Koen and Frank Theys on Wagners' Ring on Video

Belgian videography is a very rich and diversified, yet almost invisible landscape: outside of a few festivals and its own distribution circuit, it is almost unknown. Strangely enough, the idea of rendering this landscape visible is a very important one to Belgian video-artists. "Landscape" contains "land', and the idea of land, of a territory, may well be one of the most important which subtends videography. Whether consciously or not, everyone is seconnoitering nearly the 'same' territory: that of videography itself. Whether it is expressed as Flanders, as in Jan Vromman's 'AVVK-VVK: a script', or as the Liegeois landscape of 'Entre deux tours' by Rob Rombout (first prize at the Montbeliard festival 1988), or as the land of images, Nomala, in 'L'image' by Daniele and Jacques-Louis Nyst, the concept of land keeps recurring, a landscape which must be scouted, rendered visible and accessible.

'Lied van Mijn Land', by the brothers Theys, meets the same criteria. The task which both makers have set themselves is very ambitious: to adapt 'Der Ring Des Nibelungen' of Wagner to video. After Koen Theys won an award at the Locamo festival (CH) for his tape 'Diana', they could start work on their assignment. In 1986 they delivered their first part, 'Rhinegold', ninety minutes of continuous imagery-flux modulated on the great Wagnerian Leitmotivs. The choice is a work of genius and works perfectly. Rarely has the image belonged so literally to the sound. They have now elaborated upon this experience and refined it in part two: 'The Valkyrie'. The world premiere took place on March 3rd 1989, at the American Museum for the Moving Image (New York), where 'The Valkyrie' was presented till the end of the month.
Video and opera. Video and theatre. For these two plastic artists (Koen studied plastic arts and film, among others; Frank, philosophy and film) the theatrical is the major impulse for their videographical work, which is very far removed from all recorded theatrical performances and live opera transmissions. Here, one is faced with the recreation of Wagner's visionary universe by means of electronic images and sounds. In a 'double-act' interview on their work, Koen and Frank Theys complement, relativate and occasionally contradict each other's statements.

ARTicles: ‘"Rhinegold', which is based on the 'Nibelungen' and 'Parsital", often leaves a theatrical impression. What place does the theatre have in your work?’

Frank: "I believe this is due to our way of filming. The actors, as well as the objects were always filmed frontally against a black curtain. In this way we can key them later on on whatever background. The black curtains and the lightening gave the filmset a certain theatrical atmosphere. This is also obvious in the final result."

- "Did you intend to film an opera? In other words, are you consciously doing opera, or consciously doing video?"

Koen: "We are consciously doing video. The opera gives one a structure to work with. What interests me is the relationschlp between sound and image. We make images, but these images are based on sound, on music. Wagner's music is our source of inspiration, out of which we create images. That is the idea behind our adaptation."

- “Is the score a very forceful. dominating element?”

Koen: “Yes and no. We start from a basic concept in which the story takes place. The score dominates in that it is impossible to combine just any kind of editing with the music."

Frank: “The music provides us with the editing rhythm. We retain the freedom of choosing the images, obviously within the context of the story. Furthermore Wagners music served as a guideline for our way of working. Our images are constructions of separate elements: backgrounds, pieces of scenery, objects and characters. We use and reuse these elements In different combinations. Through repetition and comparison we structure our images. in the same way as Wagner used his themes as leitmotives."

- "What is the role of the characters? Are they merely images?"

Koen: “Yes and no: the characters are visually very distinct. In order to recognize them easily. The Gods are dressed and bald, the dwarves are undressed and have long hair. The Giants are in-between for they are half-dressed and hairy. The Valkyries, which are halfgods, wear a short tunic, but are bald too. In this way all theatrical possibilities are combined.”

Frank: "Some characters are more independent of the background than others: the Rhinedaughters are almost completely integrated with the background. Erda too is more of a prop. It depends."

- "Dressed or not, bald or not, these are all visual elements. You do more with your actors than to place them in front of the lens. Doesn't their role change?"

Koen: "Here again: yes and no, The actors sing and play-back the music and feel how they should move to it. For the rest we film them in function of how we want to use them in the image. Usually we film them frontally. During the editing we zoom in and out electronically and we place them where needed. That is pulling it very crudely.”

Frank: "Somehow the characters are akin to the other objects but they move in a more complicated way. "

Koen: "The only difference is that they react to the music, while the objects have to be manipulated. "

"Is the influence of the sound on the image not reciprocal? Does the music change because of the images?"

Koen: "Yes. For instance, in 'Valkyrie' the hero sings along with the music."

Frank: “As if someone were to sing along to a record. At the end, a woman sings all the instrumental parts by herself."

Koen: "We did that because there is a difference between the concept the music was originally intended for and the fact that the music is now transposed to video. On video one no longer gets the music Wagner conceived for the theatre. Wagner has interwoven the entire history of making that opera in the Ring. This all takes place on the level of the theatre. When we transpose this to video, we can no longer speak in the way Wagner speaks of himself. If we want to render this literally, we have to talk about our own way of working. We'll have to say: we used this and recorded it on video instead of: I made this for the theatre. That is why we've had to change the music here and there, to suit us. Our production isn't the theatrical opera, it’s the opera as we have edited, altered and used it."

- "Aren't you afraid to lose the essence of Wagner in this adaptation?”

Koen: "The essence of Wagner lies in experiencing him on stage, not in watching him on video. The question is whether it is possible to render this opera on video. In any case, one has to select and interpret: the end result is always different from the original. Our choices are determined by the problems of the soundscape, but apart from this we remain very true to the story. In 'The Valkyrie', however, we have gone much farther in abstraction than in 'Rhinegold'. We have applied this to the combination sound-image, as well, and we have ended up with an image created by music. I consider this to be a very important step."

Frank: "The image works far more independently than in the first part, in which we primarily show characters against a backdrop which had an autonomous meaning. Now characters and backdrop have become far more interwoven."

- "A striking feature of your work is the constant referring to mythological themes, gods and heroes. We know this world from the theatre and the cinema, but we do not expect to find it on TV!"

Koen: "Television is known as the most demystifying medium. Therefore I find it fascinating to confront myths with television."

Frank: "The involvement, provoked by a live production of a Wagner opera or by cinema, can never be reached by television. The television fiction is of a different kind. Television is like a storyteller, it just tells about something. But therein it has much more possibilities than the other media. This is the way we approach the Ring."

"In how far do the means of production determine your esthetics?"

Koen: "Not in the least. That is why it takes two years to finish. We make no artistic concessions whatsoever. This could mean that not all parts of our Ring-project get made. The major problem for the third part is that we first want to record the sound, before we start on the video. The Integral third part will be sung. All Instruments will be replaced by the human voice. We need the sound recording in order to start filming. That almost becomes subversive: In film, everyone is interested in good images, but hardly anybody gives a hoot about sound. It will be even more difficult to get the sound produced first."

"What do you think about regular registrations of opera?"

Koen: "That is like a reproduction of a work of art in a book, or in an encyclopedia. No one will discuss the artistic qualities of an encyclopedia. It just helps you to reconstruct the original. One can only criticize an opera-registration in terms of technical qualities. We produce the opera for the camera. We do not simply reproduce something which existed prior to the registration."

Frank: "Opera-transmissions are documentaries. I like to keep up with what is happening. I have never seen some paintings 'in the flesh', but I know what they look like. I have seen them in a way. That is how I have an idea of the history of art."

Koen: "But it is also small-minded. It is said that high Culture is brought to the masses like this. With a little staging in the living room, turning off the lights, ... everyone would be able to experience what the theatre is like. But the act of entering the theatre, the scent of all those people, to feel the presence of the orchestra that Is tuning up, ... no, I don't want to rank myself along with previous Wagner-performance registrations. Opera as a whole doesn't interest me. I approach opera from the plastic art."

- "What interests you in theatre?

Koen: "The pretending."

Konrad Maquestieau and Koen Van Daele - ARTICLES
Winter 1988