Sebastian Baumgarten: Tannhäuser in red pants? Bayreuth 2011

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 5 July 2011 | 11:23:00 pm

A little more about Sebastian Baumgarten, making his Bayreuth debut this year with his new production of Tannhauser. And do they look a little like giant white mice?

Sebastian Baumgarten was born on 31 January 1969 in East Berlin. His mother was a singer, his father a doctor, his grandfather artistic director of the Staatsoper unter den Linden. Three years after starting school, he transferred to the Georg Friedrich Händel Grammar School, which specialised in musical education. In 1989, after completing hisAbitur (school-leaving certificate giving right of entry to university) and military service in the National People’s Army, he began a course in directing at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music. 



From 1990 on, Baumgarten was employed as an assistant to Ruth Berghaus, Einar Schleef and Robert Wilson. He worked at theatres in various cities, including Hamburg, Vienna, Berlin and Zurich, and started directing plays on his own account in 1992. From 1999 to 2002, he was senior director of drama and deputy director of opera at the Staatstheater Kassel. From 2003 to 2005, he was director-in-chief of the opera and theatre companies at Theater Meiningen. In 2002, Sebastian Baumgarten was awarded the Götz Friedrich Prize for his production of Puccini’s Tosca at the Staatstheater Kassel. In 2006, he was named Opera Director of the Year.

Portrait: Sebastian Baumgarten: from the Goethe Institut

Anyone who has worked as an assistant director to Ruth Berghaus, Einar Schleef and Robert Wilson is going to be either an opera director or theatre director. Sebastian Baumgarten has become both, but the early stages of his career were very different from those of colleagues like Jossi Wieler or Sebastian Nübling. Baumgarten began by directing operas, which was an obvious step given that his whole training was concerned with musical theatre and he seemed destined to be an avowed opera director. However, his attitude to opera is just as unusual as his route into the theatre. To the present, Baumgarten questions the traditional aesthetic of the opera and looks to drama for the freedoms that opera denies. This too is an obvious move from his current standpoint. After all, Baumgarten is one of the intellectuals among German directors and has a strong interest in discussing political and historical conditions when he translates his directorial ideas into reality.


For example, when he directed Goethe's Egmont in Mannheim, he cut the historical epic down to its plotline and explained historical contexts by inserting new passages of text that set out the background to the play in the calm diction of an encyclopaedia, which gave Goethe's text a tighter focus. Baumgarten brought this tale of the 16th-century Dutch wars of religion into the modern world by interspersing it with quotations from Giorgio Agamben and highlighting the disturbing condition of our democratic political systems. Baumgarten advocates an advanced concept of directing, but does not stand for a theatre of deconstruction. He seeks to foster historical and political reflection on the stage and relies on his audience allowing itself to be seduced into thought. By taking this approach, he is letting himself in for some pretty harsh criticism. When he adapted Lars von Trier's Europa for the stage at the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus in late 2007, he was accused of not having exploited the full dramatic potential of the original and merely creating "a theatre of critical political footnotes".

His directing career shows that he looks for materials that give a director freedom. At the same time, he likes to adapt films that are based on moral and philosophical issues and, as he says, deal with "the dark sides of the enlightenment". Apart from Lars von Trier'sepidemic and Europa, he has tackled the third part of Kristof Kieslowski's Decalogue sequence, Thou Shalt Honour Thy Father and Mother. It is also remarkable that Sebastian Baumgarten avoids premieres of contemporary theatrical texts, preferring to devote himself all the more intensively to the classics. He has engaged with Goethe again and again - for instance at the beginning of the 2007/2008 season, when he directed Faust at the Schauspiel Hannover. He assumed his audience were familiar with the text and turned it into a cabaret-style research seminar. The result was a "freely associative Faust discourse", which nevertheless held a "powerful sensuous attraction" (Süddeutsche Zeitung).

Sebastian Baumgarten once said in an interview that he is only satisfied once the stage material has emancipated itself from the text on which it is based. In his words, one could hear the theatre director who occasionally rails against the narrow limits of the opera and brought the two streams of his work together in one of his recent productions when he staged a musical spoken theatre version of Tosca at the Berlin Volksbühne. He not only drew on the libretto of Puccini's opera, but also on Victorien Sardou's play La Tosca, while simultaneously blurring the borderline between drama and opera. He will carry on experimenting in this direction. However, it remains to be seen whether he will some day take on senior managerial duties again as he has in the past at Kassel and Meiningen, where he was responsible for both theatre and opera as senior director of drama and director-in-chief.
Jürgen Berger