The Act Three "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde is considered to be one of the most intensely affecting musical moments in all of opera — and is also one of the most notoriously difficult to stage.
"The end of the whole opera, the 'Liebestod' and the ascension of the souls of the lovers, has been impossible to even imagine being staged," says Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen. "In fact, when Isolde is singing the 'Liebestod,' usually all a sensible director does is nothing."
With The Tristan Project, however, what once seemed impossible has been made real. This unique and highly acclaimed presentation of Wagner's opera, created by Maestro Salonen, the L.A. Philharmonic, cutting-edge opera director Peter Sellars, and renowned video artist Bill Viola, receives its New York premiere on May 2 and 5 courtesy of Lincoln Center's Great Performers.
"Now we have the means," says Salonen, "to add a visual image to this that isn't banal but is incredibly moving and powerful. In a way, in the final scene of Tristan, Bill has done something that we all thought couldn't be done."
Unlike a typical opera production, The Tristan Project is modular in design, so that it can be performed in a variety of venues and guises. After premiering as a three-concert "cycle" at L.A.'s Disney Hall in December 2004, the Project debuted in a fully staged production at the National Opera Bastille in Paris in the spring of 2005. When the work returns to Disney Hall in April and comes to Lincoln Center in May, it will be presented in yet another format: a full-evening, concert version, starring celebrated soprano Christine Brewer and tenor Alan Woodrow as Wagner's doomed lovers.
Whether viewed in the concert hall or the opera house, critics and audiences alike have been captivated by the combination of Viola's rich video imagery (which is projected on a 36-foot-wide screen) and Wagner's deeply expressive music. Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times hailed The Tristan Project as "a completely new kind of operatic experience."
"We're very interested in presenting a wide variety of musical experiences," says Jane S. Moss, Lincoln Center's Vice President for Programming and an early advocate for the Project. "And the Bill Viola aspect of The Tristan Project really puts it into a different kind of category, almost more in the visual art world than in the performance world. It's a unique setting. And what's wonderful is that I think all three collaborators really extended their reach to create something unprecedented."
It was at the Getty Museum that Maestro Salonen first saw a connection between Wagner and Viola. "I happened to see Bill's exhibit The Passions," he recalls, "and in it he had developed a technique of slowing movement down to one-eightieth of the original speed. He had a series of portraits that kept changing, with people going through the whole gamut of human expression, from joy to sorrow to rage and back, and so on. I thought that his way of being able to suspend time would be fabulous with Wagner, and especially this piece."
Viola, however, was far less convinced — until he began listening to the opera. "I didn't have it on my radar screen whatsoever to get involved in a 19th-century opera by the bombastic Mr. Richard Wagner," he admits. "But then I went out and bought some CDs — Peter Sellars turned me on to some good recordings — and once I really started to dive into it, I was deeply impressed. Wagner was describing the movement of human consciousness, when the heart turns over in that majestic and incredibly powerful human experience of love. He somehow gave a voice through sound to these ineffable movements of the human soul and psyche. That's something I've been trying to do with my camera."
Like Wagner's operas, Viola's video art is highly spiritual and symbolic, employing elemental imagery — fire and water are referenced regularly in both men's works — as metaphors for human transformation and transcendence. Also like Wagner, Viola's oeuvre delves deeply into the themes of death and resurrection — which made the most theatrically challenging act of Tristan the easiest for him to approach.
"That was the most familiar turf I was on through the whole project, that last act," says Viola, who spent a total of 14 months filming the four-hour video for The Tristan Project. "I've addressed that in my work in a number of different ways over the years, what happens when the material body starts dissolving and you're left with just pure consciousness."
Viola's gripping, slow-moving images shift back and forth from grainy black and white to vivid color, and feature everything from a lovers' watery purification ritual, to the sun rising in real time through the branches of a tree, to Tristan walking through a wall of flames before his soul is released from his body and ascends to Heaven.
"I was thinking of these images as being kind of the inner state of people," the artist says, "describing visually the inner state, rather than the literal representation, of what they're going through. The beautiful freedom I had from Peter was that he was handling the staging of the earthbound beings, and I was free to float beyond and above them in a larger-than-life window to another world.
"Bill provides another layer to the experience," Salonen concurs, "and that layer is a spiritual, sometimes subconscious, interpretation of what's going on in Wagner. And there are some things he does that usually cannot be done in an opera house: for example, when Wagner speaks about the sea, we see the real sea, and when he speaks about the forest we see the real forest — not some cardboard thing that's at the back of the stage."
Fusing music, performance, and visual art, The Tristan Project fits squarely with Wagner's far-reaching and surprisingly contemporary concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total artwork": a seamless melding of all the artistic disciplines into a complete multimedia experience. And being a fervent promoter of new technologies in art throughout his career, Wagner doubtless would have been a real sucker for video.
"In a way, these are such stupid things to say," says Salonen. "But if Wagner were alive today, he would, of course, be working with video. The man was all about synthesis, and using the top technological means of his time. Very obviously he would be manipulating an image on a computer."
Stacey Kors is a frequent contributor to Playbill.