Sitting alone deep in the ancient cedar forests on the Japanese island of Yukushima, Antoine Wagner came in direct contact with his quest for silence.
“You spend three days living in a dense forest in tents, and then suddenly the guide says, ‘You have to stay here for an hour, someone will come get you,’” he said. “There’s not a single sound in the forest, and you feel like every single tree is looking at you. The forest is so old that every single root is connected, you’re getting into the oldest single network in the world.
“It almost feels like the trees are communicating, and gossiping between them, and you feel like you’ve opened a door that’s very private, that’s very intimate, and you feel like you’re part of something different, where silence reigns,” he said.
Silence has held a longtime fascination for Wagner, and tonight in Miami Beach, two silent films of his will be playing on the wall of the New World Center. But those films will come before and after the primary reason for his being in town — fashioning a new context for a very special kind of sound: Act II of the operaDie Walküre, written by his great-great-grandfather, Richard Wagner.
Tonight’s presentation at the New World Center, as part of the Miami Music Festival, marks Wagner’s directorial debut as a presenter of one of his illustrious ancestor’s operas, an effort that’s very much in the family. His mother, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, was the co-director of the Bayreuth Festival – which Richard opened in 1876 — along with his aunt Katharina, while his grandfather Wolfgang ran it for decades after World War II. The operas have also generated a rich directorial history, having been tackled by a host of eminent stage thinkers for more than a century.
The Miami Music Festival, a summer school for aspiring professional musicians and operatic singers founded five years ago by Michael Rossi of the Washington Opera, is now in its third year of presenting its Wagner Institute. Last year’s Institute featured a full performance of Die Walküre’s Act I in the Knight Concert Hall at the Arsht Center in downtown Miami.
Die Walküre, which will star Alan Held as Wotan and Linda Watson as Brünnhilde, will be presented in full along with Act II of Lohengrin, directed by Marc Callahan. The combined student symphonic and operatic orchestras will be led by Rossi in what promises to be a significant event for South Florida operatic theater.
“We really wanted to move into doing full acts of Wagner’s music,” Rossi said of the festival institute, which did excerpts its first year. “Act I went so well last year, and I think a lot of that is because Wagner’s music is long, and to get the full arc of what he’s saying, you can’t do that in a five-minute scene or a 10-minute scene like you can in a Mozart piece.”
Antoine Wagner-Pasquier, to give his full surname, is actually an American by birth, having first seen the light of day 36 years ago in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, where he returned for school at Northwestern University. But he grew up in London and Paris, where he now lives (he also has a degree from Sciences-Po) and works as a visual artist in photography, sculpture, video and performance.
Wagner, who uses just the first part of his hyphenated name professionally, is also a direct descendant of another Romantic luminary, the Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt, whose daughter Cosima was Wagner’s wife. It would be hard to ignore a heritage like that, and back in 2013 Wagner released a short film called Wagner: A Genius in Exile, a documentary travelogue in which Wagner went to Zurich and the surrounding countryside in Switzerland to investigate his composer ancestor’s time in that country, where he lived for 12 years after being exiled from Dresden in after taking part in the uprisings of 1848.
It’s an attractive film in which Wagner hikes a series of small mountains, visits a small Wagner museum in the city and talks to musicians and scholars about the composer’s life there, where he lived with his first wife, Minna. It was during his Swiss exile that Wagner began work on The Ring of the Niebelungs, the massive four-opera story drawn from Norse legend of which Die Walküre is a part, and which stands today as one of the supreme achievements of the operatic art.
Wagner came to Palm Beach last year to screen his documentary, and there came into contact with John Pohanka, a car-dealership mogul who founded the Palm Beach Wagner Society.
“He said, ‘These are great images, when are we going to see them in a production of Wagner?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s my dream, but we have to have the right setup to do it. It’s complicated. When do you find the time, when you do find the budget, the right house, the right moment so that all the stars align to do it?’
“And the conversation continued for several months, and (Pohanka) introduced me to Michael (Rossi), and Michael and I met in Miami, and he was talking about moving things forward,” Wagner said. But it was the venue Rossi offered that pushed Wagner to take the directorial plunge, and that was the New World Center in Miami Beach.
The center, designed by the eminent architect Frank Gehry at the behest of his longtime friend, Michael Tilson Thomas, was created for the New World Symphony and boasts, by design, an abundance of media technology. Musicians in literally any part of the building can duck out to an open corner and make a recording if need be, and the main auditorium – which Tilson Thomas wanted to have the feel of a “Quaker meeting house” – is surrounded by balconies and screens for projections.
All of which is ideal for Antoine Wagner’s desire to create a totally immersive environment for his mounting of Walküre, as he determined while visiting the center.
“Obviously, I’d looked on line and I’d looked at their website and so I had an idea, but when I was sitting in the back row by myself for an hour and looking around and thinking about what might be possible in this space, I said, ‘We have to do it.’”
But he was used to his mother’s operatic schedule, in which productions were planned five years in advance. He’s only have six months to do his Walküre, “which felt a little bit like mission impossible.”
“On the other hand, since I had a concept for a long time, and I wanted it to be in sync with what I was doing anyway with my artwork, the concept was already there and it was more about adapting it to the space,” he said. “It’s been a work of adaptation and of preservation of these images, and I’d say about 50 percent of the visuals will be from the time in Switzerland, bridge that leap from Wagner in Switzerland and his moment in exile,” but he’s also gathered many more images for the visual environment he’ll create for Act II, which runs around 90 minutes.
Die Walküre is originally set in legendary times, but over the decades it has been reset in a dizzying variety of other concepts, including the late French director Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 Bayreuth presentation of the Ring as a commentary on the ills of industrialization.
Antoine Wagner is taking a science-fiction approach, setting the opera’s act in a research lab in 2030.
“Most if it is projections, but I’ll be using a lot of light as well, sculpting light and creating shapes through light. I want this opera experience to be as immersive as possible,” he said. “All kinds of lighting tricks are going to make the entire room feel like a 360 environment.”
Nature images from Switzerland, Japan and a host of other places will present a Romantic, real-world backdrop against a very different look on stage.
“The costumes are an important part; I was very lucky to work with a French designer, a big fashion designer here in Paris, but who’s also done costumes in the past. And what I wanted to do was contrast these Romantic landscapes with a costume that’s modern. That’s how the interaction happens,” he said. “With the costumes, I’m going into something quite grid-like, almost as if my singers are going to be caged in these costumes. They’re going to be assembled of white lines that are going to be transparent as well as reflective. And from the rest of the staging, I’m not just using a follow light or a spotlight, I’m really trying to get complementary colors and positioning of the light to create an adjacent quality or color that’s a bit surreal.”
He cites the American artists Dan Flavin and James Turrell as inspiration for the effect he’s trying to get. “Am I building a mountaintop? No, but the light is creating a shape and a 3-D type environment on stage,” Wagner said.
Richard Wagner’s art is endlessly adaptable, his great-great-grandson says.
“The incredible opportunity that’s he given us is that it never gets old. We can always reinterpret it; he’s touched every theme, and he’s managed to see a cyclical pattern of humanity, so at any time, we can always jump on board, and there’s something personal … like any myth, like any legend, there’s always a metaphor for the current time,” Wagner said.
And it’s a legacy of culture and creativity that Wagner is happy to embrace.
“It’s a heritage that’s very, very present, but that I’m proud of and that is very inspiring,” he said. “As an artist, during moments of solitude … when there’s a blank page in the studio and there’s no show, and no one’s interested in the thing, just to know that it’s in your blood, that there’s nothing else you can do. There’s not a moment where I say ‘You know, I should just throw it all away and be a banker, and buy a car and buy a house.’ That never crosses my mind.
“All of my values, all of my currency, is in culture, is in art, and that that is transmitted is for me the most important. I feel very uncorrupted that way, and I’m very thankful for it, and if I can participate in that with my heritage, I’m very happy.”
Richard Wagner’s legacy of artistic endeavor, he says, is “still there,” and it’s what gives Antoine’s life its direction.
“There’s no other way to see it. There’s no other way to approach life, but in this way. It’s really anchored deep, deep, deep inside.”
The Miami Music Festival’s Wagner Institute concert begins at 7:30 tonight at the New World Center in Miami Beach. For tickets or more information, visit miamimusicfestival.com.