At opening night at the Metropolitan Opera, it was easy to forget that grand opera is supposed to be a dying art form. Manhattan’s best and brightest turned out in white tie, black tie, traditional dress (I saw at least one very stylish kimono), and the obligatory business suits of those who had rushed to make the 5 p.m. start of a new Tristan und Isolde. Celebrities from all the other major arts fields walked the red carpet. The five-hour production was simulcast to Times Square, and on October 8, it will be seen by hundreds of thousand more eyeballs in two thousand theaters around the globe as part of the Met in HD program.
Opera fans have a tendency to bewail the state of the art—haunted, I suspect, by the specter of 18th century Vienna and 19th century Paris, when opera was a mass obsession, the center of high society, and an intellectual pursuit all at once. But opera is doing surprisingly well in America. The Met is celebrating its 50th anniversary season in Lincoln Center, where it anchors an entire neighborhood of New York. And the standard of performance is as high as it’s ever been. Only three singers have ever received three separate encores at the Met: One hit this mark just this past season (Javier Camarena in Don Pasquale), and another (Juan Diego Florez) is still active as well. In general, the quality of the singers, musicians, conductors, and directors who pass through the Met right now equal any “glory days” you can point to in the company’s history. And they draw audiences to an opera house that is almost twice the size of the largest Broadway theater (the Gershwin, with 1,933 seats to the Met’s 3,800). The Met’s capacity is 380 percent of that of La Fenice, 223 percent of the Vienna Staatsoper’s, or 188 percent of La Scala’s. So while I share the worries about the recent decline in the percentage of the Met’s seats that are filled, enough New Yorkers and tourists still file in six nights per week (and one matinee on Saturday) to fill any of Europe’s great houses to overflowing. And more often than not, they leave enraptured.
This was one of those nights. Fans were treated to a stylish, modern Tristan und Isolde by producer Mariusz Treliński, with Swedish soprano Nina Stemme and Australian tenor Stuart Skelton singing the lead roles and Sir Simon Rattle, the artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic, conducting. Stemme has stolen the headlines, with much justice: her voice is, as the Guardian put it, “a force of nature.” Rattle started slowly, drawing out the opening of an already long overture to almost agonizing proportions, but conducted magnificently, offsetting the singers without overpowering them until the very last, rapturous burst of music in the Liebestod, Isolde’s death-song. Baritone René Pape as King Marke was also very strong, with a voice at once rich and deep yet tender.
TAI readers will be familiar with the plot of Tristan und Isolde from our coverage of this summer’s production at Bayreuth: It’s the age-old tale of boy kills girl’s betrothed before meeting her, girl nurses wounded boy back to life, boy kidnaps girl to marry her off to his uncle, girl makes boy drink what she thinks is a death potion, girl’s maidservant swaps death potion for love potion, boy falls in love as girl prepares for marriage to Uncle King Marke. Boy and girl can’t stay apart, boy and girl have wild night of passion and get caught, boy gets stabbed, and kindly Uncle Marke decides to forgive them. But by that point Tristan is dead and Isolde soon follows him into the great hereafter. Simple, right?
Treliński, along with set designer Boris Kudlička and videographer Bartek Macias, worked up a modern production, setting the first act in an enormous, multi-compartmented cross-section of a frigate, the second in its conning tower and then in a storage room, and the third in a hospital room. Macias accompanied the overture and preludes to each act with footage of the frigate in rough seas set within a sonar dial. The imagery is at once accessible yet multi-layered: the roughness and loneliness of the sea, the sonar searching for contact, perhaps even the Schopenhauerian concept of eternal return, as the dial traced the three hundred sixty degrees marked on the disk again and again. (Wagner was obsessed with the idealist philosopher while writing Tristan und Isolde, and composed large parts of it with Schopenhauer’s work in mind.) The sets summoned a sense alternatively of isolation, of heroic individualism, and of the brutality of the machine (both martial and nautical) surrounding the two lovers. There were also moments that were visually just plain cool, as at the end of the first act, when King Marke arrived not by rowboat but by helicopter.
But the production didn’t just look pretty; it offered new insight into two of Wagner’s central themes. Treliński’s Tristan and Isolde are middle-aged, and the modern military setting colored Tristan in particular as something of a functionary, albeit an important one. Tristan, Melot (Tristan’s closest friend, who betrays him to King Marke, sung by Neil Cooper), and a host of other officers in Cornwall are in more or less interchangeable uniforms (costumes by Marek Adamski). Treliński inserts a flashback that shows Tristan killing Morold not on a desert island in heroic single combat but by executing him in a dungeon in front of King Marke and assorted onlookers. We don’t know the specifics of the political situation here—this isn’t that kind of production—but the single combat that all Tristan’s men sing about, his crowning moment of glory, turns out to have been at best a shameful necessity, at worst a vile crime and a lie. Meanwhile, René Pape’s King Marke, while older, is more of a respected commander than a doddering dotard.
The result of all this is that the production avoids portraying Tristan and Isolde, as many others do, as the youngest, hottest, most heroic pair on stage, whose cheating and betrayal is merely an act of kismet, of romantic fate. Stimme’s Isolde and Skelton’s Tristan are old enough, and experienced enough in the ways of the world, to know better—and that brings out the sense of shamefulness, even of tawdriness, with which the libretto is obsessed. At the time he wrote Tristan, Wagner, though old enough to know better himself, was having an affair with a woman who was both the wife of his conductor Hans von Bülow and the daughter of his friend Franz Liszt. The sense of romance and fate are real enough—Wagner would go on to marry Cosima—but they are not all that’s in the libretto, and Treliński has done us a service in bringing these other aspects out. In an age when multiple, heroic American military leaders have had all too human failings spill into the public eye and damage their careers, this new emphasis struck home. I’ve never cringed as much for Tristan and Isolde, or (mentally) slapped my head as much for them—or sympathized as much with them as humans, rather than heroic/romantic “types.”
The production also played ably on Wagner’s Schopenhauerian use of darkness and light—the contrast between the hidden world of true desire and of the pretenses we must put on for others in the light of day. The nautical setting and the machinery of the ship allowed for dramatic variations in light, from almost pitch-black gloom to the glare of spotlights, and Treliński takes advantage of these possibilities.
Treliński stumbled a bit, on the other hand, in the second and third acts. In these acts Wagner weaves a story that alternates between the real world, the purely psychological realm, and Tristan’s illness-induced hallucinations. It can be tricky to make it clear to an audience which realm prevails at any given time, and this production had some head-scratching moments. Without spoiling too much, a particularly vivid hallucination at the end reconciled most major questions by making it clear that a figure clad in white from the videography was not Marke (who is similarly dressed) but rather Tristan’s late father.
The contrast between this production and Katarina Wagner’s regietheater production at Bayreuth was remarkable. I’ve become increasingly convinced since returning from Europe that the main divide in opera is not between the traditionalists and the modernists, but between those who seek to interpret the work as written (whether in new or traditional settings, playing it “straight” or plumbing it for lesser-seen but still intrinsic aspects) and those who seek to impose their own vision upon it. The Met has a reputation for having a highly traditionalist audience, but (with the exception of one gentleman behind me who made his view abundantly clear that Treliński and Co. had marred a classic), that audience gave a standing ovation to this decidedly modern presentation. Had they been subject to a production where, as in Katarina Wagner’s, Tristan and Isolde are trying madly to hook up even as she sings “curse you, vile creature….Death for us both!” then I doubt the reaction would have been the same. And as a young Frenchman turned and remarked to me after Bayreuth, “all operas are like this now” in Europe.
American companies sometimes put on traditionalist productions, such as the Zeffirelli extravaganza, La Bohème, that’s a mainstay at the Met, or the WNO’s new Marriage of Figaro. Sometimes they put on productions, like this Tristan or the icy, almost Wagneresque Otello with which the Met opened this past season, that radically alter the setting or time period, or emphasize aspects of the work that are usually more submerged. But either way, they are almost always trying to work with the composer to bring something out of the original work. The whole idea behind regietheater as practiced in Europe, on the other hand, is that it superimposes the director’s vision over the composer/librettist’s. This tradition is rooted in a post-war European determination to move past ugly aspects of their history—particularly with regard to Wagner. Americans do not share the same lessons as Continental Europeans from the 20th century; our memory of World War II in particular is one of the triumph of traditional values, rather than of shame, immorality, insufficiency, and defeat. We therefore do not share in the regie tradition. We are now more comfortable playing the operatic canon straight than are the national cultures in which it was born.
American audiences probably do not realize just how wide the gap between our version of the art and that of mainland Europe is. Partly this is because so many opera-goers (and even more critics) focus on the musicians first and foremost. These are by far the most international and interchangeable parts of modern opera. Since the advent of the jet age, singers and conductors have played multiple houses on multiple continents each year, and the singing and orchestral playing are the two things that don’t change on either side of the Atlantic. Even when European houses stand an opera’s dramatic intent on its head, the conductors, musicians, and singers perform the music “straight.” So while American fans may know that their favorite tenor received rave reviews in the “same” role in New York and Berlin one year, they may not realize just how different the two productions were. The Met’s frequent collaborations with Royal Opera House, London, likely also contribute to the false sense of internationalism: in operatic taste the Brits tend to have far more in common with their English-speaking cousins than their Continental neighbors.
A great deal, though, is likely due to the under-appreciated nature of the role opera plays for America’s elite. As Charles Murray has remarked, we have an elite that does not preach what it practices. Our new hypocrisy is different from the old reliable forms of bourgeois hypocrisy in which staid pillars of the community paid lip service to Victorian values but roamed like alley cats when the lights went out. Bourgeois hypocrisy today works just the other way; we talk free love and would almost rather be caught shoplifting than being “judgmental,” but the American upper-middle class lives mostly by the Victorian mores that it pretends to abhor.
This is true in its way when it comes to taste: the bourgeois sensibility today responds to art made in accordance with traditions and canons that bourgeois ideology condemns. The great and the good of the Upper East Side and Westchester flock to see Wagner or Mozart at the Met, seeking not only relaxation but insight and catharsis. But their love of the Western musical canon is something to be hidden; in our larger national political and cultural conversation, the values of the counterculture rule. The students at Oberlin and Yale protesting “cultural appropriation” or the teaching of Shakespeare and Milton are not rebelling so much as taking a bit too literally pieties preached by their upper- or upper-middle class parents. The seeds were planted at home, and cultivated in their private schools; the rebels, young and literal-minded, have not yet realized that their rebellion is supposed to be faux.
When earnest college graduates from elsewhere arrive at New York’s prestigious firms or investment banks or even graduate departments, they usually discover that several of the senior partners are opera aficionados—and that a working knowledge of the art would be useful both personally and professionally. But they scarcely ever hear about that sort of thing beforehand, as a general piece of advice. Somehow, though, a lot of the kids from the “right” schools somehow seem to know about it anyway.
None of this is to deny that art from other cultures, or other forms of art in Western cultures, have profound meaning; only a philistine or an idiot would argue that. But it is to say that we’ve gone from a point where it was necessary to argue that other cultures matter (though even in the ’60s, this was less contested than popular memory has it) to a point where serious engagement with the Western canon has almost become a love that dares not speak its name. At least not outside select company.
So what has this to do with Tristan und Isolde, or the opening night at the Met? On one, comparatively trivial level it helps explain why American opera buffs are constantly convinced their art form is dying, even as it continues to survive, and even in many ways to thrive. It also probably does reduce audience numbers, at the margins, since lip service helps encourage real service. And it lowers the quality of our cultural discussion. Anything that’s under-examined is going to be insufficiently understood. If we were a bit more open about opera—if the enthusiasm that gave New York the largest opera house in the world were more discussed and more thoroughly examined—then we might be more aware of what we like and how that’s different than elsewhere.
But this hypocrisy as it relates to opera points to a problem that goes far beyond the fact that my favorite evening entertainment is under-appreciated. High-society Americans have for the past few generations assumed that high culture was something Europe would take care of. This tendency was reinforced by the weight of history, by the American Left’s admiration for all things European, and by the fact that Europeans argued strenuously that this was their role in the transatlantic community. Europe would be the Ancient Greece to America’s Rome, they argued, keeping alive the flame of a common cultural inheritance and providing the military and commercial hegemon with a much-needed dose of civilization. Well, now “Greece” is in deep trouble. Europe can’t back out of the euro or move past the stagnation the common currency causes. The Continent is caught between the refugee crisis and populism. And it’s bound tightly to Blue Model social and economic structures that are giving worse and worse results. This omni-crisis has moral dimensions—most visibly a sort of paralysis that has the elite growing ever-more dogmatically attached to “ever-closer Union” even as fewer and fewer people have confidence in the EU. It has also had cultural ones. The way regietheater has taken over opera represents a broader crisis of confidence in the arts: a debilitating doubt about the solidity of the cultural foundations one stands on, from the trustworthiness of tradition to the very truth of visual representations themselves. You can charitably, even credibly, argue that the Europeans are building new cultural traditions; it’s harder and harder to argue they’re preserving the older, common ones that Americans care most about.
While Americans have reason to hope the Continent recovers, we have to start seriously considering that it might not, at least for a while. That means, among other things, that Americans must take greater ownership of Western culture. At first brush, this is a fairly terrifying thought. We are currently in the middle of our own crisis of confidence in our elite: they over-delivered and under-promised on the post-Cold War world order, on the financial front, on their prescriptions for social peace—the list goes on. To anoint them as custodians of Western civilization feels like asking a particularly unruly and self-indulgent toddler to hold a priceless vase.
But the evidence on the ground suggests that our elite are already doing much of the work—including parts you’d think were the heavy lifting—and doing a pretty good job of it, at that. America’s upper and upper-middle classes cough up the necessary funding not only for the Met but for a host of museums, opera houses, symphonies, and other institutions across the country. Elites also provide a disproportionate amount of the professional staff and volunteers at such places. They not only fill out the audiences themselves, they educate their children to appreciate the arts (harder than it looks). I worry that elite hypocrisies are acquiring a sharper edge, that they impede our ability to give opera and other high arts as much attention as we ought, and that they make these arts less accessible and less fun than they should be. But overall, the state of the arts in America is stronger than we often fear.
These difficulties can be somewhat ameliorated, however, by good, sharp criticism. During this 50th anniversary season we at TAI will be keeping a close eye on the goings-on at Lincoln Center and striving to provide that. But the most important thing, as always, is an active audience. Get out and see this stunning Tristan, whether in New York or in a theater near you, and keep an eye out for the rest of what appears to be a very promising Met season.
Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera, October 8, 13, 17, 24, 27. Curtain times vary: complete schedule here. Tickets begin at $27. Met in HD broadcast October 8 at noon EDT; for showtimes and theaters, see here.