Never mind that the plot is convoluted and dense, and filled with potions and metaphors. It's the incredible music, the layered emotions that have made Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde such a great, enduring work, says American bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who'll make his debut in the role of Kurwenal, the loyal companion to Tristan, in Houston Grand Opera's upcoming production. At first, Kurwenal appears to be nothing more than a simple man, ''a loyal dog'' and the life of the party, says McKinny, a former HGO Studio artist, last seen here in Rape of Lucretia. By the third act, however, it's a different person we see, one trying to give his dying friend hope while he is filled with sorrow, McKinny says.
For the five hours of this legendary tragedy, all the singers involved will be put through their paces. (When Wagner wrote the opera, others thought it couldn't actually be staged because of its length and the difficulty of the roles. And legend has it that it killed the first tenor who sang the Tristan role.) HGO has also brought in as its leads two singers known for their mastery of this repertoire: Canadian tenor Ben Heppner and Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, who will be making their HGO debuts. ''Wagner's operas, really, a lot of what they are about is showing how people interact on the surface while at the same time, this music that happens underneath, particularly the orchestra, shows the real feelings and emotions and thoughts and troubles and joys,'' McKinny says. And in some sense, he says, it's fascinating to him that such a ''broken man'' as Wagner was able to write such sublime music. ''There's something appealing to me that a man who obviously had so many issues as a person can write this music that quite often gets down to the kernel of truth about what human beings are.''
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6:30 p.m. April 18, 24, 27 and May 2; 2 p.m. April 21 and May 5. Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $15 to $386.
Thu., April 18, 6:30 p.m.; Sun., April 21, 2 p.m.; Wed., April 24, 6:30 p.m.; Sat., April 27, 6:30 p.m.; Thu., May 2, 6:30 p.m.; Sun., May 5, 2 p.m., 2013