Music, moreover, is another projection of the will, different from and equal to the seen world. It is actually realer than the visible world, for whereas the the will is expressed only symbolically by the world, music is its direct apparition—which is a miracle, because it is a temporal expression of something eternal and infinite.
Never have I felt this principle more keenly than last night. Somehow I secured a $25 ticket to the opening-night gala of the Metropolitan Opera, which was a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The opera has already been reviewed by Anthony Tommasini for the New York Times, much more ably by Seth Walls for The Guardian, and in Polish for Wyborcza, but you can get the best sense of the real spirit of the evening from the coverage in Vogue.
At the under-the-sea-themed gala dinner [for rich people after the opera], Met Opera general manager, Peter Gelb, noted that the evening’s performance was, “more riveting and moving than any debate and certainly more beneficial for mankind,” while chairman of the board Ann Ziff proudly explained that the near-five-hour opera had been transmitted live in Times Square, adding coyly that, “the opera trumped the presidential debate.”
Hamilton star Javier Muñoz, who took over the titular role from Lin-Manuel Miranda in July, was thrilled to spend five hours of his precious little time off listening to Wagner.
And so on. The evening started with a red-carpet pageant for TV cameras outside the front lobby. In came Alan Gilbert, in came Amy Adams (was it her?), in came René Pape with a backpack in one arm and a lace-draped woman in the other. When a particularly bejewelled lady arrived, the crowd gasped, for she must have been famous, and a short woman thrust herself to the front of the crowd to take a billion pictures of her. On the balcony above, the really powerful folks drank champagne and looked down on the spectacle.
I took my seat in the orchestra. The man in front of me was wearing inch-long sharpened nails, a floral hoodie with a matching shirt, a beard, and a long ponytail. He chatted in an extreme lilt with his date, and reeked of something unprintable in a family blog. In the midst of the audience was a woman in a dress so grotesquely enormous that it rustled flush against both sides of the aisle.
The lights dimmed, there was a drum roll, and the orchestra played the national anthem. I felt a sudden surge of patriotism, half-suspecting that my opportunities to enthusiastically sing the Star Spangled Banner were running out. The audience stumbled through the words, and claw-fingered ponytail man giggled with contempt for the song. Perhaps his suspicion was justified. “God bless America!” cried a man behind me. “Make America great again!” cried his wife. I turned and glowered at her; she simpered back.
Then the music began, and the production was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on a stage. The sophisticated Polish director, Mariusz Treliński, had moved the action (as they say) from medieval Cornwall to Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Critical Hour. I’m serious: It looked like an Xbox game from 2006. There was a huge green radar disc projected onto the back wall. Instead of swords and hauberks the characters wore pistols and balaclavas. Everything was clanging and metallic. There was a naked woman in a cell below the stage for no reason, who got shot halfway through Act I for less reason. Sometimes there were computerised graphics during instrumental sections that must have been plagiarised from the iTunes visualiser. Good on you for updating the production, Mr Treliński. This one really resonated with the audience, who are obviously far more comfortable with gritty naval schlock than Arthurian romance. A medieval setting might have been appropriate for Wagner’s original 12th-century audience, but certainly not for us.
When the ship came to dock in Cornwall, some extras ran on stage with runway signal-lights: it was time for intermission #1. On the way to the men’s room I passed the VIP lounge. It was packed with smiling people eating cheese sandwiches served by solemn, obedient footmen. They talked about fashion and gurgled about Nina Stemme, oblivious to death and devouring time.
An audience at the Met can be divided into two parts. First are people who are there because it is a nice cultural experience. They have read the latest Knausgaard book, and they know that they like the opera in principle. They’re only ever really excited by Puccini’s schmaltz, but they can be brought around to something especially pretty in Mozart or Donizetti. They yell bravo to female singers and give standing ovations for everything. These are good-hearted, Hillary-voting Americans, and there is a place for them in the world to come.
The other set, who were there last night in far fuller force than usual, carry the whiff of evil. They are the powerful people who underwrite the whole thing. They are in a much sorrier condition: they despise the opera, but they must talk about how much they love this or that fashionable singer, or they will be cast from polite society. They dress in gems and dead animals.. They know not what they do.
I sat down and the second act’s prelude began, almost in time for The Claw in front of me to finish browsing Grindr. The curtain rose on a tall space-age platform operated by robotic machinery. But now not even Eurotrash could prevent me from really enjoying one of the most glorious works of music that’s ever been composed. Tristan and Isolde, drunk on a love-potion, curse the very world for keeping their souls apart from each other. They realise, as lovers usually do, that mere fleshy enmeshment gives only meagre satisfaction to the spirit. They promise, as lovers usually don’t, to die, melt into eternity, and become each other forever. They are plunged together into night, and they curse the looming daylight.
Brangæne, from offstage, began to sing the sublimest part of the opera: the dawn is breaking, and the lovers ought to beware the light. They cannot be sewn together forever. No gray morning illumined the stage at this point, but a violent fluorescent lamp and and then some more cybergraphics. I tried to shut my eyes, but the horrible light was so intense that it leaked through my eyelids.
There is a moment in every man’s life when he realises why he has strangled himself with a strip of fabric on every important day and night of his life. Mine was the 26th of September, 2016. When next the music swelled, I pulled my tie from out of my collar, and found that it was just wide and thick enough to make a blindfold. The opera became untellably better. I sank into a deep trance that lasted until the end of the act.
It was interrupted once, when I was shaken firmly by my chucking neighbour, a delightful Romanian woman, who whispered: ‘you have to see this.’ I lifted the blindfold to find Tristan and King Mark sitting in a bluish cellar on huge rubber barrels of hazardous waste, a big ventilating fan rotating lazily above them. I know the libretto, and the scene was not meant to have shifted since I had covered my eyes. But for some reason Treliński had gotten bored with cyborg watchtower, so TimeSplitters basement it was for the balance of Act II.
Act III, for which I heard completely blind, was without exaggeration one of the most intense experiences of my life. I spent a full hour and a half in a tunnel of darkness, prey to the most savagely beautiful music that has ever filtered up to mortals from the abyss.
Halfway through the act, Tristan sings the following stanza, in his extreme pain at losing Isolde:
Out of my father’s misery, and my mother’s pain; out of lovers’ eternal tears; out of laughing and weeping, joys and smarts; I found the poisonous draught! I brewed it; it flowed to me. I sucked it with joy. But curse you, fearful draught! and curse the one who brewed you!
By Isolde’s last monologue—the so-called love-death, I was so wrapped up in the music that, without any visual stimulation, I forgot where I was. I saw myself plunged into a lake on a starry night, and then somersaulted into heaven, where the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy. Then the stars themselves folded up, the firmament collapsed, and I saw the creation of the world. The music resolved and there was nothing.
Somehow the audience managed to clap; I sat stupid in my seat, and only staggered feebly to my feet when it was time to boo the production team. I walked out gulping for air into Lincoln square, politely pushing by Countess Peacock-Staple as I went. The throngs of cabs and irritable New Yorkers seemed all right after all: it was just a dream.