Interview with Maestro Hugh Keelan

Interview with Maestro Hugh Keelan

Hugh Keelan, the music director of Tundi Productions in Brattleboro, Vermont, conducts a fully staged, fully orchestrated performance of Tristan und Isolde. Performance dates are August 23 and 25, 2019.

  1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

I have conducted throughout the world, from the Residentie Orchestra (conducted by Toscanini) in The Hague, to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (in pioneering recordings of seminal American symphonies), to the Saint Louis Symphony (with a world premiere) and the Windham Orchestra (art created in, with, and for a community). I have collaborated with the great artists of our times, including Solti, Haitink, Sir Colin Davis, Shura Cherkassky, Maurice Sendak, and Tom Stoppard. In the future are Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen and Boudica, composed and cowritten with Jenna Rae at our company, Tundi. During Boudica, audiences will learn Celtic war cries, and from their seats participate in battle scenes with the Roman occupiers. Currently, in August 2019, performers from around the world and close by assemble for Tristan und Isolde. For me, life and art are not distinct, just different words for a committed exploration of beauty and transcendence.

Jenna [Rae] (Isolde) and I have built our production company Tundi so that we and others have satisfactions and fulfillments not provided by standard career paths.

  1. Will you be conducting Wagner for the first time on August 23? And how did you arrive at Wagner?

It is not the first time I have conducted Wagner, though never a complete opera; plenty of excerpts. My mentors include Davis, Solti, Goodall, and a set of figures at Covent Garden. For a period, I would accompany Alessandra Marc with orchestra, performing the Liebestod, the Wesendonck Lieder, and Strauss’s Four Last Songs

I arrived at Wagner through a transformation while attending the Boulez/Chéreau Ring when I was 19. My experience now is certainly not what it was then. Though I consider Wagner to be an endlessly modern genius who hands us our humanity to deal with over and again, what currently overwhelms me is the tension (quite likely not the best word) between improvisation (an earlier flowering of Strauss’s capacity to “compose out loud”) and architecture. And currently I am bewildered by Wagner’s capacity to break the space-time continuum (as the man himself wrote [in Parsifal], “Du siehst . . . zum Raum wird hier die Zeit” [You see, here space and time become one]). Often in Tristan und Isolde the reexamined narrative or the simple hearing-again of words––

  • “Tristan” 
  • “Isolde”
  •  “zu König Markes Land [to King Mark’s Land]”
  •  “Befehlen liess dem Eigenholde [Let my command teach the vainglorious one]”
  •  “Tantris”
  •  “Frisch weht der Wind [Fresh the wind blows]”
  •  “Die alte Weise [That old tune]

––takes us to places where layers of time appear to overlap; we are simultaneously back at the beginning, yet reexploring in a new direction.

  1. What made you choose to perform Tristan und Isolde among Wagner’s operas?

Well, they are all impossible, so the flip answer is to start with one of them (rather than, for example, four of them). A more serious answer is that it is the Wagner work least hungry for controversy in its social, political, dramaturgical themes and ramifications; also it creates a world both of accessibility and mystery around love. We’ll take the case that love is a matter of consuming and pervasive human interest, so we are handed a theme that is very hard to exhaust. I am currently awestruck at the work as an examination of a theme subset inside love, “nontoxic masculinity.” The subtlety and care with which the male characters treat one another is beyond exemplary. Even with violent actions perpetrated, the men act from places of principle and commitment, rather than reaction, programming, and impulse. This is easy to miss in its richness, as there is a relatively clearly placed villain (Melot) and some openly expressed ill will from the men to the women in some places. Finally, the casting has been easy (not many productions can say that), and my own love for the work renders me helpless.

  1. How do you teach your orchestra a work that is so difficult to perform?

The answer is to not view the work contextually from concepts such as “teach” or “difficult.” Tristan is nothing more nor less than the greatest, richest expression of love ever penned. People, including players, want to participate and tend to solve problems as they come up in their stride. I know that might be a mystifying nonresponse; so here is my next unhelpful answer: By honoring them.

  1.  What is your take on Regietheater productions, especially in Europe?

I am a performer and listener, not a theorist. I have a commitment to extract value from, or give value to, any artistic experience I encounter or am involved in. I am a little bit certain, but not completely, that mostly what I want from any performance is to be engaged thoroughly and deeply. I have a dislike of taxonomy and “boxes” in the arts, similar to disliking “-isms.” I don’t even like Fach [area of expertise] talk about singers! I love the occasional suggestions from Wagner that any artistic venture should be destroyed once completed (pretty wild paraphrasing, I’m afraid), never to be revived. I love Mahler’s “Tradition ist Schlamperei” (laziness).

To help us all just a little bit more, Tundi’s Isolde will wear green (for Ireland), Marke will wear a crown, and potions will be drunk. There will be imagery of the sea for Act 1, of a love garden for Act 2, and . . .

  1.  Do you plan to conduct other Wagner operas in the near or far future?

Walkūre this time next year, fully produced with orchestra; the other three with piano, though my dream is also to do the final act of Götterdämmerung with orchestra . . . so we are doing noticeably better than one out of four in a Ring Festival.

Dalia Geffen