On Saturday night I went to see the Los Angeles opera production of Tristan und Isolde. It was the first time I'd ever seen a Wagner opera, and I was quite excited. Wagner is like a final exam of whether or not you love opera. I thought I did-- wasn't I very fond of the Flying Dutchman?
I'm still a new opera-goer. I didn't think to listen to the music first, find out about the singers, or use any of the usual techniques for getting more out of it. And if the opera company hadn't sent me an email, I would have missed the whole first act-- the opera had to start early to make up for its being four and a half hours long. It takes an hour and a half to get there, too, even though the opera is less than 20 miles away. Los Angeles traffic is inexorable.
I got to my seat in the nick of time and sat down to look at the program. The sets were by David Hockney. Oh no, I thought. The swimming-pool guy. Then the curtain went up. The sets were amazing-- here is the one for the first act. It was like a living fairy tale. I think they are the best sets I've ever seen, and the lighting was fantastic too.
But the first act was so very disappointing, it reminded me of when I was eight years old and my parents took me to see La Bohème-- and Mimi, the starving beauty, was played by a fat 40-year-old. Here, the fair maiden Isolde looked very much like my overweight blonde sister-in-law who is at least in her mid-40s. And Tristan, the handsome warrior, must have been sixty! All Isolde did was shriek in bad German all the way through the first act-- all she needed was the breastplate and spear to fulfill every cliché of screeching Wagner heroines.
"Feel like leaving after this act?" said D in my ear as we sat back down. All around me people were rustling. Lots of dressed-up men looking uncomfortable and gorgeous glamorous women.
But the second act was glorious. In the next intermission we had a glass of champagne and went out on the terrace. Below us was a sea of trees entwined with lights, and a lit-up fountain. "I love L.A.!" I said.
"Why?" said D. "You thought you would hate it."
I thought about it for a minute. "Well, there's the weather, of course," I said. "Then, everyone here is ambitious-- there's none of that Paris morosité. Even the poorest people haven't given up, they're not resigned, they all seem to be working hard for a better life. I thought people out here would be shallow and provincial. But it's actually the least provincial city I know."
We went back in, and the last act was sublime. David Hockney, the brilliant lighting designer, and the director James Conlon came onstage at the end. As always, there was a standing ovation.