Wagner, director and videographer
Posted January 20, 2023, 15:25
For the sixth time, the Paris Opera presents Wagner’s grand opera “Tristan and Isolde” accompanied by a picture by Bill Viola (b. 1951) with American director Peter Sellars and under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel. The show was stunning and the 5 hours of presence in the room (including two intermissions) went by very easily, as the action takes place in a sort of augmented reality. Something happened on stage, something happened behind the screen measuring 11.7 x 6.7 meters. Two parallel visions that feed into the abyss and make the two heroes’ existences coexist, presenting themselves almost permanently as a couple.
The interest in this work, developed in 2005, is due, as Peter Sellars explained in our interview, that the images designed by the pioneer of video art, Bill Viola, are imagined based not on music but on text. It’s even more interesting that the video isn’t a literal illustration of the story. The opera deals with the subject of impossible love but also, as Sellars points out, with endless melodies tied to the idea of Karma invented by Wagner at the time – we see in one of the songs these words : “My father became my father and died, my mother became my father and died. Why was I born? » .
Paradoxically Tristan and Isolde is also the most important work of the American visual artist, seen only today, not in a museum, but accompanied by an orchestra, singers and a hundred musicians. In the background music we find Viola’s obsession: the metaphysical dimension of life, which transcends the basic existence of water. If we stick to the plastic aspect, we’ll first remember from this staging that this is literally and symbolically a great timely job. Time for an interview with Peter Sellars…
What do Tristan and Isolde mean to you?
Wagner in “Tristan and Isolde” discovered the idea of Karma. At the end of the 19th century in Germany he read Buddhist texts. When you read them today, they are incomprehensible. Now we have a Dalai Lama who is like our friend, our neighbor. At that time no one knew what Buddhism was, but Wagner understood it. And modern science has confirmed it: every cell of our body is a vehicle of trauma from our mothers, our grandparents, previous generations.
Is that what you’re showing here?
Wagner was the first in the history of Western music to create endless melodies with “Tristan and Isolde”. Across generations and civilizations. Previously, everything was figures with choruses, arias… Now Wagner expresses eternity. Bill Viola and his wife Kira lived in Japan in the 1970s when Sony was constantly bringing out video innovations. Not only do they work with Sony but they also have Zen masters. All that Wagner was trying to guess was actually Bill Viola who found it.
Tell us about the origins of the project with Bill Viola…
Bill and Kara were one of the main motivations that made me decide to move to California. I regularly propose to Bill to work with me in theater but he refuses. On the occasion of his retrospective, which toured the United States and then the Netherlands, we worked closely together on the catalog and exhibition staging. But his desire to stay away from the theater was strong.
Yes Wagner, with “Tristan and Isolde”, found a total work of art, a “Gesamkunswerk” where music, poetry, dance and the visual arts enter into communion. To direct it, I needed an artist who could look Wagner in the eye, who could enter into dialogue with him.
What does Viola have to do with Wagner’s music?
There was no connection until he filmed the whole thing. Bill chose not to get caught up in this music. He only responded to Wagner’s texts. He wanted his image to have the same power as music. This is what makes shock. Critics have always wanted everything to obey the music.
You are not looking for harmony?
Let’s say I’m not looking for him 24 hours a day. Life is also about contrast and confrontation.
Bill Viola shows up with his trunk full of drawings…
First Bill and I talked a lot about “Tristan and Iseult”. Then he closed the door and disappeared. Bill takes a deep journey into himself. He returned two years later, in 2004, with five hours of incredible video. This is a great gift. I’ve been looking at it for 18 years now. I know him very well.
What’s your reaction?
I immediately accepted it and started a dialogue with him. I have an enormous responsibility because this is certainly Bill Viola’s biggest and most powerful “live” work. The work requires an orchestra of one hundred people and a choir of more than 30 people. You can’t see it in museums. He financed it by selling used items to private collectors or museums. Because no institution can afford Bill Viola’s 5 hours of work. It involved Hollywood facilities, airplane hangars, big teams, walls of fire but also the other way around, shooting with the camera facing the sea, in Long Beach. Of course, as with Viola, the sunsets are extraordinary, mystical. Bill takes you to cosmic places.
Since 2005, You’ve presented this production for the sixth time. Did you change the scene?
Every day I make changes. Casting is one of the big changes this time around. You have black Isolde and that completely changes the story. Our perception has changed. In today’s society one can feel anger and rage. How will we reach the stage of reconciliation and understanding? We spent a lot of time during practice crying all the tears from our eyes. Freeing action.
“Tristan and Isolde” by Richard Wagner. Paris, Opéra Bastille, www.operadeparis.fr until February 4th.