A break up of operatic proportions

March 5, 2009

I have decided to leave legendary German opera composer Richard Wagner. I know it will break his heart, but the fact is unavoidable: we were not meant for each other.
Not that we haven’t had some magical moments together. Last year, when I was alone in Vienna for a few days, I spent the night with him at the State Opera. They’ve got a convenient “standing room only” spot at the back, where for a couple of euros you can see a quality show from a decent angle. “Thanks, Dick,” I said to myself as I waited in line to secure my ticket.
But I had spoken too soon.
The night’s production was Wagner’s indomitable Parsifal, a five-hour romp through the composer’s towering interpretation of the medieval legend of the Holy Grail. Standing through an entire opera is one thing. Standing through a five-hour opera is another. Standing through five hours of Wagner is in a class all its own. It took several glasses of champagne during the various intermissions to get me through to the end.
If I had to guess, I would say that Wagner probably conceived of the story during a game of Dungeons and Dragons played with a church youth group. It features an evil sorcerer named Klingsor, a cursed seductress, the Spear of Destiny, the Grail, and a messianic knight who saves the day with his childlike innocence. Before Parsifal, Nietzsche had seen his Uebermensch in Wagner, but with this nerdy revision of the Christian Grail legend, the great philosopher felt betrayed. And I felt seriously uncomfortable.
But despite the obvious and unattractive bent for fantasy, Parsifal—and Wagner’s plots in general—are bearable. After all, the main attraction of his operas is the music. And when it comes to Wagner’s obvious genius, I have to admit: it isn’t Wagner. It’s me.
He’s been criticized all-too-frequently for the overwhelming bombast of his soaring melodies and booming harmonies. Not without reason, perhaps: his scores tend to reach out to emotions that I haven’t been comfortable with since I realized what makes The Empire Strikes Back so much better than Return of the Jedi. (Although both movies offer both adventure and excitement, Jedi, like Wagner, depends on a transcendent triumphalism that isn’t sustained by my experience of the world as a cold, Hoth-like place.)
But this is clearly a cheap shot. In fact, Wagner’s orchestration can be just as sweetly subtle and heartbreaking as it is indulgently chest-thumping. And, as many critics of modernity are swift to point out, it may be a little sad that Wagner’s grandiosity is so alien as to seem hostile to so many of us. Still, while I can appreciate his talent, I can’t change the fact that the man’s music and style simply don’t fit in with my worldview.
It doesn’t help that, in terms of cultural relevance, Wagner walks a weird line between the monstrous and the silly. On the one hand, his association with the darker strains of German history—both in his biography and his legacy—is both unavoidable and deeply confusing in its relevance to us, the modern consumers of his work. His at times explicit anti-Semitism ought to have some impact on our opinion of his music, but it is impossible to say exactly what form that impact should take.
To some extent, we can be nuanced in our understanding of the degree to which Wagner bought into the hero worship and romantic nationalism that played such a fundamental role in the rise of National Socialism. But nuance can’t eliminate an abiding sense that dirt clings to those chords and soaring melodies. As Woody Allen once noted, when Wagner comes on, it’s hard to overcome the urge to invade Poland.
And on the other hand, when Wagner isn’t connected with the monstrosity of the Third Reich, he’s made into a cartoon. His “Ride of the Valkyries” is mainly important to me as the background to the Elmer Fudd anthem: “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit!” As an oracle of the human condition, he has been superseded by a cartoon hunter with a funny hat.
So perhaps a happy relationship was never in the cards for Wagner and me; perhaps there was just too much baggage. We both did what we could. He got me cheap tickets, and I struggled to accept his mythological quirks and overpowering brass section. But in the end, we’re just two very different people.
But maybe we can still hang out sometime.

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