have learned that an auditor from St. Petersburg will pay a secret visit to them. Out of fear, they believe that an impoverished nobleman who wanders into their town together with his servant must be the official. Hermanis transported the play to the 1970s, the decade of his childhood, choosing a Soviet-era dining facility for his set. The setting was recognised by anyone who had ever visited such an eatery, with tin bowls and utensils that were sometimes fastened to the table with small chains so that they would not be stolen, as well as with an immediately recognisable stench that involved the soup that had nothing other than laurel leaves as spices, fried onions, and a chlorine disinfectant. Only women worked at the facility, of course, with cheesecloth headdresses for the purpose of hygiene and white smocks that were stained by food during the course of the day. The stage was brightly lit, because such Soviet dining facilities were centers of social life and the relevant activities. What was hidden were the bribes given to the imagined inspector. This happened in an equally recognisable place —public lavatories where toilets were regularly stopped up, so people didn’t sit on them, but instead stood on them. The hyper-realistic set design was made grotesque by chickens that freely wandered all across the stage. The stage was familiar to viewers down to the greatest details, because that was happily something that was in the past. That meant that audience members could laugh about it. The room was also given an ironic accept by the music that was played – universally known and iconic melodies from the Soviet spy film Seventeen Spring Moments, in which the main character was the Superman-like Soviet colonel Isayev-Stierlitz, who filtered himself into the command of Hitler’s army, nearly became the Fuhrer’s right hand, but maintained the position and unbreakable honesty of a Soviet man. Stierlitz’s mood in the film related to two Leitmotifs—a philosophically thought, but also secretive impetuousness. The first of these was seen in the performance in terms of everyday scenes, but the second related to tense moments such as bribery.


The Inspector General directed by Alvis Hermanis at the New Rīga Theatre. Photo credit: Photo: Gints Māderis.

The characters in the play were equally grotesque. The actors and actresses wore padded costumes which meant that they were literally sinking into their own “flesh,” which rolled across their belts and the long boots of the women or their décolleté. Hermanis, in discussing the size of the heroes in the performance said that it was easiest for those who worked in public dining facilities to fatten themselves up. It was just as easy to see a comparison between these characters and the characteristically phlegmatic obese people in the paintings of the Colombian painter Fernado Botero, including Jesus Christ and St. Anthony with sad eyes. People could wickedly smirk about the set design of the performance, but it also created both irony about the characters and pity among audience members. Despite the vivid and dominating form, the actors, led by the director, prepared their characters from the inside, following Stanislavsky’s method and step by step revealing the sadness, pain, and yearnings of each robust individual. These were vividly individualised characters who had an effect on the audience first of all and mostly as a collective and as individual heroes who represented the concept of Homo Sovieticus.

The beginning of the performance was very important, because it presented the style thereof. The employees of the dining facility gathered together to do their work—arranging glasses that clinked together, putting the tin bowls in a line which rattled, and throwing porridge into the bowls with a splash. The cashier tinkled the cash register, while the janitress splashed water from a wet rag on the floor and the tables. Gradually these “labor noises” began to resemble the style of a performance of Stomp.

The performance had several culminations, among which the most vivid one was the presentation of a bribe in the lavatory, clumsily presenting the money from one stall to another. At the end of the play was a wedding party that began without waiting for the lost bridegroom. Characters entered the stage one after another, each of them bringing identical cakes in white boxes which the wife of the mayor piled up into equal piles. After the meal that was the same in the dining facility, dances began, and only one person did not take part in them with heart and soul. That was the bride, Marya Andreyevna, the daughter of the mayor, performed by the actress Baiba Broka. She stood, clumsily, among the dancers in her wedding dress. She was the only one, too, who did not want a career or benefit from the infantile and careless Khlyestakov (Vilis Daudziņš), only hoping that he would fulfil her yearning for love. Marya Andreyevna proved to be the only tragic character in this gallery of grotesque and laughable characters.

These nuances could fully be understood only by those who lived in Soviet reality, but the play was appreciated in the many countries in which the play was staged. The Zurich-based critic Daniele Muscionico wrote that “he reanimates his Soviet childhood from the 1970s and he rinsed the socialist past of his country in Soviet toilets.”[2]

Twelve years later, Alvis Hermanis returned to the same characters and environment by staging The Inspector General at the Burghteater in Vienna, and the story was very different. First of all, there were the similarities. The environment was the same—people living together with a dining room, kitchen, much-used lavatory facilities and low-budget accommodations. The beginning was also the same—the concert of kitchen workers with an orchestra of dishes and spoons. Soon, however, audiences began to see the differences. The Soviet-era dining facility with Soviet-era glasses and an unforgettable stench was replaced with an almost polite bistro—simple tables, dishware and glasses that could be bought at any department store. The characters no longer wore padded suits, but they were not athletic and chubby. Their rear ends were padded, but their arms and legs were free. In comparison to the performance in Rīga, the actors made much less use of their external form, instead presenting a psychologically justified and almost realistic types of performance.

The absolute center of the performance is Khlyestakov, and in Vienna the role was performed by Fabian Krüger, who presented an easily proposed temperament, yielding before any impulse, and a performance that was so direct and unforced that Krüger appeared to be a three-year-old child. He was thin and tall, with shoddy jeans, a padded coat, and a bit of baldness in his messy hair. Khlyestakov ran around the kitchen like a kite that had lots its string and flew in the direction of the wind. If he was blown to the plump wife of the mayor of the city (Michael Maertens), then he hugged her. If he was blown to the daughter (Dorte Lyssewski), then sex began right on the tables of the dining facility, with the legs of the actor and actress up in the air. The attention span of “three-year-old” Khlyestakov lasted for no more than a few minutes, albeit very intensive ones. When Khlyestakov tries to find out how far he can go in requesting and then demanding money, he nearly shakes the person from whom he wants to get the money. When he spots a roll of paper towels in the lavatory, he is equally excited in seeing how far it can be rolled. When one of the civil servants brings his savings in a pink piggy bank, Khlyestakov stuffs all of his money into it, only to present the piggy bank back to its owner because of his love for humanity. Upon learning from a letter that has been opened by the postmaster that they are wrong, the civil servants are more sad about the fact that the nice “inspector” was gone than they are afraid from the real official. The tragic heroine of this production is the wife of the mayor (Maria Happel), who is in love and thinks that she has been abandoned. She goes crazy and, at the end of the play, asks a large chicken, appearing as in Riga, to join the party.

The main difference between the two performances of The Inspector General, however relates to the space in which the play is performed, and that puts it in a very different context. Most of the action is on stage, but above the entire audience is a complicated system of ventilation shafts. Osip (Oliver Stokowski), who is Khlyestakov’s buddy, not servant, wakes up in a basement under the labyrinth. While seeking his comrade, he lifts the sheet of another bed and finds…a human-sized rat! On the other side is another rat, which is hyper-realistic down to the last piece of fur and the pale pads on its paws. The mayor’s warning nightmare that there are enormous rats in the area proves to be true. People unconsciously live in a world that is surrounded by an unknown and threatening labyrinth in which something invisible and incomprehensible certainly lives. The giant pipes sometimes rattle, causing everyone in the audience to jump and focus their hearing on what is happening. Khlyestakov himself, by the way, falls into the performance from a ventilation shaft. The stage in Riga embodied a laughable past, but the one in Vienna presented a potentially dangerous present.

In Riga, The Inspector General was crazily merry and equally merciless in terms of young people saying good bye to their past, the need being to get fat to survive. “Never Again!” – that was the victorious cry of the New Riga Theatre when staging the play. Audience members responded with hysterical laughter about the virtuoso way in which the “characters” from the Soviet past were hyperbolic. The actors in Vienna, by contrast, performed a play about “comrades,” about themselves, the present day, and about the endless weaknesses of human nature in any socio-political formation. For that reason, the laughter of audience members is very different—tolerant, understanding and…sad.

Life: Living or dying?

In 2003, Alvis Hermanis produced a play that he and his actors had prepared themselves—Long Life. It is still in the repertoire of the New Riga Theatre. The actors first appeared in the play when they were a little bit older than thirty, and the director claims that they will continue to perform their roles until they reach the age of their characters: eighty. The play has been performed all around the world, and it has largely established ideas about how Hermanis directs plays and what the principles of his process are. It must be added, however, that this only applies to a certain period of time. Long Life launched the so-called “Latvian era” at the theatre. During that period, Alvis Hermanis defined the fact that if we look closely into any person’s life, then we see more dramatism or tragedy than in the characters of Shakespeare. Between 2003 and 2010 he produced more than ten plays that examined the mentality, characteristics, history, and lives of Latvians, and this was largely part of the so-called Verbatim flow of theatrical productions. The actors were free to collect materials about real people, and then they and the director engaged in improvisations that led to the staging of the various stories. This method was first tried out in Long Life, which featured the most outstanding actors from the New Riga Theatre—Guna Zariņa, Baiba Broka, Vilis Daudziņš, Jānis Znotiņš, and Ģirts Krūmiņš.

Long Life directed by Alvis Hermanis. Photo courtesy of New Riga Theatre.

Long Life directed by Alvis Hermanis. Photo courtesy of New Riga Theatre.

Long Life presents one day in the lives of five eighty-year-old people—some sixteen hours in all. It begins with sleeplessness during the morning and slow awakening, and its continues with everyday processes such as visiting the cemetery where their children are buried, doing the laundry with weak hands, engaging in parties, and singing together. It is one day in an endless series of comparable days, and so the characters have discussed everything, and hardly any words at all are spoken during the play. The play ends specifically at 8:30pm, when the Panorama news programme begins on Latvian Public Television. The audience watches the first few minutes of each night’s broadcast together with the actors, which means that the coda to the performance differs each time in that the actors react appropriately to the events of the day, as presented on television.

The stage represents a Soviet-era phenomenon—a “communal flat” which has three rooms in which two couples and one single person live. There is a common kitchen and lavatory that is seen by audience members who have passed through the front hall of the “communal flat” and sit in rows of chairs that are meant for the audience. In front of their eyes, stage workers knock down the “wall of the wooden house”, behind which there is a flat that set designer Monika Pormale has designed with precise naturalism—every item is real and utilised, including clothing, the picture on the wall, the poster on the door, the food that the characters eat, and the spring onions that one of them is growing in a pot.

The events in the play are merciless, including the weakness of elderly people, the poverty that is caused by a humble pension, but also the endless will to live and enjoy life. The oldest Latvian theatre critic, Līvija Akurātere, was as old as the characters in the play when it was premiered, and she wrote: “Those who were presented to me by the theatre were comparable to children. Why should I be upset? I must simply tolerate it in the same way that the characters in Long Life do—it is part of the inevitable flow of life. After all, each of them have enjoyed every moment of this day. It can be enjoyed, of course, by moving much, much more slowly.”[3] A foreign critic agreed: “But though these two hours hardly qualify as action-packed, there is something weirdly compelling about them. The intense naturalism requires your closest attention and, after a while, you find yourself succumbing to its quiet rhythms and inconsequential poetry.”[4]

Here, again, Alvis Hermanis relies on Stanislavsky’s psychological approach toward an in-depth approach toward the magical “if,” leading the actors to embody old people who suffer from age and diseases down to the finest nuance. Their suggestion is such that the viewer’s brain registers wrinkled skin and fingers crippled by arthritis at a time when the eye sees young faces and limbs.

In 2015, Alvis Hermanis premiered The Most Beautiful Death Scenes in the History of the Opera at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich. The dramaturgical foundations for the performance were prepared by the actors together with their director, as was the case with Long Life. Again, people who are eighty years old are played by actors who are only thirty years old. Equally thorough and creative is the psychological approach toward the characteristics of the characters and their inner fulfilment, but there are several fundamental differences that speak not only to the development of Alvis Hermanis’ techniques as a director, but also to ways in which his views about life have changed. It must be noted that since 2012, Hermanis has successfully directed operas at the Salzburg Festival, the Komische Oper in Berlin, the Staatsoper im Schiller Theatre in Berlin, La Scala in Milan, La Monnaie/Die Munt in Brussels, and the Paris Opera Bastille. That means that opera is at the focus of his attention as a genre of the theatre.

DIE SCHÖNSTEN STERBESZENEN IN DER GESCHICHTE DER OPER von Alvis Hermanis Premiere am 20. März 2015 am Schauspielhaus Zürich, Schiffbau/Box PRODUKTIONSTEAM: Regie/Kostüme: Alvis Hermanis Bühne: Alvis Hermanis, Dominik Freynschlag Licht: Ginster Eheberg Dramaturgie: Andrea Schwieter MIT: Hilke Altefrohne Gottfried Breitfuss Rita von Horváth Isabelle Menke Friederike Wagner Milian Zerzawy Jirka Zett

The Most Beautiful Death Scenes in the History of the Opera directed by Alvis Hermanis. Photo courtesy of Zurich Schspielhaus.

The performance in Zurich does not have a strictly documental, albeit generalised foundation. It is a fiction that is more or less possible—one day at a retirement home at which six residents perform death scenes from famous operas from morning until night. At the beginning, the figure of a woman appears behind a double-glass wall. She enters a nearly empty stage, sits down at a small table with a record player and a pile of records, chooses on of them, and breathes its scent before putting it on the player. She carefully lowers the needle and leans against the wall. Her face is waxen, and her eyes are closed—no expression, no sign of life. It is Traviata, and Violeta’s worries (E strano, e strano) lead the woman to sense the possibility. It is like the first morning cigarette for a smoker or the first drop of liquor for an alcoholic. The old lady can live once again. Meanwhile, the other characters arrive on stage in wheelchairs or with crutches—two more women and three men. They sit down on colourful plastic chairs to listen to Violeta’s last aria. Isabelle (performed by Isabelle Menke, because each character has the same name as the actor or actress) takes over the melody for a moment and then, whispers the words of the aria. As the music ends, she “dies” and is more spiritual and lively than when she entered the room. The others applaud and shout “brava!” Isabelle opens her eyes happily. Who are these people? Perhaps they really are former artists, but it is equally possible that here they can finally be who they wanted to be—romantic heroes destined to live full-blooded lives and to die because of their emotions, as opposed to fading away in a bed or a wheelchair.

The characters in the Zurich play find that each day is an endless dress rehearsal. When the nurse, Rita (Rita Horvath) appears with medications and tells everyone to sit still while she fetches cups of water, the old men quickly mix up the pills to represent the medications of love and death of Tristan and Isolde. A hospital bed with a stand for liquid medications and a lunch table that has been pushed alongside the bed become a ship that sails under the sinking sun in the evening. Isolde’s song about Tristan’s death, Liebestod, is heard, and the characters say good-bye to one another and go beyond the glass walls. Perhaps each of them will fall asleep in his or own bed, hoping that there will be premiere during the night and that it will no longer be necessary to wake up. Perhaps they only leave behind wrinkled shells and sail on Tristan’s ship to disappear in the light of a sunrise as Wagner’s music is played. They will disappear into art.

Long Life is so precise in its details that it resembles a documentary film, and it is a psychologically justified and artistic depiction of life. By contrast, the performance in Zurich is equally precise in its details, but it is a psychologically justified parabola about life. In the former case, the director is a documentarist and researcher, while in the latter, he is a philosopher and researcher. This time he studies aspects of life through the prism of the opera.

It is also very important that the actors in Zurich use body language to create a full impression of the age of their characters, but they also wear complicated makeup that takes two hours to apply. The shell that includes an unchangingly young soul in an aged body is of importance for the director.

If we closely track the creative path of an artist, there comes the moment when more interesting than what they do is what they think about and what they cannot think about. Alvis Hermanis is unable to think about death. (Who is able to do so?) It is not so much a final destination or a transfer station, but instead a process that begins at childbirth and, when approaching the conditional finish line, becomes ever more dramatic, thick and secretive. Long Life is about the fact that life is long, but it is life until the very end. The performance (and, I dare say, Hermanis’ opera productions) is about death as the essence and purpose of life. The opera is an existential genre of art, turning the long process of dying into one that is intensive, visible and short. At the end, that is the model of life and death which Hermanis studies.

[1] Aktierim draudzīgākais veids [Ar Alvi Hermani sarunājas Edīte Tišheizere] // Teātra Vēstnesis, 2014/4, 39.lpp.
[2] Daniele Muscionico. Aus der „k.& k.” Zeit:Kantine, Kohl und. Klo. – Zürcher Theaterspektakel, 15.08.2004.
[3] Līvija Akurātere. Vēlreiz par “Garo dzīvi”// Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze, 13.02.2004.
[4] Lynn Gardner. Long Life. The Hub// The Gardian, 26.08.2006.

Edīte Tišheizere, Dr.art. is a Latvian theatre critic and researcher, Editor-in-Chief of Latvian theatre quarterly Teātra Vēstnesis (Theatre Herold), researcher of Institute of Literature, Folklore and Arts of the University of Latvia. Studied in Lunacharsky State Theatre Institute (Moscow). Major publications: Abpus rāmjiem (Out of Frames: Latvian directors on art and directing); Režijas virzieni un personības Liepājas teātrī (Directing in Liepaja theatre: Trends and Personalities). In English: “Text and Context: The Productions of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire Through Changing times”; “Text in Contemporary Theatre: The Baltics within the World Experience; Liepaja theatre”; “Latvian Theatre from Beginnings to Nowadays”; Latvia, history and historical fantasy in the creative works of Banuta Rubess; LATVIA AND LATVIANS: A People and a State in Ideas, Images and Symbols; “The Latvian Theatre Poster: Reality Overcome.”

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European Stages, vol. 6, no. 1 (Spring 2016)

Editorial Board:

Marvin Carlson, Senior Editor, Founder

Krystyna Illakowicz, Co-Editor

Dominika Laster, Co-Editor

Kalina Stefanova, Co-Editor

Editorial Staff:

Elyse Singer, Managing Editor

Clio Unger, Editorial Assistant

Advisory Board:

Joshua Abrams
Christopher Balme
Maria Delgado
Allen Kuharsky
Bryce Lease
Jennifer Parker-Starbuck
Magda Romańska
Laurence Senelick
Daniele Vianello
Phyllis Zatlin

Table of Contents:

  1. Hamlet in a Curious Nutshell by Maria Helena Serôdio
  2. Alvis Hermanis Productions in Latvia and German-Speaking Countries by Edīte Tisheizere
  3. The Unknown, the Unexpected, and the Uncanny: A New Lorca, Three New Catalan Productions, and a Few Extras by Maria M. Delgado
  4. 2015 Dance Week Festival and Contemporary Croatian Dance by Mirna Zagar
  5. Archives, Classics, and Auras: The 2016 Oslo International Festival by Andrew Friedman
  6. The Stakes for City Theatres: Linus Tunström’s Farewell to the Uppsala Stadsteater by Bryce Lease
  7. Life is Beautiful? or Optimistically About Bulgarian Theatre? by Kalina Stefanova
  8. The Multiple Dimensions of the Bulgarian ACT Independent Theatre Festival 2015 by Angelina Georieva
  9. Theatre in Berlin, Winter 2015 by Steve Earnest
  10. Musical Theatre in Berlin, Winter 2015 by Steve Earnest
  11. Gob Squad’s My Square Lady at the Komische Oper by Clio Unger
  12. New Productions in Berlin by Yvonne Shafer
  13. Manifest for Dialogue: Antisocial by Ion M. Tomuș
  14. A Fall in France by Heather Jeanne Denyer
  15. The Iliad as an Oratory: A Warning to a Civilization by Ivan Medenica    
  16. Escaped Alone by Caryl Churchill at the Royal Court Theatre by Rosemary Malague
  17. Bakkhai at the Almeida Theatre reviewed by Neil Forsyth



Martin E. Segal Theatre Center:

Frank Hentschker, Executive Director

Marvin Carlson, Director of Publications

Rebecca Sheahan, Managing Director

©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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