Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Tristan und Isolde at the Met…..

It has now been established that there is an area in the visual brain that is specialized for registering human bodies or, to put it differently, that is active when we perceive bodies. This should not come as a surprise. The brain has devoted special areas to many features that are important to us, and human bodies are very, very important. Bodies do, after all, give us a lot of information about the psychological state of a person at any given moment; we can communicate much through our body language. And the brain seems to have developed a marvellous system for recognizing at a glance, through the perceived body language, whether one a person is arrogant or diffident, proud or humble, and much else besides. Which brings me to the Metropolitan opera’s recent production of Tristan und Isolde.

To convey visually all that there is in Tristan requires an artistic and dramatic flair that is evident not only in the motion of the singers on stage but also in their inaction, the postures they adopt in the still moments. From this point of view, the Met’s recent and ill-fated production was a disappointment, or at least partially so. The staging was visually stunning in its simplicity and very effective in its use of colour. It descended once into kitsch, when Tritsan and Isolde, having swallowed the love potion and realised their profound love for one another, the lighting turned to red, eliciting laughter from the audience (something which I have not experienced before) and distracting attention from the accompanying music. Both lead singers fell ill and did not appear together except for the final performance. Illnesses prior to or during performances are bound, I imagine, to have a severe negative effect on such demanding singing and acting roles. In the performance that I attended on March 25th, Deborah Voigt had cancelled out owing to her illness and was replaced by Janice Beard. It must be a nightmare to be forced into such a role at relatively short notice and I don’t think that she managed to pull it off. Tristan is a dignified hero, burning with a love so intense that he knows, and is resigned to, the fact that he cannot achieve it on earth. The love potion that he drank in the first Act made him inherit “eternal torment”, he laments in the last act. Ben Heppner, recovering from an illness, was not physionomically up to the role of Tristan on that particular evening. His body language simply did not convey what I believe the music intends him to convey. There was however one glorious moment, and it occurred at the end of Act 2, when King Marke sings his sad and beautiful lament: “Mir dies? Dies, Tristan, mir?” What was deeply impressive in this particular performance, apart from the splendid singing of Matti Salminen as King Marke, was the highly effective way in which body language communicated the psychological state of the protagonists – both Tristan and Isolde. They managed to communicate, through the immobile postures they adopted, as effectively as the music that feeling of unrepentant guilt, forced on them by factors beyond the control of either. It made me wonder about the neural mechanisms that underlie our ability to perceive so much in body language, even when still. Is this result of activity in the cortical area in which activity correlates with the presence of bodies? If so, then this area must be doing a great deal more than just registering the presence of bodies? Or is the activity in that area relayed, or perhaps influenced, by some other cortical area? To have felt what I felt during those moments, I assume that there is some connection with the emotional brain. Interesting questions for future study. At any rate, this one moment was worth crossing the Atlantic to see. Incidentally, I tried to see the live broadcast in London, where it was relayed to many theatres. Guess what, they were all sold out! Now on to Barcelona, for Robert Carsen’s extraordinarily rich – I speak from a neuroesthetic point of view, of course – production of Tannhäuser, last seen at the Bastille in Paris and about which I will blog in the future.

….. and neuroscience at the Italian Academy at Columbia

What were neuroscientists doing giving talks about the brain and its operations at the Italian Academy (, an institution supposedly devoted to Italian studies? And why did they have a full house, with many coming from the humanities? Well, the Director of the Academy, David Freedberg, is a wise man. He was among the first to embrace the field of neuroesthetics and understands that the humanities have much to offer to future studies of the brain, and that neuroscience in turn can help illuminate interesting and important problems in the humanities. The example I give above from Tristan is one among many. And the full house at the meeting he organized is testament to the fact that there are many who share this interest. All honour to David, to Anna Ipata, and to the excellent speakers at the meeting.

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