Tristan und Isolde

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Wagner-Rossini Connection (Part Two)

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Richard Wagner at the piano (1813-1883)

Operatic Odd Couples

They met in Paris in 1860: the renowned Italian master of opera buffa, Gioachino Rossini, and the fiery German composer Richard Wagner, creator of the “art work of the future.” How did it happen? What did they talk about?

Earlier in his career (in 1822), Rossini had held an audience with the great Ludwig van Beethoven, who counseled him to “make more ‘Barbers’ ” — referring, of course, to his ever-popular comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville. Four years later, while residing in Paris, Rossini quite literally ran into the tubercular Carl Maria von Weber (a cousin to Mozart’s wife, Constanze), nineteenth-century romanticism’s musical “guiding light.” And speaking of Herr Mozart, Rossini even shared musical memories with Wolfgang’s chief rival, Antonio Salieri — the same Antonio Salieri who served as the protagonist of Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus.

So what were Wagner and Rossini doing at the time of their historic tête-à-tête?

For one, Rossini had moved to the City of Light in 1824 in order to compose “grander, more serious works,” for which we can thank (or blame, depending upon one’s point of view) his future wife, the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran. The end result was the four-act spectacular Guillaume Tell, reviewed in a prior post on the occasion of its Metropolitan Opera premiere (see the following link:

Another of his grandiose plans involved an Italian adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, which never came to fruition. We know, too, that after Tell, Rossini wrote no more operas, mostly because he was fed up with having to churn out work after work after work. He was now clearly in a position to live off the fat of the “lamb,” in a manner of speaking, that he himself had fattened through the years.

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), composer of The Barber of Seville and other comic works

For another, Wagner had recently put the finishing touches to a monumental opus of his own, the incredibly complex Tristan und Isolde. The paradox of how this work came about has always intrigued me. Let the buyer beware: for the average opera buff, getting into Wagner’s head is an occupation fraught with the greatest of intricacies. The fact is the man was a walking/talking contradiction in terms.

Realizing that, for the moment, his unfinished epic, The Ring of the Nibelung, might not soon see the light of day, Wagner stopped work at the close of Act II of Siegfried. He did not take up the subject again for another twelve years. Now, why on earth would he do that? An over-active imagination, pressing financial needs, and escalating emotional burdens would habitually lead the frantic composer off in pursuit of funds. He would also ease his troubled mind with quixotic dalliances with other men’s wives.

One of these infatuations involved Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of the wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendonck who paid the tab for the bills that Wagner ran up while the three of them shared living quarters at Otto’s villa in Zurich (don’t ask). On occasion, they were joined by Wagner’s “better” half, his wife Minna. Despite the cozy arrangement, it didn’t take long for Minna to put two and two together and come up with the correct equation: that her husband had been cheating behind her back.

After completing Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, Wagner stumbled upon the philosopher Schopenhauer’s book The World as Will and Idea, from which he extracted a bumper crop of justifications for his newfound worldview. Without going into details — of which there are an endless torrent of essays, pamphlets, writings, and treatises by Wagner himself on subjects as wide-ranging as dismissing Meyerbeer as a hack in “Judaism in Music,” a self-analytical memoir entitled A Communication to My Friends, and a far-flung statement of his ideals in Opera and Drama — suffice it to say the composer glowed red-hot with inspiration for Tristan und Isolde, a story of scorching passions amid an illicit affair (what else?).

Mathilde Wesendonck, the inspiration for Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder

Fueled by his liaison with Mathilde, Wagner composed the Wesendonck Lieder (“Art Songs”) based on five of Frau Wesendonck’s poems. Meanwhile, Frau Minna kept pestering him to write a more practical lyric work for the stage, something that would bring their indigent lifestyle some stability and a steady revenue stream. With Wagner, however, nothing was purely “practical” — or “steady,” for that matter. Inventing music that, at the time, seemed vastly unplayable and (even worse) impossible to sing was part-and-parcel to his very being.

There was much more going on than we have room for. Let it be said that departing for Gay Paree was Wagner’s way of seeking his fortune elsewhere. But Paris wasn’t his only stopover point, not by a long shot. During the years 1858 to 1859, Wagner paid manifold visits to such venues as Venice, Zurich, Geneva, and Lucerne.

It’s significant to note as well that Switzerland, while recognized for its persistent neutrality, was the one place where Wagner could plead his case for monetary assistance to the likes of Herr Wesendonck. That would partially explain how the composer was able to get around town. Traveling was never easy for Wagner, even in the best of times, due to his well-founded reputation as a spendthrift and a deadbeat, and his facility for rubbing people the wrong way. He could also be incredibly persuasive, convinced, as Wagner was, of his “superior” intellect and skill at winning people over to his way of thinking.

Back in Venice, the “perfect mood and setting to work on the fatally erotic Tristan” (according to author William Berger), Wagner completed the score for the opera between March and August of 1859. By this point, he and Minna had decided to part ways: she in Dresden, he wherever the need took him. They met again in Paris and, for a brief moment, were reconciled.

Cosima Liszt von Bulow, Wagner’s future lover and eventual spouse

In the interim, another love interest laid waiting in the wings. Behind the scenes, Wagner had awakened the youthful yearnings of Cosima Liszt, the homely (!) but overly-admiring daughter of concert pianist and composer Franz Liszt (a notorious ladies’ man in his day). Cosima was recently wed to a brilliant but anxiety-ridden conductor named Hans von Bülow. Both individuals would play significant parts in Wagner’s life and career in the years to come.

Once in the City of Light, Wagner’s decision to conquer Paris eventually brought him in league (and on a collision course) with the Paris Opéra, where plans were finalized for an 1861 revival (in French, naturally) of his earlier Tannhäuser (for the history and background to this stirring piece, see the following link:

Clash of the Titans

The differences in approach to Rossini and Wagner, along with their individual working methodologies, were striking. After countless academic studies and tomes analyzing both composers’ oeuvres, we can state, categorically, that Rossini worked principally to fulfill his commissions and nothing more. Whether they were to individual singers or to a particular opera house’s requirements, his personal views toward any single assignment or subject were kept scrupulously out of the finished piece.

Simply put, there wasn’t enough time to devote to extra-musical ideas or theoretical speculations when the pressure was on to quickly bring an operatic piece to the stage. Rapidity of means and swiftness of delivery were the main prerequisites. These were but some of the reasons why Rossini borrowed, for convenience’s sake, from his existing work — by either rearranging and/or reassigning solos numbers and ensemble pieces to fit the needs of a specific situation.

An excellent example would be Il Viaggio a Reims (“The Journey to Rheims”), originally written to commemorate the coronation of King Charles X in France, and which was later reworked as the comic opera, Le Comte Ory.

This was definitely not the case with Wagner whose individual wants took precedent over everyone else’s, including those of his closest acquaintances and benefactors. His frequent crises and scandalous personal life became fodder for any number of operatic plot twists and story lines. You could say that Wagner was his own best dramaturg. Accordingly, it was far easier for researchers to link the worst of his traits to those of his male characters — for example, Wotan, Siegmund, Tristan, and the Dutchman — than it would have been to associate Figaro, Arnold, Mustafà or Tell with any of Rossini’s qualities.

Period caricatures of Wagner and Rossini by Andre Gill

To be honest, neither man was a saint — THAT’S putting it mildly. Signor Rossini was known to have suffered from the ill effects of gonorrhea (he would soon develop cancer of the colon). But there is no disagreement about Herr Wagner: he was as horrid an individual as they come. Still, once he got to Paris, Wagner made it a point to call on the retired bel canto composer, who had been living in France for over three decades. The visit was arranged by an intermediary, the Belgian music critic and journalist Edmond Michotte, who transcribed their lengthy dialogue for later publication.

Since no other methods of preservation existed at the time of the composers’ gathering, we must take what Monsieur Michotte has left us as a valuable document of their conversation, but with a healthy grain of salt. Purportedly, one of the pretexts for Wagner’s visit was to set the record straight as to whether or not Rossini had badmouthed him to the press — this from a man who, no matter where he went, had left a long list of insults and offenses in his wake.

“As for despising your music,” Rossini was alleged to have responded, “I ought in the first instance to know it, and to know it I ought to hear it at the theatre, for it is only in the theatre, and not simply by reading the score, that it is possible to render a just judgment of music intended for the stage.” Rossini went on to praise the Tannhäuser March, “which he had found very effective and beautiful. After thus clearing the ground,” Michotte remarked, “intercourse became easy and pleasant, and many interesting topics were broached and discussed during this short visit.”

The subject of Weber and his music had also come up. Beethoven was mentioned, too. “On [Rossini’s] expressing his regret that he had not enjoyed a more thorough training on German lines, Wagner showed his appreciation of what Rossini had accomplished by citing the ‘Scene of the darkness’ in ‘Moses in Egypt,’ that of the conspiracy in ‘Guillaume Tell,’ and, in another order, the ‘Quando Corpus,’ as examples which he could hardly have bettered, and these the veteran [composer] admitted were among the ‘happy moments’ of his career.”

This ad hoc mutual admiration society continued along this vein for some time, until “Wagner spoke of the trouble which the translation of ‘Tannhäuser’ was giving, whereupon Rossini suggested that he should compose an opera on a French libretto, a suggestion which, it is needless to add, did not meet with his acceptance. Then Wagner spoke of his ideals and his expressed desire to get rid of the formalism of opera [a noble thought, one that many composers have articulated throughout the centuries]…”

Wagner & Rossini, a meeting of unlike minds

Interestingly, the Italian master’s reaction was a tad surprising. “Though Rossini was the living embodiment of these conventions, he admitted the absurdity of the ensembles of grand opera, and said that when all the characters formed into line to take part in one, they always reminded him of a band of minstrels, singing to secure a few coppers.”

“It was the custom,” Rossini added, “a concession which we had to make to the public, who otherwise would have shied things at our heads!” You can imagine Wagner’s indignant shock at that admission, but he managed to maintain his composure. “To this Wagner made the obvious answer that, though convention is inevitable, it must be understood in such a fashion as to avoid the excess which leads to absurdities — all that one demands is that a convention, once admitted, should be artistic and consistent in itself.”

Where they disagreed (and most vehemently, or so we are told) was on the subject of the composer as both musician and librettist: “[Wagner] proceeded, sketching his ideas of music-drama, to lay down the axiom that the music and poem [i.e., the libretto] should be so closely knit as to be like the different aspects of a single idea, and this provoked from Rossini the comment that it made it a necessity for the composer to be his own librettist, a condition which he deemed practically insurmountable, but of course Wagner would have none of this, and with great animation urged that the composer should study literature as well as counterpoint.”

They moved on to talk about Guillaume Tell and related matters, until “this memorable interview ended by Rossini expressing his interest in his visitor’s aims, which he had so clearly expressed. For his own part he was too old — ‘being at the age when one is not so much inclined to compose as liable to decompose.’ — to turn his eyes to new horizons, but he was very willing to acknowledge that Wagner’s ideas were of a nature worthy of the serious consideration of young composers. ‘Of all the arts,’ [Rossini] concluded, ‘music is that which is, by reason of its ideal character, most subject to transformations, and to these there can be no bounds. Who, after Mozart, could have foreseen Beethoven? Or, after Gluck, Weber? And, after these, why should there be no end to progress?’”

As the meeting itself had come to an end, Wagner confessed his innermost thoughts to Michotte: “ ‘What would [Rossini] not have produced had he received a thorough musical training; above all, if, less Italian and less sceptic [sic.], he had felt in him the sacred nature of his art? … I must say this: of all the musicians I have met in Paris [which included Daniel Auber, Fromenthal Halévy, Ambroise Thomas, Charles Gounod, et al.] he is the only one who is truly great.’ ”

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes      

Getting to the ‘Bottom’ of Brazil’s Gerald Thomas

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“I Am That I Am…”

Moses und Aron (Gerald Thomas)
Moses und Aron (Gerald Thomas)

Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone opera Moses und Aron, unjustly portrayed in the classical-music media as a “jumble of dissonant cacophony” and a “tough intellectual exercise,” has forever stood on the fringes of the standard repertory.

Its Viennese-born Jewish creator, a great-uncle to conductor John Neschling, was also credited with having supplied his own libretto, much as another musical marvel, the revolutionary Richard Wagner, had done for his works.

By 1932 the score had all but been crafted for the first two acts, when ill health and the rising tide of the Third Reich forced Schoenberg to flee the following year to America, where he took up successive teaching posts in Boston, Los Angeles, and briefly Chicago.

While the composer later revised the text to Act III, the work was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1951, despite his directive to perform the final act as a spoken “pendant” to the two completed ones — a practice not normally complied with in actual performance.

What remains, then, is an unparalleled opera-going experience where philosophy and theology converge in a head-on clash over ideas: the conflict of biblical prophet Moses and his views of a benevolent, all-powerful Supreme Being (“omnipresent, omnipotent, unimaginable”); and that of his brother Aron’s slicker, more down-to-earth version, a simplistic solution for mass consumption that the children of Israel could more easily swallow and grab on to.

Their dialectical debate ends in the Second Act, with Moses’ heart-wrenching cry, “O Wort, du Wort das mir fehlt!” (“Oh Word, thou Word that I lack!”), let out as an audible affirmation of his inability to give form and definition to what is, in essence, formless and indefinable.

Most visionary artists have felt this same need for understanding, with some of them taking their frustrations out to absurdly preposterous lengths.

A good case in point is Brazilian director Gerald Thomas, who staged a well-received 1998 production of Schoenberg’s complex theater piece in Graz, Austria; and whose personal artistic credo — that “words are less important and more restrictive than images” — has often driven him to the outer limits as well of postmodern visual expression.

But his most recent interpolation of Tristan und Isolde, unveiled in August 2003 at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, almost rang down the curtain once and for all on his notoriously controversial stage career.

As a stunned assembly watched in amazement, the drama unfolded with a couple of novel “touches” unwisely added in, including a masturbating woman, a chorus of Hasidic Jews, a fashion show, and a riotous, cocaine-addicted appearance by none other than Sigmund Freud, the protagonists’ de facto analyst. The entire affair took place not in Wagner’s mythical Cornish kingdom but in the good doctor’s private consultation quarters.

This is exactly the sort of cultural “event” most Europeans have grown accustomed to over the years, what with their constant exposure to such personality-driven régisseurs as Patrice Chéreau, Walter Felsenstein, Goetz Friedrich, Harry Kupfer, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, and Giorgio Strehler, to name but a few.

The same cannot be said, however, for more tradition-bound Brazilians, who when it comes to their favorite operas like them served up with all the classical trimmings. Greeted at the end with a judicious salvo of boos and catcalls, Thomas turned his back to the audience, dropped his green-colored underpants, and flashed his bare buttocks at them.

“You could have heard a mosquito fly past,” he claimed afterwards.

For his maverick efforts the authorities slapped Thomas with a public indecency charge. “Surprising in a country that we love for its openness to all kinds of political and social dialogue,” American composer Philip Glass was quoted as saying in his defense. “The act itself was not obscene. What they are objecting to is an artist replying to his critics, and knowing Gerald’s work, he would of course choose a theatrical response.”

Gerald Thomas in London (Sonia Jobim)
Gerald Thomas in London (Sonia Jobim)

Thomas even refused a plea-bargain agreement, stating in effect: “If I pleaded guilty, what would that say to my fellow professionals and later generations of artists? Don’t do anything risky? I don’t accept the fact that I committed a crime because I decided to ‘moon’ the audience in my own theater.

“I joined the music of Wagner, an anti-Semite, with the ideas of Freud, a Jew that changed thought and the art of the twentieth century. But I thought that I had created a pretty formal opera with a thoughtful concept. Fashion really does kill passion, especially in a piece like Tristan und Isolde.”

It very nearly killed his chances at directing future theater projects, too — but if chutzpah were an accredited field of study, then Gerald Thomas would hold a doctoral degree in it.

Indeed, anyone familiar enough with the wacky world of the avant-garde, and the vast laundry list of Thomas’ bizarre stage works, can attest to the claims made against him, labeling the audacious director as “profoundly ridiculous,” “an incurable crackpot,” and “a precocious boy who went senile at the age of thirty.”

Others have hailed him as a “genius,” a “pop star,” and “the most lively and animated presence on the moribund stage of the Brazilian theater today.”

It’s fair to assume by these colorful, off-center epithets that one can never be certain of anything that has ever emerged from this nonconformist’s wildly vivid mind-set.

“I have become a presence in Brazil’s cultural life,” he told The New York Times as far back as 1988. “People are already talking about the pre-Thomas and the post-Thomas eras of Brazilian theater.”

His lack of modesty aside, Thomas epitomizes the commonly held notion that “to be an artist is to not recognize frontiers.” In that sense, he shares similar circumstances with another iconoclastic colleague, maestro John Neschling: both come from Jewish backgrounds, both grew up in Rio de Janeiro — although born in New York City in July 1954, Thomas immigrated to the South American port at around age seven — and both are equally at home in Europe, North America, and their native Brazil, despite not always feeling welcome there.

Negative criticism has nonetheless played a crucial part in Thomas’ daily regimen since the mid-1970s, when he first dedicated himself to a life on the stage at London’s famed National Theatre.

“I was the youngest director to enter and also the quickest to leave,” he commented to the Brazilian magazine Veja. “I debuted there with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which all the newspapers bad-mouthed. At the Theatre, no one dared look me in the face, so I took my piece off the marquee. Fortunately, an American producer [Broadway’s Joseph Papp] told me I was in the wrong city. I then moved to New York and staged the same piece again. This time, it came off without a hitch.”

Working in the Big Apple between 1979 and 1984, Thomas expanded his professional horizons at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and at La Mama Experimental Theater in Greenwich Village. Thanks to Papp and early mentor Ellen Stewart, he presented numerous off-off-Broadway works by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, a past master of the absurd and a close personal acquaintance, until his 1989 passing.

Anyone for Dry Opera?

Upon his return to Brazil in 1985, Thomas formed the Dry Opera Company in the Manhattan-theater-district equivalent of São Paulo. The group eventually relocated to Rio in November of 1999.

“Dry opera,” as it came to be called, is an original Thomas creation, an innovative style of theater that incorporates, in the words of New York Times reporter Alan Riding, “a cinematographic use of lights and blackouts, prerecorded music, almost choreographic acting, and a sort of anti-language he describes as ‘verbal hemorrhage.’ ”

How have all these elements combined to help further the audience’s appreciation for, and understanding of, his vanguard ideas about art?

“Text is only one aspect of theater,” Thomas explained. “The other aspects are the setting, the sound effects, the music, and the lights… As written language, they may not be understood, but visually they will be sensed. And anyway, when does ‘understanding’ come? When a piece ends? An hour later? A week later?”

This is true. Although Schoenberg’s serial Moses was made to suffer by the difficulty he faced putting words to his personalized vision, Thomas has had no such qualms about the integrity of his own speech, or the skill he employs in using it: “Puns are my real interest, visual, philosophical, musical puns that subvert meaning. It’s good for any artist to machine-gun conditioned values.”

A brilliant marketer and self-promoter, he is fluent in several languages: Portuguese, German, and British-accented English. He relishes, too, the wider latitude a strictly theatrical forum has allotted him as a means of artistic expression throughout the span of his thirty-plus-year career. But in art, as in life, there are limitations.

There are times when even Thomas has gone too far in the liberties he has taken with the sacrosanct work of others. For example, in 1987 he presented a trilogy of Franz Kafka pieces, one of which, a stage adaptation of the Czech writer’s The Trial (O Processo), made heavy use of music from Wagner’s final opera Parsifal — a first for Thomas — sandwiched between a score by Glass and Brazilian cellist-composer Jaques Morelenbaum.

It was also an occasion for the inventive director to replace the original text with his own imposition of ideas. “I don’t need Kafka’s lines,” said Thomas, “I just need his ambiance. I can make better use of him by putting other lines in the bucket he has created.”

Carmen com Filtro (
Carmen com Filtro (

The year before he staged Carmen Com Filtro, which, like the Kafka Trilogy, played first in repertory, then traveled successfully abroad to such places as New York, Vienna, Munich, and Hamburg. Literally “Carmen With Filter Tips,” and based on the same Prosper Mérimée story that inspired Bizet’s popular opéra-comique, Thomas’ more streamlined approach (which included a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s “Readymade” Bicycle Wheel, an ever-present symbol in many of his subsequent stagings) boasted minimalist music by his friend and working partner, Philip Glass.

The play became one of several joint collaborations, the most elaborate and controversial of which turned up later in Rio de Janeiro, where together, in July 1989, they unveiled their Mattogrosso, a sprawling, three-part spectacular created exclusively for the Beaux-Arts brilliance of the Teatro Municipal. It was billed as the first true “environmental opera.”

Expectations naturally ran high, but the writer-director was severely rebuked by critics, mostly for his “marvelous capacity to stage his deliriums, puns and piles of cultural references.” One journalist went so far as to describe the work as “a repugnant nightmare,” while another felt that, “Visually, it was beautiful, but it seemed to be at the service of emptiness.”

And as for Glass’ highly touted musical score, “It was irritating. It also had nothing to do with Thomas’ play.” The composer himself called Mattogrosso “a collage of images. My music gives it a musical window to look through.”

Still, how can one dismiss a piece outright that mixes three pillars of European cultural history — William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, and Richard Wagner — with American comic-book characters Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Batman?

As usual with the eloquent Mr. Thomas, his reaction to the chaos around him was maddeningly oblique: “I am trying to transform the sung aria, the didactic aria, into a scenic thing. [That’s why] I use enigma. You have to let the audience complete the puzzle.” And so it goes.

Yet the basic question for Gerald Thomas remains: what would he accomplish with a standard repertory assignment — the complete Ring cycle by Wagner, for instance, a project “made-to-order” for his peculiarly fertile imagination? Would he get away with subverting the master’s well-known text, or would mere visual subversion be sufficient?

Audiences have already experienced his radical reworking of the same composer’s The Flying Dutchman in Rio (1987), set at the Berlin Wall, as well as Ferruccio Busoni’s eclectic Doktor Faust for Graz (1995). How about trying something more stylistically challenging for a change, say, new productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro at the annual Glyndebourne Festival?

Similarly, Beethoven’s lone opera Fidelio and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande are also up for grabs and, theoretically, waiting in the wings. Would he consider instead a lavish Baroque piece by Handel, or a less stately form of eighteenth-century entertainment?

At this point, even a Johann Strauss operetta or two will do. And let us not forget the great Italian composers, Verdi, Puccini, and Rossini: how would they fit into the overall Thomas stage-picture?

Gerald Thomas ca. 2003
Gerald Thomas ca. 2003

It is high time the talented 58-year-old came in from the outer fringes of the avant-garde and joined the modern ranks of the classical mainstream — without compromising his outré principles, of course. Surely, that would be his greatest coup. He could conceivably spice up operatic life as we know it, given his far-fetched, Freudian account of Tristan for Rio.

What is still not known about him, as far as the theater world is concerned, is if and when he will run out of bold ideas before his own third act is complete. (In August 2009, he decided to take a leave of absence from the stage, which coincided with the closing down of his online blog. Nine months later he was back in action.)

Some say past performance is no indication of future events. Not so with the savvy Thomas: when all has been said and done and written about him, he is still “barely” getting started. ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes