Americans Peter Sellars and Bill Viola – theatre director and video artist, respectively – are two of our great contemporary creators. Each at the peak of his artistic life. Each wildly acclaimed for his powerful, imaginative, emotionally gripping work. Each consumed with the power of art to illuminate deeper reality and create transcendent meaning. Each conversant with artistic and spiritual traditions, from primitive cave painting to Sufi literature to rock 'n' roll to contemporary African dance, Hindu literature and Japanese pottery design.
And both in Toronto to present, once again, the project that brought them together almost a decade ago – their reimagining and retelling of one of the great firestorms of Western opera – Richard Wagner's tale of doomed, perfect love, Tristan und Isolde.
Opening on Tuesday night, with Ben Heppner in the title role, this Canadian Opera Company production is only the second time ever the Tristan Project, as it's called, has been given a full operatic staging. The first was at the Paris Opera in 2005, where a certain Alexander Neef was director of casting. Nabbing Sellars's and Viola's Tristan for Toronto was one of Neef's first acts when he took over as general director of the COC in 2008.
Finally, it has arrived, the response of two avant-garde artists from the 21st century to a comrade-in-arms from the 19th.
What Sellars and especially Viola have done in this production is liberate Wagner's Tristan from the artistic conventions that have imprisoned it for 150 years. What lies revealed is a different spiritual centre for the piece – a centre as close to Eastern cultural traditions as to Western. That Wagner was heavily influenced in Tristan by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, himself deeply affected by Eastern spiritual beliefs, is no secret. The wonderful insight of Sellars's and Viola's production is to place those traditions at the heart of the opera's mystery. Digging deep into this tale of doomed lovers, they have discovered a vein of universal meaning.
This is especially true of the stunning video imagery that Viola has composed to run simultaneously with the unfolding of the opera's slow-moving, mythical story. A 7.5-metre wall of fire rages as a woman topples backward into death in excruciatingly slow motion; two lovers plunge into an oceanic paradise of watery bliss; a sunrise in the woods is captured in real time; a waterfall miraculously levitates a hero.
Viola's images fire our imaginations throughout the performance, but not in any direct, connected, linear way. Rather than synchronize with the opera's "story," Viola's filmic universe runs in parallel with a deeper, quieter, spiritual narrative within the piece – one that he discovered immersing himself in the opera's libretto.
"Tristan exists in a place where boundaries disappear, where energy flows freely," he tells me from his home in California. "We artists love places that show us extremes. And Tristan is full of them."
Viola's universal take on the opera has led him to rework its primary themes. "I don't see Tristan primarily as a tragedy," he tells me. "It's a deeper story, I think. It's really about the surrender of a body – about our passage from darkness to light."
Viola has connected the opera to the three-staged Zen tradition of Tantra – purification, awakening, dissolution of self – which he identifies with the opera's three acts. It may sound forced on paper, but the experience in the hall is said to be overwhelming, as it was for Viola as he created the more than four hours of video he needed for the piece.
"I knew this guy was going to take everything from me that I had," he says. "When I started, I said to myself, 'Be careful. This is Richard Wagner. He's going to wring you dry.'"
Against Viola's powerful and constant imagery, director Sellars has wisely decided to counterpoint a stripped-down, minimalist staging of the opera itself (with a few surprises, of course). He has taken his cues from Viola's images and conception. "Bill takes Wagner places Wagner himself couldn't get to, wasn't ready for, couldn't realize. Wagner knew that his art couldn't be presented in conventional spaces with conventional means during his lifetime, and struggled with that. Bill allows the piece to find itself in a very new way."
Viola's dramatic innovations also liberated Sellars. "I had always resisted Tristan," he tells me. "I knew the piece all too well. I figured it was unstageable. But Bill, who didn't know the work at all, approached it with what Zen calls 'beginner's mind.' He found within it a structure of meaning that was new but always there at the same time."
Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, has written that it was 150 years ago that "the liquid revolution of Tristan entered the bloodstream of the world." It has remained there ever since – healing balm for some, poison for others. By all accounts, what Sellars and Viola have done is deepen its charm for those who find it the first of those, and redeem it for everyone else.