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Conductor Hugh Keelan, far left, and the cast of “Tristan und Isolde.”

The Arts

Going big

Hugh Keelan assembles a crack team of musicians and vocalists to take on a monumental operatic challenge: Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde’

BRATTLEBORO—Any performance of Tristan und Isolde is an event, but the presentation in a small New England town of Richard Wagner’s musical paean to erotic love is positively a phenomenon.

Tristan und Isolde is a massive work that requires superb singers and an enormous orchestra, as well as a gifted conductor able to cope with all of this. Because of the demands it makes on producers and performers, it is rarely performed outside of big cities with major opera houses.

“Here’s a rare opportunity to see and hear it in an intimate 750-seat jewel box, the art deco Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro,” says Hugh Keelan, who is conducting the upcoming Tundi Production of Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner on Friday Aug. 23 and Sunday Aug. 25.

The cast includes Alan Schneider as Tristan, Jenna Rae as Isolde, Cailin Marcel Manson as Kurvenal, Roseanne Ackerley as Brangaene, Charles Martin as King Marke, and James Anderson as Melot. Rebecca Turner is the production advisor.

“I have so much to be excited over,” Keelan says about presenting what may be the first-ever fully-staged live performance of Tristan und Isolde in Southern Vermont. “I consider Wagner to be an endlessly modern genius who hands us our humanity to deal with over and over again. In Tristan, he creates a world both of accessibility and mystery around Love.”

But then Keelan adds with a laugh, “What I also feel right now is blind panic facing disaster. With over four hours of music, involving a high orchestra and singers of almost superhuman capacity, Tristan und Isolde is a very large project we have taken on. You could easily say we are certifiably insane from several valid angles.”

Aiming for transcendence

Since 2010, Keelan has been artistic director of the Windham Orchestra. Last year, with his wife Jenna Rae Keelan, he founded Tundi Productions. Its name a shortened form of the Germanic title of the opera, Tristan und Isolde, Tundi was formed over a year ago in order to stage big Wagnerian operas like Tristan and Der Ring des Nibelungen.

”Tundi is dedicated to performing music that summons the deepest emotions and the most burning issues of being human, so people can experience transcendence, interact with the music and artists, and engage in their own creativity,” Keelan writes at www.tundiproductions.org. “We bring all-encompassing artworks to life so you can be immersed in the experience, lost in emotion, and create a fulfillment that is only available through music”

Tristan und Isolde is Tundi’s first staged presentation.

A work by Richard Wagner, who wrote both the words and the music, Tristan und Isolde was composed between 1857 and 1859. However, it wasn’t premiered until 1865 because of the difficulty of the piece. Wagner referred to Tristan und Isolde not as an opera but as a music drama, to distinguish it from most of the operas then being performed, which he deplored.

The case is often made that modern classical music began with Tristan. The opera was enormously influential among Western classical composers and provided direct inspiration to composers such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Karol Szymanowski, Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and Benjamin Britten. Other composers, such as Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky formulated their styles in contrast to Wagner’s musical legacy.

Tristan und Isolde is one of the greatest love stories of world literature, with roots ranging from Persian and Arthurian legend to medieval French romance,” writes Keelan at Tundi’s Facebook page. “Wagner’s version, first performed in 1865, changed the face of music theater forever. It tells of bitter hatred turned to uncontrollable passion; of betrayal, forgiveness, and redemption; of death, and love beyond death. Its surging music rises to heights of emotion never before heard on the operatic stage.”

This is not the first time Keelan has conducted Wagner, though he has never conducted a complete opera.

“I have done plenty of excerpts however,” he says. “My mentors include great Wagnarian conductors like Davis, Solti, Goodall, a set of figures at Covent Garden. For a period I would accompany Alessandra Marc with orchestra, singing Liebestod, Wesendonck-Lieder and Strauss Vier letzte Lieder.”

Fully staged spectacle

Although often presented as a concert, Tristan und Isolde at the Latchis will be fully staged.

“The production, staged with orchestra, integrates scenery, costume, lighting, and video projection, along with English supertitles,” Keelan writes.

“The orchestra will be onstage at the Latchis, but mostly invisible,” says Keelan. “Tundi has purchased for this event (as well as future ones) a high tech scrim, which will allow complex effects of beauty to be projected behind the singers. It will also be used for a more sophisticated use of subtitles than the Latchis movie screen allowed.”

The orchestra for Tristan will not be the Windham Orchestra, which Keelan conducted when he previously presented other operas such as Puccini’s Tosca and Turandot at the Latchis. For this event, he has assembled a new group of musicians “from three corners of the globe.”

“Our musicians come from South America, California, and many of the big Eastern cities,” he says. Musicians include the principal violinist from the most prestigious South American opera house, Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as well as a 14-year-old cello prodigy from California.

“Many of the musicians are very well known to us, and perhaps also to the audience,” continues Keelan. “We have assembled a near 60-member orchestra, including offstage brass and sailor chorus. If all this seems just a bit overwhelming, actually Tristan is a smaller orchestra than most for a Wagnerian opera.”

Keelan knows that these musicians are deeply committed to the project.

“We are not able to pay them much (but we are paying them), so this is a labor of love from these dedicated artists,” he says. “When we chose the musicians for this orchestra we went for people who really wanted to do this project, not someone looking for just a gig.

“The large Wagnerian music dramas are a different world from almost all other operas, in terms of the amount of preparation, time, and scale of the work performed. Its complexity is exponentially higher than in the standard structure of an opera.

“We would be destined to fail, if our singers and musicians had thought of this as just their next job or a cool thing to do. We must ask an insanely passionate level of commitment from our colleagues. Since we are incapable of paying any of the artists on the level they deserve, they are working with us simply because they want to be part of this endeavor.”

‘Daunting task’

The orchestra first assembled on Aug. 12, for 10 days of intensive rehearsals. Keelan claims that his “basic modality” is to gather about 100 people to learn and perform Tristan und Isolde from nothing in that short amount of time.

“We cannot approach this daunting task with a pre-existing model,” he says. “But we have people coming on board massively committed to this project.”

When, and how, do you teach your orchestra a work that is so difficult to perform?

Keelan says that “the answer is to not view the work contextually from concepts such as ‘teach’ or ‘difficult.’ Tristan is nothing more or less than the greatest, richest expression of love ever penned. People, including players, want to participate, and tend to solve such problems as come up in their stride. I know that might be a mystifying non-response; so here is my next unhelpful answer: ‘By honoring them.’”

Two of the most daunting roles in all of opera are the title characters of this music drama.

Isolde will be sung by Jenna Rae. A graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied voice and clarinet, Rae made her soprano debut in 2014 when she sang the title role in PanOpera’s production of Tosca, followed yearly by the major roles of Santuzza (Cavalleria rusticana), Leonora (Il trovatore), and three performances of the role of Turandot in 2018.

Other principal roles have been Mother in Amahl and the Night Visitors and Elettra in Idomeneo.

While Isolde is perhaps the more celebrated role in the opera, Tristan is possible an even more challenging part.

Tundi’s Tristan will be sung by tenor Alan Schneider. An alumnus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and recipient of a Master of Music degree from Boston University, Schneider has appeared in opera, operetta, and music theatre productions with many companies in his native New England and elsewhere.

Schneider made his international debut as Idomeneo with IVAI in Tel Aviv, Israel. He has also been the recipient of career support grants from Boston Lyric Opera and the Wagner Society of New York. With the Windham Orchestra he has performed in Brattleboro with Jenna Rae in Turandot last year and Cav/Pag in 2015.

“Both are big voiced lovers,” says Keelan, a bit in awe of the singers with whom he is working. “The difficulty of the roles are barely credible and each requires a heroic amount of devotion.”

Dream team

As he told The Commons last year, Keelan believes Jenna Rae is one of the great Wagnarian voices of her generation.

Keelan has also been astonished by Schneider as they have rehearsed Tristan together.

“I have esteemed what Alan has done with us in the past, but nothing prepared me for what he is doing here,” Keelan says. “The role’s musical demands are great, but so is the characterization.

“Virtually single-handedly, Tristan has to sustain most of the long last act of the opera by himself, which explores Tristan’s death wish after having abandoned himself to his passion for Isolde and thereby betraying his king.

“My admiration for Schneider was already high, but I am barely able to describe the heights he attains in this performance.”

Tundi’s Tristan is set in an unspecified time of legend.

“To help us all just a little bit more, Isolde will wear green (for Ireland), Marke will wear a crown, and potions will be drunk,” says Keelan. “There will be imagery of the sea for Act 1, of a love-garden for Act 2, and so forth.”

Keelan sees this as a drama about men and women audiences can relate to. “We catch our characters living their lives and sharing passion, violence, and deeply textured sadness as they deal with themselves and their circumstances,” he says.

Tristan und Isolde will be only one part of a whole Wagner weekend sponsored by Tundi.

The work itself will be performed twice under festival conditions, on Friday and Sunday. Friday’s performance begins at 4 p.m. and Sunday’s at 10 a.m. Intermissions will be extended to allow audience members to enjoy meals at local restaurants.

On Saturday and on Sunday, audiences can attend related events such as lectures, classes, and concerts to enrich the experience.

On Saturday at the Latchis, from 10 to 11:30 a.m., they can join Keelan and board member Asher Pucciarello in an exploration of Tristan. Admission is by Passport (see below) or $10 at the door.

From 2:30 to 3 p.m, Dramatic Soprano Rebecca Turner sings Wagner’s song masterpiece that finds musical echoes in Tristan, the Wesendonck Lieder, with Keelan at the piano. Admission is by Passport or $15 at the door.

Some of Tundi performers including Julia Rolwing, Nellie Rustick, Shaun McGrath, Kevin Courtemanche, and Dennis Ryan (all covers for roles in Tristan) will sing Wagner selections in concert from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Admission is by Passport or $15 at the door.

People can choose to purchase a Passport that gives them entrance to all events or they can purchase tickets at the door a la carte. (A Passport is included with the purchase of a premium orchestra ticket for Tristan und Isolde.) Tickets for Tristan und Isolde range from $25-$250. Tickets and additional information are available on Tundi’s website.

With an ambition practically Wagnerian in scope, Keelan sums up what he is trying to do with this event:

“One of our goals is to provide time and space for the continuing development of Wagnerian singers, allowing them to further explore a well-travelled role or learn a new one,” he says. “As a team and cast we believe we bring rich life experience and artistic depth to this unknowable masterpiece.

“Believe me, Tristan und Isolde will be an all-encompassing experience. The theater has you right inside the action. You’ll find yourself immersed in the swelling of the waves, the love garden, and the transcendence of love and death.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #524 (Wednesday, August 21, 2019). This story appeared on page B1.

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