SALZBURG, Austria (AP) — Stefan Herheim started directing operas at age 6, moving puppets around a tiny stage to recordings of his favorite works. No surprise then that the man known today for the intellectual rigor of his productions also infuses them with a sense of childlike wonder.
Herheim's father played viola in the Norwegian National Opera in Oslo, and as a youngster he often attended performances and then re-enacted what he had seen.
"It was my need to be God and have my own opera house and conquer this world of my own," Herheim said in an interview a day before his latest production — Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg" — opened at the Salzburg Festival on Friday night. (It plays five more times through Aug. 27.)
Conquer this world he has, at the age of 43, and though he doesn't have his own opera house, he works regularly at Europe's best.
And now he's coming to the U.S. as well: Peter Gelb, who runs the Metropolitan Opera, was in the audience for the "Meistersinger" opening and afterward made preliminary arrangements to bring it to the Met in a future season.
Herheim got his musical training playing cello, then spent time as a production assistant at the Oslo opera and even ran a touring marionette troupe. In his 20s, he moved to Hamburg, Germany, to study opera production with the legendary Goetz Friedrich.
Kasper Holten, head of London's Royal Opera where Herheim will debut this fall directing Verdi's "Les vepres de siciliennes," calls him "maybe the most gifted younger director of opera in the world."
He said Herheim's productions are unusual for their "real analysis into why did the piece end up being like it was ... why the composer wrote the piece at this time and for this location."
This might sound awfully academic and a recipe for dull viewing, but Holten said, during an interview earlier this summer, "with Stefan, it's spectacular, it's always very beautiful to look at, it's funny, there's an abundance of creativity."
And puppetry still makes appearances in Herheim stagings: His 2009 production of Wagner's "Lohengrin" for Berlin's Staatsoper included a pantomime during the Act 1 prelude with a marionette version of Wagner himself conducting and then ascending toward heaven.
Another composer Herheim has put on stage is Puccini, who makes a silent appearance in his "Manon Lescaut" for Semperoper Dresden earlier this year. In staging Puccini's "La Boheme" for Oslo last year, he stripped away the sentimentality by having Mimi die at the beginning rather than the end.
Perhaps his most acclaimed production to date is "Parsifal," first seen at the Wagner shrine of Bayreuth, Germany, in 2008. Setting the action inside Wagner's own home, Herheim interweaves Parsifal's growth from birth to adulthood with the history of Germany and the Bayreuth Festival itself from Wagner's day through World War II.
The "abundance of creativity" that Holten praises is certainly on display in his "Meistersinger," a breathtakingly imaginative, frequently hilarious and often moving interpretation of Wagner's beloved comedy.
Herheim sees strong parallels between Wagner and the opera's hero, the shoemaker and poet Hans Sachs, who actually lived in 16th century Nuernberg. For one thing, Wagner wrote the opera in the years following his infatuation (possibly unrequited) with the married Mathilde Wesendonck; in the opera, Sachs, a middle-aged widower, renounces his love for the beautiful Eva so she can marry her younger suitor.
Herheim sets the entire opera inside Sachs' workshop, but furnishes it with items from Wagner's own era. "This piece has everything to do with the first half of the 19th century and very little to do with the German Renaissance," Herheim said. "Wagner's ideal picture of the romantic city of old Nuernberg never existed the way he tells it."
The curtain is already up when the audience enters the auditorium of the Grosses Festspielhaus, and Sach's workshop is spread out in loving detail across the wide stage. Even before the first notes of the prelude strike up, Sachs (or is it Wagner?) rushes in from his bedroom dressed in his nightclothes, hurries to his desk at stage right and begins furiously writing, perhaps completing the opera we are about to hear.
Then, as the prelude melts into the first act, Herheim and his production team engineer a feat of stage magic: Through a gauzy curtain, we see the desk become bigger and bigger until it takes over the entire stage and turns into the interior of St. Katherine's Church. A similar transformation occurs at the beginning of Act 2, when two cabinets and a doorway leading into Sachs's storeroom swell into a Nuernberg street scene.
There's puppetry here, too, in the form of a miniature theater that Sachs keeps among the old toys his children once played with. And there are even fairy-tale characters: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and other figures come tumbling out of a giant volume of the Brothers Grimm's collected tales and help trigger the street brawl that closes Act 2.
Herheim said a particular challenge was the "problem" of Beckmesser, the fussy town clerk who competes for Eva's hand and ends up humiliated in front of the whole town.
"Wagner totally betrayed him from the very beginning," Herheim said, "gave him no chance, made a fool out of him and hunts him down as the idiot who has to be sacrificed so that Hans Sachs can bloom in his enlightenment."
Noting that Sachs "has his manipulative side," Herheim portrays the two men as alter egos. "Beckmesser is the other side of Hans Sachs, everything he suppresses," he said.
To underscore this, in their Act 3 scene together, Herheim has Sachs silently mouth Beckmesser's lines before the latter sings them. And just before the final curtain, that figure in the nightclothes reappears — but this time it's Beckmesser, not Sachs.
For the future, Herheim said he is eager to tackle the operas of Czech composer Leos Janacek and also would like to direct new works, which he feels get too little attention these days.
"In our time we play the same repertoire over and over and over again," he said. "People don't seem interested in getting their own time reflected by living artists, and this of course changes totally the role of the director.
"We become the renewers," he said, "we have to take the standard repertoire and put it in a frame where it makes sense to see ourselves mirrored and questioned."
Despite this sense of mission, Herheim insists he doesn't seem himself "as a teacher, coming and giving a lesson." Instead, he said, his goal is to communicate what opera has meant in his life.
"I have myself had experiences with music in the opera house, which is my temple, which gives me the joy of life and moves me so strongly, it feels like a gift from heaven," he said. "And I feel so in debt toward the medium that I'm eager to give people the same experience."