Suddenly it's gone! The Nose. Dmitri D. Shostakovich made an opera out of the grotesque story by Nikolai Gogol. With director Kirill Serebrennikov we talk about this literal loss of face.
by Wolfgang Behrens
Photography by Martina Borsche
Antexter: I have an appointment for a video conference with Kirill Serebrennikov, who is in Moscow preparing for his production of Dmitri D. Shostakovich's Die Nase at the Bavarian State Opera. When I reach him, he is apparently somewhere on the perimeter of a public place. In the background you can occasionally see people going up and down a flight of stairs. The connection leaves something to be desired. While I ask my questions, I can see Serebrennikov's ear on my laptop, which he presses against his cell phone in order to understand me better. When he answers, I alternately see parts of his glasses, his mouth or – of course! – his nose.
Mr. Serebrennikov, I found a festival greeting from you online, which you recite almost perfectly in German. Do you speak German?
I'm actually learning German right now, and I'm making progress, too. When I adapted Boccaccio's Decamerone for the German Theater in Berlin, I took a teacher and worked with him a lot. Here in Russia, of course, I can't improve my German as well, but I hope it will get easier once I can talk to people directly.
Shostakovich's opera The Nose, which you will now direct, is based on a famous story by Nikolai Gogol. You are well known as the longtime artistic director of the Gogol Center in Moscow. Does that make you feel more committed to Gogol than perhaps a German artistic director of the Gorki Theater in Berlin may feel?
(laughs) Well, I at least have also staged Gorky. But seriously, Gogol is one of the fundamental authors of the Russian world. To understand Russia, even and especially today's Russia, it is enormously helpful to immerse oneself in Gogol's universe, in this absurd-paradox cosmos. Reading Gogol is a unique experience, and I feel downright sorry for non-Russian speakers that they can't read him in the original. Just as, conversely, I would love to read Goethe and Schiller in the original. Or Kafka. Especially Kafka.
Gogol's story The Nose, and likewise Shostakovich's opera, are about a man who suddenly loses his nose one day in St. Petersburg ,completely without cause, and later meets it again as a real person on the street, then in the end - again without cause - finds it again in his face. For me, this has always been one of the funniest stories in the world of literature. But is it really funny?
In my view, The Nose is about a major identity problem. The Nose and Kafka's Metamorphosis have basically the same beginning. "When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning, he found himself transformed into a monstrous vermin," it says in Kafka. And Gogol's beginning could be paraphrased: "When Kovalev awoke one morning, he found himself without a nose." You have to imagine it: Everyone has a nose, and Kovalev has none. The nose stands for a main feature, with which society identifies people. A person who lacks such a feature loses his identity, charisma, aura.
In German there is a phrase "losing face" ...
It exists in Russian, too.
Is losing one's passport perhaps a comparable process to losing one's nose?
Absolutely! It would be conceivable to have a society in which the nose or the shape of a nose marks the level of existence, so to speak.
It is striking in The Nose that the people, whom the main hero Kovalev asks for help react with great disinterest to his desperate situation. Would someone like Kovalev have better luck in today's world?
Absolutely not. (laughs) Nothing has changed. Today, if someone changes his appearance or social image for certain reasons, he still exposes himself to the risk of being disgraced. Essentially, it's about shame. Those who are strange or different, are forced by society to feel shame.
When Shostakovich composed The Nose, he was not yet subject to political repression. Would you say that you can hear the music's freedom?
A good question! In any case, The Nose is the music of a young man, a punk. It is punk music, music of the crazy and wild twenties. Shostakovich unleashes enormous masses of sound here, as if he wanted to give birth to a new world. Later, terror and fear changed the entire Russian society, it became violent out of itself, and Shostakovich had to expect his arrest every day. This gave his music a different dimension. But The Nose is from a time when everyone was still alive.
Isn't it actually amazing that powerful people like Stalin fear art so much that they keep trying to curtail it?
First of all, dictators don't want to curtail art, they want to incorporate it. They want to use the power of art for themselves and subordinate it to their system. That was the same at all times; Stalin is just a typical representative: He had the wish that Shostakovich would become another great artist serving him.
Can art be dangerous to the powerful?
If art is true, art can become dangerous, yes. But if art remains mere design and covers everything up nicely, then it makes itself the slave of the respective regime. Normally, however, art deals with truth and makes people think - that's why art doesn't please those who want to prevent thought processes from the outset.
What is your own drive to make art? Is social engagement part of that drive?
I just like art. (laughs) I don't really give it any special thought: I simply do what I feel. Every artist has a limited number of stories they can tell, and I just tell the stories I can tell. That's all.
You won't be able to travel to rehearsals - as you have for previous productions. What must it be like to direct an opera from afar?
During the time of my house arrest, I was not allowed to use the Internet and could only communicate via video and audio recordings, which my lawyer brought to me and took away from me again. In comparison, the possibilities I have now via the Internet are downright luxurious. Incidentally, musical theater is better suited for this kind of remote direction because the score already exists as something fixed. It functions like a basic formula through which every physical action can be linked to the music. In drama, it's more difficult to direct from a distance.
If I heard it correctly, the set design for The Nose is supposed to be inspired by real places in the city of St. Petersburg ...
Yes, the famous equestrian monument of Peter I. will be seen, but on the horse will sit not Peter I., but a nose. But it's not really about St. Petersburg, it's more about winter: We're doing a "winter nose." There will be a lot of snow, mountains of snow and ice. This The Nose will be cold. Cold and funny.
Thank you very much, Mr. Serebrennikov. I was able to study a little of your nose and especially your ear quite well during the interview.
(laughs) Yes, my ear is probably more beautiful than my nose. It's actually a pity that there is no opera Das Ohr ...