Backstage

Portfolio | Who is the Faust of the 21st century?

La Damnation de Faust in rehearsal — By Simon Hatab

Despite the extensive role played in our societies by science and knowledge, we still have an unquenchable thirst for myths that can elucidate our present. Through its very structure, the story of Faust – probably the myth par excellence of the 19th century, along with Don Juan – seems to provide dazzling proof of this persistent longing: Faust is damned; science dies with him, but the myth lives on.

When Alvis Hermanis was given the tricky task of staging a new version of La Damnation de Faust, with Philippe Jordan conducting, he sought a contemporary figure into which he could transpose this myth and give it shape. He found it in Stephen Hawking: a brilliant scientist through whose eyes he reinterprets Berlioz’s disjointed, dramatic legend. Photographer Éléna Bauer has captured the seething energy of a show in the construction process.  


Sophie Koch (Marguerite), Dominique Mercy (Stephen Hawking)
Sophie Koch (Marguerite), Dominique Mercy (Stephen Hawking)

Stephen Hawking, now 73, is considered by his millions of admirers throughout the world as one of the greatest living scientists, if not the greatest: the legitimate heir to Albert Einstein. Like him, he pursues the dream of discovering The Unified Field Theory, or The Theory of Everything: the Holy Grail of modern physics that would make it possible to describe all the forces governing our universe, from microscopic interactions to the movements of stars and galaxies, in a single formula.

The same hunger for knowledge burns in Faust and Hawking alike. On several occasions, Hawking has declared himself an atheist, who considers Paradise merely a story told to comfort children afraid of the dark. And yet, in talking about the Theory of Everything, he produces a formula as Faustian as it is ambiguous: “If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we would know the mind of God.”


Dominique Mercy (Stephen Hawking), Alvis Hermanis (mise en scène)
Dominique Mercy (Stephen Hawking), Alvis Hermanis (mise en scène)

Hawking’s limitless libido sciendi is all the more speaking because it contrasts painfully with his diseased body: towards the end of his degree, he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a rare and incurable neurodegenerative disorder that has developed inexorably throughout his life, leaving him entirely paralysed. He has to use a wheelchair to move around, and a computer that detects his facial muscle movements in order to communicate.

Hermanis is fascinated by the dazzling intelligence and paradoxes of this powerful mind. He has perceived a tragic contradiction between the now total paralysis of Hawking’s body and the nonetheless infinite possibilities of his intellect, and has asked the dancer Dominique Mercy of the Tanztheater Wuppertal to play him on stage. With him, he has conceived an astonishing scene for the finale (the Chorus of Celestial Spirits), which pays tribute to the possibilities of the human intelligence and imagination.


Bryn Terfel (Méphistophélès), Alvis Hermanis (mise en scène)
Bryn Terfel (Méphistophélès), Alvis Hermanis (mise en scène)

Bryn Terfel plays a profoundly cynical Mephistopheles: a personification of science without a conscience, who sees human beings as guinea pigs and morality as a mere detail in the grand march of technological progress. He orchestrates Faust’s metaphysical journey, which here becomes an interstellar exodus.


Edwin Crossley-Mercer (Brander), Bryan Hymel (Faust), Sophie Koch (Marguerite)
Edwin Crossley-Mercer (Brander), Bryan Hymel (Faust), Sophie Koch (Marguerite)

In the face of approaching ecological disaster, overpopulation and the depletion of our natural resources, Professor Hawking is one of those who think that, in order to survive, the human race should leave Earth and set off into space to colonise other planets. Hermanis relates to this anticipation scenario – this headlong flight in response to the collective suicide currently being enacted by the human race itself.  


Sophie Koch (Marguerite), Jonas Kaufmann (Faust)
Sophie Koch (Marguerite), Jonas Kaufmann (Faust)

The stage director was inspired by the project Mars One, which aims to send a hundred or so carefully selected participants to the Red Planet by 2025. He sees this project as the most contemporary manifestation of a wild dream that has driven humans to want to leave their earthly existence ever since Antiquity. He read and re-read the testimonies of the men and women ready to accept this one-way ticket, exploring their motivations: what makes individuals want to abandon everything that makes up their lives, and agree to such a pact?


Les danseurs de La Damnation de Faust
Les danseurs de La Damnation de Faust

Choreography plays a leading role in La Damnation de Faust, which contains several ballet scenes and symphonic passages ideal for dance. In this production, the choreographer Alla Sigalova gives it a role that goes considerably beyond the limits of these danced sections. The group of dancers becomes one of the principal themes of the show, embodying both Faust’s state of mind and the human community preparing to leave Earth.


Les danseurs de La Damnation de Faust
Les danseurs de La Damnation de Faust

To conceive this Damnation de Faust, Alvis Hermanis collaborated with video director Katrīna Neiburga – a first-class artist who represented Lithuania at the Venice Biennial last year. As well as using video sequences she herself has produced, the Paris Opera has collaborated with NASA, the European Space Agency and the CNES (French National Space Centre), together with the production companies of several films that have made their mark over the last few years, such as Microcosmos and Le Peuple des Océans – films that have magnificently celebrated the miracle of our planet. With this precious material, Neiburga has devised a kind of video architecture: a weird and fantastical journey that takes us far beyond our world.


Simon Hatab  is a dramatist at the Paris Opera.

Your reading: Portfolio | Who is the Faust of the 21st century?

Related articles