Cologne, 2 December 2020. What a privilege! Flanked by the stage director Tatjana Gürbaca and the production designer Stefan Heyne (while maintaining social distancing, of course), I am invited to take my seat and watch the performance of Die tote Stadt at the Cologne Opera. Apart from me, the experience of this event is granted to only a handful of guests, seated at intervals in the otherwise empty auditorium. The actors are visibly excited. It is, after all, the recording of the live stream of the new production of the work, which was premiered on the 4 December 1920 in Cologne, directed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Exactly one hundred years later it is transformed into the present. A present, which, for a long time, made it impossible for the actors to work in their field and which will continue to deprive opera goers of the live experience for an indefinite period. The production, modified for these conditions, attempts a new approach: Opera live, but at home in front of the screen …
left: Stage before the performance, right: Stefan Heyne in the auditorium
The invitation came from Stefan Heyne, who is somewhere between stage design and photography. During a conversation at the end of the production he will tell me to what extent these genres interact.
But to start with, I need to take in all the details, which my eyes and ears will be able to absorb during the next two and a half hours. Even before the impressive curtain rises, the excitement in the auditorium is palpable. Both the arrangement of the stage and the orchestra and the structure of the stage are unusual. There is no orchestra pit, but the musicians are positioned visibly, next to the state. The action takes place not in a rectangular, but in an enormous round space, the centre of which contains a revolving stage. Bar stools at regular intervals surround the circle and extend the actors’ sphere of action. The motif on the curtain, the lighting and even the stools remind me of the construction of a Kaiserpanorma which, at the turn of the twentieth century, enabled several people to simultaneously watch stereoscopic series paintings through a peephole. But the stage set also reminds me of bar scenes by Edward Hopper.
Stage set (Photo: ©Paul Leclaire) something between Edward Hopper and Kaiserpanorama
As the surtitle equipment that normally enables the audience to follow the sung texts, is disabled for the recording, Stefan Heyne summarises the story for me:
“Briefly, this is the tragic story of the artist Paul, who cannot get over the death of his wife Maria, who he worships like a saint with relics like her plait, a mandolin and one of her dresses. Together with his housekeeper, he lives like a recluse in his home in Bruges, the formerly most important commercial town in Europe. For him, the outside and the world, do not exist; only memories. At some stage he meets another woman, with whom he falls in love and whom he tries to transform into the image of his deceased wife. Unbearable feelings of guilt eventually result in him murdering the double.”
Phew! Grand opera! So much for the plot.
As regards the music, the orchestra under the direction of the principal conductor Gabriel Feltz, must immediately harmonise the late-Romantic music in the style of Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini with the setting of the principal performers Burkhard Fritz and Aušrine Stundyte as well as the choir of the Cologne Opera and the Cologne Domchor. At the first note a shiver runs down my spine. What acoustics! My main focus is now on the stage set, which must be made compatible with the whole story, about which I will be learning in a moment. It is interesting that the performance starts in front of the closed curtain. “That, incidentally, is a photo of the front of a house I took in Berlin”, Heyne whispers. “The curtain metaphorically reflects the outer world, while Paul’s inner life is revealed behind the curtain.”
Enormous image projections on the curtain of the dead Maria express her omnipresence. A delicate string curtain which keeps forming and reforming itself conveys an impression of hair and presumably is meant to reflect the relic-like significance of her plait.
Impressions of Die tote Stadt (Photos: ©Paul Leclaire)
This transparent curtain, too, serves as a projection surface of more images or even film sequences, a truly symbolic superimposition of images in their presence and memory. The play with light and darkness, too, is perfectly attuned to the action. In particular the optical emphasis on the ring, which becomes increasingly obvious as a closed system, that keeps the grieving Paul’s train of thoughts imprisoned. The perfect metaphor! All in all a magnificent production!
Examples of the projections in Die tote Stadt (Photos: ©Paul Leclaire)
And a wonderful opportunity for me to get to know the creator of the stage design and his modus operandi. Having walked behind the wings, we begin our conversation.
Behind the scenes …
E.B.: How do you approach such a task? You are given the libretto and, with your first draft, do you have lots of freedom or are there some guidelines from the start?
Heyne: No, I have absolute freedom. Once I have an idea of the work, I start working with images and models, which I then show the stage director. I then proceed to the specifications and the technical aspects. For this stage, the utilisation of the existing spatial conditions became the central idea. That was the reason to do away with the orchestra pit, the installation-like structure of the stage and the placement of the choir who can be seen by the audience. Against this background I developed initial artistic designs, which, in the next step, were developed with the colleagues of the internal workshops – structural engineers, constructors etc. – regarding the implementation. This team approached a design step by step, which made the preparation of a cost plan in agreement with the existing capacities possible.
E.B.: How long does such a process take?
Heyne: Approximately a year to this stage of the development; two years until the performance. In between I have breaks, during which other role players are busy with the ongoing development.
E.B.: Since 2004, you have been busy doing photography during these breaks. Directly after you completed your studies in Berlin-Weißensee you successfully got off to a flying start as a stage designer. What gave you the idea to try photography?
Heyne: That was a no-brainer. In order to document the progress, my stage sets had to be photographed and continue to be photographed. Usually this is done (as today) by the theatre photographer. However, at the end of my studies I simply could not afford that or I did not like the pictures. So, I bought a camera and immersed myself in the technicalities of photography. At some stage I started to go beyond stage sets and also do larger-format prints. I very quickly attracted the attention of a gallery in Berlin, and that is how it all started.
E.B.: What do you prefer, stage design or photography?
Heyne: I enjoy doing both equally. I find the mutual interplay very exciting. Where the modus operandi is concerned, what I enjoy about set design is the collaboration with the many different role players. Because as a photographer, I work largely alone.
E.B.: Are you also a movie fan?
Heyne: Not really. I prefer to watch the news.
E.B.: Even the current news?
Heyne: Yes, I find it extremely stimulating to study the amount of pictorial material in the reports on the pandemic. The effect and influence of the pictures, how facts turn into pictures and pictures into facts or fakes.
E.B.: From that point of view, interesting indeed. I guess looking at them even more critically than before …
Heyne: Absolutely. In my opinion, this is part of studying perception. How does manipulation work? How is it staged?
E.B.: A good transition to your photographs, which are characterised by intense blurring and abstraction. By removing the focus, you dissolve the forms that make it almost impossible for us as viewers to recognise the motif. Particularly your series, in which you photographed the stratosphere from an aeroplane at dawn and dusk, is more reminiscent of colour field painting than photography. You actually do without everything that constitutes photography …
Photographies by Stefan Heyne
Heyne: That is correct. By refraining from anything that is typical: Focus, depth and motif, I deliberately challenge the claim that pictures document and show the truth and do exactly the opposite of what happens in news broadcasts. Rather, within my photography, I am involved with light and darkness in the philosophical sense: Questions of space, time, finitude, infinitude, perceptibility of the world. In all my works I deal with great theoretical contemplations, which, once a series is complete, are added to my pictures in book publications.
More examples of photographies. Above: View of the installation of the Naked Light exhibition. Die Belichtung des Unendlichen in the Städtische Galerie Dresden
Book publication: Naked Light, Die Belichtung des Unendlichen (Hatje Cantz Verlag)
In conclusion, I pose the question: Where exactly is the interchange between the two genres? In a stage setting, the production of a given action is the focal point. Art photography is devoid of pictorial invention. The common denominator is light and darkness. But, there is more to Stefan Heyne. And talking about the news: He is also concerned with the examination of remembered images that shapes our perception and that overlap with images of the here and now. Regarding Die tote Stadt, these are dramatically staged via the projected image and film sequences. He does exactly the opposite in the abstraction of his photographic motifs: He makes it impossible for us to remember and recognise and invites us to an individual, new interpretation.
Yet – isn’t this exactly what happens with an artistic setting of a new production? Does this one not also invite us, as the viewer, to look at something that has previously existed, with new eyes? The productions by Stefan Heyne definitely invite us to this. And completely independently of the medium used by him …
Stefan Heyne (Photo: ©Paul Leclaire)
Book publication: hatjecantz_heyne