Alan's Blog...It's all Gesamtkunstwerk to me!

Thoughts from nearly 40 years on the professional stage

Tristan und Isolde...where it began

On June 10,1865, at the National Theater in Munich, Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” premiered. Tonight, we bring back to the same theater this incredible opera in a production by Peter Konwitschny and conducted by Kent Nagano. This is an opera that I have sung many times but not since 2004. I’m very much looking forward to revisiting this incredible music drama with a stellar cast in this gorgeous Bavarian theater (Bavarian State Opera). Wagner had several of his operas premiered in this house but perhaps none had the struggle to be brought under the lights as did this story of these two great lovers.

The opera was rehearsed for a few years in various places (including over 70 days in Vienna). The opera was beginning to deserve its reputation as “unperformable” until Ludwig II of Bavaria agreed to sponsor the premiere.
Hans von Bülow was chosen to be the conductor even though Wagner was having an affair with the maestro’s wife, Cosima. Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt, later became Wagner’s second wife. The opera was to be premiered in May of 1865 but that debut was postponed when the soprano, Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld had become hoarse. The premiere was not an immediate critical success but remarkable to all who heard it because of, amongst other items, the use of dissonance that had been unheard of until this time.

Some of the initial reactions are telling. I love this critique by Eduard Hanslick of the prelude: "...reminds one of the old Italian painting of a
martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel."

Or this observation by Mark Twain after hearing the opera in Bayreuth: "I know of some, and have heard of many, who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the one sane person in the community of the mad."

And how about Clara Schumann’s words: "...The most repugnant thing I have ever seen or heard in all my life."

Obviously, the work was later far better received. Even from the early days, the music drama developed an enraptured devoted following. Giuseppe Verdi remarked before his death that he “stood in wonder and terror before Wagner’s “Tristan”.” And Richard Strauss, who had initially dismissed Wagner’s music in “Tristan, saying that it “would kill a cat and would turn rocks into scrambled eggs from fear of its hideous discords”, came around. In 1892, Strauss wrote to Cosima and said, “I have conducted my first “Tristan”. It was the most wonderful day of my life.” He later wrote that “Tristan und Isolde” marked the end of all romanticism. The work has since been championed by many Maestros. The title roles are held in the highest regard and respected by all who attempt singing them. New productions of “Tristan und Isolde” are some of the most highly anticipated and mystical evenings in all “operadom”.

It is also well known that the first Tristan, Malvina’s husband, Ludwig, died just over a month after the premiere, having sung the role a mere 4 times (Originally, he wasn’t even to be the first Tristan but replaced Mr. Alois Ander who proved incapable of learning the role). Of course, there has been a great deal of speculation that the stress and work on the role of Tristan lead to his death. It is also thought that the opera, “Tristan und Isolde”, lead to the deaths of conductors--Felix Mottl in 1911 and Joseph Keilberth in 1968. Both conductors died after collapsing while conducting the 2nd act of the opera. Malvina lived for 38 years following Ludwig’s death but never sang again after falling into deep depression. For many years after the premiere run, the only performers of the two title characters were another husband and wife team, Heinrich and Therese Vogl.

Opera always has a great amount of legends, myths, and true operatic sized stories circulating around each and ever production. Some are true, some greatly exaggerated, and some are verifiable. The above legends can be fairly easily traced (I’m even being lazy today and am quoting some Wikipedia info--hey, it’s a performance day). But let’s just say that it is intimidating performing this work while knowing the difficulty (and feeling it in your entire body). It’s also scary jumping into a production (that is new to you and most of your colleagues) on just 6 days of rehearsal (far short of the over 2 years of preparation for the original premiere). I’m hoping that we all come out of this far less scathed than Herr and Frau von Carolsfeld (pictured above). And I’m also thankful that I sing the role of Kurwenal. Sometimes it’s great “just” being the baritone.