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Kids, Make It New! Patrice Chéreau (1944-2013)

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Patrice Chéreau, the French theater director, was barely 32 when he began remaking, rethinking, reimagining Richard Wagner's music drama, Der Ring des Nibelungen, at the Festival House in Bayreuth, Germany.

It was 1976, the 100th anniversary of the premiere of The Ring. The scandal is legendary. I have an audiotape of the premiere of that year's Götterdämmerung, the last opera of The Ring.

As the final notes of the opera fade, we hear loud boos and whistles as well as ardent applause. The boos and whistles were mostly directed at Chéreau, and they went on and on.
One hundred years is old, antique.

But Wagner hoped that his music dramas would be continually renewed by the young. "Kinder! macht Neues," he said. "Children make something new."

The Ring is a complete artwork, a Gesamtkunstwerk, using all the arts: poetry, drama, music, visuals. And also it is a work of philosophy. It is really about how the world works.

Wagner and Chéreau were leftists. Karl Marx and Wagner were contemporaries. For me, Wagner's leftism has always been more important than his anti-Semitism, which was rampant in Europe during his life, and after.

The "after," alas, includes one of Wagner's biggest fans, Hitler. The great thing about the Centennial Ring is that its socialism completely obliterates the Nazi elements that had accrued over that century.

By 1976 a century of performing tradition had also made The Ring too much a museum piece. Patrice Chéreau, along with the conductor, Pierre Boulez, 51 in 1976, and the singers, especially the Brünnhilde, Gwyneth Jones, 40 that year, made something new with their centennial Ring.

After those boos and that applause at the premiere, the artists deepened their Ring until by the last year of its run, in 1980, it was mostly accepted by Bayreuth audiences. That year, it was filmed, becoming the first complete filmed Ring.

It premiered here on PBS and was released on LP, audiotape, VHS, then CD, DVD, Blu-Ray and has never been out of print.

The Centennial Ring has been seen by more people than any other version. Patrice Chéreau was also an important theater director and notable filmmaker. He died yesterday of lung cancer, a month shy of age 69, too young. But he is immortal for his Ring.