Opening night: 04/07/2004
Next performances:
Staatsoper Stuttgart
tristan & isolde


“Der Tod durch Liebesnot” (cf. Richard Wagner)

According to Wagner, Tristan, which he created in Munich in 1865, was the greatest tragedy he had adapted. The “action” unfolds entirely in the inner self of the protagonists. Wagner emphasised that the course of the drama is determined solely by the spiritual life of the two characters. From the perspective of music history, Tristan is considered to have been a groundbreaking work, laying the foundations for “new music”.
Synopsis: Tristan, the nephew of King Mark, has been sent to Ireland to escort Isolde, daughter of the King of Ireland and Mark’s intended bride, back to Cornwall. But the unwilling bride loves Tristan, and decides to kill herself and Tristan with a poison draught. However, Isolde’s maid secretly changes the poison for a love potion. Convinced that they are committing suicide, Tristan and Isolde drink the potion and, in the face of supposed death, confess their mutual love….

“Ich kehre jetzt zu Tristan zurück, um an ihm die tiefe Kunst des tönenden Schweigens für mich zu Dir sprechen zu lassen.” (Richard Wagner aan Mathilde Wesendonck in 1858.)

Hans Meyer says about this “tönende Schweigen” that “Liebesnot lies hidden behind silence. One keeps silent to be able to live on: in the apparent hatred of Isolde, in Tristan’s stubborn ambition. And when this silence is broken, in a first embrace, in a night of love, then a conversation emerges. But only because one expects death, eternal silence. From keeping silent, via a seemingly liberating conversation, to true silence or death: this is the great but very unclassical dramatic movement on which Wagner’s tragedy rests… When the actual dialogue between the lovers takes place, it does not strive towards community of the self and the other, but towards surrender of the self to the other self. The replies become interchangeable… The night does not lead to truth but to a process of “self-sacrifice”. That is how Richard Wagner’s “tiefe Kunst des Tönenden Schweigens” is to be understood in reality.”

One of the peculiarities of my approach is that, at the start of rehearsals, the “concept” is open and that subsequently I search with the actors for an appropriate, radical narrative style; a style that, first and foremost, takes into account the authenticity of the performer and my own fascination with real human beings. This is probably connected with my interest in Zen Buddhism. The striving of this philosophy is that we should dare to live without notions, empty-handed, void of anxieties and (pre)conceptions, in order that we could stand face-to-face with the true nature of life or, if you will, with reality. Without dualistic awareness, without a division between subject and object, as one with the hear and now. In art, this is comparable with the moment of “catharsis”, of empathy or compassion. I believe that the true purpose of art and of this life is to develop compassion. This, to me, lies at the very heart of theatre, and it is the only deeper answer to the question of what might be the meaning of every possible concept. As there are no unequivocal answers to questions regarding the meaning of life and suffering, there can be no conclusive concept, no formula for resolving all. A medium such as opera compels one to determine beforehand precisely what one intends to achieve; it requires “direction”, decisions. In what follows, I shall try to outline what I believe that direction might be, realising full well that the only certainty is that nothing is certain.

As always, my instinct primarily tells me what I do not want. I am not a child of the opera. Opera performances can rarely excite me. The main reason for this reticence is that I am text-oriented, so that I have a great predilection for, among others, Shakespeare. In opera, however, the text is often incomprehensible for the non-specialist audience. In the few opera performances I have attended, the director had always tried to express and explain scenically the characters, their emotions and psyche, as well as the situation. More often than not, this results in judgemental, and thus condemnatory, dualistic interpretations, which can never lead to any form of unification, recognition or catharsis; on the contrary, it creates distance. It has always seemed to me that, anything besides the authentic power of the music, any form of commentary, illustration or effect was a distraction that interfered with my own imagination. This feeling often reminded me of a phenomenon that struck me while visiting the Colloseum in Rome. The vastness of this silent witness to human history is what makes the building into a monument, an aspect that is comparable to the primeval power of music. At the visitors’ entrance to the Colloseum, however, stood Italians dressed like Roman soldiers, similar to those in the Asterix comics, to provide an opportunity for the tourists to take an original photograph of their partner flanked by a “real Roman”. Authenticity compels one to be authentic. Compare with Shakespeare: his linguistic universe cannot be surpassed with even greater, more illustrative or elucidatory theatrical images. Shakespeare’s space is his language. A lot, if not all, that is added to this space and that lacks the same degree of authenticity is a distraction. One of my aims with Tristan is to make sure that whatever happens on stage is as real and as authentic as the music, and that, like the music, it is performed in the here and now, creating a world of its own. As if one were listening to an opera on a walkman, while strolling across a railway station concourse. What you hear and what you see are two totally different, autonomous and authentic worlds, which you nevertheless automatically connect and which enhance one another because they each contain a secret that is never revealed. The characters on stage must be human, like you and I, like the people we see on every station platform, each with their own desires and anxieties and pangs of love.

But authenticity does not resolve the problem of comprehensibility. Certainly not in the case of the texts of Wagner. We could, of course, show the dialogues through supratitling, as is commonly done. But this would once again put the door ajar for duality: the audience would first look up and read the characters’ words and only then look down upon the action itself. Rather tiring and cumbersome, because it would make it impossible to develop a focus that carries you along and makes you one with the action. Like visitors to a museum who first read the display text beside the piece of art and then study the exhibit itself to check whether what they have read corresponds with reality. The only way to integrate this text without allowing our head to be literally carried away is to let it be part of the image. In other words, to project the text, the letters, on the middle of the stage and to use it to light up the actors. In order to avoid that the text would merely be an illustration, an elucidation of what is sung, we shall not show every sentence literally, but only those parts that need transposing. Where the music stops or where the emotion or the energy on stage conveys the message adequately, it is unnecessary to project any text. Furthermore, my adaptation of the text deviates all the time from what is sung, sometimes minimally, sometimes maximally. Thus, the projected text leads a life of its own, besides the singers and the music. In this manner, a kind of division is created between song and the written word, as that between body and soul, between emotion and reason, between night and day. It is the schism with which the protagonists are confronted in this piece.

Any definite setting, be it historical-mythological or contemporary social, would only narrow the dimension of this story. Tristan and Isolde is a timeless, universal narrative about eternal, insatiable desire for totally harmonious redeeming love, or, if you will, happiness. T&I illustrates our hunger for Nirvana. But T&I is also about the unreachability of Nirvana, about impossible love, the irreconcilability of man and woman, about male desire – as is reflected in T’s death wish- versus the female longing of Isolde; she wants to live, she wants a future, freedom and love. Both yearn for an eternal, inextricable bond. They are torn between emotion and reason, between nature and society. T&I is also a story about the uncontrollability of life, love and longing, and, through Brangäne and Marke, it confronts us with our own anxieties in relation to that chaos. Anxiety runs as a thread through this story. In the first part, T&I act out of fear of rejection. Although they feel a deep love for one another, they dare not give in to that love out of fear; fear for the uncertainty of the future, fear of being rejected. In part two, we are shown the fear of the two protagonists for the exhaustibility of love, the breaking of the day, the awakening of reason, King Mark calling them to order. Part three shows us that only in the face of death are we able to transcend our egocentric survival instinct and feel compassion, understanding and forgiveness. Heiner Müller asserts that theatre reconciles us with our fear of change, and with death as the ultimate change. Shakespeare reconciles us with the mortal fear of King Lear, Othello, Richard II, Richard III, Macbeth. Wagner, for his part, shows us towards the end of T&I that only death allows the living to find conciliation. Perhaps T&I represent one of those many perished lives of Brangäne and Marke. They are also the characters who move me the most; more so than the love-consumed heroes T&I. The latter eventually go on to the happy hunting grounds; but those who must live on, who must continue to bear the unbearable lightness of life, and cannot express their heart’s secrets in an aria of death, are Brangäne and Marke. Brangäne incorporates anxiety about death and chaos most forcefully. It is she who is eventually left with Marke, reconciling herself with the death of the lovers. As if T&I represent a shattered mirror before the surviving pair, Marke and Brangäne. A pair who, at the end of the play, look back on a life of flaring passions, longing for an all-consuming love, an impossible love, a love that leads to self-destruction. Isolde could be a personification of Brangäne’s passion and desire for total love. The conversations between B and I are, in my adaptation, “selbstgespräche” in which B tries to extinguish the fire within herself. But she forgets the power of Lady Love, for which Isolde justifiably reproaches her; a power which no reason can withstand. In the end, Brangäne must bury her longing for an impossible love (Tristan) alongside Isolde, together with her desire. At that moment, her only way out, her only perspective stands beside her: Marke, the King, social and political representative… invariably followed by a procession of servants, citizens, sailors, soldiers, huntsmen. The outside world that demands order, reason, law, logic, etc… Marke is always in the company of his people, he is his people, he is the outside world, the social control, the masses who watch a film of their own desires, recollections of their own missed opportunities; demanding laws and civil obedience from those who transgress the boundaries of what is normal. They invariably look on, they are always present or threaten to be. The only alternative that can save Brangäne and Marke from chaos is for them to return to the civil order. Returning to the image of the railway station concourse, I see so many eyes that are dim and washed out with civil obedience. Internalised gazes of anger and pity about a life that might have been, “des homes qui avaient voulu”, in the words of Sorin in Chekhov’s “The Seagull”. That is why we like to see stories such as that of T&I performed time and time again. Because they actually hurt, because they remind us of our missed opportunities, out of fear and cowardice, and because they remind us of the finiteness and the eternal repeatability of the same desires and the same senseless outcome. Because this awareness evokes in us a feeling of compassion with ourselves and with our fellow humans, a moment of harmony, of reconciliation, of universal love that is only given to us in the face of our destiny, death. Without this confrontation, we have to work very hard every day to overcome our anxieties, to preserve our lives, and to truly experience this feeling. Theatre can contribute to the development of that feeling, and enhance our awareness of it. The tale of Brangäne and Marke, and their buried mythical heroes from the past, is one of those stories we recognise; a recognition which I believe and hope can lead to a genuine catharsis, for that is the reason I make theatre.

Lp. Stuttgart, 10 May, 2004

Gabriel Sadé
Philip Ens
Lisa Gasteen
Gunilla Stephen-Kallin
Wolfgang Schöne
Heinz Göhrig
Michaela Schuster
Elena Zhidkova
Roderic Keating
Michael Nagy
Daniel Ohlmann

Conductor Lothar Zagrosek
Director Luk Perceval
Scenography Annette Kurz
Costumes Ursula Renzenbrink
Light design Mark van Denesse
Video Philip Bussman
Choir Michael Alber
Dramaturgy Juliane Votteler

Related links

Der Tod durch Liebesnot (cf. Richard Wagner)