'Tristan Project': For Epic Wagner, Just Add Video

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Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen explains what's at the core of Tristan and Isolde — and describes how thoroughly it changed the world of opera.

When Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde premiered in 1865, it was a watershed event for opera, pushing the envelope in terms of music and of drama. But this retelling of the medieval myth about a doomed pair of lovers is notoriously difficult to stage. And love it or hate it, it’s long: It clocks in at about four and a half hours. That's without intermission.

Tonight in Los Angeles, though, a trio of artists — each a superstar in his medium — band together to present their vision of this iconic work. They call it The Tristan Project.

When you enter the Walt Disney Concert Hall, all the trappings of an ordinary concert opera are there: the orchestra tuning up onstage, the music stands and chairs for the singers in front of them, the maestro's podium.

But there’s one tip-off that this is not going to be your grandfather’s Tristan and Isolde: A 36-foot-long video screen hangs above the stage.

Iconoclastic director Peter Sellars, who's staging The Tristan Project, says Wagner was trying to create what he called “the artwork of the future.”

"He was trying to create something that transcended theater, transcended opera, transcended the concert hall," Sellars says. What Wagner had in mind, the director thinks, was "an experience that actually we’re beginning to have the technology to realize."

Sellars and Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen wanted to find a way to bring Wagner’s vision into the 21st century, and they thought that video artist Bill Viola could help them do it. Salonen had seen an exhibition of Viola’s work, called The Passions, at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

"I thought, this is a man who could cope with Wagner, who… operates with these incredibly long arcs and spans of time," Salonen says. "And underneath an apparently static surface, there is a whole subculture of torrents and energies flowing."

Sellars gave Viola some CDs of the opera. The video artist says he couldn’t get past the first scene. "I heard that, these bellowing voices, and I thought, 'I can’t do this,'" Viola remembers. "I was in shock — put it away for a week, I didn’t want to listen to it."

But as time passed, he says, "I gradually pulled it out and started to spot-check it in different places. And, of course, then you find some really amazing things that way."

For more than a year, Viola gathered video images, using everything from a cheap camcorder to expensive special-effects shots on sound stages. There are a lot of natural images: the churning ocean, a row of trees at night, a sunrise in real time.

There are also staged images, such as actors walking through fire or plunging in water. Viola was inspired, he says, by the essential nature of myth — "the drama of human beings in context with and engaging the natural forces, the cosmic forces."

While the passions of Tristan and Isolde unfold onstage, onscreen and in the balconies and aisles of Disney Hall — this is kind of a Sensurround version of the opera — Alex McGuinness sits backstage, next to a bank of hard drives, video monitors and a mixing board.

"I am the interface between… the science and the art of the Bill Viola aspect of The Tristan Project," McGuinness says. "We have approximately a hundred cues of Bill’s work that we integrate into and along with the music."

McGuinness has pinpoint control of the high-definition images — he can speed them up or slow them down to make them sync up with the music. Salonen, who's conducting the evening, says having the video respond to the music, rather than the other way around, is liberating.

"There are not many moments when the image and the music are to be synchronized absolutely, with the kind of accuracy you have in Tom and Jerry," Salonen says. "You don’t want to conduct Tristan and Isolde with a click track!"

Alan Woodrow and Christine Brewer play the lovers. Both have done fully-staged versions of the opera. Christine Brewer says that even with the large screen above her and no sets or costumes to support the drama, she sings Isolde the same way.

"Actually, I think sometimes [that] doing something like this in a concert situation makes it more electric and puts more energy, because then you really focus more on the music and the expression of the music," Brewer says.

The apotheosis of the opera comes in its final moments, in the Liebestod — Isolde's "Love-Death" scene, sung after Tristan has died as Isolde envisions what Wagner called his transfiguration. Viola says coming up with a video analog for that music was his biggest challenge of The Tristan Project.

"I just realized, he’s gotta be drawn up by something palpable — it’s a visual medium," he says. "What could that be? Then I thought, well, if we can drop a waterfall on him …"

Viola imagined lowering an aerialist on a wire through "this massive amount of pouring water," bringing him to rest on a stone slab at the waterfall's base.

"Then we could just run the whole thing in reverse and he’d be pulled up with the water — he’d rise with the water," Viola says. "And that’s basically what happened."

Director Peter Sellars says that Wagner "meant for everyone to have a completely transcendent experience that was beyond words."

"That’s where the music takes you, that certainly is where Christine Brewer takes you in that music," Sellars says. "And Bill Viola, you know, like Raphael or Michelangelo, has come up with an image of the scale and scope and grandeur and immensity and genuine transcendence that Wagner was imagining."

Performances of The Tristan Project begin tonight at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Another run is planned at New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in early May.

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