Ultimately Deb Voigt’s fault

Last week, I went looking for recordings of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten so I could hear a little of it before seeing the actual show. I did find a complete recording in the library, and I also found one of Deborah Voigt’s recital CDs, “Obsessions” that had bits of that opera, some other selections of Strauss, and some Wagner. In the end, I didn’t listen to the complete recording of the Strauss opera at all, because I got distracted by Voigt, both the Strauss and the Wagner, which turned into listening to Kirsten Flagstad singing various selections from Tristan und Isolde which turned into spending today watching a DVD of a performance of Tristan from the Met in 1999, with Ben Heppner as Tristan and Jane Eaglen as Isolde.

MetTristan1 This has never happened to me with Wagner, and I have actually even watched this particular DVD before, but I ended up in tears through most of the second half of Act III. The Met’s production is very simple and spare, with stark divisions of the stage both separating and uniting the characters. Isolde and Brangäne are found most often in the dark space to the front; Tristan enters this dark space when he finally is willing to speak to Isolde in Act I; when Isolde and Tristan drink Brangäne’s “death” potion, they meet at the vertical pillar in the middle, which also serves as the ship’s mast in Act I. Although the characters cross the boundaries at various moments, the men appear more often in the brighter space to the rear, while the darker part in front is associated with women, love and death. (Credit here goes to stray for pointing out to me ages and ages ago the gendered division of space in this production.) Both the production itself and the camera work (Brian Large was the video director) outline characters against the diagonal lines in the back at key moments. The effect broadly speaking is to highlight the distinctions that the opera turns on and in some cases blurs: men and women, love and death, day and night, loyalty and betrayal, and so on.

In Act III, the stage is cluttered with small models representing Tristan’s knightly past. Initially, this seemed like a (visual) false note to me, but on reflection, I think that’s precisely the point. MetTristan2By Act III, Tristan’s past has become as out of place and and inconsequential to him as these models are to the space that they have been placed in.

The stage direction has the same feel of abstraction. Tristan and Isolde are often only silhouettes, and very still ones, during their big moments of love and death and all that. The effect is to consistently push one’s attention from the visual to the music, which is perfectly capable of expressing all the drama on its own. It’s very effective, particularly when the music is performed as well as it is here.

Heppner and Eaglen are extremely impressive – whenever I hear a Wagner opera performed well, I am surprised anew at the sheer amount of sound these folks with the big voices can produce. Eaglen was probably making all the little Met-Title screens on the seats vibrate at the big moments, but she can also sound fragile and gentle without losing an ounce of power. Tenors who are known for singing Wagner well are called Heldentenors, right? So why isn’t a good Wagner soprano a Heldinsopranistin? (or Heldinsopran? I think Sopran = treble, incl. boy trebles and Sopranistin = soprano, but I could be off here.) Also, as the photos reveal, both Heppner and Eaglen are on the heavy side, but I think that having the hero and heroine be ordinary-looking and middle aged actually makes the story deeper and more powerful than if they were both young and pretty.

Levine and the Met orchestra also did themselves proud here, particularly the English horn soloist, Sharon Meekins, at the beginning of Act III. The whole thing sounds big and lush and suffused with longing. (Regarding English horns. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the reason an English horn sounds like an oboe is that it actually is a variety of oboe which is merely referred to as a horn, I assume in order to confuse the unwary.)

As it turns out, I have tickets to see this opera next month when I’m on vacation in Europe – happy timing, I guess?

23 thoughts on “Ultimately Deb Voigt’s fault

    1. Peter Seiffert is Tristan and (holy fuck I somehow managed to miss this particular bit of information when I bought the tickets) Nina Stemme is singing Isolde. Should be a good time.


      1. eta: I knew that sounded too good to be true and also not consistent with my memory of buying the ticket. That’s the wrong cast for the December show – somehow the Wiener Staatsoper’s webpage gave me old info. this is correct.


    1. My dictionary is on the fence about it, but google seems to break for Sopranistin (“die deutsche Sopranistin” turns up more results than “die deutsche Sopran” at least). Sopran seems to come up more in the sense of “soprano part/role” and Sopranistin to describe a woman singer of that range.


  1. Heldinsopran and Heldinsopranistin aren’t right for the same reason that one wouldn’t say Heldtenor. Heldensopran you do encounter, but very rarely (Busoni uses it for the Duchess of Parma in Doktor Faustus). The more regular term is hochdramatischer Sopran, though confusingly ‘Heldinnenrollen’ is actually a commonly used phrase. The only time I heard Heldensopran in conversation was from a Staatsoper Stehplatz veteran who obsessively worshipped Varnay and wanted to convey that she was more than hochdramatisch to him. His (quite possibly idiosyncratic) usage of Heldensopran sounded to me like a superlative with a Ginger Rogers-y tinge, i.e. that Varnay was so superhuman relative to her sex that she’d managed to purge all her womanly weaknesses and perform to the higher standard of a man. Err yeah.

    Brünnhilde is way more than a Heldin anyway. ‘Heldentenor’ always associates itself in my mind with these hapless Wagnerian men who aren’t particularly likable (Walther) or are spectacularly dumb (Siegfried). Brünnhilde’s the one with the smarts that redeem their sorry asses. I also love Isolde’s “dies süsse Wörtlein: und”, the only astute words to be uttered after ‘O sink hernieder’.

    John, it certainly sounds culturally very German that we would have some Académie française-like body which clarifies linguistic matters for the order-loving Volk, but there’s no institution with that authority. The recent history of German-language spelling reform, involving several international committees, was a total shambles that resulted in people doing their own thing according to region and/or inclination, which can be a nightmare for GSL/GFL learners.


    1. Cool! Thanks for all the detail – I knew that “hochdramatischer Sopran” was the normal technical term for this voice type, but I haven’t had enough experience with people discussing Wagner operas to be familiar with the rest.


      1. Well, we’re on the third round of reforms since 1996, many of the reformed spellings are nuts, but when Merkel tried to restore the old spellings nobody wanted those back either… so anarchy sounds about right.


        1. I remember learning about spelling reform in German class in college – we did a skit about it. If I remember correctly, it was a murder mystery (not making this up) in which I played the role of the spelling reformer & was found beaten to death with a dictionary. (German class at my college = awesome)


  2. Dear Earworm, I’ve been reading and enjoying your wonderful blog for a long time, and shame on me that it is nothing but my déformation professionnelle that prompts me to post a comment here: I’ve been working as a teacher of German language and literature for several years. And so, to add my two cents worth of expertise: there IS in fact a kind of German-language-control-office (how could there not be one?). It is called the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung. You should definitely submit your suggestion to them. Heldensopran sounds great to me, though Heldinnensopran would be equally correct (Fugen-N and all…). Or should it be Walkürensopran?


    1. Hi Martin,

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog 🙂 I studied German in college a little, and I’ve been trying recently to relearn everything I’ve forgotten in the intervening time, which means that I make mistakes – so I’m lucky I have some German-speaking readers! I’m half tempted to just start using Heldinnensopran and/or Walkürensopran as technical terms, to see if they take off . . .


    2. I thought that the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung existed mainly to celebrate German-language academics for particularly sensational feats of turgidity? I had no idea they police the language, though suppose it fits. I’m the second-generation Doktorkind of a musicologist who was elected to the Deutsche Akademie on account of his dense prose and so heard about it more often as the butt of a joke: students would constantly ask Dahlhaus to spare them the long-winded explanations and talk plainly, to which he reportedly deadpanned, “Komisch. Do you not know that I have been awarded honours for my linguistic clarity?”

      But Walkürensopran, now *that* deserves a prize.


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