Peter Sellars and absolute music

An interview about Tristan et Isolde with its director

By Marion Mirande 24 September 2018
Peter Sellars and absolute music
There are productions in the history of opera that mark an era. Peter Sellars' production of Tristan und Isolde with its videos by Bill Viola is such a one. First performed in 2005 at the Opéra Bastille, it is being revived to open the season under the benevolent gaze of Peter Sellars himself. One of the great visionaries of the stage, he talks about the work – perhaps the greatest in the history of western music – and this, now legendary production, which seems to give substance to that Wagnerian dream of a work of total art.

What path led you to Tristan und Isolde?

Tristan und Isolde is a work that speaks to everyone. It contains a universal yet tragic message: the world in which we live cannot fulfil us. It is a profoundly Buddhist notion taking us back to the Four Noble Truths. Through awareness of suffering, we go in search of deliverance. Wagner also wanted to show all the variations of love: loves that elevates, wounds, or kills; love beyond death, the love inherent to resurrection. When I was twenty, I already knew I wanted to work on “Tristan. I listened repeatedly to Wilhelm Furtwängler’s recording without succeeding in fully grasping the music. It’s an extremely complex work to stage. In each of the three acts, the real action takes place in the final minutes. The singers could very well do nothing since all the drama is interiorised.

When we talk to the singers you direct, we notice just how they are affected by the fact that you ask them for truth before theatrics.

What interests me most is the human being as a miracle. When I was young, my productions were criticised for lacking theatricality. For me, there was an abundance of that in politics and that was enough for me! So I went in search of a form of expression that forsakes pure theatrics in favour of the human being with all his or her fragility and radiance. Sometimes, it takes a great deal of patience and effort before we see a person reveal their true self. But that patience is worth the effort. And it’s a huge privilege to witness it as it emerges. The performers incredibly generous and courageous people that I invite to do extremely difficult things. My productions may appear minimalist, but they’re enriched by the contribution of all these artists. The fact of having bare non-illusionist spaces makes it possible to better grasp their presence which I wish are to be strong. If we can sense the majesty of the person, the aim has been achieved.

In “Tristan”, your use of space extends from the stage to the auditorium where the singers are positioned. It’s a very powerful experience for the audience since they find themselves surrounded by the music.

That’s exactly it. Wagner’s music is immersive. We are completely engulfed by the score which is like an ocean wave. It’s something which must be experienced from inside. Wagner wanted the experience to be total in such a way we cannot imagine anything existing outside. That’s where the idea of placing the singers, the chorus and the English horn in the auditorium came from, but it was also intended to avoid people viewing the stage as if it were screen. We had to introduce a dimension into the acoustic space. It’s true that Bill’s videos have a “flat” aspect... but they also have depth. They project us into nature and reflect the feelings we experience in contact with it. It’s touching to see the 19th century set designs in the Opera’s Library. The trees are painted with great finesse but they are devoid of life. Nothing moves. That Bill was able to bring the Californian forest into the theatre,and that we see the trees affected by the wind and the light, is extraordinary. He fully understood that the forest is not something we experience frontally, but rather, something we go through. We had to find a way to enter it.

The fact of having the singers nearby also helps to give a work of immeasurable musical and dramatic power a more intimate feel.

I wanted to avoid the singers appearing like a distant image. The needed to be close to the orchestra pit, close to the audience for the experience to be sensual. You need to be able to feel each word, each breath. The singers' anguish has to become our own. But Wagner also requires distance. The sublime music of Brangäne’s calls needs to be perceived as if it were coming from the moon. As the two lovers make love, cut off from the world, where do these calls come from? Are they even real? The manner in which they appear and then dissolve into space need to be shrouded in mystery. Just as the menacing presence of the horns must be perceptible everywhere. The sailors' sea shanty in the first act suggests the 19th century and the underlying discontent of a social class... We are almost among the Nibelungen!

The voices must be physically situated in places where we can sense the echoes of the events. They become spaces for memory, prophesies in an eventless dramaturgy.

How did you and Bill Viola both come to be involved in this project?

I’d known Bill in Los Angeles for a long time and hoped to involve him in the theatre. However, he was loath to commit to the stage which, in his eyes, could never be as clean and polished as a work in an exhibition space. Ultimately, it was at his invitation, and in a museum, that we ended up working together for the first time. It was his first retrospective and we created the scenography. Over that period, I was able to read his notebooks which contained years of his annotated thoughts and reflections. And so I proposed he worked on “Tristan”. We talked a lot about the work. One day, he shut his door and, two years later, he came up with five hours of video. It was a genuine shock.

His videos are often criticised for cannibalising Wagner’s opera, but we forget how much they are attuned to time as it is dictated by the action...

Yes. Unlike a set with painted canvases, Bill Viola’s videos are in motion. They introduce a temporality that follows Wagner’s music. As such, they run in slow motion. And this process reveals the seconds in the seconds, the minutes in the minutes, etc. It is like being on a long pilgrimage: only by experiencing the interiority of time are we able to have revelations and understand the essence of things. With Wagner, there is an extremely drawn-out temporality which interacts with a sudden action of fleeting duration. We had to seize on that moment and make it astonishing by creating an object that maintains tension for 90 minutes.

Just as the videos take visual account of the work’s dramatic temporality, the music allows us to contemplate differently a visual work we might see in an exhibition space...

None of the videos on show are comparable to that experience. Bill’s work is not meant to be displayed in a museum or some white cube gallery. The nocturnal ambience of many of his pieces confirms that they need to be surrounded by darkness. And “Tristan” is itself a poem of the night. We can compare it to that moment of pre-dawn prayer in Islamic and Buddhist traditions as well as with Christian monks where desire is in conflict with the body and soul.

At the beginning of the interview, you mentioned the opera’s Buddhist dimension - a religion of particular interest to Wagner. Could you tell us a little more about the work’s spiritual aspect?

Bill and I were particularly interested in Buddhist traditions. He took the various stages we go through when we leave this world very seriously: the transition from a burning state to another extremely cold one, the liquids that dissipate... This way we understand what is released in the struggle. This is what summarises the third act. After four hours, the music becomes extremely tense and complex. It’s particularly challenging for the instrumentalists and the tenor singing Tristan since it requires a strength that no one possesses having reached this stage. They have to to go and seek this lost energy at the source from which they draw new force to to complete the seemingly impossible. They are transcended. And thus we are confronted with the most beautiful thing ever written, a world at once sensual and spiritual, neither Christian nor Buddhist, but all that at the same time. This also sums up the work of Bill Viola.   

“Tristan” is a work which, from beginning to end, confronts us with death whilst leading us to contemplate and approach it differently to the way our culture teaches us.

Absolutely. The question is, how do you portray that experience on stage? The third act evokes the solitude inherent in death. That’s why I isolate Tristan in that experience. He is alone on the bed. He and Kurwenal never look at each other. They don’t see each other or touch each other. Each lives through a different experience. Even though they are physically close to each other, there is already a considerable distance between them. I also wanted to broach the question of how we regard a dead person. The moment we realise the body is nothing but a shell. The living being passes away but the gaze of others needs to convey the idea that he is more alive than ever and, for the first time, happy. In the Liebestod, Isolde talks of Tristan’s smile and invites us to look at it. And yet, until then Tristan has never smiled.

Is that why, at that moment and for the first time, the singers look at the screen on which Tristan rises?

That imagery is a reference to the painting by Titian that obsessed Wagner when he was composing “Tristan”1. Just as in the painting, where the Virgin ascends carried by a new force that contrasts with the despair of the figures in the lower portions of the canvas, Isolde asks the devastated group surrounding Tristan to contemplate another reality. The Liebestod can prove to be a trap and is often treated as a fixed moment. Musically, it escapes us; nothing has prepared us for that music. And nothing on stage manages to equal that passage. But Bill's illustration of this idea of transfiguration is so profound, so complex… The meeting of opposites gives rise to something extraordinary. We can say that a visual artist has managed to create images as transcendental as Wagner’s music.

1. The Assumption of the Virgin, 1518. On numerous occasions, Wagner went to admire the painting in Venice, where he composed the second act of “Tristan” and part of the third.   

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