What path led you to Tristan und Isolde?
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.
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.
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?
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...
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
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...
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?
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
“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.
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.
Your reading: Peter Sellars and absolute music