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Confessions of a Wagner newbie


Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" winds up Saturday -- that's tomorrow -- at the Canadian Opera Company. 

I reviewed it for The News. There were a lot of things to love about the performance, pictured above, which is the video-enhanced production by Peter Sellars. It was a thrill to hear tenor Ben Heppner. The orchestra was magnificent. Then there is just the stirring nature of this opera itself.

My colleague Michelle Kearns went with me to see "Tristan" -- and it was just about her first opera ever. A baptism in fire, you know? Anyway, to her surprise, she was very moved by it. I invited her to jot down her impressions as a first-time operagoer of this monumental experience.

-- Mary Kunz Goldman

Take it, Michelle!

"Tristan & Isolde": Observations of an Opera Dilettante

By Michelle Kearns

I know next to practically nothing about opera. During the few I’ve seen, I usually succumbed more than once to an overpowering urge to nap in my seat. Yet I won’t say no to the rare invitation to give it another try. Maybe I’m still trying to make up for the opera appreciation class I dropped in college. Skiing on student discount days had more appeal than what turned out to be a study of a German play-turned-opera about an impoverished soldier who stabs the mother of his child. "Wozzeck" (by Alban Berg) was too grim and dull, my sophomore self concluded. My curiosity dissolved, as things did in those days, into sun, snow and the next party.

Now that I’m decades away from the temptations of life in the Colorado mountains, I accepted a friend’s offer and a few weeks ago I went to Toronto for "Tristan und Isolde." The title had a promising royal sound. Maybe it wouldn’t be too bleak.

I imagined a Celtic princess in costume. That made me remember an irresistible jacket I rescued from a crumpled pile at an estate sale. Made from a golden material with silvery blue, rust and green threads, it was long, like something the Little Prince would wear. And so I happily seized on another of opera’s attractions -- a chance to wear fashions too fancy for my regular life.

Like the old student that I am, I wanted to make up for past delinquency and do a bit more to prepare than pack a small suitcase for our overnight stay: My normal everyday iPod playlist might be classified as indie-alternative-or-folk rock of Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend, and the Black Keys thrown in with the occassional Bach cello suite, Thomas Newman movie score and Philip Glass bit thrown in. The only opera I own: Maria Callas singing "Carmen" on a CD movie soundtrack. That flamenco opera has been on my list for a long time.

For now I was fine about settling for Richard Wagner’s German "Tristan & Isolde." But when I asked to borrow the opera CD, I got a disc with just an instrumental prelude. “Listening to the whole thing would just scare you,” said my friend.

Was that a bad sign?

I am wiser than I used to be. There was a chance that I would finally “get” opera. A Xeroxed flyer from the Wagner Society stuffed into the evening’s program teased. “Want to learn more about Wagnerian opera? Watch DVDs? Attend Wagnerian performances around the world? Join …”

Maybe after this I would sign up for one of those grownup field trips with a busload of opera fans and conversation about the finer points at a group dinner at some old hotel.

It was still a half hour before the show. The shiny white floor of the Four Seasons Centre clacked with the sound of heels. People were dressed up in variations of black and dark, including a surprise: a man in jeans. Elegant mostly, but not memorable. Save for the woman in a frothy fuchsia cocktail dress, upswept hair clipped with feathers that matched. I’d have all night to study fashion.

We were there in time to consider my second-favorite opera priority: Intermission snacks. I sipped a glass of champagne and examined the options laid out on platters. A glass of red would pair nicely with a roast beef sandwich. For the second intermission, I was in a quandary about sweets. The chocolate chip cookies had the flat look of the good homemade kind. I wondered about the intriguing triangle box with bits of passion fruit jelly covered in dark chocolate.

I ordered both.

The Canadian Opera Company’s Four Seasons Centre was new in the decade since I’d last been to the city for opera. Round lights were glowing dots on the balconies around us like the interior of some movie spaceship. The lights dimmed and old, well dressed couple in the middle of a fight settled noisily into the seats behind us. “I’m so mad at you, I could kill you,” she hissed.

Maybe that was rude, but I didn’t mind. I could handle drama on all sides. Our seats were close enough to the stage for a good view. The opera began with a giant movie screen showing a dark close up of the sea. A spot of light on the horizon moved steadily closer and the singing began.

The princess Isolde looked as plain as her plain black dress, hair to her shoulders and luminous skin had a pale make-up free look. I took notes in the dark as the words on the subtitle screen spread out above the unfolding video story picture backdrop.

As the story opens on stage, Isolde is steamed, reeling from the news that Tristan the knight she loves is coming back to claim her as a bride for his king. Sometime ago, Isolde had fallen for him while using her magic healing arts to nurse Tristan’s battle wounds. This was in spite of the fact that he had killed the man she originally planned to marry.

This news takes up the opera’s first hour-plus-long act. Action is not what makes this compelling. Even with subtitles, it was hard to keep track. I couldn’t fix on the story by its suspense and the elegance of the telling in the same way I would a movie, play, TV show or book.

 For me, “getting” this opera was going to have to be a primal thing. My mind wandered. There was nothing to do but listen and watch singers in costumes as bare and black as the stage they stood on, singing songs in a language that, even with the surtitles, I didn’t understand. I stared at the video artist’s abstract silent story. The boat came closer as Tristan came closer to Isolde in the song story. The famous singer playing Tristan (Ben Heppner) was stout with a drawn haggard look. Black was not his color. On the silent screen the knight and princess wore white. Tristan was fit and hot looking. The princess had a regal focus.

They say doodling in meetings is actually a subconscious strategy that keeps the mind from focused when meetings get dull. The giant videos were having that effect on me.

While standing in some old looking stone building, the couple in the videos washed their faces and began to peel off their clothes. Wow, I thought. Nakedness at an opera. That was a surprise.

With Isolde singing about how upset she was, ready to drink poison and kill herself, I thought of my life and all the threads of misunderstandings between friends. A grudge held too long can go wrong. On stage the princess’s servant decided to switch and trade the death potion for a love potion. I looked up and down. Video screen. Stage. Video screen. Stage. It kept me busy.  I was paying attention.

The lights went up. Trumpeters stood from the balconies trumpeting. The king was behind us in the aisle singing. That was the startling end to Act 1. Afterwards we went out into the crowded lobby. A woman in a party dress fluff of chocolate brown floated by as we stood looking out from a tall cocktail table. An older woman looked elegant in a drape of bright orange. Young women walked with purpose with very long legs in very short dresses. Lots of boots to the knee. There was perfume in the air. The roast beef sandwich was good with the red wine.

The second act was even better than the first. The video had a full moon and silhouettes of the lovers intertwined as they swam. On stage the singers sang of love and impassioned, mournful disappointment.

That was when, for me, the enchantment happened.

Tristan had betrayed his king with his love for Isolde and I thought of my love, imagined what it would be like to be a 21st century Isolde. What if we had to split?

As Tristan and Isolde sang together, consummating their star-crossed love,  I could feel the tears collecting.

 It had worked. Like magic. For the first time, an opera transported me completely in a language I don’t speak. "Tristan and Isolde," says Wikipedia, is one of the world’s oldest love stories from before King Arthur’s time. I got all that, still managed a few winks in the third act – maybe one kind of chocolate at intermission is enough — but woke up in time for the finale of singing as Tristan lay dead on the stage while the video Tristan levitated to heaven.

It was an evening of the kind of opera magic I’ll take a few more glasses of.



Music | Theater
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