By Olin Chism
Sometimes episodes from Wagner’s personal life served as the creative spark for later operatic masterpieces.
An early example would be a stormy voyage on the Baltic and North Seas that the composer and his first wife, Minna, took in 1839. Wagner wrote in his autobiography that this was the inspiration for The Flying Dutchman (though the legend of the wandering sea captain antedated the Wagners’ voyage).
A more prominent example would be the circumstances surrounding the creation of Tristan und Isolde. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Wagner’s relationship with the wife of one of his patrons had a direct bearing on the composition of what many consider to be the composer’s greatest music drama.
The patron was Otto Wesendonck, a wealthy silk merchant living in Zurich. His wife, Mathilde, was a young beauty, as surviving portraits prove. The couple first met Wagner in 1852, when he fled to Switzerland to escape charges that he had played a role in revolutionary activities in Dresden. The Wesendoncks offered the Wagners a place to stay and other financial support.
At that time the composer was in the early stages of his massive Ring cycle project. Over the next five years he completed Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and began Siegfried.
Then, in 1857, there were a couple of strange developments. Wagner, deviating from his policy of always writing his own texts, set five poems by Mathilde to music (these were the Wesendonck Lieder, which are still frequently performed in concert). Even more significant, he abandoned the Ring and began to devote himself fulltime to an opera on the Tristan and Isolde legend.
Things were coming to a boil in his personal life. It was clear that Wagner had a crush on Mathilde. Whether their relationship became a full-blown affair has never been determined, but Minna certainly had her suspicions — she wrote a letter to Mathilde accusing her of breaking up her marriage. Otto seems to have had his suspicions as well — in 1858 he took Mathilde to Italy, apparently to get her away from Wagner.
Wagner eventually split permanently with Minna and resumed relations with the Wesendoncks (perhaps Otto realized that the composer had transferred his attentions to another man’s wife, Hans von Bülow’s Cosima, whom Wagner later married).
Wagner completed Tristan in August 1859 and worked on Die Meistersinger from 1861 to 1867. He returned to the Ring in 1864, completing it 10 years later. Clearly he was a multi-tasker.
Through the years many have argued that Tristan and Isolde are a kind of symbolic stand-in for Wagner and Mathilde. Wagner, in this view, uses the opera to present a justification for his and Mathilde’s relationship. Tristan and Isolde can’t be blamed for their treatment of King Marke (Otto?) because they have unknowingly taken a love potion that forces them to behave as they do. Similarly, Wagner and Mathilde were in the grip of a passion beyond their control.
Of course, there are other interpretations, and Wagner’s obsession with love and death — evident once again in Tristan — didn’t fit real life (Mathilde stayed with Otto and lived into the 20th century; Wagner moved on to other loves and other music).
The legend on which Wagner based Tristan und Isolde had a history going back to early medieval times. There are a number of variants, but one consistent element is the love of Tristan (or Tristram) and Isolde (or Iseult) and their betrayal of King Mark. Sometimes the king is a good guy, as in Wagner’s version, sometimes he’s bad. There’s even one version in which there are two Isoldes.
Wagner didn’t pick up on a variant that had Tristan killing a dragon. He had been working on Siegfried, which of course has its own dragon. Maybe he thought that a dragon in Tristan would be one too many.
Early on Tristan started becoming a part of operatic lore: Was it a bad-luck opera? Wagner had a hard time getting it produced. After its completion in August 1859 he had hopes for a Paris premiere, but that didn’t pan out. Similarly, plans for a Tristan in Karlsruhe and Vienna fell through.
The Viennese experience was particularly frustrating. The first scheduled Tristan, Alois Ander, had trouble remembering his part and suffered vocal difficulties. He declared the opera unsingable. His Isolde, Louise Dustmann-Meyer, had a better memory but also developed vocal problems. After numerous rehearsals (reportedly more than 70) the production was dropped.
Wagner got to hear his opera onstage at last when Tristan had its world premiere in Munich on June 10, 1865 — six years after its completion. The composer had finally found a pair of singers who could master the two lead roles: the young husband-and-wife team of Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld. What’s more, the hard-to-please Wagner loved the way they sang.
Alas, after the fourth performance Ludwig (who was only 29) died. The grief-stricken Malvina then dropped out of opera entirely.
This kicked off the legend that Tristan was a killer opera, an idea that was reinforced when, three years after Wagner’s death, Franz Liszt collapsed during the third act of Tristan at Bayreuth and died. In the decades after that, at least two conductors, Felix Mottl in 1911 and Joseph Keilberth in 1968, collapsed while conducting the second act of Tristan. Both died.
The killer legend has long since disappeared, since singers and conductors all over the world have survived thousands of Tristans in the 146 years since its premiere. When tenors describe Tristan as a “killer role,” they don’t mean that literally.
Hearing the two leads overcome its vocal challenges is part of the thrill of a fine Tristan und Isolde. Wagner himself acknowledged that the two roles were unusually difficult. Required are vocal heft, stamina, an attractive tone and a sense of musical drama. The presence of a large symphony orchestra as a powerful partner certainly doesn’t minimize the difficulties.
But in the final analysis, it’s Tristan’s beauty and mesmerizing dramatic power — not the fact that it’s a vocal marathon — that accounts for the special place it holds in the operatic repertoire.
The magic begins with the first notes of the prelude, an 11-minute symphonic masterpiece. This establishes an atmosphere of longing and serves notice that the orchestra is going to be a major factor in the evening’s music-making.
The vocal thrills are many, but notable high points are the great 40-minute love duet of Act 2 (some would call it the greatest episode in Wagner), Tristan’s heroic vocal marathon in Act 3 and Isolde’s final “Liebestod.”
As the last notes die away, even the skeptical will have to agree that what they’ve just experienced is no ordinary evening of opera.