Tuesday, October 11, 2011

VIFF 2011: “The Singing City”

Those of you who have been following my blog know that I have a major preoccupation with German opera. In particular, the long and difficult works of Wagner have been known to keep me rapt for the many, many hours that they last. So it was with much anticipation that I saw The Singing City (Die Singende Stadt), a documentary on the Stuttgart Opera’s 2010 production of Wagner’s opus Parsifal.

This mighty opera is not for the faint of heart or the impatient. A long meditation on King Arthur and the search for the Holy Grail, the opera features a cast of hundreds at any given performance and requires considerable endurance from the performers, the orchestra and the audience. In 2010, Vadim Jendreyko was given unprecedented access to the Stuttgart Opera’s unusual post-Apocalyptic mounting of Parsifal, complete with gas masks, scuba gear, nudity and shrunken baby-doll heads worn as headdresses. Jendreyko followed the company for the entire length of the pre-production, covering every aspect of the play. We see how props and sets are built from scratch, and cleaned up after dress rehearsal.

Shot using HD cameras and featuring a magnificent sound recording, the film allows us unprecedented access to the production. We observe the Spanish-speaking costume designer, who doesn’t speak German, as she attempts to balance the director’s design instructions with the logistical impossibilities of singing opera in her designs. We delight in the American tenor attempting to master his pronunciation of the word “unrevealed” in German, to the unending patience and amusement from his dialect coach. The director clashes with the cast, the make-up artists meticulously weave wigs on prop corpses that the audience will barely see, the lighting designer works complicated spreadsheets to ensure that he computes and calibrates the lights just the way the director wants, and the orchestra has to contend with the prop blood spilling out from the urine bags tied to corpses onstage into the orchestra pit. The Opera has an international cast, and at any given time you can hear English, German and Spanish being spoken in the course of rehearsals.

What The Singing City conveys most vividly is the meticulous manpower and efforts of literally a thousand people attempting to bring the director’s avant-garde interpretation of one of the most controversial, complicated operas in history to life for a discerning, cultured audience. Jendreyko forgoes the standard narration and title cards that accompany most behind-the-scenes documentaries and instead plants his cameras at rehearsals, workshops and meetings to give us the sense that we are there. The effect is that rather than having a narrative guide to the proceedings, we view the work as it organically takes shape, lending the documentary a greater immediacy than most other non-fiction features. What’s most exciting is that the film shows us the dignity and joy in work, and in creating art. Every member of the production, from the child chorus to the make-up artist to the sound engineer, is given an opportunity to be seen and heard in the film. Although The Singing City might be a misleading title, it makes sense in the context that everything in the Stuttgart Opera’s building operates within the context of its own rules and governance, much like a city itself. My only quibble is that we do not get to see a snippet of the finished work, but one can easily find these clips on YouTube (the clip is slightly NSFW, but the nudity is used tastefully and not for exploitation or titillation purposes).

The Singing City is playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival, with one final performance on Thursday, October 13. For ticket information, click here, and you can view the trailer here. If you’re interested in more information on the Stuttgart Opera, click here. The film is presented in German, Spanish and in English, with English subtitles, and runs a lightning-fast 92 minutes.