Can children be expected to understand unrequited love and death? The Bayreuth Festival presents such laden themes to kids without excess sugarcoating.
Rehearsal stage IV in Bayreuth is now an insider's tip. There, in the shadows of the big theater, the "Wagner for Kids" project takes center stage. It kicked off in 2009 with an imaginative, child-friendly version of "The Flying Dutchman." The following years it was "Tannhäuser," "The Ring of the Nibelung" and "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg." In 2013, the work that was considered the most unfit for children was up to bat - "Tristan and Isolde." And it worked.
All in the same boot
Everyone sits in a boot - big people and little ones. Waves swoosh around; masts creak. Stage designer Judith Philipp and director Michael Höppner have turned the stage into a roughly-constructed ship, on whose deck the entire story plays out. A bug-eyed blue fish on the brochure tells readers: "The story of Tristan and Isolde that I'd like to tell you is a tragic one, indeed." No understatement there.
Isolde is a princess - you see that right away. And she's in a very bad mood. No wonder: Tristan has kidnapped her, and she's supposed to marry King Marke - whom she neither loves, nor even knows. Horrible, isn't it?! The kids agree: it is.
Isolde's servant and friend Brangäne tries to assure her: "Your marriage will finally bring about peace between our countries." But Isolde is inconsolable. She only wants one thing: to die. But she still has a score to settle with Tristan, who's sitting up up on the higher deck, fishing. "Thief! Criminal! Murderer!" Isolde screams at him, holding up Morold's helmet to him. Morold was Isolde's fiancé, whom Tristan killed.
"When I received Daniel Weber's version of the opera, I was really pleased that it hadn't been altered in a way that many adults consider child-friendly," director Michael Höppner admits. The abridged children's version tells the story of unhappy love directly and honestly, without playing things down or sweetening them up, also doing justice to the work's central idea.
Daniel Weber and composer Marko Zdralek cut down the libretto and music from four-and-a-half to one-and-a-half hours - capturing the opera's most important moments and harnessing the powerful force of Wagner's music. That was also achieved by the 30 musicians of the Brandenburg State Orchestra of Frankfurt on the Oder, conveying the essence of what a Wagnerian orchestra three times the size normally does.
Suicide that just won't happen
Endeavoring to make Wagner's complicated drama as appealing to kids as possible, the director has Brangäne mixing love and death potions in her magic laboratory. Everything bubbles and brews and shines brightly, the kids love it and they can take little samples home. Meanwhile, love has performed its miracle. "I don't want anything to stand between us any more," Tristan says. Isolde looks at him meaningfully. With Isolde promised to King Marke, Isolde and Tristan have no future together. Only death can unite them.
"Seen that way, the two are hard at work from the beginning trying to do away with themselves," explained Höppner. But something always goes wrong: sometimes other people get involved; the death potion gets knocked over; the ship doesn't sink."It's almost comic; there's something wonderfully absurd about it," he said.
Broken hearts, abrupt music
All the laughs notwithstanding, there's no happy end to "Tristan and Isolde," not even in the children's version. The director sticks to the original. No boot sails by to rescue the lovers, no mysterious fog; they really do die: Tristan of a fatal wound; Isolde of a broken heart. The wind blows. The masts creak. The hero and heroine are dead, yet for them, it's the happiest moment of the story. "The biggest challenge was getting the idea across that Tristan and Isolde voluntarily choose to die," the director told DW. "That's a real provocation by Wagner, but people have to accept it."
They also have to accept the fact that with the score radically shortened, Wagner's "endless music" breaks off at certain points. "The strangest place is in the second act, when the music accompanies the major scene of rapturous love," said conductor Boris Schäfer. After just three minutes, at the peak of ecstasy, it just stops. Doesn't that pain the musicians? "Not any more," admitted the conductor. "We considered adding in a cadence and an ending in C Major, but then we decided not to because this way, it's more honest and radical."
'Tristan and Isolde' for kids made possible by singer Stefan Heibach, adaptor Daniel Weber, director Michael Höppner and conductor Boris Schäfer
"I will always love Isolde"
"I don't really think this story is so sad," said Irene Theorin, who sings the role of Isolde in the production for children. "After all, death is a part of life." The piece is geared toward children over age eight, and by then, every child has thought about death in one form or another. The open wound designed by the make-up artist is more likely to shock an adult than a toughened-up elementary school kid. And even if the little ones don't understand everything at first: the production is a wonderful introduction to the world of opera, if only because of the world-class singers.
"You have to give children the opportunity to experience opera," believes director co-festival Katharina Wagner, who initiated the children's opera project at Bayreuth. "Opera doesn't get a lot of playtime during music lessons because the lessons are getting shorter and shorter. But you can see how eager kids are when they're exposed to it."
And it's true: after one performance, a little girl went up to singer Irene Theorin and adoringly assured her: "I will always love Isolde."