Wagner, director and videographer

Posted January 20, 2023, 3:25 pm

For the 6th time, the Paris Opera presents Wagner’s magnificent opera “Tristan und Isolde” with the characters of Bill Viola (b. 1951) directed by the American Peter Sellars under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel. The show is breathtaking, and being in the room for 5 hours (including two intermissions) passes very easily, because the action takes place in a kind of augmented reality. There’s what’s happening on stage and what’s happening behind the scenes on the 11.7 x 6.7 meter screen. Two parallel visions, which put the existence of the two heroes in the abyss and coexist, presented themselves as a couple almost constantly.

The interest of this work made in 2005 is that, as Peter Sellars explained in our interview, the images composed by Bill Viola, one of the pioneers of video art, were conceived according to the text, not the music. More interestingly, the video is not a literal depiction of the story. The opera deals with the theme of impossible love, but also, as Sellars points out, with an endless melody related to the idea of ​​Karma, which Wagner was discovering at the time – in one of the songs we see the following words: “My father fathered me and died, my mother fathered me and died. Why was I born? » .

Paradoxically, Tristan and Isolde also became the most important work of the American visual artist, only today it can be seen not only in a museum, but accompanied by an orchestra, singers and a hundred musicians. In the background of the music we find Viola’s obsessions: the metaphysical dimension of life that passes through the essential presence of water. If we stick to the plastic aspect, we will first remember from this staging that it is literally and symbolically a great work of its time. During an interview with Peter Sellars…

What does Tristan and Isolde mean to you?

Wagner discovered the idea of ​​Karma in Tristan und Isolde. He studied Buddhist texts in Germany in the late 19th century. Reading them today is incomprehensible. Now we have the Dalai Lama, our friend and neighbor. At the time, no one knew what Buddhism was, but Wagner understood it. Modern science has also confirmed this: every cell of our body is a means of trauma received from our mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers and previous generations.

Is that what you are showing here?

Wagner is the first person in the history of Western music to create an infinite melody with “Tristan und Isolde”. Generations and civilizations pass. Before, everything was choral figures, arias… Now Wagner expresses eternity. Bill Viola and his wife Kira lived in Japan in the 1970s when Sony was constantly introducing video innovations. Not only did they work with Sony, but they also worked with the Zen master. Everything Wagner tried to guess, Bill Viola understood.

Tell us about the genesis 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 offered Bill to collaborate with me in the field of theater, but he refused. For his retrospective that toured the US and then the Netherlands, we worked closely on the catalog and staging of the exhibition. But the will to leave the theater was strong.

Until Wagner…

Yes, with “Tristan und Isolde” Wagner invented the “Gesamkunswerk”, a total work of art combining music, poetry, dance and visual arts. To direct it, I needed an artist who could look Wagner in the eye, who could dialogue with him.

How did the viola relate to Wagner’s music?

He has nothing to do until he tapes the whole thing. Bill chose not to fall for this music. He only responded to Wagner’s text. He wanted his images to have the same power as the music. That’s the shocker. Critics always want everything to follow the music.

Are you not looking for harmony?

Let’s say I’m not looking for it 24 hours a day. Life is also about contradictions and conflicts.

Bill Viola showed up with a suitcase full of pictures…

First Bill and I talked a lot about Tristan and Iseult. Then he closed the door and disappeared. Bill takes a deep journey within himself. He returned two years later, in 2004, with an incredible five-hour video. This is such an exceptional gift. I have been seeing him for 18 years now. I know him very well.

What was your reaction?

I immediately accepted this and started a dialogue with him. I have a great responsibility, because this is the biggest and most powerful of Bill Viola’s “live” works. A piece that required a hundred-piece orchestra and a chorus of over 30. It cannot be seen in a museum. He financed the scraps by selling them to private collectors or museums. Because no institution can fund Bill Viola’s 5 hours of work. It included Hollywood props, airplane hangars, giant crews, a wall of fire, and, conversely, shots with a camera overlooking the ocean in Long Beach. Of course, because it is Viola, the sunset is magnificent, mythical. Bill takes you to outer space.

Since 2005, you have presented this play for the sixth time. Did you change the scene?

I make changes every day. Casting is one of the big changes this time around. Black is in Isolde and it completely changes the story. Our understanding has changed. In today’s society, anger and rage can be felt. How will we reach the stage of reconciliation and understanding? We spent a lot of time in tears during rehearsals. A liberating act.

“Tristan and Isolde” by Richard Wagner. paris, Opera Bastille, www.operadeparis.fr until February 4.

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