Tristan und Isolde returns home to Munich

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.

One Show at a time

The performances of “Rusalka” here in Munich are now behind us and I have to concentrate on only one opera instead of two. “Tristan und Isolde” rehearsals began yesterday and I feel like we’re rushing through this show like a whirlwind. It’s always a difficult opera to put on but doing so in such quick fashion is really intimidating. They haven’t done this production in Munich in 3 years and only one of the main characters, King Marke (Rene Pape), has been a part of it. The first orchestra rehearsal is already upon us (tomorrow morning) and we haven’t even finished staging the work yet. We don’t open until next Wednesday and so I’m sure we’ll be fine. It’s just all happening so fast.

The picture above is from “Rusalka” and shows the wonderful Kristine Opolais during a scene from Act 2. This was a very interesting, troubling, haunting and successful production with an incredible response from the audience after each performance. I have probably never portrayed such a despicable character in my career. All productions have aspects which one can strongly agree with and those parts that are difficult to pull off. I think I was successful at it but let’s just say the evil that was such a part of this characterization will be hard to shake off too quickly. The worst part of it?---the characterization was based on a true story (even if the opera most certainly isn’t). The cast was simply unbelievable in this run (as it is for “Tristan und Isolde”). I was honored to take part in this short run and look forward to the upcoming Wagner evenings as well.

I’m feeling a bit tired as this has been an incredibly long season for me with challenges on stage and so much time on the road. I greatly look forward to the nearly 2 weeks off that are soon to arrive. I’m winding up my preparation for “Tosca” as well as the rehearsals begin in less than four weeks. I am so excited about finally singing the role of Scarpia, something that has been a dream of mine for a long time. I just hope it turns out to be a sweet dream and not a nightmare.

It is so strange to have such bad weather here in Munich at this time of year. It is chilly, grey, and very wet while the eastern half of the U.S. is boiling. I’m a hot weather person and am not fond of being chilled in July in Germany. I’d far prefer to have to take a dip, as is Miss Opolais, in the closest fish tank. Let’s hope some of the warm weather is still hanging around once I get home.

Back in Bavaria

Once again, I’ve returned to Munich. In fact, this is but my first trip here this year as I’ll return just after Christmas for another engagement in one of my favorite cities. This city offers so many vistas for picture taking and enjoyable walking. Unfortunately, Munich has so much construction going on at the same time. It’s a bit disheartening to see some of your favorite buildings wrapped in scaffolding. Even one of the domed “onion” towers you see on the “Dom” (Cathedral) in the background of this photo is currently “missing” as it is under construction. I took this picture on an earlier visit--I like to remember it as it was and will be again rather than how it is at this point. But oh, there is much to see and so much atmosphere to absorb (as long as you can dodge the summer tourists which are bountiful here in July).

I’ve returned to the Bavarian Staatsoper for performances of “Rusalka”. These have been scheduled for some time and I’m very excited to return to this opera that I first sang three years ago in Salzburg. There is so much gorgeous music in the score. The production, when it opened last fall, was controversial, to say the least, but generally well received. I’m anxious to have a crack at it myself.

I found out last week that I’ll be staying on in Munich longer than expected as I’m jumping into performances of “Tristan und Isolde”. I haven’t sung the opera since 2004 but it has come back quickly to my brain. The cast, as it appears on paper, is incredible. This will be a treat.

I arrived home from Baden-Baden just over 3 weeks ago. We had a very hectic few weeks before I flew back to Germany last night. In those 3 weeks “off”, we headed to Illinois to celebrate a very important birthday in the life of my Mom. It was just great to spend time with so many in our family--many who we don’t get to see nearly enough. We also stopped by The University of Notre Dame to do a little touring (and to give a little inspiration to the students in our family) and then visited family in Northern New Jersey on July 3rd. We travelled down to Washington, D.C. on the 4th of July for the annual Independence Day celebration. They only have a 15 minute firework show--but they blow up more in those 15 minutes than the mind can comprehend---AWESOME!!! On July 5, we made the short trip from D.C. to Gettysburg to tour the battlefields. This was a very moving day and one I’m sure we won’t soon forget.

We also got to spend some time with friends during my short break (no break is ever long enough) and, of course, much swimming was had by all. Summer is perhaps my favorite time of year and, since we got to spend so much time with family and friends, I’m already looking forward to getting home in a few weeks to spend time with them again!!!

This trip to Munich will wind up a very long and successful season. It’s been a season primarily spent on the road but with my heart maintaining it’s strong yearning for home. I’ll get to be home quite a bit this fall but the winter and spring brings another hectic travel schedule (and some wonderful performance opportunities). It’s been quite a year (and I expect more of the same next season). But for now, it’s wonderful to be back in the heart of Bavaria with two very special operas.