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The cult of Wagner

ABR Arts 20 November 2013

The cult of Wagner

ABR Arts 20 November 2013

So here we are, talking about the so-called Cult of Wagner. No wonder some people recoil from the German composer, given such terminology. It’s not a new coinage of course, but it’s a fairly dubious one. One old acquaintance of mine, on hearing about this event, sent me an email demanding to know: ‘You are not besotted with it, are you??? Are you one of those who travel all over the world to notch up another Cycle.’

Really, she made Wagnerites – imperfect or otherwise – sound like a kind of Barmy Army, ostentatiously and jingoistically touring the world for their next fix.

So if I am not contra Wagner tonight, I am definitely contra cultist. Besottedness is a condition I try to resist – even with those artists I most esteem – the ones who help me to live.

This so-called Cult of Wagner may indeed be a by-product of the overblown marketing that would surely have been anathema to this radical artist – this revolutionary during his Dresden phase – this greatest of nineteenth-century musical iconoclasts.

I despise (who could not?) the man’s anti-Semitism (so common among nineteenth -century thinkers and artists – think of Beethoven and Marx and all the rest of them). I dislike Wagner’s bombastic nature and endless vainglory (though use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping).

I just happen to love the music – or much of it. And I think we should be free as cultural citizens (cultural consumers I suppose we’re meant to say); free to pick out the best of art (whether it be music or paintings or literature) despite the moral limitations of the artist and without being dismissed as uncritical card-carrying acolytes.

Wagner 2Richard and Cosima Wagner in 1872: ‘Every word of his is an article of faith to me’ (photograph from Cosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth by Oliver Hilmes, Yale University Press)My own adventures with Wagner began more than thirty years ago. This was in 1981, just across the way, in a packed and clearly excited Town Hall. The Australian Opera (as it then was) had lured Charles Mackerras to conduct a concert version of Die Walküre. Now I knew little about Wagner and absolutely nothing about Die Walküre. I had somehow missed the Chéreau Ring when it was broadcast in 1976, the centenary year. In 1976 I was only listening to Velvet Underground – a long way from Valhalla. And I recall the time a medical friend of my mother praised Wagner and I said, ‘Who are they?’

By 1981, now a prentice poet, I was intent on hearing every opera that came to town. Young artists are voracious. Cultural snobs too – drawn by instinct but mostly by reputation to devour as much art as they possibly can. All I knew was that Wagner somehow mattered – mattered in ways I didn’t have the tools to comprehend. Wagner was a composer I had to get to know. And so I went, in the cheapest seat in the gods. And the first act of that Walküre, which would become my favourite opera of all, was one of the finest hours I have ever spent in the theatre – followed by one of the most tumultuous ovations I’ve ever heard – helped in large part by the fact that Mackerras was joined by a grand Australian cast – Nance Grant as Sieglinde, Robert Gard as her twin, Donald Shanks as Hunding – soon to be followed, after the voluble interval, by Ronald Myers as Wotan, the great Lauris Elms as that termagant of termagants, Fricka – and someone called Rita Hunter as Brünnhilde. What a night it was.

Remember those lines from James Merrill’s poem ‘The Ring Cycle’: ‘Next to Verdi … / Wagner had been significance itself, / … A music in whose folds the mind, at twelve, / Came to its senses.’

Merrill, clearly, was an early starter.

It’s fitting to note here that something preceded the current Der Ring des Nibelungen – or Wagner’s Melbourne Ring, as we are being encouraged to call it by the Gurus of Marketing. As far back as 1913 the Ring was performed in Melbourne by the touring Quinlan Opera Company. After that memorable Walküre in 1981 the AO mounted its first Ring. It was that undertaking that drew Rita Hunter to Australia – along with her great partner from the ENO’s glory days, tenor Alberto Remedios. I saw the staged Walküre here and in Sydney – plus the opening night of Das Rheingold in Sydney in June 1984 – not one of the company’s stellar achievements, it must be said – after which the AO abandoned its shall we say (on that tiny stage) pinched Ring.

Those performances were followed by not one but two Rings in Adelaide – in 1998, and 2004 – the former quite unforgettable musically, under Maestro Jeffrey Tate.

I’ve also been fortunate to see Rings in Germany and the United States, most recently an absorbing environmental/gold rush production by Francesca Zambello in San Francisco, with three extraordinary performances by her Brünnhilde in particular – the pint-sized Nina Stemme, who in Götterdämmerung delivered the most blazing performance I have heard from any opera singer, Sutherland included.

But I don’t want to suggest that I’m just another stage door Johnny, obsessed by individual singers. Quite the opposite. For me Wagner’s score – perhaps unlike that of any other opera composer – though it never transcends the singing or exists in a parallel universe, can somehow survive even the most mediocre or execrable performances.

Seasoned Ring-goers will admit that it’s rare to hear a uniformly well-sung Ring. It just doesn’t happen very often. Can’t perhaps, given the heroic demands of the music (though one shouldn’t use the word hero in this context), given the scale of the roles, and given the relative dearth of great Wagner voices to go around – especially in his bicentenary year. Very often – let’s be honest – one or two performances set our teeth on edge.

Most of us have endured lacklustre individual performances while still being utterly transported by the music. I recall one Siegfried in Cologne who was so overwhelmed by that fiendish role that he was reduced to walking around on stage guzzling from a water bottle – mid-aria even.

It’s hard, isn’t it, to think of an equivalent in Italian opera. Try to imagine a triumphant Traviata with a flat soprano in the main role. Try to conjure a great Norma with a wobbly Druidess.

But Wagner, we’re tempted to think, can survive anything we throw at him – simply because of the glories, the transcendent qualities, of that hypnotic, narcotic score.

Here I think of something Alex Ross wrote in Listen to This (2010): ‘Somehow, Wagner retains his identity even when all hell is breaking loose onstage.’

That said, there are no signs of unevenness in this cast. We have a brilliant group of principals to look forward to. Having heard Das Rheingold – with its series of superlative performances – we can only imagine what vocal wonders lie ahead from the likes of Susan Bullock, Stefan Vinke, and Stuart Skelton (so brilliant in Adelaide as Siegmund opposite the much-missed Deborah Riedel).

Terje Stensvold as Wotan Rainbow Girls Photograph by Jeff BusbyTerje Stensvold as Wotan & Rainbow-Girls (photograph by Jeff Busby)


So what is it about this music that enthrals many of us. Why do we travel halfway round the world to sit in opera houses for nights on end, and spend the intervening days studying that frankly risible libretto. Why do we argue the toss all night about the merits of individual productions?

Now I am no musician. I wish I was. I wish I could be up there singing Siegmund instead of that ring-in Stuart Skelton. I am sure musicians – with their knowledge of chromaticism and leitmotifs (that ‘web of themes’ to borrow Wagner’s phrase) – appreciate the music in very different and much more sophisticated ways. But they don’t enjoy it more than I do.

I think it has to do with Wagner’s primary intention. In his excellent little book on Wagner, Michael Tanner writes, ‘Wagner is, par excellence, an artist who has designs on us …’ Perhaps that’s why so many people dislike or distrust the music – those unsettling designs.

Tanner writes: ‘Wagner was intensely concerned that we should feel rather than think in the presence of his works.’ In his theoretical work Music and Drama, Wagner wrote: ‘In drama we must become knowers through feeling.’ And that’s the effect he has on me, at crucial moments. I sit there quietly irradiated.

Here I have in mind the Good Friday Music from Parsifal – ‘the enchantments of which [to quote Bernard Shaw] pass all sane word-painting’. I am also thinking of those last glorious pages from Götterdämmerung.

And that’s why some of us go back and back and back. Not for the costumes. Not for the special effects. And certainly not for the soup-making scene in Siegfried.

It’s why we go back to the late novels of Henry James or Proust. It’s why seek out the Mont St Victoire landscapes of Cézanne. It’s why we sit up all night listening to those last scorched recordings of Billie Holiday.

If they don’t know more than we do (and here I’m reminded of Schopenhauer’s epigram that people mistake the limits of their own thought for the limits of the world) – if they don’t know more than we do, they somehow free us to feel more than we would otherwise. They excite our feeling potential – and this in a deeply materialistic and unfeeling age.

They dare us to shut up for a moment and forget the iPhone throbbing in our pocket and the expensive car to be liberated from the car park and the investment property to be clinched in the morning – they dare us to sit still openly and searchingly and go further with them.

Wagner for me seems to go just about further than anyone else and allows me to lapse out in the Keatsian sense. He certainly takes me straight back to my childhood, as no other composer does, not even Bruckner. He certainly helps me to understand the inescapable burdens of the filial bond – and the terminal terrors of one’s own mortality.

Listen to Nietzsche – Wagner’s greatest critic: ‘Nobody can approach him in the colours of late Autumn, in the indescribably touching joy of a last, a very last, and all too short gladness; he knows of a chord which expresses those secret and weird midnight hours of the soul when cause and effect seem to have fallen asunder and at every moment something may spring out of nonentity …’

It is for that particular chord – that unique entrée to the weird midnight hours of the soul – that I go back to Wagner.

In closing, let me quote from Thomas Mann writing on Wagner in 1937 – Thomas Mann, who had long fled and exposed Nazism for what it was:

The creator of the Ring, with his past- and future-drunken art, was not sprung from the epoch of bourgeois culture, only to exchange it for a soul-destroying state totalitarianism. German Spirit was everything to Wagner, German State nothing; as he already makes clear in the words which are the mainspring of the Meistersinger: “Let the Holy Roman Empire sink to dust, There still remains our Holy German Art”. In the great work we are about to see, he taught that the curse of gold and the thirst of power lead to inward confusion, until it can only love its free destroyer. Wagner’s real prophecy is not goods nor gold nor lordly pomp, nor sad compacts of lying bonds – it is the heavenly melody which at the end of Götterdämmerung rises from the burning citadel of earthly power and restates in music the same theme as that of the closing lines of the other great poem of life and world: Das Ewig-weibliche zieht uns hinan [The eternal feminine draws us upward].

Peter Rose is Editor of ABR. He delivered this paper during a panel on Wagner for the Wheeler Centre at the Capitol Theatre on 19 November 2013.

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