Vienna Opera Blog

By Oliver Macdonald



Opera Correspondent Oliver Macdonald is an Irish opera lover who lives in Vienna.  His service career as a military officer brought him to 42 different countries, many of which had opera houses. Oliver’s opera interest began at age 13 when his school twice a year attended performances of the Dublin Grand Opera Society (1941-1966).  It was here in 1962 that he recognized the potential of a young Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, amongst others. A fortuitous military posting to Wexford in 1967 opened the doors to the Wexford Festival Opera which he attended for many years.  A posting to Vienna in 1999 has led to attendance at more than 1800 opera performances there since. From 2001 he spent four years at the best Opera University in the world - the queue for tickets for Stehplatz Parterre at the Vienna State Opera. Oliver wrote a column called "Nights at the Opera" for Austrian newspaper, and had an "opera in Vienna" blog. He has been a Commentator for all the Opera houses in Vienna.

Vienna State Opera House at night, Austr
  • Oliver Macdonald

A Night to Remember - Tristan und Isolde in Luslawice, Poland, August, 31, 2019

Updated: Dec 8, 2019

A Night to Remember - Tristan und Isolde in Luslawice, Poland.

The magical power of music often; creates unforgettable memories.

I enjoy many cherished memories of musical experiences. I witnessed Gustavo Dudamel and Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (Venezuela) perform Mahler's 2nd Symphony Resurrection in Vienna that took Wiener Konzerthaus by storm. Even more personal is the occasion at a party after a great performance of The Masked Ball in Vienna, when I sang the beautiful Irish ballad Danny Boy as a duet with a very special guest: Placido Domingo.

My most recent exceptional musical experience was a performance of the greatest love story ever told in opera – Tristan und Isolde - on August 31, 2019, in Luslawice, Poland. Tristan und Isolde is among the pinnacle of the operatic repertoire, due largely to the character of the beautiful young Irish Princess Isolde, and the extraordinary intensity of Richard Wagner's music.

This opera is usually performed in great opera houses with singers, conductors, orchestras, choruses, producers, and complex infrastructures in place. And in the case of a new production, it may take two years of planning of preparation by teams of experts to bringing to fruition. In this case, all came from one source - Juyeon Song. Juyeon Song is a gifted dramatic Soprano, devoted to the development of the role of Isolde. She is also President, Executive Director, and Co-founder of the Claude Heater Foundation in San Francisco, California, where she is based. Opera lovers will remember Claude Heater as a great Heldentenor and as a revered teacher of some of today's established and aspiring successors. With his approval and support, Juyeon established the Isolde Project, to result in performing a concert version of Tristan und Isolde. The first such event good place in San Francisco on August 26, 2018, and received rave reviews. Inspired by that success, Juyeon set her sights on the ambitious project of presenting the Isolde Project in Europe. Her vision came to fruition in the beautiful concert hall of the Krzysztof Penderecki European Center of Music in eastern Poland. The Janacek Philharmonic (with 70 players,) based in Ostrava in the Czech Republic, began rehearsals on August 18.

This was the first time they ever played Wagner, but under the skillful and patient guidance of Maestro Robert Reimer from Luxembourg, they were on their way to triumph. Maestro Reimer was recommended as a conductor by Orchestra manager Ondrej Danek, who heard him conducting at the Bayerische Staats Oper in Munich, Germany, which was a very inspired choice. Maestro Robert Reimer's controlled way of conducting with passion, integrity to the music, and Noble elegance led to the excellence in the finished performance.

As was to be expected, there was a strong American presence in the cast. Roy Cornelius Smith (Tristan) is a remarkable Heldentenor who doesn't have to screech or shriek to dominate a large orchestra. He moves comfortably throughout his ample range. He sang in good balance with his Isolde (Juyeon Song) who is rapidly becoming "the" Isolde of today. She sings with great, emotional sensitivity and sincerity throughout, and not just for Liebestod, when I could have sold a hundred packet of tissues. Richly strong-voiced Tamara Gallo (Brangäne,) although American, joined the caravan from Vienna, as did the multi-role sweet-voiced tenor, Alexander Kaimbacher. The cast was completed by baritone Brian Davis, who as Kurwenal remained a true and loyal friend to Tristan, and John Paul Huckle (King Mark) a good Bass who has a very difficult task in concertante performances when he has a 13 minute "soliloquy" with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Lastly, a member of Ostrawa chorus played the cameo part of the helmsman.

The acquisition of the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre of Music was a masterstroke. Its lovely setting and extensive facilities in addition to the concert hall are really excellent. A novel addition to the performance was the screening of an artistic video by Naomi Kremer, which helped to illustrate the storyline as it unfolded on the stage. However, the one thing that has made this opera performance outstanding and unforgettable is the people encountered on the journey, and not just those already mentioned. Juyeon would want to acknowledge the hard work and assistance rendered to all the cast by the Manager of the Orchestra, Ondrej Danek, who was always busy but available to assist everyone as well I was struck mostly by the friendliness and helpful attitude I encountered everywhere, beginning with the taxi driver who brought me to the theatre in Ostrava and the friendly staff there. The wonderful, cheerful driver who could have been an F1 driver instead of an opera singer of note in Vienna. The friendly and professionally efficient people running the Music Centre in Luslawice, which is about half an hour from Tarnow, which is about 75 miles east of Krakov. The helpful, smiling and friendly people at the hotel Tarnovia, where a young couple and their parents came to invite me to join their wedding celebrations.

Now I have seen 18 performances of Tristan and Isolde, mostly in Berlin or Vienna. But I think this is the one I will never forget.

More information regarding this Concert, go to

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