Herzog & de Meuron
Project
2005–2006
Premiere
8 April 2006

The stage sets created by architects or even by artists are perfectly dreadful — we thought, in view of so many failed attempts. The pitfalls of simply transferring one’s own style, one’s typical trademarks from construction site to proscenium stage seem almost inescapable. When the German State Opera in Berlin invited us to design the sets for Tristan and Isolde to be directed by Stefan Bachmann and conducted by Daniel Barenboim, we were fascinated, especially because we try to avoid a signature style and are more inclined towards experimentation. What an exciting challenge!

The stage exerts a magical attraction; it is a place that frees the imagination, a place where time and space seem unbounded despite the physical confines of the stage and the temporal confines of a performance. The stage is a place for semblance. Everything is semblance. Which is precisely what invests stage design with so much potential, above all for a Wagner opera, and most especially Tristan, as we envisioned it in our conversations with Stefan Bachmann. Wagner’s music and the performers’ voices are so exceptional that stage sets and staging could easily become an unwelcome distraction. We therefore wanted to generate pictures that are neither illustrative nor restricted to one single interpretation. The stage sets and the staging would not represent the things themselves but rather their appearances. In other words, not simply emergence and disappearance but rather the appearance of emergence and the appearance of disappearance. The appearance of the hull of a ship, stairs, a cave or part of a body, a concrete form and identity, and the appearance of emptiness, of nothing, of a zero space.

We did not want to use conventional technologies like video or slide projections in order to make things emerge, to magically whisk them onto the stage. Instead we wanted to generate a tangible experience that would have a much more direct, physical impact on the spectators. This would also enable the singers actively to engage with the onstage image instead of merely standing next to projected images. The technical implementation of our ideas proved to be rather difficult and would have failed if it hadn’t been for the extraordinary commitment of the stage technicians and our assistant Claudius Frühauf, who had already spent months in Basel devising models and methods that would be able to produce the desired images. When we first tested the model and later conducted full-scale tests on the stage, we found that what we had envisioned had indeed come true. Using negative pressure in a specially designed pressure chamber, it was possible to mould and shape a rubber membrane to create appearances that were constantly changing, breathing, imperceptibly overlapping, fading in and fading out. With the addition of precision lighting, these appearances acquired an almost hallucinatory effect.

© Herzog & de Meuron, 2006

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Process

Images sourced from paintings, films, and nature for the stage set of Tristan and Isolde. The objective is imagery that avoids realism and certainty. Sketches of a rubber membrane into which backstage objects can be pushed. Cross section of the pump to create a vacuum behind the membrane.

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Lighting tests with rubber, textiles, and various props.

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Testing the vacuum chamber on full-scale models.

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Working with rubber membrane during rehearsals.

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The visual presence of the membrane varies during the performance.

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Drawings

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Team

Partners

Facts

Client
Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, Germany

Bibliography

Gerhard Mack, Herzog & de Meuron: “Herzog & de Meuron 2005-2007. The Complete Works. Volume 6.” Edited by: Gerhard Mack. Basel, Birkhäuser, 2018.

Luis Fernández-Galiano: “Attila y Tristán, la Imaginación romántica. Attila and Tristan, the romantic Imagination.”
In: Luis Fernández-Galiano (Ed.). “Arquitectura Viva MonografĂ­as. Herzog & de Meuron 2005-2013.” Vol. No. 157/158, Madrid, Arquitectura Viva SL, 09.2012. pp. 6-11.

Herzog & de Meuron: “Tristan und Isolde. Ein BĂĽhnenbild.” In: Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin (Ed.). “Tristan und Isolde. Handlung in drei AufzĂĽgen von Richard Wagner.” Exh. Cat. “Festtage 2006.” Berlin. 8 April 2006. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 2006. pp. 15-17.

Nobuyuki Yoshida (Ed.): “Architecture and Urbanism. Herzog & de Meuron 2002-2006.” Tokyo, A+U Publishing Co., Ltd., 08.2006.