It is no secret that the Dallas Opera had cut back on the current season in an attempt to put the company on a sound financial footing. The new General Director and CEO, Keith Cerny, took measures to inject some business reality into the rarified operatic atmosphere and his efforts are already paying off.
A perfect example of his steady-handed stewardship is the convoluted journey that the upcoming production of Wagner's masterpiece, Tristan and Isolde, took as it wound its way to the Winspear Opera House. When it opens on Feb. 16, it will be the fully staged production that was originally imagined.
Jonathan Pell, Artistic Director, explained the twists and turns in a recent interview.
"When we realized our situation, we initially went to the board of directors and told them that we were going to have to cancel two productions, Janacek's Káťya Kabanová and the Tristan," Pell said. "The board said that we should give them a week to see what they could do. Well, they succeeded in raising some significant funds and we thought that we could restore the Tristan in a concert version."
Actually, they had originally planned to bring a massive production from Seattle that was done by Francesca Zambello.
"Once we took a closer look at that production, we realized that it was just too expensive to import and mount here. There are more than seven trucks of scenery alone. In fact, Seattle didn't even revive it themselves due to its costs. Last time they did Tristan, they pulled out an older production. Zambello's show was stunning, but it is just very expensive," Pell said.
The concert version began to morph as the financial picture improved.
"First, we said that it would be semi-staged. That would eliminate the need for scenery, stage hands, costumes, and all of that," Pell said. "Then we talked with the stage director, Christian Rath, and video designer, Elaine McCarthy, and asked them what they could do with a more limited budget. Elaine, who was the genius behind all of the projections that wowed the audience in our production of Moby-Dick, felt that an innovative full production would be possible."
They went for it, and Pell is pleased with the results.
"It is a minimalist production, with moving panels and brilliant projections, but it isn't a compromise," he said. "Once the concept was established, the production has been put together in a world-class manner. If you didn't know the background, you would never suspect that this is a rescue production. In many ways, it has turned out to be quite spectacular."
The Dallas Opera has a sleek production of Tristan that is specifically designed for the Winspear Opera House and for the way that opera needs to be produced in the current era of reduced budgets without sacrificing artistic quality. It could even become a revenue source for TDO by renting it to other companies, which the opera companies often do.
"Productions are always made available to other companies," he said. "The opera world is completely interconnected and we share all the time. Having something like this will be attractive to other producers, without a doubt."
One has only to look at the Seattle production to understand how attractive this Tristan will be. That production was too massive for even the Seattle Opera to remount. TDO has developed something quite different and equally creative.
Tristan is a favorite of work for many, including Dallas Symphony Music Director Jaap Van Zweden, as he told me in a recent interview. In fact, it is one of the most popular of the Wagner canon. The story of the courageously loyal warrior and the already-promised Irish princess caught in the vortex of an impossible love is timeless, as the 2006 film version proved. Wagner transports it to ecstatic heights with some of his most sublime music.
It is excellent that TDO has found a way to bring it to the Winspear in all its glory. The production will star Clifton Forbis and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in the title roles.