Lights, Camera, Elektra!
A world in flux, brimming with the threat of violence. People traumatized by war and death, pushed to the brink of madness. Families torn apart by betrayal and mistrust. These are some of the key elements in Richard Strauss’s Elektra. They also happen to be motifs explored by expressionist filmmakers in Germany’s turbulent Weimar period, a brief flirtation with democracy that ended with the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Given the overlap, it struck me that staging this Elektra on the set of a Fritz Lang film shoot in 1929 could create some fascinating interplay. (Not incidentally, Strauss’s 1909 opera itself is considered a forerunner of musical expressionism, which flowered a decade later with Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg.) The idea grew into a resonant scenario.
As you’ll see, Lang will be onstage throughout the performance, overseeing his latest silent movie, Elektra. He’s trying to imbue his picture with the same exaggerated emotions and stylized evocation of the human condition that characterized his 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis.
The cast rehearses and performs as Lang directs. The crew moves the sets in and out. Makeup and costume changes happen quickly, because the studio has imposed a tight schedule. Lang has even hired an orchestra to play live on his soundstage during the filming—a way to set the mood and inspire his actors.
Well-known actress Greta Schröder throws herself into the role of Elektra and quickly loses the ability to tell the difference between the story she is telling and her own reality. Lang is unaware of Schröder’s instability and doesn’t know that she is becoming unhinged, that she believes herself to be transforming into Elektra.
This being expressionism, I took some liberties with the elements of time and perspective. As a kind of prelude, you’ll see filmed scenes from The Trojan War, the story that precedes Elektra in the Greek mythological cannon. (It’s that story’s murder of Elektra’s father, Agamemnon, that sets the plot of Elektra in motion.) And at points during the performance there will be filmed projections of the actors performing the very scene they are playing live onstage, but from a different point of view.
None of this would be possible, of course, without the stellar work of my design team (the same group of artists behind Minnesota Opera’s 2016 production of Das Rheingold) and MN Opera’s artistic and production staffs. In two green-screen shoots, media designer David Murakami and I created our own silent clips. Murakami used Forrest Gump-like editing techniques to place the actors into archival films from the period. All of this is enhanced by the costumes of Mathew LeFebvre and lighting of Nicole Pearce. Working with these artists continues to be one of the great pleasures of my life.
Outside, the clanging of Berlin’s iconic U-Bahn fades into the background as a new film production gets underway. Lights, drama, action!
—Brian Staufenbiel, Stage Director / Production Design