Wish I’d been there . . .
Bayreuth, 4 August 1966

by Andrew Litton

I grew up around the corner from the Met, where my godfather is principal timpanist. He’d slip me tickets and tell me all sorts of stories—I wish I’d been at the 1974 Rosenkavalier, for example, that nearly fell apart in Act 1 when two of Pet Seller’s dogs started, er, going at it... The singers were laughing so hard they couldn’t continue, but poor Karl Böhm couldn’t see what was happening from the pit so he just kept conducting. Of course I rushed along to the next night—but this time only one dog appeared! Such disappointment!

My own Met conducting debut came on 9 March 1989, when I got through the whole of Yevgeny Onegin doubled over in agony with an undiagnosed ruptured appendix. It put me out of action for the next six weeks, so (though James Levine wasn’t too shoddy an understudy) I think it’s fair to say I wish I’d been on my own Oneginon 13 March 1989.

But in all seriousness, where I really wish I’d been: Bayreuth, 1966, Karl Böhm, Birgit Nilsson, Wolfgang Windfassen, Tristan. It wasn’t the very first record I owned—that would have been the classic Callas-Gobbi Tosca, given to me by my parents when I was really young. But it was the first Tristan I owned. As a boy I used to trot downtown to Sam Goody’s record store (Seventh Avenue, somewhere in the 50s) and spend my entire allowance there. On this I’d just seen Tristan at the Met—imagine the impact all that sound had on someone like me, just a little pianist.

There’s always something about the first recording you have of a piece. You compare every subsequent performance to it, but this version remains one of the greats. It is led with such a sure hand—Böhm knows exactly when to go full throttle and when to languish. And the title roles are both in such splendid voice and perfectly matched (this is certainly a case of Tristan UND Isolde!). And when your supporting cast features the likes of Christa Ludwig, Martti Talvela, Peter Schreier, Eberhard Waechter—all of them a the top of their careers—you know the version will be hard to beat.

But recordings can only go so far when it comes to live music, and especially when it comes to Birgit Nilsson. Her voice was never perfectly captured by a microphone; it was simply to humungous an instrument, too many overtones, too brassy and too directional. I remember hearing her at the Met and believing that the sound she was making could actually part my hair. A recording can only hint at the excitement she generated up close. Which is why I wish I’d been there to witness this landmark Tristan in the flesh.

Andrew Litton tours the UK with the Bergen Philharmonic (March 22-25) and soloists including Laura Aikin and Heidi Grand Murphy.

Originally printed in the March 2010 edition of Opera.
Copyright © 2010 Opera. All rights reserved.