Like much of the world, I have been living in quarantine for the past few weeks. The first week, my days were brightened by seeing some wonderful operas on metopera.org. I saw Carmen, La Boheme, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, and several others, all favorites of mine. I went to the Met website the second week to see what was on and found Tristan und Isolde, a Wagnerian opera. I have seen Wagernian operas in the past. I’ve even sung a little Wagner. And there are some meltingly beautiful melodies in Wagner’s operas.
When Wagner built Bayreuth (his festival concert hall outside the German city of Bayreuth) he put in two proscenium arches. Now, in most theaters, there is one proscenium arch. It is the square that frames the stage. Wagner wanted two to create an extra layer of effects and distance from the audience, trying for a dreamlike experience. (Of course, with operas running over 4 hours, some audience members’ dreamlike experience might be more sleeplike than others!)
He also started turning out the house lights in the auditorium. He wanted to once again enhance the dream quality. And he wanted the focus to be on his opera, not what jewels the lady in the next box was wearing, or the new gown that other lady had on.
Richard Wagner (Ree-card Vahg-ner) was born in 1813 in Leipzig, Germany, in, oddly enough, the Jewish Quarter of that city. (He was baptized in one of the Lutheran churches in Leipzig.) Six months after greeting their ninth child, Wagner’s father died of typhus. His mother married not long after, and the new family – now named Geyer – moved to Dresden. Until he was 14, Richard thought that Herr Geyer was his birth father. Despite this confusion, they remained close throughout Geyer’s life.
Wagner became one of the Romantic era’s greatest composers. The stereotypical opera singer – a Rubenesque woman wearing a horned helmet with long blond braids falling in front of her metal breastplate – is taken from Wagnerian opera. In truth, most Wagnerian singers do need to be large, in height and tend to be a little plumper. But do not take that for being out of shape. Singing in any opera requires great stamina. Singing in a Wagnerian opera is an Olympic event.
In 1850, Wagner wrote an essay called Judaism in Music. In this, (I have lifted this next bit straight out of Wikipedia. I cannot even type these words myself without feeling nauseous.) “Wagner claims that the work was written to:
explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognize as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof.
Wagner holds that Jews are unable to speak European languages properly and that Jewish speech took the character of an "intolerably jumbled blabber", a "creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle", incapable of expressing true passion. This, he says, debars them from any possibility of creating song or music. He goes on for 8278 words in this general vein. Far, far too long.
Sadly, in 1850, this was nothing new. But, after his death in 1883, his work was read by someone who took this antisemitism to a whole new level. While Wagner did not live to meet Adolph Hitler, his widow did. And his son and daughter-in-law became great buddies with Hitler. Hitler was a fan.
I grew up in a small town in West Virginia. The closest synagogue was over an hour away. I did not know or understand that antisemitism was still a thing. I thought that WWII had taken care of that. Even living in Germany for 7 years, I didn’t see any antisemitism there.
When we moved to Albuquerque, my husband had some young airmen serving under him. (Bill was in the Air Force for 21 years.) There were three that were particularly difficult. They had gotten in with a bad crowd. A neo-Nazi-KKK crowd. They got caught burning crosses on the lawns of African Americans and Jews. The young men were jailed and booted out of the military.
This brings me back to La mort de l’auteur – the death of the author. In 1967 Roland Barthes printed an essay with this title. He was not advocating for the death of any particular author. He was advocating for a change in how we interpret a novel or a play. Before this, to understand a play it was felt that we needed to understand the playwright’s background, the history of his subjects. An example would be to say that without knowing J.R.R.Tolkien’s history, what his experiences were regarding WWI, his dislike for the Industrial Revolution, we cannot really appreciate The Hobbit. Which simply is not true. Knowing those things can add to your enjoyment of the story, but they are not essential. In this newer way of looking at an art, the idea is that once the author has written their novel, interpretation is left to the reader to take what they will.
Sometimes we need to think before we enjoy an art form. I used to be a huge Johnny Depp fan. I thought that he was one of the great actors of our age. And, for a time, I still think he was. Past tense. Benny and Joon, Ed Wood, Pirates of the Caribbean, (the first one!) and so many others, were works of sheer genius. Then things went downhill. I don’t watch movies that have him in them anymore. There are stores where I do not spend my money because I disagree with their policies – either political or in how they treat their workers.
I had for years believed that Wagner had nothing to do with Hitler’s fascination with his music. And that is true. But I have been doing some reading this past year and found out that his widow and children did have a lot to do with that. And many of their ideas were formed by Richard himself with his writings.
I realized earlier this week that I cannot listen to a Wagnerian opera right now. Perhaps another time I will be able to. Just like I may someday be able to enjoy some of Johnny Depp’s earlier work. (Admittedly, huge difference there – alcoholic, alleged wife-beater as opposed to anti-Semite whose works inspired one of the most murderous tyrants the world has ever seen.)
I guess I am not quite ready for le mort du compositeur. At least not for this compositeur.
What do you think? Should we still be enjoying Wagner’s music? There is a lot of problematic music out there if we are going to start looking at the lives of the (mostly) men who were writing it. How should we address this problem? Let me know what you think in the comments below. I’ll be playing some music that wasn’t written by Wagner this week on my Minnich Music FaceBook page this week, so be sure to check them out.
Until next time!