Thursday, November 20, 2014


By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., BLO Dramaturg

"Tristan und Isolde" by Rogelio de Egusquiza (1915)
“Liebestod” is the title of the final dramatic musical piece from Richard Wagner’s 1859 opera, Tristan und Isolde, but the word itself also means the theme of “love death” prevalent in art, drama, and literature. Liebestod (from the German Liebe, meaning "love," and Tod, meaning "death") defines the lovers’ consummation of their love in death or after death. Connecting la petite and la grande mort, the Liebestod represents love as an eternal force that conquers death and survives lovers’ corporeal bodies. The theme of Liebestod often involves the double suicide of lovers who cannot live without each other and who die of despair over the death of the other.

In his book Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont notes that “a myth [of love death] is needed to express the dark and unmentionable fact that passion is linked with death, and involves the destruction of any one yielding himself up to it with all its strength” (21). Although Liebestod is one of the most enduring motives in the Western world, it is also a universal myth, found, for example, in the Japanese concept of Shinjū, the lovers’ “double suicide,” and the Hindu custom of “Sati,” a woman’s obligatory immolation at her husband’s funeral pyre.

In Western culture, the theme of love death is present in ancient mythology, starting with the Greek story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Heartbroken by the death of his beloved wife, Eurydice, Orpheus descends into the underworld to retrieve her. On their way back to the world of the living, Orpheus turns back to look at Eurydice, which he was forbidden from doing, and Eurydice disappears. In despair, Orpheus returns to the world of the living alone. Only after his own death is Orpheus’ soul returned to the underworld and thus reunited with his beloved. In Greek drama, the theme of double suicide can be found in Sophocles’ Antigone. Antigone’s fiancé, Hæmon, commits suicide upon finding her hanged body.

A full audio recording of Le Vin Herbé from the Wellesz Theatre.

In Roman mythology, the theme of love death appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, who are unable to wed due to their families’ feud. Separated by the wall between their connected houses, the lovers must whisper to each other. They manage to arrange a clandestine meeting, but upon arriving at the site of their rendezvous, Pyramus finds Thisbe’s bloody veil; heartbroken thinking she’s been killed by a lion, he kills himself by falling on his sword. Finding his dead body, Thisbe kills herself with the same sword.

Shakespeare alludes to the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe in two of his plays, the comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. In Midsummer, the story is awkwardly enacted by a group of actors, called “mechanicals,” in a scene that lightheartedly mocks the exalted nature of forbidden love. In Romeo and Juliet, perhaps the best-known story with the love death motive, the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe provides a blueprint for the ill-fated lovers who both also kill themselves, each thinking the other dead.

“How Sir Tristram Drank of the Love Drink”
by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)
The popular medieval legend of Tristan and Iseult, about two lovers separated by fate and united only after their deaths, is one of the better known examples of Liebestod. The story reappears in many works, including Thomas Hardy’s The Famous Tragedy of the Queen of Cornwall at Tintagel in Lyonnesse, a one-act play published in 1923, and Rutland Boughton’s opera, The Queen of Cornwall (1924), based on Thomas Hardy’s play. Other famous retellings of the legend include Thomas Berger’s novel, Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel; Rosalind Miles’ trilogy, The Queen of the Western Isle, The Maid of the White Hands, and The Lady of the Sea; and Nancy McKenzie’s book, Prince of Dreams: A Tale of Tristan and Essylte. The myth is also referenced in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and in John Updike’s novel, Brazil, about the lovers Tristão and Isabel.

Richard Wagner’s 1865 opera, Tristan und Isolde is perhaps the most famous retelling of the legend. Considered one of the most influential pieces of music, the opera is based on the courtly romance by the 12th-century writer Gottfried von Straßburg. In both Straßburg's and Wagner’s versions, Tristan is a doomed romantic lover, idealistic and sensitive, and Isolde is a quintessential female of the 19th century, who redeems him. Wagner’s opera inspired a number of other musical works, including Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila Symphony (1949) and Hans Werner Henze’s Tristan (1975). Frank Martin’s chamber opera, Le Vin Herbé (The Love Potion), written between 1938 and 1940, is also influenced by Wagner’s version of the legend, although Martin’s version is based on Joseph Bédier’s 1900 text of the Tristan and Iseult story.

Wagner’s opera in many ways captured the 19th-century obsession with the theme of Liebestod, which saturated both low and high culture. As the scholar Rudolph Binion put it:

Physical love beyond death: this theme of 19th-century culture took many of its cues from folklore, where naïve belief about animate corpses survived and developed throughout the Christian era. [. . .] Premodern folk tales of sex beyond death were never voluptuous, only chilling. Modern elite culture turned that chilling into thrilling for an eager public, then backed away. Popular culture followed closely along until it took off on its own in our century. But wherever the shaky line between high and low culture is drawn, the love-death hybrid was bred above it. (97, 116)

"Tristram and Isolde" by John Waterhouse (1916)
The 19th-century theme of love death found its expression in vampire tales which survived into the 20th century, particularly in the early Hollywood cinema. In the 20th century, a number of writers and dramatists, including Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh, Tennessee Williams and Georges Bataille, explored the theme of love death in their plays and novels. The lovers’ double death appears in movies like The Eternal Return (1943), Elvira Madigan (1967), and Pedro Almodóvar’s spoof of organismic love death, Matador (1986). Today, the theme of Liebestod can be found in vampire love stories and in some of the biggest blockbuster romance movies such as Bonnie and Clyde, Like Water for Chocolate, Forrest Gump, Titanic, and Brokeback Mountain.

Read more:
  • Binion, R. Love Beyond Death: The Anatomy of Myth in the Arts. New York: New York University Press, 1993.
  • Kramer, L. After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press,1997.
  • Legman, G. Love and Death. New York: Breaking Point, 1949.
  • Rougemont, D. Love in the Western World, Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  • Stilling, R. Love and Death in Renaissance Tragedy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Love Potion – A SNEAK PEEK!

Excitement is mounting for BLO's production of The Love Potion, opening tomorrow, Wednesday, November 19 at 7:30 p.m.! Here's a special SNEAK PEEK at our final dress rehearsal, featuring sets designed by Jim Noone, costumes by Nancy Leary, and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

The Love Potion
Performed at Temple Ohabei Shalom, 1187 Beacon Street, Brookline
Music by Frank Martin
November 19-23, 2014
Learn more

Magic takes hold of Tristan (Jon Jurgens) and Isolt (Chelsea Basler).
Duke Hoël (David Cushing) and Brangain (Michelle Trainor) in background.

One of many “Greek chorus” moments in the production 
(Jon Jurgens, David Cushing and David McFerrin in foreground).

Isolt (Chelsea Basler) rages against her sense of honor that stands in opposition to her heart.

A spiritual “Greek chorus” moment in the production that builds upon the sacred space 
of Temple Ohabei Shalom.

Photos by Eric Antoniou, Boston Lyric Opera 2014.

DR. VON LYRIC – The Tristan Variations

Today, let's look at a few examples of how the story of Tristan and Isolde has been told across many genres of performance.

Tristan – Reduced

Tristan – The Musical

Tristan – Danced

Tristan – Another Opera

Tristan – For Orchestra

Tristan – The Film

Monday, November 17, 2014


By Magda Romanska, Ph.D., Boston Lyric Opera Dramaturg

Tristan and Iseult, as depicted by 
Edmund Blair Leighton (1853–1922).
Written by Switzerland’s greatest composer, Frank Martin (1890–1974), in the late 1930s, Le Vin Herbé was initially conceived as a 30-minute piece in response to Robert Blum’s commission for his Züricher Madrigalchor. Wanting to distance himself from Wagner and his operatic version of the myth (and, thus, also from the Nazis, who glorified Wagner’s music), Martin based the story instead on Joseph Bédier’s 1900 philological novel, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Bédier’s work was intended for general, not scholarly, audiences, and it drew on diverse medieval sources. In a short note following Gaston Paris’s preface to the romance, Bédier himself described his text as “très composite” (quoted in Gallagher 426). Readable and succinct, Bédier’s version provided the perfect blueprint for Martin’s opera, offering an alternative storyline to Wagner’s. In her book, Eroticism and Death in Theatre and Performance, Karoline Gritzner notes that, “in the medieval novel, whose traces both Bédier and Martin follow, it is the love potion alone that awakens the love between Tristan and Isolde. This love does not already exist beforehand” (89). In this, Martin further departed from Wagner. “In Wagner, it is only the supposed death potion which makes possible the complete confession of love” (Gritzner 90).

This first, early version of the Le Vin Herbé (often called Part I) was titled Le Philtre, and it was first performed in concert version on April 16, 1940, by the Züricher Madrigalchor in Zürich, with Robert Blum conducting. The libretto focused on the love between Tristan and Iseult, steering away from the theme of death. Following the premiere of the first version, Martin decided to expand it further, and he included two more chapters of Bédier’s book (“La forêt du Morois” and “La mort”), which made the work fuller and more complex, while focusing on both the theme of love and the theme of death (Sealey). Martin finished the piece in 1941, and the first complete concert performance took place on March 28, 1942, at the same theatre, with Blum again conducting.

The staged premiere had to wait until August 15, 1948, in Salzburg (under the German title, Der Zaubertrank), conducted by Ferenc Fricsay, and with Julius Patzak as Tristan and Maria Cebotari as Isolt. Often called a “secular oratorio,” Le Vin Herbé has a musical score that resembles a chamber work, and the dramatic structure of a great Romantic opera. In writing the opera, Martin was also influenced, in addition to Bédier, by Pelléas et Mélisande, an opera by Claude Debussy, which was in turn based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist play of the same title. Debussy’s opera premiered in Paris in 1902, and the music and story of a tragic love triangle made a great impression on Martin.

Since the premiere of Martin’s opera, its score has gained cult status. Ted Libbey, in The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music, tries to explain the appeal of Le Vin Herbé, as a transitional piece in Martin’s entire oeuvre:

The music of Martin’s maturity, from Le Vin Herbé onward, is marked by elegance of gesture, an extraordinary formal command, remarkable grace, energy, and lyricism. Its emotion is restrained yet intense, at times even haunting, its scoring economical yet sensuous, reflecting Martin’s keen ear for sonority. Few composers of the 20th century succeeded so well at writing music that was suave, expressive, and modern, and at the same time, utterly original. (465)

Although the opera is rarely performed, it has had a couple of memorable stagings. Twenty years after its premiere, in April 1961, Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé received its first New York performance by Hugh Ross and the Schola Cantorum. In 1982, Le Vin Herbé received three performances by the Park Lane Music Players, conducted by Simon Joly, and in 1993, another performance by the Netherlands Radio Choir and Chamber Orchestra under Bernhard Klee. In 1985, the opera was staged by New York Lyric Opera Company. The New York Times critic at that time, Bernard Holland, wrote, enchanted:

That Le Vin Herbé was absolutely gripping in this setting—filled with dignity, mystery and a simplicity born of true sophistication—goes without question, though I am still not sure exactly where the impressive beauties of this evening had their roots.

In 2010, Ardente Opera staged Martin’s masterpiece in Hawksmoor’s St. George’s Bloomsbury church. Martin Kettle of the Guardian wrote of Martin’s score:

The fact that Martin should write a medievalist Tristan for an orchestra of just eight players and a chorus of 12, plus tenor and soprano principals, is a powerfully defiant statement of his individuality. In operatic historical terms, it’s a bit like standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square.

In 2013, the opera was staged at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater in Berlin. Opera News reviewed the production, commenting on Martin’s score:

The score, a key work for the composer’s mature style, shows the influence of serialism, but Martin never abandons the tonal. Martin’s self-avowed wish was to become a master of tonal chromaticism, and in Le Vin Herbé, he succeeded in concocting a harmonically dense potion that, for all its dissonances, also goes down easy. The music unfurls with a hypnotic, often chant-like urgency. This arresting score was exquisitely served by director Mitchell and the fine ensemble of singers and musicians assembled by the Staatsoper.

Read more:

Friday, November 14, 2014


We are in the midst of “tech week” as the Company prepares for its upcoming Opera Annex production of Frank Martin’s The Love Potion at Brookline’s Temple Ohabei Shalom. Modeled on themes from Hagia Sophia and the Great Synagogue of Florence, Italy, and featuring a stunning golden dome, the Temple is a strikingly non-traditional space for operatic performance.

In fact, Boston is an “opera venue-challenged” city, and BLO’s annual Opera Annex series was created, at least in part, to address that problem: the lack of conventionally appropriate playing spaces. For each of the past five Seasons, BLO has sought out unusual locales in which to stage chamber-scaled works, choosing operas which themselves might be characterized as somewhat atypical repertoire. As the Temple undergoes a dramatic transformation to prepare for performances of The Love Potion, pictured below, we also look at some past responses to the venue problem.

Esther Nelson, BLO General & Artistic Director, speaks to a group of community members, Adagio donors, teachers, and others about the designs and concept of The Love Potion, with David Schweizer, stage director, looking on.

The Temple Ohabei Shalom sanctuary, in transition, as The Love Potion stage and set loads in.
The Love Potion costume sketches by Nancy Leary, left, and inspiration research, right.

A Brief History of Opera Venues in Boston
In 1958, Boston lost to the wrecking ball its first and, to-date, only purpose-built home for opera, the Boston Opera House on Huntington Avenue. Ever since, would-be producers of opera have been scrambling to find suitable places in which to perform, presenting works in diverse spaces from theatres to outdoor parks, from churches to universities.

1958 also saw the beginning of the rise to prominence of Sarah Caldwell, someone who was destined to leave an indelible stamp on the field of opera production and interpretation with her Opera Company of Boston, and yet the first of many for whom the venue issue would loom large. Her very first professional production – Offenbach’s Voyage to the Moon in June of 1958 – was staged outdoors in the Public Garden as part of the seventh annual edition of the Boston Arts Festival. She spent the next ten years producing works in the now-defunct Fine Arts Theatre, on Norway Street near Massachusetts Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay, and in the larger theatre of which it was a part (variously named Loew’s State Theater, Back Bay Theater, Donnelly Memorial Theater). Then Caldwell and her company were physically on the move again, seeing performances at the Shubert Theatre; the Kresge Auditorium and Rockwell Cage, both at MIT in Cambridge; Tufts University’s Cousens Gymnasium in Medford; and the Cyclorama/Flower Market in Boston’s South End. She spent seven seasons at the Orpheum/Aquarius Theater before buying the Savoy/Keith Memorial Theater in 1979 and renaming it The Opera House. Ever pragmatic and adaptive, Caldwell made the most of the unique attributes of each venue in which her company performed, and some of her most notable work took place “on the road.”

This period also saw the establishment of several other small opera companies in Boston, each with its own mission and identity, but all alike in their determination to offer performance opportunities to local artists. These intrepid, young companies could not afford to perform in conventional theatres, so their usual performance venues included some of Boston’s venerable old churches (Arlington Street Church, Emmanuel Church, the First and Second Church of Boston), various locations at local colleges and universities (Loeb Drama Center and Lehman Hall at Harvard, Agassiz Theater at Radcliffe, Longy School of Music, Massachusetts College of Art, Wheelock College), and the occasional small auditorium, such as New England Life Hall.

In 1976, three of these companies – New England Regional Opera, Associate Artists Opera, and New England Chamber Opera Group – joined forces to create Boston Lyric Opera. The newly-formed Company had expected to take up residence at the National Theater on Tremont Street in Boston’s South End, but soon after the Company’s founding, that facility was closed indefinitely in anticipation of renovation and ultimately demolished, leaving BLO without a performance venue and causing it to begin life as a roving troupe.

BLO’s very first offering was a performance of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors on December 26, 1976, at Boston’s Church of the Covenant on Newbury Street. Other productions followed at Massachusetts College of Art, Wellesley College, Berklee Performance Center, Old South Church, Tremont Temple, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and Brookline High School. BLO even performed complete operas in outdoor venues, twice on City Hall Plaza in 1980 and once at the Hatch Memorial Shell on the Esplanade in 1981, long before its highly-acclaimed Carmen on Boston Common in 2002.

BLO took a large leap forward when it landed in its first permanent home and became company-in-residence at Northeastern University in September of 1981. Continuing artistic and institutional growth next brought the Company to the Majestic Theatre beginning with its 1988/89 season, and then to the Shubert Theatre, its current home since the 1998/99 season.

In a wondrous turn of events, since 2009, BLO has deliberately and actively sought out facilities for its Opera Annex productions that resemble the kinds of venues it and its predecessor companies in Boston had once been forced to accept for lack of other options. But the difference is one of profound proportion – BLO seeks non-traditional environments possessing qualities that will enhance the audience experience of its productions and that will challenge its creative team in exciting artistic ways. Thus the eerie Victorian interior of the Castle at Park Plaza mirrored the atmosphere of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and of Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, the two Annex productions BLO has presented there. The view of Boston Harbor from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum provided the perfect backdrop for Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse. The Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts was readily made to suggest the makeshift nature of a performance area in a concentration camp for Ullmann’s Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Quits. The multi-levels of the Artists For Humanity EpiCenter provided plural playing spaces of various configurations for MacMillan’s Clemency, as well as affording an opportunity for the young artists enrolled in programs at Artists For Humanity to participate in technical and artistic aspects of the production.

Now, as BLO once again strives to match the attributes of its performance space with the artistic atmosphere of its production, we eagerly await the unfolding of the medieval tale of Tristan and Isolt within the Byzantine-Romanesque splendor of Temple Ohabei Shalom.

A special thanks to Jane Pisciottoli Papa, member, Boston Lyric Opera Board of Overseers, for her contributions to this blog article.