Two hundred years after his birth, Richard Wagner still has the power to shock. His operas were radical, and the most revolutionary of them all was “Tristan und Isolde,” a medieval drama of passionate, doomed love.
“Tristan” can be overwhelming. Its music is overtly erotic. Its uneasy opening harmony, known as the “Tristan chord,” changed the course of music.
Now, the Canadian Opera Company is showing “Tristan” in a bold new light.
The production is the audacious, video-enhanced creation of world-renowned director Peter Sellars, and features Ben Heppner, one of the most celebrated tenors of our times. At last count, tickets were 90 percent sold out.
Sellars (not to be confused with the late actor Peter Sellers) is famous – notorious – for reimagining operas. He set Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in Spanish Harlem and “Cosi fan Tutte” in a bleak diner.
The Canadian Opera Company’s next season (see accompanying story) will feature a Sellars take on Handel’s “Hercules” that recasts Sophocles’ tragic hero as a 21st century general. And Sellars is no stranger to Wagner. More than 20 years ago, he took “Tannhauser,” an earlier medieval Wagner opera, and set it in Las Vegas, among mobsters and hookers.
Sellars’ “Tristan” is in a class by itself.
Taking on the opera in 2004, Sellars worked with celebrated video artist Bill Viola, whose resume includes work with Nine Inch Nails. Viola, who has confessed to feeling initially intimidated by the task at hand, created an ever-changing backdrop of video images that flicker behind the singers on stage, though the performers also appear all over the auditorium.
The production has been presented in Paris and Los Angeles. The Canadian Opera Company was able to get it partly because its general director, Alexander Neef, worked with Sellars in the Paris production. That means our region has a rare chance to see world-class, cutting-edge opera – and to start the Wagner bicentennial year on a high note.
Sellars has been called an enfant terrible, out to shock. Beneath all the sensationalism, though, is artistic sincerity.
The 55-year-old director, with his signature polyester ’70s shirts and Eraserhead haircut, is like something out of an avant-garde drama himself. He is engaging and sincere on a YouTube video as he shares his thoughts on “Tristan.”
“Bill Viola’s videos can really open on an interior world and keep an interior world alive, and not illustrate Wagner’s music, but quite the opposite, to move into a zone that is so private where everyone in the audience is making their own associations, just as they are with the music,” Sellars explains.
“What’s marvelous is the singers are breathing in the present, but the video is two-dimensional. Our work is to create a sound world as three-dimensional. So we are placing musicians all over the hall, singers all over the hall, so the audience is immersed in Wagner’s music.”
“Tristan und Isolde” tells the medieval Celtic legend of the love affair between a knight and an Irish princess. Tristan has killed Isolde’s fiance and is delivering her to marry King Marke of Cornwall, when the two drink a love potion and fall fatefully in love.
Sellars’ production immerses the audience in the smoldering drama.
“In Act I on the boat, the sailors are down below decks, and then they’re up above, and then somebody’s singing from the crow’s nest,” Sellars says, eyes shining, in his video interview. “And all of those spaces that are on board the ship, and the commanders on that deck, the women on the lower deck, all the spatial levels in Wagner’s imagination – we can actually realize in this space, and this space itself, the whole room, becomes musically charged.”
‘This is not good’
Wagner’s operas – or music dramas, as he called them – invite experimentation as many others do not.
Perhaps it is a reflection of the discomfort people can feel over the absurd beauty created by a man who, as a person, has been called a monster. The composer was famously selfish, anti-Semitic, unscrupulous and adulterous. (“Tristan” hit him when he was infatuated with the wife of a patron of his, a wealthy banker.)
It does not help him that Adolf Hitler was an ardent fan. Hitler became friendly with Wagner’s British daughter-in-law, Winifred, an association that taints the music to this day.
Neef, who is from Germany, cringes at a moment in Act III of “Lohengrin” when crowds shout “Heil” to the king. In 1944, he explains, a production of “Lohengrin” was interrupted by the audience shouting “Heil” to Hitler, who was present.
“Wagner didn’t have that in mind when he wrote it,” Neef says. “But with age, a piece accumulates history.… I would understand a certain fear.”
Fear, though, is not the reason to experiment with Wagner’s dramas. The nature of his art inspires further creativity.
Wagner’s music has a singular power to tap into the subconscious, and even his contemporaries noticed a unique power at work. His friend Robert Schumann wrote, long before “Tristan”: “Many passages of his operas, once heard from the stage, cannot but prove exciting. … They distill a strange magic that captivates the senses.”
Neef says Sellars’ aim is to help people understand that Wagner’s dramas are about their own lives. He found himself thinking of that in 2005, working with Sellars in Paris.
“That production of ‘Tristan,’ in 2005, changed my world,” he says. “It’s a long opera, but not much happens. It’s all about feelings and emotions. It’s a tricky thing to put on stage. How do you do that without breaking the mood of the piece?
“[The Sellars/Viola production] is one of the most human Wagner performances that I’ve seen. … It’s not about heroes. What Peter and Bill have done is bring the characters very close to us … it draws people in. It’s quite magical.”
Viola’s videos, ever-changing, play up the otherworldly aspects of “Tristan.”
“What he does, like Wagner, is slow down time,” is how Sellars explains it. “He manipulates the time flow, and so you are able to see the seconds inside seconds. What is time inside of time? That’s of course what Wagner’s music is giving you.”
The case for live opera
“Tristan” is the second Wagner opera the COC has presented in five years. It is all but sold out. Neef sees the production as a kind of crossroads for the company and the audience.
“Before you’ve done ‘Tristan,’ after you’ve done ‘Tristan’ – it’s not quite the same,” he says.
The all-embracing production makes a strong case for live opera. Sellars’ production cannot be experienced at home, or even in a movie theater in an HD broadcast.
“There are a lot of scenes of people doing stuff that is not on stage, doing different things in different places in the auditorium.” Neef says. “The audience becomes part of the performance.
“That’s something that’s important to me. They feel they participate. They’re not a passive part of the performance, not on the receiving end of what we do. … They shape that performance, as much as a musician does, with their coldness or with their enthusiasm.”
Neef said that, for him, the video helps unlock the opera’s secrets.
“It calls me into the music, has me listen to the music more intensely,” he says. “The video is very much full of the flow of the music.”
Wagner would probably have approved.
The theater he designed in Bayreuth, Germany, was custom-built to accommodate his ever-increasing demands. Musically and dramatically, he was always thinking bigger than his era allowed.
“Wagner was a real visionary in how he conceived his operas, how he imagined them being performed,” Neef says. “When the ‘Ring’ cycle was performed in Bayreuth, he wasn’t happy with the way it was done. He said he didn’t know how to do it differently, but hopefully in the future people would know.”
Productions like Sellars, always reaching, show that “Tristan” can remain as new as it was in 1859.
There’s no way to prepare for seeing “Tristan,” Neef says. He says that when he spoke about it to students at the University of Toronto, his only suggestion was to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, another masterpiece that changed music.
“There was ‘before Beethoven Nine’ and ‘after Beethoven Nine,’ ” he says. “The same thing happened when ‘Tristan’ showed up. You could make a claim that, without the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth, that a lot of Wagner wouldn’t be possible.”
No time to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth? No problem.
“Let go and enjoy the ride,” is Neef’s advice. “Don’t prepare too much.”
Off to the opera
“Tristan und Isolde”
• By Richard Wagner, directed by Peter Sellars, conducted by Johannes Debus and featuring Ben Heppner, is presented by the Canadian Opera Company in German with English surtitles. Performance time is approximately four hours, 50 minutes, including two intermissions.
• Performances are at 6:30 p.m. Friday and Feb. 14; 2 p.m. Feb. 17; 6:30 p.m. Feb. 20 and 23 at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen St. West, Toronto.
• Tickets (nearly sold out) are $45-$390. Standing-room tickets are $12 and go on sale at the Four Seasons Centre at 11 a.m. on the day of a performance. Patrons under 30 may purchase tickets for $22 (call for availability). For more information, call (800) 250-4653 or visit www.coc.ca.