Projecting the passion

Times Staff Writer

In a darkened editing bay at a Hollywood postproduction studio a couple of weeks ago, video artist Bill Viola was playing with fire.

He wasn’t simply manipulating the startling image of a wall of flame projected on an expansive video screen, he was also immersed in one of opera’s most daunting artistic challenges -- looking for a new way to stage the 45-minute love duet in Act 2 of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” one of the most celebrated expressions of the ecstasy of love in the history of opera.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 2, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 02, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 News Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Philharmonic photo credit -- The photo from “Tristan und Isolde” on the cover of Part II of Sunday’s Calendar section was credited to the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. It was taken by Kira Perov.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 05, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Philharmonic photo credit -- The credit for last Sunday’s Part II cover photograph from “Tristan und Isolde” read Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn. Kira Perov took the photograph.

It’s a scene so emotionally rich and complex that some stage directors opt for no action at all, allowing the two singers portraying doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde to remain virtually motionless as the music speaks for itself.

“The love story of Tristan and Isolde is not like a scenario of a Hollywood film or something; it’s an idea,” muses Gerard Mortier, new artistic director of the Paris Opera, in a telephone interview. “It’s not about two persons, it’s mythologic.” Focusing on the love between two people is not “Tristan und Isolde,” Mortier says. “It’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ It’s ...” -- and here he elongates the word with appropriate disdain -- “Hollywood.”


That’s why Mortier and his collaborators -- stage director Peter Sellars and Esa-Pekka Salonen, music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic -- are looking to Viola to take the staging of “Tristan und Isolde” to that mythic level in a new co-production of the opera by the Paris Opera and the Philharmonic.

Mortier calls Viola’s video images simply “the pictures,” and he hasn’t seen them yet -- but he believes that Viola’s gift for creating images that reflect inner emotion rather than simply recording action will give audiences insights into the psychology of the characters impossible through conventional staging.

Viola’s work will receive its world premiere beginning Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall in the “Tristan Project.” The complete “Tristan und Isolde” opera, with Viola’s videos, will receive a fully staged production at the Paris Opera in April, with Salonen conducting the Paris Opera Orchestra.

In Los Angeles, it’s called the “Tristan Project” because each of the opera’s three acts will be presented separately, in a semistaged performance, over three nights. The cast includes American tenor Clifton Forbis and American soprano Christine Brewer, who appeared with the Philharmonic in January in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Each evening, the Philharmonic will also play a complementary piece of music influenced by “Tristan und Isolde”: Act 1 (Dec. 3 and Dec. 10) will include Berg’s Lyric Suite; Act 2 (Dec. 4 and 11) will be complemented by Debussy’s Suite from “Pelleas and Melisande”; and the third act (Dec. 5 and 12) will also have the West Coast premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s “Cinq reflets.” Supertitles will be projected not on Viola’s screens but on the wood walls inside the hall at various strategic locations.

Viola, 53, calls opera “the first multimedia art form” -- and relishes the opportunity to transcend the confines of traditional staging through creative use of the camera. His job is not, he insists, to turn the story of “Tristan” into a music video but to reflect the inner state of the characters the way Wagner does with the music.

Viola has not worked with opera before, but this is not the first time he has paired video with music. In 1999, he presented a work based on Edgard Varese’s “Deserts” as part of an evening of avant-garde music and imagery organized by Sellars at the Hollywood Bowl, with Salonen conducting the members of the L.A. Phil. In 1998, he created video pieces for the rock group Nine Inch Nails’ world tour. In his youth, Viola played drums in a rock band, and in the 1970s he worked with composer David Tudor and the avant-garde music group Composers Inside Electronics.

“If you use it well, it can illuminate the inner nature,” Viola says of the marriage of video and music. Though the commercial world of TV and film is saturated with technically astonishing video imagery, Viola observes, “there is a sort of correspondence to visual reality that I find very boring; we are fed these things by this sort of commercial machine that is trying to affect our desires so we reenact them by purchasing something that is for sale. But it is a very shallow, minor part of human life.”


Viola adds that the video portion of the production will, in its own way, be as “live” as the music, with a team of three producers in the booth creating a live “image mix” on site in accordance with the musical score.

“What all of the energy and resources are focused on is not a final master tape -- that’s what’s so interesting to me,” he says. “Nobody can tell you how long the piece is going to be on any given night; that’s up to the conductor. I mean, it won’t vary wildly, but it will vary. We’ve designed all these shots longer than they need to be so there will be room to move.”

Hot-and-cold-running images

The image on screen in the studio today is anything but literal. “What we’re looking at is this woman standing in front of the fire, but in reality, she was standing at the edge of a 90-foot pool of water we built out in front of the camera -- and instead of shooting her directly, the camera is shooting her reflection in the water’s surface,” Viola says in the hushed tones people tend to use when speaking in the dark. “So when she falls and hits the water, she is actually falling into her own reflection. And that’s the result -- those are the flames and the blue background on the disturbed surface of the water.


“You can’t really understand, especially at first viewing, exactly what it is you’re looking at,” Viola continues, as twists of golden fire and cool blue water engage in an Astaire-and-Rogers dance on screen. “But the idea of reality and illusion, that the surface world is not what it seems, is very much what Wagner was delving into in this piece, with the lovers singing to the night.

“This is a culminating moment, because we’ve seen fire in the piece, and we’ve seen water, lots of water in this piece -- but this is the moment when the two become one.”

Los Angeles audiences may be most familiar with Viola’s work through “Bill Viola: The Passions,” exhibited at the Getty Museum in 2003. The exhibition was an assemblage of some of Viola’s recent video works -- many inspired by Old Master paintings -- that explored emotion through the technique of showing actors expressing those “passions” in extreme-slow-motion video instead of paint on canvas. Perhaps the most massive of those works, “Five Angels for the Millennium,” projected on five 7-by-10-foot plasma screens, was exhibited under Mortier’s aegis for the RurhTriennale art festival in Germany in 2003. Also, in 1997, Sellars curated a Viola retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “The most important part of the staging will be the video,” muses Mortier, who is also a former director of the Salzburg Music Festival. “Bill Viola is always very spiritual. A lot of his themes, for the last few years, are always about the elements of nature, fire, water; about the great existential feelings, love, death, passion. It’s beyond the individuality of two persons, or three persons; it’s bigger than that.”

The idea of bringing all three Southern California-based artists together came after Mortier engaged Salonen to conduct a “Tristan” for the Paris Opera; it was decided that this would be the ideal opportunity for them to work together for the first time.


Although Viola’s images will essentially be completed before the opera goes to Paris, Sellars and Salonen say they plan to refine and revisit the project over the course of a decade.

Sellars says that Paris will probably see this production as “the Southern California Tristan,” even though the artists involved all originally came from somewhere else. And he acknowledges that there is an advantage to presenting Wagner in Los Angeles, far away from all of the historical baggage carried by the German composer, who was a favorite of Adolf Hitler and shared his racist views.

“Whoever puts it on in Central Europe, in German-speaking countries, they have to take a stand, react against this or that, this endless deconstructionist twist on history that has made it almost unbearable,” Salonen says. “Whereas when we do it out here, three guys who are not exactly coming from the Bayreuth area, the freedom of it is already inspiring.”

Salonen says he has been convinced that Viola was the person for the job ever since visiting the Getty to see “The Passions” and observing how Viola managed to plumb new depths of emotion simply by slowing movement until it became almost imperceptible.


“I realized, this is the kind of visual art that, in my mind, relates to the sort of psychological aspects of Wagner’s music,” Salonen says. “Monologues where time stands still -- but not quite. Something that changes, but we don’t see the change, like watching the long hand of a watch.” And, Salonen adds, video can freeze time -- but also travel effortlessly into the past or the future. “It can move freely through the layers of time. It is a great liberator in this way,” he says.

Vision quest

Using video equipment ranging from the primitive hand-held camcorder to state-of-the-art high-definition video and 35-millimeter film, Viola and his production team have been at work since February creating imagery to complement Wagner’s 4 1/2 -hour opera. “We even used a bank of 25-year-old night surveillance cameras that I’ve had in my closet for all these years -- they give you the most amazing grainy image,” Viola says. Sellars’ work on the opera really won’t begin until Paris, he says, since staging in Los Angeles will be minimal beyond the unveiling of the video component. He agrees with Paris Opera’s Mortier that the love duet is virtually impossible to stage in a literal way.

“Sex onstage is just silly -- let’s face it, the lights should be out,” Sellars says with a loud laugh during his first day of observing the Philharmonic in rehearsal at Disney Hall. “And so you need something else, and that’s of course where Bill is at his most amazing, because he can gently abstract the images. That gives me permission to go somewhere else with the staging, so we can get past the adolescent and go into love.


“And, here, if all the pieces come together in the right way, it is transcendent, and it lifts off, it can’t be reduced,” Sellars continues dreamily. “Which is of course what love does; your life was really pressured, tight, uncomfortable, and then suddenly this other space opens up to you. And the same thing happens, but the other way, through grief -- you are taken away from the world.

“Those extremes are a place where a Hollywood movie doesn’t dare to go. It flirts with them, it wants to simulate those things, but the actual experience is something else, and that’s where Wagner lives,” Sellars adds. “And Bill has made images that go to those places.”


The ‘Tristan Project’


Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Opens Friday. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.

Ends: Dec. 12

Price: $15 to $125


Contact: (323) 850-2000,