We opera goers often find ourselves using the term “unforgettable.” In New York, the idea took on an even more special meaning last Thursday night. Many of us were at the Metropolitan Opera for the first performance of the revival of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, not heard here for a few years .
I’m a big fan of this particular opera, and I was pleased to be at the Met on Thursday. I had looked forward to the performance for a long time, ever since it was announced, and I was overjoyed with the singing and the staging. Otto Schenk created this production in 1977, and I’ve seen it many times, and I’m not shy about saying it’s possibly the most beautiful production at the Met.
I suppose I first discovered the opera when a voice teacher was attempting to teach this young lyric baritone the famous hymn to the evening star (“O du, mein holder Abendstern”) sung by Wolfram von Eschenbach. My teacher’s efforts didn’t work, but I never stopped loving to hear other baritones sing this piece. And at the Met, I think the first performance I saw was probably one of those early performances (possibly the one captured here at “The Met on Demand”).
In any case, I know I attended this opera at least once in each season in which it was performed. And, yes, this year I might have overdone it a bit, as I was able to attend both a piano rehearsal with the singers in mid-November and the Final Dress Rehearsal last Monday, sharing both with a dear friend. Then Thursday night’s unforgettable first performance came along, and I was sharing it with my two closest family members.
Was it truly “unforgettable?” I daresay it was, and additionally, probably for more than musical reasons. If you’ve seen the New York press, you know the performance was interrupted by protesters. During the second act, they stopped the show, twice. And that second act is, for me, the most beautiful and spectacular part of the opera’s overall experience, including eight—count ’em—eight herald trumpets accompanying the entrance of the guests!
Our reactions? Those of us in the audience? Well, first of all, pretty strong anger, because we couldn’t understand what the protesters were screaming or what their intention was, and we could not read the cloth banners they were dropping down from the front of the Family Circle. But worse than that, they were interrupting something special to all of us there. They were ruining what we had come to experience.
Later, of course, we found out who they were and what they were trying to do, as I read in an online report sent by a friend who was not at the opera house (Climate Activists Disrupt Met Opera’s Opening Night). And Joshua Barone’s review in The New York Times was helpful, clearly spelling out what happened for many people, including audience members who left. Additionally, Barone, too, was disappointed that the “flow” of the opera was seriously compromised, noting that after the disruption, he “never felt fully engaged with the show again.”
Not us. When we left our seats at the second intermission, all three of us were talking—almost instantly— about how, as the 22 minutes ended and the two interruptions finished, we found ourselves getting “back into” (we might say) the opera, with all the intensity and drama picking up just where it had stopped. That experience was, I expect, a tribute to Wagner’s great success in effectively contrasting the twin subjects of paganism and spiritualism. Both his music and his story gripped us again, and for the rest of the act took away the discomfort caused by the interruptions.
And when we came back to our seats, the third act was flawlessly performed. Everyone on stage, in the orchestra, everyone moved forward, perhaps even surprising themselves a little. Elza van den Heever, singing Elizabeth, sang her prayer beautifully, almost bringing tears to our eyes. And making his Met debut, Christian Gerhaher’s plea to the evening star was as touching and poignant as I’ve ever heard it sung.
Despite the “extra” parts of the evening we all experienced, it became clear on Thursday just what good music can bring to our lives these days.
Any advice from Guy? Yes. If you’re in New York—or coming to us for a holiday visit—go to the Met for Tannhäuser. There are seven more performances (Dec. 3, 6, 9, 12, 16, 19, and 23).
You won’t regret it. Or forget it, even without the added drama of a protest.