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  • Zombie Parsifal:Undead Walkers and Post-apocalyptic Stagings
  • Melissa Kagen (bio)

This essay locates zombies in Wagner's Parsifal, interpreting them within the work's original nineteenth-century context and reading recent productions in light of contemporary zombie studies. Immediately, a question arises: why zombies? Perhaps Kundry, the wandering Jewess, could be seen as an undead wanderer. Parsifal, too, is cursed to wander past endurance, and Amfortas clearly suffers from an inconvenient and painful immortality. But even so, how can the case be made for zombies in particular? Over the last two hundred years, myriad undead monsters have evolved and receded in cultural consciousness. Vampires were the undead monster of choice in Wagner's time, popularized by John Polidori's short story "The Vampyre" in 1816 and adapted by Heinrich Marschner and Peter Joseph von Lindpaintner in two separate 1828 operas, both called Der Vampyr. Wagner even conducted a production of Marschner's opera.1 Vampires, ghosts, and Frankenstein's monster may all have better claims than zombies to the title of the nineteenth-century undead monster, yet uniquely zombie characteristics—the slow inexorability, the tendency to travel in herds and yet remain utterly isolated, the bare exposure of animalistic drives, the horrific lack of boundary between outside and inside, the total absence of human self-consciousness—resonate powerfully with the themes of passivity, acceptance, stasis, and Schopenhauerian hopelessness that pervade Parsifal.

The zombie characteristics of Wagner's original work have been emphasized by several recent stage productions, a choice some critics have found inappropriate. In a review of the Wiener Staatsoper's 2010 production of Parsifal titled "Oster-'Parsifal': Das ist Wagners Zombie-Zauber" (Easter-Parsifal: That Is Wagner's Zombie-Magic), Peter H. Smith complained that, by zombifying the grail knights, director Christine Mielitz destroyed the complexity and paradox of Wagner's message.2 When the Grail Knights enter after the Good Friday sequence, Smith explains:

The incredibly lazy magic of this staging breaks through: the ruined Grail Knights storm the stage as zombies, the grail shatters in a thousand pieces. Guilt, sin, endless atonement, life as a prison sentence, all these Christian questions of faith raise [End Page 122] Wagner to the level of monstrous mystery. Mielitz solves the contradictions inherent in religion simply by keeping religion outside of her interpretation. In the end, the knights stand before the curtain, passing the questions off on the audience.3

But emphasizing the zombie aspects of Parsifal does not contradict the spiritual content of the piece, or constitute a lazy staging. In Parsifal, after all, walking is the way to spiritual transfiguration: characters are tormented by how the physicality of the body conflicts with the yearning of the soul, and this tension is resolved through pilgrimage. Through zombified walking, in other words, Parsifal aims to transcend binary divisions between body and soul, inside and outside, dead and alive. Allowing for the possibility of a spiritual zombie, recent stagings thus reinterpret the opera in a contemporary idiom.

What is more, Parsifal's desperate, seeking spirituality can be productively understood as a series of interactions between unhappily undead characters. My essay aims to reinterpret the opera from the perspective of this insight, and suggests that recent productions have reinvigorated the work by highlighting its post-apocalyptic connotations. I place several recent productions of Parsifal in the context of recent zombie films and literature—looking in particular at Nikolaus Lehnhoff's 2004 production in Baden-Baden and François Girard's 2013 production at the Metropolitan Opera, as well as scenes from contemporary zombie narratives including I Am Legend and The Walking Dead. Lehnhoff's production is characterized by symbols of a previous civilization: cement backdrops, rudimentary tools, and broken railroad tracks reference advanced technologies that seem no longer accessible to the society of Grail Knights. Girard's staging features gorgeous projections of a night sky and a dusty absence of natural bounty. It, similarly, seems void of advanced technology but is set in a world that remembers once having such capabilities. Staging Parsifal in a zombie postapocalypse doesn't make fun of the work; it simply takes very seriously the horrors of environmental devastation and immortality that informed Wagner's original...


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pp. 122-139
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