The operas of Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), and Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) are at the core of what we now call the bel canto repertory. Italian for “beautiful singing,” the term first appeared in the late 17th century. The aesthetic embodied in Donizetti’s operas calls for vocal elegance, evenness, and flexibility; his Elixir of Love demonstrates bel canto ideals beautifully, with vocal lines that thrill our ears and touch our hearts.
Written with librettist Felice Romani, Elixir was an immediate success, and today it is one of Donizetti’s best-loved scores. At the center of the story is Nemorino, a young peasant in love with a girl who seems hopelessly out of his reach. His opening aria, “Quanto è bella,” is a sweet and slightly pathetic plea, soon drowned out by a jolly chorus of workers; his music takes on a bright new character when he sips an elixir guaranteed to change his luck. Nemorino’s celebrated second act aria, “Una furtiva lagrima,” is both a beautiful melody and a remarkable musical illustration: we hear how he shifts between hope and uncertainty after he catches a glimpse of his beloved in an unguarded moment.
Adina, Nemorino’s love interest, takes her own musical journey to reach that point. Pert and sassy to begin—the first sound we hear out of her mouth is a laugh—she goes on to display considerable warmth and generosity by “Prendi, per me sei libero.” Donizetti’s musical characterizations for Sergeant Belcore and Doctor Dulcamara, two distinctive charismatic figures, are no less telling. Belcore, the romantic hero of his own dreams, is all long lines and martial rhythms, while the shifty salesman Dulcamara makes an impression with rapid-fire patter and engaging bluster. In addition to sparkling solos for each of the four main characters, Donizetti’s score is stuffed with brilliant duets and ensembles.
With the operas of Verdi and Wagner, a heavier, more declamatory style of singing came into fashion. Only a handful of Italian masterpieces from the first half of the 19th century remained in the repertory; it was not until the mid-20th century that singers like Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, and Joan Sutherland began to champion forgotten bel canto works, demonstrating that “beautiful singing” need not be an end in itself, but can be a vehicle for greater expressiveness.”
Donizetti wrote some of our most beloved bel canto operas; in addition to Elixir, we can thank him for Lucrezia Borgia (1833), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), The Daughter of the Regiment (1840), Don Pasquale (1843), and many others. A review of his career reminds us that it can be premature to judge a composer based on his first (or second, or third, or even tenth) opera. Donizetti wrote his first opera when he was nineteen, but it was not until 35 operas later that he had his first major hit, Anna Bolena. Elixir followed two years later, one of four operas he wrote in 1832. Donizetti eventually wrote more than 60 works for the stage.
WNO's first production of The Elixir of Love was in 1977, followed by performances in 1981, 1983, 1997, and 2006. Other productions of Donizetti’s works include Don Pasquale (1979, 1987, 1993, and 2011), Il furioso all'isola di San Domingo (1979), Lucia di Lammermoor (1980, 1989, 2002, and 2011), The Daughter of the Regiment (1986, 1994, and 2007), Anna Bolena (1993 and 2012) and Lucrezia Borgia (2008).
—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera
The Bel Canto Operas of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini
This volume examines more than 100 operas by three great masters of bel canto, giving attention to performance history, plot, and musical analysis.
Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera
While Philip Gossett’s book does not treat The Elixir of Love in depth, it offers a fascinating study of the issues involved in producing the operas of the bel canto period. (Hint: “Stick to the score” rarely offers a complete solution.) Gossett, who serves as general editor for the new critical editions of the complete works of Verdi (University of Chicago Press/Casa Ricordi) and Rossini (Bärenreiter Verlag), calls on careful scholarship and years of practical experience in the theater for this illuminating and entertaining volume.
The Placebo Effect: An Interdisciplinary Exploration
This book, edited by Anne Harrington, collects articles by experts in a range of fields—neurology, neurobiology, psychology, gastroenterology, and history. It also includes an interdisciplinary “conversation” across disciplines that explores when and how placebos can play a role in health.
Plants with Benefits: An Uninhibited Guide to the Aphrodisiac Herbs, Fruits, Flowers & Veggies in Your Garden
Looking for a homegrown love potion? Award winning garden writer Helen Yoest explores the idea of aphrodisiac plants through the lenses of history, lore, ethnobotany, and modern science. The New York Times called the 2014 book “a diverting rabbit hole.”
—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera
“Comprate il mio specifico,” Doctor Dulcamara tells the unwitting residents of a sleepy Basque village. “Come buy my secret recipe!” Touted as a cure-all for paralytics, apoplectics, asthmatics, hysterics, diabetics, and a host of other sufferers, Dulcamara’s elixir is part of a run of “patent medicines” that began a century earlier. These tonics represented progress, all right—not for medical science, but for the emergent field of advertising.
Three years after Donizetti wrote The Elixir of Love, William Brandreth moved from England to the U.S. hoping to find a market for his “Vegetable Universal Pill,” but the product did not take off until his grandson, Benjamin, began printing pamphlets and books to promote the brand. Brandreth’s cathartic went on to earn a mention in Moby-Dick—and a not insignificant fortune. The younger Brandreth, who later served in the New York State Senate, was the first President of the Westchester County Savings Bank and the owner of the first private preserve (some 26,000 acres) in New York’s Adirondack Park.
Many old-time topical elixirs claimed snake oil as an active ingredient (hence the term “snake oil salesman”). The advertising may have been false, but the relief was often real, thanks to a couple of ingredients still used in modern panaceas: camphor (Mentholatum, Vicks VapoRub, Bengay) and capsaicin (Icy Hot, Zostrix).
French Wine Coca Nerve Tonic, developed by Colonel John Pemberton to offer non-addictive pain relief to Civil War vets, offered a double buzz—alcohol and a trace of cocaine. A non-alcoholic version, Coca-Cola, was introduced during the Prohibition era and advertised as a cure for diseases including morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence. Today’s Coke omits the cocaine but delivers a substantial hit of caffeine and sugar to help consumers shake off lethargy.
While some elixirs contained ingredients that offered effective and replicable distraction from symptoms, others relied on the placebo effect. Latin for “I will please,” the term refers to sham medications given—sometimes by bona fide physicians—to soothe a patient’s health concerns. Research suggests that the power of suggestion can actually relieve some conditions. Since pain, muscle fatigue, and certain immune responses are directly controlled by the brain, a patient’s belief in a medication can stimulate the body to heal itself.
Dulcamara’s elixir relies less on the placebo effect than on the temporary euphoria brought on by alcohol consumption. When he appears on the scene, his “specifico” has been neither marketed nor tested for its ability to inspire love, but such trifles are of no concern to Dulcamara when he sells a bottle to Nemorino; the Doctor intends to be long gone before his ruse is discovered.
The Doctor’s prescription is an unusual one; most love potions (think of Tristan and Isolde or A Midsummer Night’s Dream) must be applied to or consumed by the reluctant object of affection. Certainly the “secret ingredient” in Dulcamara’s preparation has a track record of lowering inhibitions, although, as Shakespeare notes, alcohol “provokes the desire, but takes away the performance.”
Nemorino needs no provocation, of course, but his newfound confidence attracts Adina’s perplexed attention immediately. This comes as no surprise—the body language of an alpha male can exert a powerful attraction. More recent research has found that taking a “power position” (for instance, standing with legs spread and hands on hips) can alter body chemistry, increasing levels of testosterone and decreasing levels of cortisol. In other words, it’s possible that Nemorino’s swagger triggers his attitude adjustment, rather than the other way around.
—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera
Further Journeys with the White Whale
Start with Herman Melville’s epic novel—or not. There are a number of ways to learn more about the crew of the Pequod and their doomed quest.
Heggie and Scheer’s Moby Dick: A Grand Opera for the 21st Century
Inspired by the world premiere production of Moby-Dick, Robert K. Wallace, a past-president of the Melville Society, tells the story of the opera’s creation. This handsome volume includes more than 200 color photos, interviews with artists, and the full libretto.
Moby Dick | Big Read
In spring of 2011, artist Angela Cockayne and writer Philip Hoare invited artists, writers, musicians, scientists and academics to participate in a three-day symposium inspired by their obsession with Moby-Dick. The tremendous response inspired an online version of Melville’s epic, with an original artwork to accompany a recording of each chapter. Readers include Tilda Swinton, Simon Callow, Fiona Shaw—and 132 more. www.mobydickbigread.com
Moby-Dick in Pictures
Artist Matt Kish created on image for each page of the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition of Moby-Dick. He uses collage, ballpoint pen, marker, paint, crayon, ink and watercolor for his “deliberately low-tech” response to the text.
The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick
Howard P. Vincent’s study of Melville’s sources was an important resource for librettist Gene Scheer as he created his version of the story.
They were as one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things—oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp—yet all these ran into each other in the one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew... all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point it.
Countless “individualities” and “contrasting things” must come together in a precise sequence for any opera production, and Moby-Dick is more complicated than most. While the conductor sets the overall pace, it is the stage manager who makes sure all the elements come together over the course of the evening. Lisa Anderson, who stage-managed Moby-Dick at San Francisco Opera, now takes the helm at Washington National Opera.
Because the production has already been mounted by five other companies, many pre-production stage management tasks have already been addressed. “Before beginning rehearsals for any show, I need to know how people get on and off stage, what they have in their hands, and what they’re wearing,” says Lisa. “I’ll look at the model and ask questions like, ‘Is that an entrance in the third wing stage left?’ I’ll look at the score and make a general prop list with the director and designer. If it’s a period drama and a character has a 12-foot train, that’s something they will need in rehearsal.”
While Lisa is familiar with the basics of the production, several new performers are joining the crew of the Pequod in D.C., adding an element of the unknown. “This is really the first time there has been a major cast change in the show since its creation,” says Lisa. “It will be an interesting process to see how they change the chemistry of the show.”
It will undoubtedly be an interesting process for the new cast members as they learn to navigate the production’s considerable physical demands. “Thank goodness we have a rehearsal version of the set,” says Lisa. (Typically, the outlines of a set are marked on the floor of the rehearsal room with tape, and singers do not have an opportunity to work in three dimensions until the final rehearsals in the theater.) “This show has a lot of climbing, a lot of sitting on rungs at different levels. If a singer has to climb 15 feet in the air and clip into a safety harness before singing, he needs to rehearse that. If we didn’t spend money on a rehearsal set, we’d probably have to spend the same amount on extra stage time.”
The show includes a number of supernumeraries, or silent actors, who do the most active work, including climbing and sliding down a curved wall at the rear of the set. The supers in Washington will also be new to the production, but, says Lisa, choreographer Keturah Stickann “has a perfect process. There is one track for each super. Everything that was done by ‘Joe’ in San Diego will be done by ‘Steve’ here.”
Finding supers with climbing skills is one thing; finding a heldentenor capable of singing an entire role while maneuvering on a raked stage with a peg leg is something else. “It took Jay [Hunter Morris] a while to learn how to work with it,” says Lisa. “Now we have a new Ahab, Carl Tanner, who has to figure out what works for him—at the same time as he is learning the music and the staging.”
Having a version of the set in rehearsal is enormously helpful, but it also poses a challenge for the stage management team, especially when it comes to running large chunks of the opera continuously. “The show has 26 scenes, which means 25 scene changes; things are constantly moving, and the staging is very specific. When you’re in the theater, you have a crew of 40 stagehands, but in the room, it’s just me and a couple of assistants. It’s hard, but fun, to try to get everything physically in place in time.”
Once the show gets to the theater, Lisa does less running around, but she is no less busy. “Doing this show is like calling a regular opera on steroids. For the sequence when the boat is revealed, I have to start talking four pages early to give the standbys for all of the things that have to happen—lighting, rail cues, and video.”
“Because there are so many set elements that fly, it’s a tight hang. There haven’t been too many shows where something didn’t get caught. We’ve had two guys in harnesses walking on trusses trying to keep things from catching during the show. Everyone has to be very aware and be in constant communication.”
For the stage manager, Moby-Dick is intense—and rewarding. “I love the challenge of the boat reveal. Same with the boat breaking up: it’s so hard, when you get it right you feel like you’ve won the game,” says Lisa, whose other favorite moment comes during the Starbuck/Ahab duet: “There’s not much for me to do, so I get to sit back and enjoy. It’s such incredible, heart-wrenching music; you just melt. It’s the first time in the opera when everything is still.”
-- Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera
“The job is really to create a structure that inspires, even demands music.”
When transposing a novel—especially a novel as mighty as Moby Dick—into an opera, where do you begin?
When I start, I’m looking for what is overtly operatic. Why set this book to music? That’s the question. What is it about this story that seems operatic? How can music be used to illuminate the story in unique ways? What stands out immediately is Ahab, who is this titanic character. You can hear music when you read those magnificent speeches of his. Much of Ahab’s text in the opera comes straight from the book.
I needed a period of time on my own to figure out what the novel meant to me, so I did about six months of reading before Jake and I started working together. I had certain ideas developed and developing when we went to Nantucket together. In Nantucket, however, Jake and I had a great chance to knock ideas back and forth. After that trip is when I really began writing the libretto.
The first text I circled in the book was Pip’s. He is such an important character. Before I even came on board, it was decided that Pip would be a “pants role”—there is a great operatic tradition of having women play adolescent boys. Having a boy soprano play the role would have been very limiting. I knew Pip could show us a different side of Ahab, but we needed a mature actor to do this. We get to witness the narrator’s transformative journey, but Ahab has experienced his most significant transformation before our story begins; we only see him get ever more obsessed and lost. Pip’s emotional damage very briefly threatens to stir a kind of humanity in Ahab, which is something he struggles to suppress. This struggle humanizes Ahab and creates interesting emotional cross-currents that music can help to explore.
The narrator of the novel is someone who is both close to the action and removed from it as he relates events that happened to him “some years ago.” Tell us a bit about the character of Greenhorn and how he is different from the person who tells us to call him Ishmael.
It is a challenge to create an opera from a novel, which is a narrative form. What I’m trying to do is create an active form, with characters making decisions in real time. The big “a-ha” moment was to create the character of Greenhorn, before he’s had this experience, so we can see him in the moment confronting various challenges, even crucibles that ultimately change him.
It’s difficult to have a narrator in a dramatic work. Actually, there is a narrator in opera: it is the composer. As a librettist one has to embrace that. You have to trust the music to fill in the emotional details. In a novel there might be several pages of what it feels like to be in a room, what the wallpaper looks like, etc. In opera you have to allow music to do all of that. The real question that we worked to solve was not, “What do you leave out?” but “What can be described by music alone, so that words are not necessary?”
You’ve worn many hats in the theater—composer, lyricist, actor. How do your other experiences play into your work as a librettist? Do you hear music for the words as you write them?
I used to hear music—I even wrote dummy tunes—but I don’t anymore. I think the main thing I bring to the process is lots of experience being on stage. I really do understand what a singing actor goes through when learning and developing a role. Knowing that, hopefully I can provide text and characters that are well enough drawn that they make sense to the singers.
Everyone thinks a librettist writes words, and that is true, but the job is really to create structure that inspires, even demands music. The principal task is to figure out how the scenes will play, so the music will have pillars to stand on. I think of the scene in La bohème where Mimì and Rodolfo meet. The text may be beautiful, but what really makes the moment is the idea of these two people who don’t really know each other, looking for the key in the dark—and then he finds it, pockets it, and takes her hand. The scene just begs for music.
I’d like to talk about the research process for this piece. Research often starts out as a quest to “get something right,” but sometimes the most valuable harvest is something unexpected—not just a bit of information, but a bit of inspiration.
That’s the beauty of working with books versus searching for an answer or materials with Google. When you’re reading, you come across other references. It’s like using a thesaurus—a real one, not an online one—and stumbling across another word. You knock around from one thought to another.
Walter Bezanson talks about Moby-Dick as an organic form, one that grows in a seemingly unplanned way. It’s like a jazz solo that goes off in different directions. This whole notion of the novel as an organic form informed some of my choices about structure. I wasn’t able to include as much detail on whaling as the book, but I did want to show some of it, like the rendering of the oil. I had to focus on the conflict between Ahab and Starbuck, as well as Greenhorn’s transformative journey.
You’ve collaborated with Jake Heggie on a number of other projects. What’s it like to work with him?
Jake is so gifted. In addition to being a wonderful composer, he’s a great reader and editor. When I send him a draft, the nature of his questions announces the fact that I’m working with someone who is brilliant at his craft. He has such a great understanding of the form and what the vocal profile can communicate. Yes, you want a fantastic orchestration, textures that illuminate everything that’s going on,--and Jake’s score succeeds in all of these ways--but in the end, people are singing, and ultimately, the voice is what is going to rock the heart. It doesn’t happen without a good libretto as scaffolding, but the reason we love opera is the music.
-- Interview by Kelley Rourke
WNO today announced the commission of a new hour-long opera for the 2014-2015 season of the American Opera Initiative, its comprehensive new commissioning program for contemporary American opera. Penny, by composer Douglas Pew and librettist Dara Weinberg (pictured below), will have its world premiere in January 2015 in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Pew and Weinberg are alumni of the American Opera Initiative; their 20-minute work A Game of Hearts had its world premiere during the program’s first season in November 2012.
Penny is an original story developed by Weinberg about Penny Rutherford, a woman with a disability who discovers her voice and her talent for music, and the ensuing conflict with her family as she changes and grows more independent. A first workshop of the work will be held later this week in Washington, D.C. Penny will be directed by Alan Paul, the Associate Director of Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company.
A Game of Hearts, the first collaboration of Pew and Weinberg, had its world premiere in November 2012 in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater under the auspices of the American Opera Initiative. The comedic opera depicted a group of widows in a Seattle nursing home as they reminisced about their pasts and faced their current situation. In advance of the opera’s world premiere, Pew and Weinberg received mentorship from distinguished advisors who have each enjoyed professional success with new American operas: composer Jake Heggie (WNO’s forthcoming Moby-Dick), librettist Mark Campbell (Silent Night, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music), and conductor Anne Manson (Manitoba Chamber Orchestra).
“Our experience participating in the inaugural American Opera Initiative in 2012 was a very rewarding and intense learning experience, and Dara and I are honored to be working again with the wonderful staff and young artists at WNO,” said composer Douglas Pew. “To be able to return with a new opportunity to further develop our dramatic voices—this time in an hour-long work—is very exciting indeed.”
Following its critically acclaimed bow in Washington, A Game of Hearts was subsequently presented by Cincinnati’s North American New Opera Workshop in May 2013. It was selected to be performed at the prestigious Opera America New Works Forum, which will take place at 3 p.m. on Monday, January 13, 2014 in New York City. The performance will be streamed live for Opera America members on the Opera America website and will later be available for public viewing on YouTube.
“When I first heard A Game of Hearts, I was struck by the sophistication of the storytelling in both the music and the libretto and I am thrilled that Doug and Dara are returning for this new commission,” said Michael Heaston, the director of the American Opera Initiative for WNO. “I am proud that our program is achieving its mission—to continue to foster new American talent and to provide a forum for contemporary American stories and music. I can’t wait to start work on Penny.”
Information about tickets to the world premiere of Penny will be announced in the coming months.
Three 20-minute works by new opera composers and librettists
will premiere November 13, 2013
New hour-long opera An American Soldier
by Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang
to receive world premiere June 13-14, 2014
Returning program mentors include composer Jake Heggie,
librettist Mark Campbell, and conductor Anne Manson
(WASHINGTON, D.C.)—Washington National Opera (WNO) today announced details for the second season of the American Opera Initiative, its comprehensive new commissioning program to stimulate, enrich, and ensure the future of contemporary American opera. Three teams of new opera composers and librettists—Michael Gilbertson and Caroline McGraw, Jennifer Bellor and Elizabeth Reeves, and Joshua Bornfield and Caitlin Vincent—will premiere new 20-minute operas, each based on a contemporary American story, in a concert performance on November 13, 2013 in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. On June 13 and 14, 2014, a new hour-long opera by composer Huang Ruo and librettist David Henry Hwang—An American Solider, based on the true story of Pvt. Danny Chen, a Chinese-American soldier who died in Afghanistan—will have its world premiere in the Terrace Theater.
“The mission of the American Opera Initiative is as important as the mission of WNO itself—to tell powerful and personal stories through all kinds of music,” said WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. “I’m proud that we are recognizing emerging American artists on the ascent of their careers and giving them the forum to create their stories and music.”
The composer/librettist teams will collaborate on their works with distinguished mentors who have each enjoyed professional success with new American operas: composer Jake Heggie (WNO’s forthcoming Moby-Dick), librettist Mark Campbell (Silent Night, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music), and conductor Anne Manson (Manitoba Chamber Orchestra). The composers and librettists have been working with these mentors and advisors throughout the creative process. The next round of workshops will be held later this month at the Kennedy Center.
“The second season of the American Opera Initiative includes evocative new works that will both entertain and challenge our audiences,” said Michael Heaston, program director of the American Opera Initiative and WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. “Plus, our Young Artists will have the extraordinary opportunity to work with living composers and librettists and our incredible team of mentors on the creation of new works.”
New 20-minute operas will explore the diversity of the American experience
The three original 20-minute operas presented in concert on November 13 will each highlight a very different aspect of American life and culture. These new works will be presented with accompaniment by a chamber orchestra and will be performed in English. Following the performance, there will be a Q&A session with the artists and creative team.
Composed by Michael Gilbertson
Libretto by Caroline McGraw
Breaking follows an eager young television reporter who is confined to the purgatory of human interest pieces but who desperately wants to stand out in the 24-hour news cycle. When tragedy strikes and she is the first on the scene, she couldn’t be happier—until she collides with a grieving young woman and is forced to confront the human suffering behind the headlines.
Composed by Jennifer Bellor
Libretto by Elizabeth Reeves
The ghosts of three immigrant Irish railroad workers—killed in a violent clash with local farmers as they fled a cholera outbreak at Duffy’s Cut, their Pennsylvania work camp—return to haunt Malachi Harris, the camp blacksmith charged with making sure that no trace of what happened at the site remains. Troubled by his conscience, Malachi must decide whether to carry out his orders or preserve some evidence of the incident.
Composed by Joshua Bornfield
Libretto by Caitlin Vincent
More than 12 million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island, with more than one million processed in 1907 alone. Set against the backdrop of this peak year, Uncle Alex tells the story of new arrivals Anna and Jacob Eingold as they navigate their final interview with an Ellis Island inspector. When their hopes are derailed by a technicality, fellow immigrant Alex Margolis calls his own future into question with an unexpected act of heroism. Uncle Alex provides a glimpse into an experience that has shaped the core of this country.
Full casting, featuring members of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, and creative teams will be announced soon. Tickets for the November 13 presentation are on sale now
New hour-long opera recounts the life and death of a Chinese-American soldier in Afghanistan
The new hour-long opera presented on June 13 and 14, 2014 is written by a more experienced composer/librettist team. This work, to be performed in English, will receive a complete staging by director David Paul and a chamber orchestra will be conducted by Steven Jarvi. Both are alumni of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
An American Soldier
Composed by Huang Ruo
Libretto by David Henry Hwang
On October 3, 2011, Chinese-American Army Pvt. Danny Chen was found dead in a guard tower at his base in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. The real circumstances behind his death, though, illustrate a culture of racism in the military. Based on a true story, and drawing from the ensuing courts-martial of Chen’s fellow soldiers, An American Soldier explores what happens when the very people who are supposed to protect you in a combat zone become your enemy.
Huang Ruo is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the Julliard School. Following the world premiere of An American Soldier, the Santa Fe Opera will present the North American premiere of Ruo’s Chinese-language opera Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a collaboration with librettist Candace Mui-ngam Chong that had its world premiere in Hong Kong in 2011.
Librettist David Henry Hwang is a Tony Award®-winning playwright (M. Butterfly, 1988) and has written opera librettos for works by Philip Glass, Bright Sheng, Osvaldo Golijov, Unsuk Chin, and Howard Shore.
Complete casting for the June 2014 performances will be announced at a later date. Tickets are on sale now.
By Thomas May
Wagner’s mastery of orchestration clearly owed a great deal to his years of practical experience as a conductor, but he also had a capacity for imaging sound colors unavailable from conventional instruments. The Ring in particular calls for an extension of the usual options. To enhance its mythic sound world, Wagner amplified his already wide-ranging brass palette with a horn-tuba hybrid (the “Wagner tuba”) and even a Stierhorn, or medieval bugle.
In part because he originally envisioned Tristan and Isolde as a more “user-friendly” project—an opera to be easily staged in any of the conventional houses—Wagner reduced his overall orchestral ensemble from the mammoth scale required by the Ring. For all of the intensity of passion this music conveys, Wagner exercises remarkable restraint in other ways as well: only once in the score, for example, does the dynamic level rise to a triple forte (when the lovers first meet and embrace in the second act). His extraordinary ear allows Wagner to achieve an enormous variety of coloristic blends even without the added resources of the Ring orchestra.
But there is one crucial moment in the third act where Wagner suggests an alternative to conventional instruments: this is toward the end of the first scene, when Tristan has been hallucinating about the ship carrying Isolde to him. Suddenly the shepherd watching the sea interrupts with a wildly joyful melody to confirm his sighting of the ship. Wagner scores this passage for English horn (to be reinforced by oboes and clarinets if necessary), but in a footnote he recommends his preference for a simple wooden instrument without keys or valves, modeled on the Swiss alphorn. A Viennese instrument maker was able to supply exactly that for the 1865 premiere of the opera.
But it’s rare to encounter this Holztrompete or wooden trumpet in modern performances. Aaron Doty, Artistic Operations and Orchestra Manager of Washington National Opera, points out that a special feature of WNO’s production is the company’s first-ever use of the Tristan trumpet. This has been made possible thanks to a loan from the Joe R. and Joella F. Utley Brass Instrument Collection of the National Music Museum, University of South Dakota, Vermillion. The NMM’s collection holds an original Tristan trumpet built for Prague’s National Opera around 1925 and acquired by Utley as well as the replica trumpet we hear in this performance. The replica, of a Tristan trumpet crafted in Munich c. 1913 (currently in the Dresden Opera’s possession), was made in 2001 by Andreas Schoni and Rainer Egger of Bern and Basel, Switzerland. Resembling a long pipe that terminates in a pear-shaped bell and with a single valve, the trumpet is built of granadilla and black-stained maple.
—Thomas May, the author of Decoding Wagner, writes about the arts and blogs at memeteria.com.
By Thomas May
Even setting a myth of the beginning and end of the cosmos to music (aka the Ring) wasn’t enough for Richard Wagner. The legend of Tristan and Isolde began to crowd Wagner’s creative imagination thanks to a potent combination of factors in his private and artistic life.
After deconstructing the conventions of the commercially popular musical styles that reigned in opera houses of the time, Wagner had built a Valhalla-like fortress of theory to work out the ideas he was struggling to replace these conventions with, and these he began to apply in practice by composing the Ring. Yet Wagner’s subsequent discovery of the pessimistic philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) profoundly altered his attitude toward the purpose of art itself.
The Ring and its musical world originally sprang forth from a basically optimistic world view that placed its faith in the possibility of revolutionary utopia. Viewing the world through the lens of Schopenhauer caused Wagner to regard this as a naïve illusion. On one level, Tristan and Isolde turns the archetypal scenario of the love triangle into a symbol for the unquenchable force of desire in all its forms, which is the root of suffering for Schopenhauer. Apart from Wagner’s fascination with the philosopher’s metaphysical ideas, however, he was naturally attracted to the position of supreme value Schopenhauer reserved for music. It was Schopenhauer’s conviction that music alone can give us immediate access to this stark truth underlying the deceptive “real world” of appearances.
In the Ring (up to this point), music had more or less been ascribed a role subordinate to the unified amalgam of score, script, myth, and staging. But Wagner found a matchless vehicle with which to explore his changed perspective in Tristan’s story of extreme desire and its frustration—the love potion is merely another symbol for the release of what’s inherent in Tristan’s and Isolde’s natures. Setting it to music provided Wagner with the opportunity to create an unprecedented sound world evoking the human condition of restless desire, the mirage of blissful satisfaction, and, ultimately, a kind of transcendent awareness. The music isn’t there merely to “accompany” the moods of the drama: it provides the very foundation for what we see happening onstage. As Wagner later put it, the actual drama is “a visible image of the music”—a “deed of music made visible.”
Wagner had made one enormous leap in his musical language when, after a silence of about five years, he figured out how to set the Ring in motion with the remarkable Prelude to Das Rheingold, where the music swims about for minutes in the same key: Minimalism more than a century ahead of its time. But if the Ring proclaimed revolution, the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde seemed like all-out anarchy, immersing listeners into a disorienting soundscape where the familiar compass points no longer had any bearing.
Ironically, still another reason Wagner had determined to delay the Ring and write Tristan was purely practical: he hoped to make money with what he believed would be an easy-to-produce opera (compared, at least, to the Ring). But the originality and complexity of Tristan’s score, and the cruel demands on its two lead singers, doomed attempts to get it performed for several years, until the composer’s powerful new patron King Ludwig entered the scene and provided the financial backing for adequate rehearsals.
Even professional musicians of the era found themselves perplexed by the daring harmonic language Wagner develops here. Its essential character is crystallized in the very first bars of the Prelude: the cellos pose a series of “questions,” their line of descending half-steps “answered” by enigmatic harmony and a similarly ascending phrase in the woodwinds. Yet even these responses are left unresolved—and are in turn followed by tense silences. The music coils forward, full of vibrant, insatiable yearning, but even the climax it reaches seems frustrated—and, to cite the composer’s own description, “the heart sinks back unconscious, back into languishing desire…”
The paradigm of Western tonal music familiar in Wagner’s era (and in pop music today) relied on reassuringly recognizable patterns of tension and release, with a beginning, middle, and end. These patterns play out both in the short term (a phrase of music) and in larger structures (a movement). Tristan’s music supplants this with states of tension that generate more tension. The whole process suggests a condition of tormented, unappeasable longing, with the horizon maddeningly just out of reach.
Instead of a collection of tunes we can look forward to once the curtain rises, the Prelude embodies a microcosm of Tristan’s musical vocabulary and grammar. Its opening gestures proliferate in countless ways across the span of the opera—until that initially ambiguous “response” is finally allowed to fully resolve on what Richard Strauss once described as “the most beautifully orchestrated B major chord in the whole history of music.”
The score of Tristan adapts the advanced musical principles Wagner had been honing in the Ring to its new context. Rather than independent, self-enclosed musical units (arias, quartets, choruses, and the like), each act unfolds as one continuous progression of musical thought. In general, conventional opera relied on tried-and-true forms and familiar, one-size-fits-all harmonic progressions which could apply to any of a number of interchangeable dramatic situations. In Tristan and Isolde Wagner spins out an organic form corresponding uniquely to the particular set-up, crisis, and resolution that make up the dramatic content of each act. Even more, that dramatic content is radically simplified and internalized (in contrast to the epic Ring). This opens up a space for Wagner’s music to trace the states of desire, suffering, and, ultimately, compassion which both Isolde and Tristan experience.
The opera’s large-scale musical and dramatic structure demonstrates a beautifully symmetrical balance, despite the impression of unleashed, formless “dissonance” (in the sense of unresolved musical tension) that the Prelude can still make even on experienced contemporary ears. The first act centers around a portrayal of Isolde in her anger and confusion: she draws Tristan into her fateful sphere before they cross an unexpected threshold together by drinking the love potion. The second act prepares for and leads away from an enormously extended love duet, with its proto-Impressionist, exquisite blends of orchestral color, in which the lovers merge their identities and yield to the intoxication of desire (notice the erotic frenzy conveyed by Wagner’s overlapping vocal parts). With the third act, Wagner shifts the focus to Tristan and his pain. After he dies—to the same strain he sang when overtaken by the potion in act one—Isolde completes the journey Tristan had undertaken in solitude.
But Isolde complements her lover’s desolate vision of the emptiness of desire with a rapturous embrace of oblivion in the scene which concludes the opera (widely known as her Liebestod, or “Love-Death,” though Wagner used that term for the Prelude and referred to this scene as “Isolde’s Transfiguration”). This seals the opera with what musicologist Susan McClary calls “a feminine ending.” McClary quotes a personal exchange with the composer Virgil Thomson where the latter described the Liebestod as Isolde “hang[ing] around to demand one last orgasm of her own.”
Radical harmonic innovation is the most-celebrated dimension of Tristan and Isolde’s score, but Wagner employs all his resources to evoke the extreme states his characters undergo. In the third act, for example, Tristan’s delirious visions are underscored by changes in meter and powerfully syncopated rhythms. Another important device that recurs in some form in each act is the intrusion of the everyday world—for the lovers, the “false world” of day and illusion. From the strains of the sailor’s song opening the first act, Wagner abruptly shifts to Isolde’s point of view. The act late ends with the jubilant sounds of brass and chorus in solid C major to signal the ship’s arrival at its destination, ironically juxtaposed against the music of dangerous ecstasy for the lovers. In the second act Wagner vividly paints the external world of King Marke’s hunting party dissolving—the overlapping horns replaced by burbling clarinets—as Isolde becomes lost in her impatient vigil. And the shepherd’s merry piping in act three acquires a surreal quality as the backdrop for Tristan’s fevered hallucinations.
Tristan and Isolde, the early-20th-century music critic Paul Bekker went so far as to declare, is an opera on whose stage “walk sounds, not people.” Part of Wagner’s genius in this epochal work was to dissolve the boundaries between music and drama, orchestra and singers, tones and words, to an extent even he couldn’t have imagined when starting on the Ring—or when he first mentioned the idea he had for a new opera based on the legendary lovers: “the simplest but most full-blooded musical conception.”
—Thomas May writes regularly for Washington National Opera.