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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

T: it clocks in at about four and a half hours without intermission. Well, tonight in Los Angeles, trio of artists - each a superstar in his medium - are presenting their visions of this iconic work. They call it "The Tristan Project."

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: All the trappings of a regular concert performance of an opera are there when you entered Disney Hall: the orchestra tuning up onstage, the music stands and chairs for the singers in front of them - a maestro's podium. But there's one tip-off that this is not going to be your grandfather's Tristan and Isolde. An enormous 36-foot-long video screen hangs above the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PETER SELLARS: Wagner was trying to create what he called the artwork of the future.

LUNDEN: Iconoclastic director Peter Sellars stages "The Tristan Project."

SELLARS: He was trying to create something that transcended theater, transcended opera, transcended the concert hall; and was an experienced that actually we're the beginning to have the technology to realize.

LUNDEN: 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.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "THE TRISTAN PROJECT")

CHRISTINE BREWER: (As Isolde) SINGING FOREIGN LANGUAGE

LUNDEN: Peter Sellars gave Viola some CDs of the opera. But the video artist says he couldn't get past the first scene.

BILL VIOLA: And I heard that, bellowing voices, and I thought, I can't do this. I was in shock - put it away for a week, I didn't want to listen to it. Then 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "THE TRISTAN PROJECT")

BREWER: (Singing foreign language)

LUNDEN: 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 lots of natural images: the churning ocean, a row of trees at night, a sunrise in real time. There are also staged images, actors walking through fire or plunging into water. Viola says, he was fend by the underlying Tristan and his older myth.

VIOLA: It is the drama of human beings in context with and engaging the natural forces, the cosmic forces, that was myth is all about. And the beautiful thing about this particular one, which is about love and death, is loving and death are the elemental ways that human beings do engage with it in the most palpable(ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "THE TRISTAN PROJECT")

ALAN WOODROW: (As Tristan) (Singing foreign language)

BREWER: (Singing foreign language)

LUNDEN: While the passions of "Tristan and Isolde" unfold onstage, onscreen and in the balconies and aisles of Walt Disney Concert 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.

ALEX MCGUINNESS: I am the interface between sort of the science and the art of the Bill Viola aspect of "The Tristan Project." We have approximately a hundred cues of Bill's work that we integrate into and along with the music.

LUNDEN: 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. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen says having the video respond to the music, rather than the other way around, is liberating.

SALONEN: 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." You don't want to conduct "Tristan and Isolde" with a click track.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "THE TRISTAN PROJECT")

BREWER: (Singing foreign language)

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

BREWER: Actually, I think sometimes 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "THE TRISTAN PROJECT")

BREWER: (Singing foreign language)

LUNDEN: The apotheosis of the opera comes in its final moments, in the Liebestod - the Love-Death aria, which Isolde sings - Tristan has died and Isolde envisions what Wagner called his transfiguration. Viola says coming up with a video analog to the music was his biggest challenge of "The Tristan Project."

VIOLA: Then I just realized, he's got to be drawn up by something palpable - it's a visual medium. What could that be? One moment, then I thought, well, if we can drop a waterfall on him, just this massive amount of pouring water on this guy lying on the stone slab at the waterfall's base. Lower him down on a wire while the water was falling. 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. And that's basically what happened.

LUNDEN: Director Peter Sellars.

SELLARS: Wagner meant for everyone to have a completely transcendent experience that was beyond words. And that's where the music takes you, that certainly is where Christine Brewer takes you in that music. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "THE TRISTAN PROJECT")

BREWER: (Singing foreign language)

LUNDEN: The convergence of images and music begins tonight at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Another run opens at New York's Lincoln Center for Performing Arts in early May.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "THE TRISTAN PROJECT")

BREWER: (Singing foreign language)

BLOCK: You can see video of Bill Viola's work at our Web site, npr.org.

BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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