A bit of a shock at the Canadian Opera Company

Peter Sellars takes a new direction to Tristan und Isolde

A bit of a shock at the Canadian Opera Company

Keith Beaty/Toronto Star/Getstock

Whatever else can be said about composer Richard Wagner, whose 200th birthday is only three months away, I don’t think homosexuality interested him. So the program synopsis at the Canadian Opera Company’s current sold-out, standing-room-only Tristan und Isolde came as a bit of a shock, attributing as they do “the love that dares not speak its name” to the relationship between Tristan and his uncle, King Marke. “They kissed, didn’t they?” one opera goer asked me after the second intermission. Baritones and tenors rarely do but it sure looked like it.

Tristan has the usual barking mad opera story. The courtly Tristan delivers the beautiful Irish Princess Isolde as bride to his uncle. For the first act, Tristan won’t speak to Isolde and Isolde is blazing mad at Tristan. In the second act, Tristan has a secret and passionate romance with Isolde and on discovery gets fatally wounded by a courtier of King Marke’s. For the third act, Tristan dies and Isolde mourns. This compression is doing a terrible injustice to the music of Tristan which is orgasmic and was played as such by the inspired orchestra and sung by heavenly voices. There wasn’t a sound on stage or in the pit that wasn’t rapturous.

Having the conceit of King Marke in love with Tristan doesn’t actually affect the plot very much: it’s as if Prince Charming’s mum was in love with Cinderella or the Queen of the Wilis in love with Giselle. Boy still gets girl. If a spot of homoeroticism pleases the director, doesn’t bother me. Which brings me to director Peter Sellars. I’ve never known a Buddhist I didn’t like, and Peter Sellars, though looking rather like Johnny Rotten, is, I’m told, a follower of the Dalai Lama. As a director, however, there is nothing Eastern about Sellars. Eastern art prizes tradition and quiet perfection. The West prefers blowing up tradition in favour of something noisily new, and that’s Sellars.

An early start was his Harvard production of Antony and Cleopatra—set in a swimming pool. Handel’s Orlando went to outer space, Mozart’s Così fan tutte to a Cape Cod diner. Aeschylus’ classic tragedy The Persians was plunked down in the Gulf War. His 1994 Merchant of Venice set in modern California had a black Shylock, an Asian-American Portia and Hispanics for Antonio and Bassanio. Given that Shakespeare wanted Shylock the Jew to be an outsider in society, this politically correct casting seems counter-productive, but then Sellars manipulated the plot elements of Othello because it was, he explained, a play he always hated.

I can see why the Sellars 2005 Paris production of Tristan tempted the COC. Tristan is static and having audience bottoms plunked down for more than five hours without the usual array of Wagnerian stage fireworks is tough going. So up went the curtain and down came a 40-foot-wide screen with video artist Bill Viola’s images and tiny real singers below. Wagner was a magpie of ideas—Buddhism, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and whoever came to dinner—splattered together for magnificently mad librettos feeding his musical genius. This opera is about transcendent love—the passion that can only be purified by the renunciation of life and sanctified by death—a romantic concept dear to the minds of overheated adolescents.

On Viola’s screen, a 30-foot-tall man and woman slowly undressed for purification before doing what looked like a Dove soap commercial, water trickling over cleansed beautified faces. Please, not trousers off, I thought, but there it was. Not erotic but definitely held your attention. “He was circumcised, yes?” said author Anna Porter. I thought this was a clever jest on Wagner’s anti-Semitism, but she was merely remarking factually.

I’ve never worried about Wagner’s “anti-Semitism.” He was a bit of a creep to my ancestor Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy who was not volk enough for him, but some of Wagner’s comments are pretty amusing. On meeting his old friend the philosopher Berthold Auerbach after a long absence, Wagner writes in his autobiography, “I found his countenance changed in a disconcerting manner . . . his former refreshing liveliness had turned into the usual Jewish fidgetiness, and every word he spoke came out in such a way that one could see he regretted not having saved it for a newspaper article.” Anyone you know?

For opera addicts, nothing can replicate the erotic charge of Wagner’s music. Plato and Aristotle warned of the licentiousness, lawlessness and ignoble passions music could raise—and they’d never heard Isolde’s Liebestod. It’s unsurprising that homosexuals should be present in large numbers among opera lovers but I had no idea until director Sellars prompted my interest that there existed a subculture of “queer music” fiercely debating the relationship between opera and homosexuals. I find their essays on opera a perfect fit with Wagner’s librettos in their lunacy. Download the cult book by Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. His take on the Liebestod sung over the dead Tristan breaks down into five points including “A dead, wounded or paralyzed male body is an erotic sight and will inspire a soprano to sing.” Koestenbaum nods to the belief that opera attracts a proportional overrepresentation of gays and it would be fun to see how many of Toronto’s standing-room-only audience for Tristan fit this thesis. Wagner himself was a bit homophobic, but homosexuality in 19th-century Germany was a sophisticated subculture, and later a splinter crossed into Nazism with its worship of the Übermensch’s body beautiful (though Hitler murdered homosexuals or shipped them off to the camps).

There is a “mystery of desire” all right in human sexuality and opera is heightened sexuality: almost every gay I know has fabulous memories of discovering their inner queen listening to music, whether opera or Barbra Streisand. Queer studies notwithstanding, you don’t have to be gay to love opera, but if you are, visit the COC.

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