Super-Starchitect Jefe Anglesdottir talks to Michael Miller about his Ring for Tasmania!
Let me say first of all, as editor and publisher of New York Arts, how fortunate I consider myself that I was able to spend a few minutes chatting with Jefe Anglesdottir, the renowned Danish architect, familiar to anyone who has so much as glanced through Metropolis or The New York Times’s T Magazine for his malls, museum car parks, and the cutting-edge houses of worship he has designed for what he calls “oddball sects,” for example the Positivist Temple in Częstochowa and the South Beach Rosicrucian Center. In recent years his restless creative rage has led him into other art forms, most recently opera production. His first effort in the field is ambitious, nothing less than Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen for the Launceston Opera in Tasmania. For this interview I flew to Abu Dhabi, where I met with Mr. Anglesdottir in the Al Dar Lounge, said to be the most luxurious VIP lounge in the world.
(The views expressed in this interview are solely those of the interviewee and do not represent the opinions of New York Arts or Michael Miller.)
MJM: Thank you so much for making this time available to me, Mr. Anglesdottir.
JA: Don’t thank me. Thank my now former PA, who mistakenly scheduled this layover. Otherwise I’d have no time for you at all. I can give you twenty minutes, so use them wisely. I’d say you can ask three questions, but that’s unrealistic. You see, in my atelier, we do things the American way, even though we’re based in Copenhagen: three strikes and you’re out.
MJM: I understand you’re on your way to Tasmania now. This amazing airport is perhaps the perfect setting for you.
JA: I reckon that I spend about ten days out of every year right here in this lounge. Why do you say this is the perfect setting for me? This airport is shite. It looks like one of those so-called humane rodent traps, only this isn’t humane.
MJM: This lounge?
JA: The only thing they don’t do is gas us here. Look at that hostess smiling over there. She hates us. She’d just as soon slit our throats as bring us flutes of Crystal to pour down them.
[JA snapped his fingers at her and ordered a half-bottle of Crystal and a plate of herring.]
JA: Pickled herring is all I dare eat when I travel. Very boring, but at least it’s dependable. The caviar you get these days is revolting. This boring travel diet—and the salt—makes me extremely irritable.
MJM: I believe you’re in the final stages of rehearsal for your Launceston Ring…but I haven’t managed to find the performance dates anywhere.
JA: Communication is very bad at Launceston Opera. The Intendant is drunk most of the time, and the staff have gone wild stabbing one another in the back. If they talk to one another, it’s to assassinate the reputation of a colleague or to confuse one’s interlocutor into “screwing up,” as they say down there. I know when the performances will take place. Next week. You’d better fly on from here, if you want to see it. The production is late, of course. We wanted it in 2013, but it was impossible. Of course I couldn’t drop everything else and come to live in Launceston. I’ve done a lot of my work via Skype, to keep things moving, but alas, our Norns denied us the bicentenary.
MJM: I’m very keen to see your Ring, but, if it’s next week, I don’t see how I can do it. This trip has exhausted our travel funds.
JA: How pathetic! (On this cue the half-bottle of Crystal and six herring fillets swimming in a marinade redolent of white wine and the onion slices that topped them.)
MJM: This is sudden. I understand there have been a number of cast changes. Your first Alberich backed out, because he didn’t know how to swim and was afraid of drowning on the set? Does this mean you have a tank on stage?
JA: …and real Rhine maidens? No such luck. There’s a swimming pool—just like the one I designed for Silvio Berlusconi.
MJM: Well that says a lot right there. Is there a philosophical premise in the swimming pool?
JA: Heideggerian, at least until the pool boy comes to clean it. No, seriously, I’ll explain the opening scene to you. It is set in Palm Springs. Alberich is at home. He comes out in a bath robe and reclines on a lounge chair to watch television on the huge floating screen he has in his pool. A butler in a white jacket brings in a large pitcher of some exotic drink with a Damien Hirst skull floating in it. He reaches over to a table where he keeps his Groucho glasses, just like these. [Mr. Anglesdottir reached into his magnificent rhino skin attaché case and produced an ordinary pair of Groucho glasses, which he put on.] Alberich puts on his Groucho glasses, aims his remote at his video projector, and turns on the Ring. At this point the music begins, as he watches a video of some pathetic old production. At this point, three teenage girls climb over the wall that surrounds Alberich’s property. They giggle and scream, pass around a reefer, and point at Alberich. “Hey, you’re cute, mister.” shouts one of them. The girls slip out of their clothes and run naked around the pool. One of them snatches Alberich’s Groucho glasses from his nose and dives into the pool with them. The second grabs his remote and dives into the water. The third, who is in possession of the joint, sits on his lap, sticks it into his mouth, downs the pitcher he has brought, and runs away with the skull into the pool. Alberich is both aroused and angered. He casts off his bathrobe, waddles over to the pool and slowly enters the water, much to the amusement of the girls. So there. You see why we lost our great Alberich. And he never has to leave the shallow end of the pool! Opera singers are a womanish lot, at least the Wagnerian tenors and baritones. Our Siegfried is the worst of all. He’s afraid to sit down in an easy chair I designed for the Gibichung Hall.
MJM: Of course, it’s an easy chair of your design, so it may well inspire some awe.
JA: That may be true, but he’s afraid he’ll suffocate.
JA: You’ll really have to raise some money and come see it. Hotels are cheap in Launceston…as they should be.
MJM: So the Rhine is totally artificial, contained by the concrete of Alberich’s swimming pool. You have set the Rhine in waterless Palm Springs. Nature is dead. Nothing is left that is not man-made. I imagine your Valhalla must be a high point of Rheingold.
JA: That was easy. It took care of itself. The highest point in Tasmania is Mount Ossa, and no one could imagine a better Valhalla. It’s a flat background with a painting of Mount Ossa I took from a tacky post card. And we use a lot of dry ice mist, gauze scrims, and the like to make it look mysterious. The Tasmanians are incurable boosters, so they’ll love it, I’m sure. All the gods put on masks of local politicians as they walk over the rainbow bridge.
MJM: And how do you visualize that?
JA: I’m not saying. You’ll have to see it.
MJM: (laughing) You’re quite the sadist, aren’t you, Mr. Anglesdottir?
JA: In pain the dullest oaf is a genius. That’s an old Icelandic saying my mother used to repeat. It’s actually a line from one of our sagas. (I say “our” not only because of my mother…actually, I was born in Iceland, and I’ve had dual citizenship from birth.) Pain is the greatest teacher…take my name, for example, which is a constant pebble in my shoe.
MJM: To think you began life in an island country, and now what may be your greatest triumph will take place in an island country rather similar in size and population.
JA: But Tasmania is green all over, and the people are stupid. Icelanders are intelligent, and their land is bare.
MJM: Now you’ve acquired citizenship in other countries, haven’t you?
JA: I currently have American, Israeli, Brazilian, and Cost Rican passports.
MJM: But you’re not Jewish?
JA: Are you kidding? It’s always good to have a place to go to, even if you’re the Pope in Rome.
MJM: You don’t seem very enthusiastic about Tasmania, is it just the Tasmanians?
JA: They’re a petty and conniving lot, always on the lookout for money, especially if they can steal it from each other. But they have a lot of it, enough to write me some rather handsome checks. Well, you know Achim Freyer. He made out like a bandit in Los Angeles. I’m doing even better than he did…but I don’t feel guilty. First of all I don’t believe in feeling guilty. Guilt is the balm of the naturally inferior. Secondly, the Tasmanians expect to make back all the money they’ve invested in me and Herr Wagner. I told you they’re incurable boosters. It’s all about their bloody wood. They live to cut down trees and sell the wood, and they’re always looking for ways to promote this industry, so they can cut down more trees and make more money. I was given total artistic freedom in designing and directing my Ring with one exception: this Ring had to be wood-themed. Every goddam thing on stage is wooden—even some of the singers, if you ask me—or paper. Paper is acceptable. They will make videos of this production and send it around the world in wooden boxes. Even the Groucho glasses are made of papier maché. They couldn’t tolerate the plastic ones, which are in fact more durable. If a singer gets a slight cold, they melt.
MJM: You mean Alberich isn’t the only character who wears them?
JA: Fafner puts on Groucho glasses as he dies. Siegfried takes Fafner’s Groucho glasses from his carcass and wears them as he listens to the Forest Bird. They are the Tarnhelm, more or less. Siegfried puts them on when goes to Brünnhilde as Gunther. He puts them on before he is murdered, as he reminisces. Brünnhilde puts them on when she decides on her final course of action.
MJM: …so the Groucho glasses symbolize love and insight, as well as disguise and power.
JA: Right. You’re not as stupid as I took you for. Maybe I should ask you some questions, when we get through this…although it might hurt. Another glass of champagne?
MJM: I have no idea what you mean…
JA: Never mind. My mother wanted me to be a girl, you know…
MJM: I know that’s a painful subject for you. Let me ask you more about the Ring.
JA: A much more digestible subject, if not exactly pleasant. It’s been a colossal bore, you know. I’ve told you about the blockheads I have to work with. Then there’s the work itself…and fucking Herr Wagner!
MJM: I’m sorry to hear that. You mean you’ve never appreciated the Ring? Perhaps it’s simply fatigue…
JA: I’d like to say I’d never heard of the Ring until this project came up, but of course I had to study Bayreuth at university. Semper and all that. Wagner’s Ring is the most overrated pack of twaddle in the history of theater. I hate it, especially now. If you have grown up, as I have, on the Eddas, Herr Wagner’s pre-adolescent fantasies are pretty tame stuff. Brynhild, the bloodiest woman of legend, in love?! Disgusting!
MJM: And you have a stage machine, right?
JA: I’d tell you not to change the subject, but that’s rather a bit of fun. I’m rather proud of that. It’s built entirely of rare local woods…and it’s safe! Hand-cranked throughout.
MJM: Venality aside, it must be rather beautiful.
JA: The audience can’t see its works on stage, but there will be a video of it in the lobby. (Chuckles gleefully.) They put in some poppycock about it having been built by real giants, who also operate it. The found a couple of big guys in a circus to take bows on stage. That’s the sort of thing they think up down there. And they’re in the video as well, dressed in leather tunics, chopping down trees with stone axes, cutting the lumber, drinking beer…
JA: We didn’t really think of a machine. Gimmicks like that are really totally unnecessary. But when the Metropolitan Opera got wind of our project, they tried to sell us their Ring machine. They tried everything, they’re so desperate to get rid of it. They even sent that slimy twit who runs the place to fly here and persuade them. When the Intendant pointed out that the gadget is bigger than our theater, they offered to get the American Mafia to fund a special open-air theater for it. They obvious place was out in the forest with a view of Mount Ossa behind the stage, but the Launcestonians wouldn’t have any part of it. The Ring happens in Launceston or nowhere. That was when they got the idea of building their own machine from Tasmanian wood with Australian giants. After we gave the man a definitive no, I told him that, if he could make the contraption safe, he could sell it to Disneyland as a ride. But if they can’t make it safe for seasoned opera singers, they can’t have little brats running all over it. Of course there are places in the world where the authorities are not so strict about safety, but they can’t pay the price. That’s what it’s all about. Why do you think there’s been this epidemic of Ring productions all over the world? It’s the insurance industry that’s behind it. They’ve been making money hand over fist from them, so those people it’s an investment. Of course here in Tasmania, it’s lumber. The insurance companies are only comprimarii in it.
Now I might be able to use that machine from the Met in one of my museum car parks, but I’d rather work with my own design. Robert Lepage’s machine is shite, and everybody knows it.
MJM: It sounds as if you’re missing your regular work.
JA: Yes and no. I was getting a little bored with it, and I’ve been carrying on throughout the Ring preparations, but it will be good to get back to routine after this diversion. I have some exciting projects in the works.
MJM: Can you tell us about them?
JA: Well, I don’t mind saying that I’m rather tickled to be doing my first project for a mainstream religion—well, maybe not entirely mainstream. I won’t mention it by name, but you know about their fetish with ancestry. A new sect of this religion has emerged, and they are extremely well-funded. They actively believe in and promote Darwinism in their system—which means that they have traced human ancestry back to animals. They revere animals—even lizards and spiders—as the descendants of their common ancestors. Hence, they are building a temple in the desert, which will be open to whatever desert creatures may wander in. You can imagine that this poses some interesting functional problems.
MJM: No need for a machine there, I take it?
JA: No, not unless it’s a sanitary appliance. I do like those oddball sects. They actually want to build, and they sign checks—happily—and the checks don’t bounce. Those weirdos can believe in whatever the hell they want, as far as I’m concerned. You have to appreciate that in this day and age, with the Catholics actually selling churches.
MJM: What they’re doing is like selling a beloved pet they’ve lived with a long time for sausage meat.
JA: People shouldn’t have pets anyway.
MJM: Well, thank you so much for your time, Mr. Anglesdottir. This has been enlightening, and you have been very generous. And thank you for the champagne.
JA: Don’t worry. They’re giving you the bill. But now it’s time for me to ask you a few questions.
JA: Don’t be afraid. Own your ambition in wanting to interview me, and understand that you may have to pay dearly for it.
MJM: I’ll gladly pay for the champagne, if I could only finish your herring to tide myself over until my flight back to New York.
JA: You’d rather be flayed by the Arabs than by me? Ha! I’ll see you in Launceston. Now. What particular amenity is offered in the VIP lounge at the LAS airport, that you can find nowhere else in the world?
MJM: Slot machines.
JA: Good for you! But that’s an easy one. Pudong?
MJM: A brothel.
JA: Right again. Thumbs up! Now Changi.
JA: No, no. Would it were only so! Nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary. There’s only the usual old business center, full of old Dell computers with flyspecked CRTs. You lose. In the Wagnerian spirit you should die, but I can’t bring myself to do it to you. I actually want you to live to see that Ring. Hee hee. Here. Let me give you a preview. It’s time for me to Skype in. [Taps Skype on his iPad.] I see my iPad has attracted your attention. Yes, it’s a prototype of the new iPad, due this fall. I designed the case and the new iOS interface. Pure coolness, no function. That’s how I have it. But here, look at this. From Götterdämmerung, Act II! Blutbruderschaft!
MJM: (retching) Oh my God!