Austin Lyric Opera Makes History With Tannhäuser Our First Wagner

by Robert Faires

This is big. Very big. This Tannhäuser being produced by the Austin Lyric Opera January 12-14 at Bass Concert Hall, is no run-of-the-mill operatic production (if such a thing even exists!). It's a big one. And that isn't big in terms of the set, though John Boesche's scene designs -- envisioning a post-apocalyptic world of great ruined theatres and massive concrete freeway trestles in disrepair -- are monumental. And it isn't big in terms of Boesche's projected images that back these mammoth set pieces, though these undulating colors and visuals cover the full back of the Bass' mammoth stage. And it isn't even big in terms of the company, though the orchestra for this show has expanded beyond its standard size and the already hefty chorus has doubled in number. This is big in terms of local history being made. With Tannhäuser, the ALO gives Austin its first-ever production of an opera by Richard Wagner.

It may seem unlikely that in the century and a half of this city's existence not one production of Wagner's music dramas has been locally produced or brought here on tour. This is, after all, one of the composers most commonly associated with the operatic form. (Quick, what's your first thought when you hear the word "opera"? A beefy soprano in a horned helmet, right? That's Wagner for you.) Yet when you consider what's necessary to mount one of the composer's works, the absence of Wagnerian productions becomes easier to grasp. These operas require lots and lots of people -- mostly very skilled artists -- to sing and play extraordinarily demanding music. The scope of the works is grand, playing off great mythological tales and themes, encompassing lengthy quests and large communities, thus they demand casts and sets commensurate in size and imagination. And not least, they require audiences willing to sit through the hours and hours that Wagner takes to tell his massive tales. To say that producing Wagner is a huge undertaking is an understatement the size of the "Ring Cycle" score.

None of that has been lost on the folks at the ALO. Joseph McClain, the company's general director and the stage director for Tannhäuser, reels off figure after figure involved in the production, consideration after consideration the company made in bringing Austin its first Wagner. "Wagner is a big step," he says. "Tannhäuser is an especially big step for us because it's the largest thing that we've produced. And that includes Aida. Here are the extra forces that we have to pull in for it: You have the largest orchestra in the pit that we have ever engaged. In addition to that, backstage you have three distinct horn ensembles, French horn emsembles. You have backstage English horn. You have backstage trumpet choirs. You have backstage trombone choirs. Then you have our basic chorus of about 65, which we are beefing up with another 60 voices from the Round Rock Community Choir. And you have this huge cast. Technically, you have a stage manager who's calling cues for three board operators: your regular light board that's handling 350 instruments; another that's handling the new cyberlights; and another that's handling all the projected images. So it's this very complicated, huge thing." He laughs. "It's a beast."

That isn't even accounting for the specialized singers necessary for a Wagnerian production. "It's like a different club," says McClain. "For instance, the role of Tannhäuser is what we call a heldentenor -- translated from the German, heroic tenor -- and that means a tenor with the weight and fullness of a baritone in the middle and the bottom of his voice, but the real brilliant top of the tenor. That's something you cannot produce. You can't say, `I'm gonna train you to be a heldentenor.' It is a genetic gift. It's a different voice type. The tenors who can sing this role -- they specialize in such roles -- there are maybe 10 of them in the world. And they're all very busy guys and we had to land two of them. During this time, two of them have to be working in Austin because you cannot sing this role three days in a row. We don't want to be searching around the bottom of the closet for these 10 people. We want the best ones here."

And that's not to mention the sets. "Because there are not Tannhäuser sets owned by other companies in the States that we were interested in renting for this production, we knew we had to build. And so this year we opened up a shop, 15,000 square feet, and hired this huge crew to build this thing for us. So there's a lot for which we had to be ready."

All of which costs. "And we had to be ready financially for it. It's probably another $150,000 more expensive than anything we've ever done -- and it's amazing that it's not $300,000 or $400,000. It's taken some budget wizardry to get that to happen. Because of all the above, this has been in the planning stages three or four years."

So if the production of a Wagnerian work involves this much planning and a colossal amount of resources, why do it? Because, McClain says, the composer's dramas tap into something "that is mythological, that is bigger than life, and because of that there's so much grit to them, to the psychological, emotional, sociological implications. And they are so contemporary." A Wagnerian opera "talks to us on a very deep level."

McClain speaks from experience. "My first contact with Wagner," he recalls, "was as an undergraduate in music school. Somehow I got my hands on a recording of Tristan and Isolde. I think somebody said, `Listen to this.' And I had no idea what in the world it was. But I put it on and went, `Wow, this is really cool stuff.' So I went to my roommate, who was a really fine pianist, and said, `David, you have got to hear this.' And he said, `Wow, this is really unbelievable stuff.'" The two of them would sit enraptured for the full five and a half hours it takes to listen to the entire work. But, McClain remembers, "we were finding we could only do this at night. So we found a way to crawl into the music building of this university over the fire escapes and we would leave a window open on the third floor, which would let us crawl in after 11 o'clock at night, after the building was actually closed, and then we would go to a big room which had a big sound system and spend all night up there." He laughs. "We eventually sort of developed this cult, to which we would admit people. `You are allowed to come and listen to Tristan.' This went on for months. and I was just totally in a different world. Absolutely in a different world. "Someone once said to me, `Wagner is like a huge mirror that gets held up in front of you, and if you don't like looking in the mirror, you're not going to like it. If you can look into it and bear what comes back -- the truth of the reflection -- then you will be very, very fascinated with it.' So I'd say audiences have to be willing to look deep."

And does he feel Austin audiences are?

"I do," he insists. "We'll find out. I'm not a prophet. Austin audiences are smart. They're very smart and very demanding. This is a very well-educated, well-traveled, very sophisticated audience. And I'm not talking about an elite group of people who live in West Austin. There will be 9,000 people attending our Tannhäuser. And pull out the zip codes of those people, which we've done obviously. My god! They're from all over this town."

McClain believes that the tale of Tannhäuser will hit close to home for local audiences "because the story is really about a world that has split itself into two warring camps. Now, if we go from the premise that Wagner talks about outer things that have inner echoes, then what we're really talking about is the split in human beings -- and I think this is very contemporary -- the split between seeking the need for sexuality and the need for spiritual fulfillment. And that if you try spiritual fulfillment without the sexuality, you ain't gonna get it. You're gonna get into an awful mess. And if you try sexuality without the spiritual element, that's an equally messy thing. I think this is pretty damn contemporary. It's what were finding out through work and relations with all kinds of therapists: that real fulfillment comes when you can live as a whole human being.

"The world is in a state of collapse because people have split off into these warring factions. And this one guy, Tannhäuser, is somehow fated to try to traverse this huge chaotic gap between them. It's a very perilous journey. His emotional sanity is threatened, his life is threatened. And alone he can't find it. I think we understand this through modern psychology and just through our own relationships. Alone he cannot find it. He finds it through the unconditional love of another person, in this case, a young woman by the name of Elisabeth. I think that's a pretty contemporary message.

"Let's talk about warring factions. Whether it's caused by the division of Austin between east and west of I-35 or by the rabid right-wing hatemongers of radio and the other end of it or by people who say, `If you do that or if you are that, I condemn you,' it does not work. And Wagner's message is: From that you will not find wholeness. And if you don't find wholeness, you will lead the world into catastrophe. Because there is inner war, there will be outer war. And it will lead to destruction. This too is a pretty potent message for our times.

"And this is why we're not setting this production in the 13th century. That lets us off the hook. `Oh, those knights! They were always fighting with each other! Oh, those goddesses of love!' Here, instead of the goddess of love, Venus is the leader of a cult that practices wild, unbridled sexuality, and maybe drugs. And on the other side, we have another cult, that through restraint and rules and structure and stricture has contained itself. `We are spiritual. We do not do any of this other stuff. And if any of it tries to get in here, we will censor, we will murder.' We don't want to let us off the hook. It's about us. That's why the setting is this post-apocalyptic freeway. What would remain of our world should it fall in disaster? These highways. They might be cracked and crumbling, but they're not going away easy.

"My hope as far as looking in the mirror is that people will go out of the theatre and not be able to go home. `Can we go someplace and talk about this?' Is the reward of wholeness that we see at the end of Tannhäuser worth working on ourselves and our civilization and our society, and what do we risk if we don't? That's what I'm hoping for, not that people will say, `Interesting evening, thank you very much,' because that certainly wasn't Wagner's idea about the music dramas."

If that indeed is the effect of ALO's long-developed, huge project, it will be well worth it. "We have to go the full limit in offering this to Austin," says McClain. "We're pulling out all of the guns and doing everything that we can to make this a really gripping experience." n

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