Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Dear Christine,

October 24, 2006

Christine Brewer as Isolde and Thomas Moser as Tristan
Photo Terrence McCarthy 2006

(An open letter to Christine Brewer, soprano)

I usually refrain from so personal a salutation with someone I don't actually know (in fact I usually find it quite irritating), but I'm making an exception in this case because I think your singing is great and in some ways I feel like I owe you one. You see, I have been following your career for a little while now and have had the opportunity to hear you sing live on six occasions in the last two years and have always been really impressed. (I missed a seventh opportunity when I had to leave Santa Fe early in 2005 due to illness and missed Peter Grimes.)

Most of these events were concert performances of acts from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde that you did with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic in 2004 as part of their Tristan Project. The performances were important to me in that, not only did you sing splendidly, but you changed my attitude toward Wagner. I had my fair share of exposure to Wagner before this, but hearing you in this context – along with the contributions of Peter Sellars, Bill Viola, Salonen, and your fellow cast members – was the first time that I "got" it. Love transcending death and life at the same time - how German, how romantic, and what a great idea for an opera. I've looked at Tristan and all of Wagner's other operas with much more admiration since then. In fact, Tristan is easily one of my favorite operas at this point – as is Parsifal – and I do associate some of this change in my perception with you and your performances.

That being said, it's hard for me to be completely objective about the recent San Francisco Opera production of Tristan und Isolde you appeared in last weekend. Despite some problems, overall I had a great time. I thought you were great – not too steely or overbearing but with excellent power and beautiful tone. Of course, having the support of Mr. Runnicles and the fine SF Opera orchestra in the pit is no small matter. It's a shame that they're letting him go on his way at the end of his current contract.

All hands on deck - Act I
Photo Terrence McCarthy 2006

It appears you have a good colleague in him, and heaven knows you both have had to put up with your share of not so great things from San Francisco Opera lately. First, there was that Newsies-inspired '30s paperboy get-up from Fidelio last season. This time your obstacles appear to be even greater. Again you've had to deal with Mr. Moser, who, while not bad, isn't really keeping up with you. It was much more pleasant to hear you accompanied by Jane Irwin's Brangäne. Then there is the direction problem. Instead of constructive guidance in the acting department, it appears that the team favored mime training as indicated by the moon-like pantomimes you and Mr. Moser repeatedly had to engage in. Certainly we all have our Shields and Yarnell moments, but sticking you with this onstage is cruel. All this and then you snag (another) unappreciative review from Mr. Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle.

You're Isolde has faired much better here in LA (as did the wonderful Brünnhilde teaser you delivered at the Bowl in 2005), and I imagine it will again in the Spring when you return for further perfromances. So do yourself a favor, come on down and enjoy the sun, we're happy to have you.

Sincerely yours,
brian at outwestarts.com

P.S. I picked up your new recording of the opera under Runnicles with John Treleaven and thought you were much better matched in this context.

P.P.S. When do we get to hear a fully-staged Brünnhilde?

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