If critics are to be believed, the use of video on the theatrical stage had become something of a fad by the early years of the new millennium. "Multimedia," wrote Lyn Gardner in the Guardian, "is a word I've come to dread in the theatre. There was a period around five years ago when you could hardly step inside a theatre to see a new play without encountering a bank of video monitors."1 Diedrich Diederichsen recounts the similarly exasperated tone of a Berlin critic, who wrote in December 2003 of her wish for the coming year that the Berlin Volksbühne might resist using video projections just once.2 Opera, meanwhile, has been no stranger to this fascination with video. Toronto critic Peter Goddard recently wrote of "opera's video projection fetish," quoting director Astrid Janson on the "fashionable" use of "large projections, particularly in Wagner."3
Arguably, the ultimate product of this "fetish" has been The Tristan Project, a production of Wagner's three-act Handlung directed by Peter Sellars with a commissioned full-length video by Bill Viola. Initially presented in semistaged form (one act per evening) at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, in December 2004 and fully staged at Paris's Opéra Bastille in April 2005, The Tristan Project attracted extraordinary media interest: interviews and preview articles flooded the press before the performances, while the review coverage was as widespread as it gets for opera. The source of the fascination? Undoubtedly, it had much to do with the contested reputations of the collaborators. If Sellars has surely outgrown his reputation as opera's bad boy, he remains a provocative figure, still capable of dividing opinion.4 Viola, meanwhile, is surely the most discussed figure in video art today: his installations have generated both critical and public interest worldwide, while the body of scholarly literature on his work has grown substantially. Yet admiration of Viola's technical skill and the sheer beauty of his work tends to be met with concerns about a superficiality and the perceived absence of the qualities—cultural critique, skepticism about art and the aesthetic—that have characterized much video art since its emergence in the late sixties and seventies (an emergence to which Viola's early work contributed).5 Here was Viola's stock-in-trade imagery: bodies floating in water and enveloped by fire, split-framed character studies summoning the allegorical resonance of Renaissance [End Page 235] portraiture, meditative shots of natural environments—such as the desert—that are the haunts of seers and prophets. All this was true to form and likely to confirm the views both of his admirers and his detractors. Critics of The Tristan Project summoned superlatives both positive and negative, characterizing Viola's video as everything from a revelatory experience to an extended Calvin Klein advertisement.
The core issue for many critics, however, was not the video per se, but its relationship to the production as a whole. This was no intermittent projection onto various surfaces of the mise-en-scène, a technique by now familiar to opera audiences; Viola's video sequences were projected in cinematic proportions onto a giant screen at the rear of the stage, and for almost the entire duration of the production. In this sense the production served as a touchstone for critical concerns about a perceived media overload that not only threatens the place of music in opera but also undermines opera's identity as theater, transforming the opera house into a cinema with a supplementary live stage. Yet it is precisely in these overlaps—these liminal spaces and crossings where traditional media and genre boundaries blur and even collapse—that the production offers so much to opera studies. It was the impression of media collision, sensory overload, and generic unraveling that I found most compelling in performance and that now motivates me to reflect on the implications of the production for questions of performance, spectatorship, and operatic mediality.6
Throwing in the Towel
Reaction to The Tristan Project tended to exhibit a typically operatic concern for the ways in which the production either enhanced or diminished the experience of music...