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Wagner Today and Forever

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A scene from Act Three of Wagner's "Gotterdammerung." photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

A scene from Act Three of Wagner's "Gotterdammerung." photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

[Reprinted with thanks from From Beyond the Stave, The Boydell & Brewer Music Blog, originally posted May 5, 2009]

Wagner’s operas repel some people and strike others as simply ridiculous. But many of those who scoff, or claim to be repulsed, have never listened to an entire Wagner opera, studied its libretto, or done much reading about the works, their background, and their importance. It is easier now than ever to get one’s ears and eyes around Wagner’s works. All of his operas (except to some extent his earliest three) are available in numerous superb recorded CD and DVD performances. The Metropolitan Opera sent a live high-definition video transmission of Tristan und Isolde to movie theaters around the world in March 2008, and repeated it on television a few months later. All told, the performance reached millions of viewers.

During a recent out-of-town trip, the car that I rented was outfitted with something new to me: Sirius Satellite Radio. I tuned in to the Metropolitan Opera Radio channel one weekday morning at 7:45AM, only to find myself in the middle of a recording from the Met’s audio archives: a 1971 Saturday matinee radiocast of Tristan. The opera must have started more than an hour earlier: we were already in Act 2, heading toward Tristan’s entry and the great love duet. The featured singers were soprano Birgit Nilsson (legendary for her rock-solid performances in the 1960s and 70s) and tenor Jess Thomas. For my taste, both of them were outshone by the less well-known Irene Dalis as a riveting Brangäne. Clearly, Dalis possessed one of the great mezzo-soprano voices—and mezzo temperaments!—of the twentieth century. (Her intense portrayal of Kundry, in the 1962 Bayreuth recording of Parsifal under Knappertsbusch, is praised by connoisseurs as one of the best ever.)

A few days before I was thrown into the heaving surges of Tristan und Isolde at such an early hour, someone at the Christian Science Monitor asked me to comment on the recently inaugurated Ring Cycle at Los Angeles Opera (more on this below). Though my own operatic research veers towards the Italian and French repertoire, the Met re-broadcast from 1971 and the news about Los Angeles’s Ring Cycle reminded me how important Wagner was and remains for the musical world, and for Western cultural life, generally.Despite the remarks of confirmed anti-Wagnerians, the operas (or, as Wagner termed them, “music dramas”) remain commanding monuments of artistic inspiration and insight. And they have been broadly influential, besides. Indeed, it seems to me nearly impossible to overestimate the impact of Wagner’s theories and the operas in which he put those theories into often blazingly brilliant practice. Before Wagner, the full resources of symphonic music—the elaborate development of musical motive and astute handling of key, chord, and modulation—had been brought to new heights by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Wagner was the first to propose certain immensely effective ways in which these essentially symphonic and sonata-like resources could be harnessed to an acted-out story, in conjunction with other resources, such as sets and costumes.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle remains, to my mind, the highest of his achievements. It uses sharply etched motives and no less distinctive orchestral colors to characterize—brilliantly, movingly—the individuals and actions on stage. As many a Wagner commentator has recognized, the motives do not necessarily stay fixed but are altered, combined, reharmonized, and sometimes utterly transformed. (For the utter novice, one great place to start is Deryck Cooke’s perceptive 2-CD set, An Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen, which uses musical excerpts from the still-unsurpassed Solti recording. Another is the hilarious—and remarkably accurate—narrated version by “concert comedienne” Anna Russell, which is likewise now available on CD.) The resulting music, immensely varied and emotionally pointed, suggests how we might feel about the story that is being played out in front of us. Of course, we are not obligated to respond in the way that the music wants to impel us. As always with great art, we are free to give in to the tide’s flow—or to resist it, by which I mean think critically about it.

Wagner’s innovations shaped the operatic work of composers within Germany and abroad, such as Massenet and Debussy in France. Directly or indirectly (i.e., through the works of the post-Wagnerians), these innovations also became embedded in the practices of musicians who accompanied silent films. (Of course, Wagner’s works were by no means the only root of silent-film accompanying. Perhaps the single most basic influence came from the established practices of incidental music in the theater: a small orchestra played short tunes and more continuous figurations “under” mimed action scenes and even under many spoken exchanges.)

Once sound film arrived in the 1920s, the standard devices of silent-film accompanying found their way into the practices of film-score composers. These (partly Wagnerian) devices continue to work their reliable magic in our own day. Particular features from Wagner’s Ring Cycle find echo in Howard Shore’s background score to Peter Jackson’s film trilogy based on Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: the orchestra underlines, with vividly characterized themes and distinctive orchestral colors and textures, the highly contrasted characters and their temptations and travails.

Elsewhere in the popular realm a different kind of Wagnerian ambition often shows up. One need only think of the sound-and-light shows that occur nightly in front of certain historic European buildings or, in Egypt, at the pyramids at Gizeh. Götterdämmerung-like effects have become standard at ice-skating exhibitions and stadium-rock concerts.

Still, Wagner’s achievement in the Ring Cycle remains incomparable. No other operatic work is at once so great and so vast. And so daunting. Few cities in the world have an opera company capable of mounting even one of the Ring operas in a given year. No wonder people in Los Angeles are getting so excited that the first two Ring operas are being performed there this season (Das Rheingold in February and March; Die Walküre during April, featuring Plácido Domingo as Siegmund) and that all four will be scheduled in 2010—along with a two-and-a-half-month city-wide Wagner festival involving over 50 arts and cultural organizations.

Los Angeles’s mammoth Wagner project will surely attract people who come from many walks of life and have many different tastes and, we might say, cultural commitments. Brünnhilde and Siegfried, armed with helmets (or not, depending on the costume designer) and industrial-strength voices (for sure), could even be considered the original heavy-metal artists! The Ring Cycle is a world unto itself. It can be explored again and again, in different productions and with different performers. And, like all great works of art, the more one brings to it, and the more one approaches it with an open and active, challenging mind, the more one gets in return.

I also imagine that opera lovers from elsewhere will make Los Angeles a chosen destination, as already happens every summer at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus that Wagner himself designed, and at the Seattle Opera (whose every-four-years Ring Cycle returns this coming August).

Meanwhile, those of us in more modest-sized cities and towns have access, as I mentioned earlier, to Wagner’s various operas through CDs and DVDs. There are also splendidly insightful and challenging books from long-established publishing houses as well as from newer ones.  Because I edit a book series for the University of Rochester Press (namely Eastman Studies in Music), I am particularly familiar with books from that press and from other presses associated with the UK firm Boydell and Brewer (including Camden House, which specializes in German history and culture).  Even restricting myself to those presses, I might mention the multi-authored companions to Wagner’s Meistersinger and Parsifal and books on the importance of two cities in Wagner’s career: Venice and Zurich. Stephen McClatchie’s Analyzing Wagner’s Operas tells the engrossing story of how the writings of a widely respected scholar of the 1920s-30s, Alfred Lorenz, served as a “musical metaphor” for Nazi ideology. (The often perverted appropriation of Wagner by the Third Reich need not, however, scare us away from exploring the works today, and finding out for ourselves what they have to offer.) In another recent study, cultural historian Hannu Salmi reveals unknown details of Wagner’s early years in Riga (today the capital of Latvia) and Königsberg (today the Russian city of Kaliningrad). Salmi’s book also recounts the struggles of local musicians throughout the Baltic region to get Wagner’s operas performed even halfway adequately.

And now, as I indicated at the outset, there is the Metropolitan Opera Radio channel (via Sirius Satellite). No Ring Cycle operas were to be heard during the few days when I was driving that nicely outfitted car. But it is surely only a matter of time before Sirius will be broadcasting them. Perhaps all four operas will be scheduled, one after the other, running for some 16 or more hours straight. Operaphiles may end up driving out of town on the highway and then back home, repeating the trip as many times as needed. Or they may prefer to sit listening in their driveway, running down the battery until that sweet-sad moment of release when the fabled Rhine overflows its banks and what we perhaps mistake for real life can begin again.Wagner fans will also be interested to hear that the Boydell Press will reissue John Lucas’ acclaimed biography of conductor Reginald Goodall later this year.

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