Bill Viola's Video Visions: Turning 'Tristan und Isolde' Into An Immersive Experience

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Video artist Bill Viola’s astounding and rarely seen visual accompaniment to Wagner’s operatic love story Tristan und Isolde is on display once again. From Jan. 29 to Feb. 23, the Canadian Opera Company (COC) is staging director Peter Sellars’ version of Tristan und Isolde—in which Viola’s sweeping slow-motion videos of water, fire and people are as integral to the action as the singers and music. Because of its ambitious technological requirements, Sellars’ version has only been fully staged by Opéra national de Paris at Bastille, later travelling to Kobe and Tokyo, Japan.

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Video still from Opéra national de Paris’ production of

Tristan und Isolde

, 2005. Photo by Kira Perov

Viola’s video, which was recorded using everything from 35mm film cameras to analog black-and-white CCTV surveillance cameras, is played in real time, in sync with Wagner’s score. The imagery is projected on a 72’ x 40’ screen that is suspended above and behind the singers, who perform on a minimalist square stage. Video is live-switched by a three-person crew, whose members manually slow down and speed up the content so that it remains synchronized with the performance.

Video Perfect for Wagner
Director Peter Sellars is known for innovation. In the past, he has staged Antony and Cleopatra in the swimming pool of Harvard’s Adams House, set Handel’s opera Orlando in outer space, and (when an undergraduate) performed Wagner’s Ring Cycle using puppets.

A longtime admirer of Viola’s work, Sellars views video as a perfect partner to Wagner’s otherworldly Tristan score and, indeed, the realization of what the 19th century composer was striving for. “Wagner was seeking a new, unified art form that integrated many existing art forms, which he referred to as a Gesamtkunstwerk,” Sellars explains. “Video integrated with theater was part of what he was working toward, even though it hadn’t been invented yet.”

Viola’s Approach
Video artist Bill Viola is renowned for using exquisitely detailed high-resolution slow-motion imagery in Tristan und Isolde to show the shimmering details of water and fire and people’s interaction with them. But Viola is also someone who loves the graininess of old analog video. “In fact, my most beautiful camera is a CCTV surveillance camera that I bought for $200 at a swap meet in 1981,” he says. “By overloading this camera’s light intensifier, I can create evocative imagery that just doesn’t occur in a digital world.”

For Tristan und Isolde, Viola dipped into his decades of video imagery. As well, he rented an unused Space Shuttle assembly plant in Downey, Calif., to shoot scenes of water and fire, with stunt actors raised and lowered on mechanical lifts. There were often more than 40 people on the set, headed up by executive producer Kira Perov, longtime collaborator and Viola’s wife, and Harry Dawson, director of photography and a collaborator since 1992.

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Photo by Kira Perov

It is worth noting that Viola did not use any greenscreen. Everything the audience sees originated in reality, not cyberspace.

“Our crew did the shooting there using both 35mm film and HD cameras,” says Alex MacInnis, Bill Viola’s technical director and one of the three people who runs the Tristan und Isolde video unit on stage. “Bill headed out with a DVCAM to capture nature shots, and did the rough cuts in [Apple] Final Cut Pro. He then worked with online video editor Brian Pete to painstakingly post hours of finished video for the opera.”

In all of its incarnations, the video used in Tristan und Isolde has been stored on video servers and played out to HD projectors (either Barco or Christie) via PCs with manual show control management software and a video switcher. “When we first did the show in Paris, HD projectors with the power we needed didn’t exist,” says MacInnis. “We made do with 1,200-line resolution.”

For safety’s sake, Viola’s team has always used redundant pairs of video projectors, one overlaying video on top of the other in real time. “This way we don’t lose the action should one of the projectors fail,” MacInnis explains.

To further complicate matters, the projection screen is mounted in landscape mode for Acts 1 and 2 and then rotated to portrait mode for Act 3. “In the past we have covered this by mounting projectors both for landscape and portrait or by mounting the projectors on a gimbal that can be turned 90 degrees during the Act 2 intermission,” he explains.

The trickiest part of the Tristan und Isolde video playback is that it has to synch with the music, and whatever tempo changes the conductor might make on the fly. This is why MacInnis and his team—Sylvain Levacher (handling the dissolves), Guilhem Jayet (running the show controller) and stage manager Elsa Grima (calling the cues)—have to stay on top of the action and pacing at all times.

“This is the hardest part of the job, given that the opera runs five hours,” MacInnis notes. “At the beginning of each performance, I find myself wondering: Will I be able to stay sharp for the entire show?”

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Technically speaking, the equipment being used has improved over the years. For instance, “We started out using seven video servers,” says MacInnis. “Now we can run our video on just one server.”

But one challenge remains: finding a video switcher with a smooth T-bar for dissolves. This functionality is important because Viola’s crew has to manually control the timing and length of dissolves to keep pace with the live music. And it’s not simply a matter of switching from one source to another—at times, both video sources have to be maintained in a partial dissolve to deliver the desired visual effect.

“Because T-bars are not a big priority with switcher manufacturers, we often have to use gigantic consoles to gain access to the quality we require,” MacInnis says. “It can look pretty silly with a top-end switcher hanging over one of our desks. But that’s what makes it work.”

Video’s Evolving Role On Stage

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Photo by Kira Perov

When Sellars first staged Tristan und Isolde, the process of using Viola’s video was new and experimental. Because the final cuts were coming in at the last minute, it made sense for him to play the live action as close to the screened action as possible.

Today, Peter Sellars knows Viola’s video inside and out. As a result, he now has the freedom to use it “to counterpoint what’s happening on stage,” Sellars explains. “Rather than just reflecting the present, I can adjust the actors’ actions so that the video serves as a memory of what they’re expressing, or a premonition of what’s to come.” He is applying this knowledge to the Toronto production, adding yet more depth to this intricately layered opera.

Sellars adds that Tristan und Isolde is the ultimate showcase for Bill Viola’s body of work. “Thanks to Bill’s use of his archival footage, as well as the work he shot for this opera, what you see is a true retrospective of his oeuvre, his life’s work,” says Sellars. Add the fact that Viola’s video takes Wagner’s opera to places the 19th century composer only dreamed of, and the COC’s production of Tristan und Isolde is a remarkable achievement on many levels. 



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