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Hockney touches up his classic 'Tristan'

Wagner's great love story returns to the Music Center for the third production designed by the artist. Is it a revival, a re-creation, or what?

January 13, 2008|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

Sailing into the darkened auditorium of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in early January -- as somber skies threatened to open up and wash away Los Angeles for good -- David Hockney was a springtime breeze in a light-colored suit, jaunty white linen cap and bright red tie.

Having just flown in from London, the 70-year-old British artist claimed jet lag, but it didn't show as he cheerfully greeted old friends during his first day of rehearsal for Los Angeles Opera's revival of perhaps its most iconic production, the Hockney-designed "Tristan and Isolde": "Didn't we do this in 1987?"

They did indeed. Hockney's "Tristan," with wildly fanciful sets and costumes by the contemporary artist, first took shape on the Chandler Pavilion stage just over 20 years ago.

That production was directed by Jonathan Miller, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta, was in the pit -- never, according to Hockney, this world-class orchestra's favorite place to be.

Hockney also admits to a few clashes with director Miller, who, as the artist tells it, turned down his suggestion that they take a drive from L.A. to just north of Santa Barbara so they could listen to the opera together. "I said: 'That'll be 4 1/2 hours when we can listen without interruption,' and he said no," Hockney said. "That was very telling. He's the only director I've worked with where we never listened to the music together." (Miller could not be reached for comment.)

Los Angeles Opera revived the production in 1997, this time with Hockney sharing credit for directing with Stephen Pickover. In the pit, perhaps more contentedly, was Los Angeles Opera's own orchestra.

Hockney is the first to gently remind a visitor that this is really Wagner's "Tristan," not his. Still, since the artist is so associated with Los Angeles, where he has made his home for more than 40 years, the production belongs to Hockney, at least for L.A. audiences.

"When Jonathan Miller said: 'It's your show,' he shocked me -- I told him, 'I always thought it was the singer, and the composer, a lot more than you or I,' " Hockney says -- though adding, with a half-smile: "Well, I did spend some time on it."

False modesty? Perhaps. Hockney seems to be only half joking when, at a later rehearsal, he observes that his 1987 design for the billowing ship's sails in Act 1 bears an uncanny resemblance to the curves of architect Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, opened in 2003. "Frank might have seen this, don't you think?"

With L.A. Opera's second "revival" of the opera set to open Saturday, the question is raised: What does the word "revival" mean in the case of this homegrown "Tristan" -- and in the opera world as a whole?

"It's like the Eskimos and snow," says this revival's director, Thor Steingraber, 41. "There ought to be more words for what we do when we re-create an opera production, because 'revival' covers so many things."

A complex production

On Broadway, "revival" generally means giving an old script or an old score a face-lift -- new sets, new costumes, new staging. In opera, the term generally refers to keeping the designer's sets, costumes and sometimes props -- in other words, the look of the production -- but often using a new director, cast and crew, who are free to rework the staging to fit the idiosyncrasies of the new talent.

Steingraber says that, when involved in a new production, today's opera directors and designers are calling for increasingly sophisticated contracts that allow them to control creative elements, including details of staging, in subsequent revivals.

And that, he explains, is to avoid the horrors of producing a "Three Days in Vienna."

That's not the title of a real opera, though it sounds like one; the name has been changed to protect the guilty. Steingraber uses it because he doesn't want to out the real opera, thrown together in that many days, that he attended in that European city. "The singers, the chorus and the orchestra had never been together before," Steingraber says. "I find those kinds of revivals functional at best -- amazingly, singers not standing in the light, choristers in the wrong places; there were even places in this particular production in Vienna where the orchestra fell apart because there was a new conductor.

"Some companies do those revivals well; some companies do them in a slapdash manner," Steingraber continues. "You'll talk to performers, who are, say, arriving in Vienna to their first 'Rosenkavalier,' and -- this is a true story -- they have three days to do their first rehearsal, then a dress rehearsal, and then they open. It's an economic necessity, but nobody likes it."

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