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In a previous lifetime John Lundgren was the manager of a home for children. Now he’s singing Wotan in THE VALKYRIE – a role in which he is once again faced with resistance. Lundgren talks here about difficult children and the power of honesty

The Valkyrie
First day of A scenic festival in three days and in an eve by Richard Wagner
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Director: Stefan Herheim
With Brandon Jovanovich, Tobias Kehrer, John Lundgren, Elisabeth Teige, Annika Schlicht, Nina Stemme u. a.
From 29 October 2021

In the nineties I was in charge of a Swedish home for »maladjusted« children and teenagers. Most of them were male youths aged between 13 and 20. They had problems at home, at school, some of them were on drugs, a lot of them had neurological issues. The work was tough and I was quite emotionally involved. I was young, in my mid-20s, and I was burned out after a few years. I’d done some singing at school and I decided to become an opera singer. And now here I am singing Wotan in THE VALKYRIE, a father who’s having to deal with a rebellious, unruly daughter in the form of Brünnhilde. It often takes me back to my time at the home.

The youngsters were difficult, always winding each other up and constantly testing me. Brünnhilde does the same with her father, challenging him, bucking his authority. The kids in my institution were awkward because they’d experienced the kind of trauma that made it almost impossible for them to trust other people, even people who were close to them. Unlike Brünnhilde, who’s driven by a private, deeply felt, ethical code. She’s trying to do good and wants to rehabilitate her father.

Brünnhilde isn’t going to be thwarted in her intentions. She ignores her father’s instruction to kill his son Siegmund (her half-brother). She’s a rebel to her core – and many of the boys in the home were indomitable, had zero respect for boundaries. In fact, they were always on the lookout for boundaries to be ignored, physically ignored, even violently ignored. I was scheduled to accompany a lad to the doctor’s once. We were about to set off and he suddenly said: »I’m not going«, switched the television on, slumped down on the sofa. I could see a dark look on his face. He was scared. I couldn’t let that infringement go without a comment, so I said: »Ok, no doctor, but you’re not watching tv at this time of day. Go to your room!« He jumped up, hurled a cup of hot coffee against the wall and attacked me, lashing out at my throat. I and a co-worker managed to get him to calm down. The next day I told him never to punch me in the face again. »I never did,« he said. »I went for your throat. I wanted to crush it.« He knew perfectly well what a physical threat he was to me.

When you’re in a position of authority in an environment like that, there’s only one option open to you: you have to be totally and utterly honest, straight as a die, and be absolutely clear in the messages you give. They’ll be on to you at once if you try to bullshit them. They don’t trust anyone. They can’t, because they feel they’ve been had, by their parents, school teachers, the police. So they’re constantly testing you: will he still stick up for me if I lay into him? Even if they’re intent on doing me an injury or killing me, these guys aren’t evil. They’re locked up, without a voice. They have to tough it out and fight their way to their own, personal truth, reality and freedom. I learned from them that I had to help them in that process by being honest and transparent.

Wotan, of course, is the embodiment of authority, but he’s thin on clarity and noble goals. He’s a hedonist, a playboy out for short-term kicks, the type of guy who wants to have tabs on everything and everyone. He takes time out occasionally to experiment with honesty, but he always ends up twisting, bending and destroying things.

If I’d behaved in the home like Wotan in THE VALKYRIE, I wouldn’t have got very far. If you ask me, I’m learning a lot about honesty from Wotan, precisely because he’s a loser on that score. But hey, it’s not easy being a god either. It’s hard enough being an ordinary mortal.

I often think back to those young men. Myself, I had a sheltered childhood in a normal, middle-class family in a small town in Sweden. When I began working at the home, I was gobsmacked that people with dark thoughts like that actually existed. Nowadays their dark sides are helping me to understand – and portray – dark and complex characters like Wotan. Opera is never a walk in the park. Opera is aggressive, violent, radical. You meet liars, crooks and freaks. Sometimes I really let rip onstage, like the boy who didn’t want to go to the doctor, and I hurl my fear in the face of the audience. I remember one spectator saying »I’m not sure if I should be thanking you. It was kind of a terrible performance.« Those are the ones that I quietly dedicate to the boys in the home.

 

On the picture: Unpredictable, indomitable, aggressive: nine-year-old Benni [Helena Zengel] gives vent to her rage in a scene from »System Crasher« © Peter Hartwig, Port au Prince

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