Trade secrets: Find out more about staging the gruesome final act of Berg's Wozzeck
How do they keep a baritone underwater for seven minutes?
It’s not giving too much away to say that the last act of Berg’s opera Wozzeck is unpleasant – in fact it includes a brutal murder and an accidental drowning. How does a director stage such gruesome events? The late Stefanos Lazaridis, who designed Keith Warner’s stark production from 2002, came up with an ingenious solution. He focused the action on four large tanks which sit on stage throughout the performance. Wozzeck falls into a full tank of water while trying to retrieve the knife with which he has just murdered his common-law wife Marie. His drowning looks horribly realistic.
When the tank was first designed, Matthias Goerne, who was singing Wozzeck, insisted on plunging into the water and staying under until the end of the opera. When the production was revived, the next Wozzeck, Johan Reuter, followed suit. ‘I didn’t hesitate – I was thrilled!’, he said. ‘I thought it was a great idea and I wondered how it would feel to be suspended in water for a good seven or eight minutes. Strangely I found it quite tiring to lie very still in the water.’
You can’t have an expensive baritone drowning, so Wozzeck has a snorkel mouthpiece and air pipe hidden inside the tank which he must grab as soon as he falls in. Production Manager Colin Maxwell explains that safety at the ROH is taken very seriously. ‘Before the performance there’s a careful procedure of checking. Of course if anything happens, they could just get out.’ Maxwell says the other things to worry about are making sure the water is sterile so Wozzeck doesn’t catch any germs, getting the temperature of the water right so Marie’s blood disperses realistically, and ensuring that the cable supplying power to the light inside the tank is completely waterproof.
Even the best-laid plans sometimes go wrong. Johan Reuter remembers the night when he felt the mouthpiece slipping out of his mouth. ‘I took a deep breath, not knowing what was going to happen, and I floated up to the surface. I lay like a lifeless person, my mouth and nose were the only things above the water. It was very effective – but also a bit scary!’
Simon Keenlyside, who sings the title role this autumn, is known to be a physically fearless performer and Johan Reuter has no doubt that he will enjoy the role. ‘Keith Warner has made a wonderful production and it’s brilliant to be in it. But I’ve never seen it from the audience. I imagine it’s pretty terrifying!’