His operas are too long. And there are no real arias in them anyway. He was a marriage wrecker, an incorrigible spendthrift, an anti-Semite. The Nazis loved him. Why should anybody bother with the music of 19th-century composer Richard Wagner in this day and age?
The question is worth pondering as Minnesota Opera opens its first production of Wagner’s mythical drama “Das Rheingold.”
First and foremost, there is the miracle of Wagner’s music. How good is it?
For Michael Christie, music director of Minnesota Opera, the answer is unambiguous.
“It’s so tuneful; every instrument is employed perfectly, and the scope is really quite remarkable,” he said. “It’s one big aria in a lot of ways, though not like Italian arias, where you stop and the spotlight shows on just one person.”
Wagner didn’t write any big showstopping numbers, the kind we associate with Verdi or Puccini, where the action pauses for the audience to applaud a particular singer. That omission was deliberate. Using his own librettos, Wagner wrote the music by “through-composing” without interruption. He strove to create something he termed “unending melody,” riveting attention on the story being told in words and music — not on the performers.
“Das Rheingold,” for example, runs 2 ½ hours without intermission. Did the composer intend to test the endurance of his audience?
Christie doesn’t think so.
“It’s just amazing. You go through blocks of time, 20 or 30 minutes, where all the characters seem to be doing is telling the story. Vocally and instrumentally, it just keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time. Every second has some bit of motion related to the story.”
Like ‘Game of Thrones’
Initially, Wagner’s stories seem to exist in some distant corner of the imagination, remote from everyday realities. “Das Rheingold” features gods, giants, water nymphs, dwarfs and a magic helmet. How could modern operagoers possibly see parallels with today’s world?
Very easily, said Karen Bachman, an enthusiastic Wagnerian and Minnesota Opera board member. “It’s a fascinating, complex story, rather like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ or ‘Game of Thrones.’ You have gods, but they are very flawed, and they are trying to work out issues — the lust for power, greed, the renunciation of love, the despoiling of nature — that run so deep in every human being.”
Christie agreed that the themes of “Das Rheingold” remain bitingly topical. He cites the example of Alberich, the dwarf in the opera who tries to sexually assault three Rhinemaidens, steals their gold from the river and recruits a subterranean army of slaves.
What really sets Wagner apart, however, is not so much the music or the storytelling or even the themes — it’s the sophisticated way he treats them. “It’s the psychological complexity of all the characters, which I don’t find to the same extent in other operas,” Bachman said.
“In Wagner, you’re thinking and rethinking. It’s on a very high level of intellectual analysis. I can’t imagine my cultural life without it.”
Of course, many modern music lovers can and do live their lives without listening to Wagner, because there is a dark side to his genius.
Exhibit A is “Jewishness in Music,” the turgid essay Wagner published in 1850. Wagner used the essay to berate composer Felix Mendelssohn (a Jew) for the alleged superficiality of his music. Wagner also sought to explain “the automatic repulsion we feel for the personality and nature of Jewish people.”
These are odious sentiments, hardly mitigated by the scholarly argument that “Jewishness in Music” peddles ugly prejudices common in the 19th century.
Fifty years after Wagner’s death, the composer was elevated to iconic status in Nazi Germany. For Hitler, Wagner was a favorite composer who perfectly embodied the superiority of German culture.
Is listening to Wagner therefore something of a guilty pleasure, given the composer’s questionable beliefs and morality?
Not at all, said David Cline, president of the Minneapolis-based Richard Wagner Society of the Upper Midwest. “Both Wagner’s anti-Semitism and the Nazi appropriation are not reasons to stay away from his music dramas. That seems to me like throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
The operas analyze human nature, Cline said. They force us to confront the evil and intolerance in our human nature. And they offer us alternative ways forward.
“Wagner challenges us to look within ourselves in search of why we take offense,” Cline said. They challenge us to “respond with understanding, sympathy and forgiveness to our own human condition.”
In Wagner’s mighty four-opera cycle “The Ring of the Nibelung” — of which “Das Rheingold” is the opening installment — love is eventually seen to be a better way than hatred. In “Parsifal,” Wagner’s final masterpiece, compassion is the victor as a self-denying hero restores the Holy Grail to a wounded, dysfunctional band of religious brothers.
This profound understanding of the human situation, and the ability to comment on it with music of astonishing power and psychological subtlety, is what ultimately sets Wagner apart from other operatic composers.
The “Ring” cycle as a whole is an apocalyptic fable, a devastating indictment of how humans are progressively ruining the planet and shortening their own lives in the process. And yet, in the raging glory and wrenching tenderness of Wagner’s music, there is always hope for a better future.
A recent transplant from Ireland, Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.