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Opera (Debate) and Drama: Lebrecht, Wagner and Me

Last week, I went on WNYC Radio to argue about Wagner with Norman Lebrecht, the provocative British critic best known for polemical tomes like Who Killed Classical Music? The subject was the Ring tetralogy, which I’ll be focusing on quite a bit in the next few weeks since I’m working on a story about it relating to the Washington National Opera’s upcoming "Siegfried"; and the debate was set up as a pro/con, with Lebrecht condemning Wagner for his appalling texts and morally suspect drama, and me doing my best to defend the cycle.

This is not exactly new ground – in fact, it’s old and tired ground, this show's sensationalizing format notwithstanding. Whenever you debate Wagner, the question comes up of whether you can separate an artist’s personality from his work; and it’s hard sometimes to defend him without appearing to endorse anti-Semitism oneself. I abhor some of Wagner’s views. But I also think (as I said on the air) that he is excessively demonized. It’s true that his views lent themselves all too well to the world view of the Nazis; but it’s not true that he was single-handedly responsible for Nazism or the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany (would that it were so simple). And there are plenty of other really nasty artists whose work we continue to listen to, read, or look at without the same level of conflict, simply because their nastiness has not been hammered home to the same degree, or wasn’t appropriated in the same way by agents of true evil.

Now, Ring season is upon us: ongoing cycles or parts thereof are taking place at the Metropolitan Opera, the Los Angeles Opera, and, this summer, in Seattle, as well as WNO’s Siegfried. (The word is that Washington, which postponed the cycle originally scheduled for next season, may finally get its complete Ring in 2013.) So since it's timely, and the topic has been raised, I’d be curious to know what you think. How far does your knowledge of a composer’s personality affect your perception of his music? Should it? And if bigotry is an issue, should we be harder on composers who were guilty of, for instance, blatant sexism - though that might affect a large portion of the classical canon?


More news from last week: since Christine Brewer has had to pull out of Brünnhilde at the Met due to a leg injury, Irène Theorin, who was scheduled to make her U.S. debut at the Washington National Opera in this role in "Siegfried" in May, will now be making her U.S. debut in April at the Met instead. This should warm her up nicely for the WNO production, which she will go on to do as scheduled.

By Anne Midgette  |  March 30, 2009; 9:20 PM ET
Categories:  music history , opera  
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First, let me compliment you on the equanimity of your responses to Mr. Lebrecht's often outrageous (not to say mindless) comments in that, um, debate. Mustering all the restraint at my command, I could not have done half so well.

To the question at issue, as I pointed out to Mr. Lebrecht (in the comments section of his blog), Eliot has supplied us the definitive answer to the question. Wrote Eliot, "[The mind of an artist] may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material."

And so it was with Wagner -- in spades.

And to add my own, somewhat prolix comment on the question (taken from a 2004 S&F post of mine titled, "A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste"):

"Can one find anti-Semitic overtones and references in the text and characterizations in ... Wagner's operas...? If one is so disposed, one most assuredly can. One can find pretty much anything one is looking for in Wagner's stage works, an ineluctable consequence of their at-bottom archetypal nature. Archetypes are essentially empty matrices that can be filled-in and fleshed-out in their particulars in multiple ways and at multiple levels by the filler-in-ers and flesher-out-ers, and so if one is determined to find anti-Semitic content in the filling-in and fleshing-out, one can be absolutely assured of not being disappointed. That archetypal quality is not a fault in Wagner's stage works but their very genius, and a principal source of their timelessness, universality, and astonishing resonant power.


"Soberly considered ... the alleged racist anti-Semitic coding in ...Wagner's stage works adds up to nothing more than a manifest and classic case of the obscenity being in the mind of the beholder not the beheld which is itself guilty only of being too deep and too rich for its own good."


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | March 30, 2009 10:45 PM | Report abuse

When you mentioned others with had a history of anti-Semitism who have not come in for this sort of criticism, whom were you thinking about?

Posted by: pancakej | March 30, 2009 11:31 PM | Report abuse

I feel the same way about Wagner that I do about Gone with the Wind. You can’t just read or watch Gone with the Wind like it’s nothing more than escapist fare (or for that matter, a great artwork). It also has a significant political undercurrent that runs counter to many of our modern notions. There’s no mistaking where Margaret Mitchell’s sympathies lie: the message of Gone with the Wind is that the antebellum South was a wonderful place – slavery and all. Therefore, everyone who claims it as their favorite book or movie needs to come to terms with this underlying ideology, and ask themselves what attracts them to this material so much. The answer may be surprising.

Similarly, there’s an entire political dimension to Wagner’s operas that can’t be glossed over. They are, after all, German nationalist works, and as such they’re replete with messages of authoritarianism and the superiority of certain races. It’s simply not possible to claim to enjoy these operas on a “purely aesthetic” level while you’re being bombarded with those nationalist messages. Just like the girls who once daydreamed of living at Tara, self-described rabid Wagnerians need to acknowledge this political baggage, and take a hard look at all the reasons why they’re drawn to these operas.

For that very reason, Wagner’s operas should continue to be performed -- just as Gone with the Wind should remain on the library shelves and on television -- if only so that we can continue to have this open debate on the insidious meaning of these works. We frequently admit that art has the power to challenge us, but we forget that it can also seduce us. Both Wagner and Mitchell created compelling artistic worlds for the purpose of drawing us in sympathy with their political and cultural positions. It’s perfectly natural to feel that sympathy while we’re in the theater; we just have to be conscientious enough to avoid recreating the worlds that these two artists posited when we come out.

Posted by: Jason76 | March 31, 2009 12:03 AM | Report abuse

There are supreme masterpieces in the works of Wagner -- the third act of Tristan, for example, or the music of Amfortas's suffering. There are also, I dare say, other breathtaking achievements, such as the grand design of the heaviest and perhaps most witless of all comedies. And I think one must admit that on occasion Wagner's music can be banal. Whether or not you agree with these examples, my point is that the great range and variety of his music ought to be judged scene by scene, sometimes even phrase by phrase and leitmotiv by leitmotiv. If it were not for the the music, and our serious subjection to it, Wagner the anti-Semite and Wagner the proto-Nazi would be long forgotten. This is a plea for the music to take central place in these discussions. If Wagner is still dangerous it is because the music can still take us over. The judgment of the man is, by now, boring, but the judgment of the music has scarcely begun.

Posted by: earshape | March 31, 2009 1:14 AM | Report abuse

Love the art, hate the artist?
My short answer is, artists generally are not nice people, though some of them pretend better than others. For the world-class artists, it is so difficult to do, not even mentioning the competition, that to succeed, they have to be so selfish, so single-minded, so devoted to their art, that dealing with other people and normal societal mores and concerns is way down the list of priorities. Doesn't Mendelssohn get criticized for being too nice and even-tempered, and this making his music less interesting? Doesn't Haydn's music get less attention than its quality warrants because he was a successful musical bureaucrat, versus the obvious angst of the beloved (by me, also) Mozart?
Wagner's music is mesmerizing, and the music lover can't be criticized for indulging in it. But by all means lambaste the man, so it's clear to all that his social ideas and personal conduct are not acceptable for others.
If my American musical hero, and a Jew who celebrated his heritage, Leonard Bernstein, is (I hate to write "was") OK with Wagner's music, I can be, also.
LeBrecht, I could never read more than few pages of his books, he seems to me to take controversial stances for the sake of controversy, and it's annoying to read his stuff. I hope you won the debate (haven't had time to listen to it yet).

Posted by: c-clef | March 31, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

I'm not a huge fan of Wagner, but that's not due to any moral reaction; it's more because I was raised in a household where listening to Wagner, Mahler, Bruckner, et al. was prohibited 'cause my momma didn't like the ambiguous, soggy harmonies of late Teutonic Romanticism.

When I'm not listening to classical music, I'm mostly listening to hip-hop. So I don't have too many qualms about enjoying music that expresses views with which I disagree, or that I even find objectively revolting - if the music's good enough, I don't care.

That said, I'm a white male who was raised Christian, so I realize that most prejudice in this society goes my way; if people (perhaps people who are not similarly lucky) object to the music, I think that's legitimate. What I don't think is legitimate is suppressing it entirely, which is why I'm glad to live in the United States of America. (Wow, how'd I get there?)

Posted by: Lindemann777 | March 31, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

the subject of wagner's undeniable anti-semitism has been beaten into a coma these many years, and you're right to think that there's little new to be said.
a more interesting and fruitful topic, though, is the mental sleight-of-hand required to enjoy wagner's stage works today, given their preposterous premises. show of hands, please: how many people truly believe that a world gone terminally corrupt would be redeemed if a woman rode her horse into a bonfire? (no one who has ever stood outside a burning house and heard the shrieks of those trapped within will be convinced that such a death is ennobling.) or that a man consumed by guilt because he was bamboozled by an attractive woman would find release because a total stranger withstood her wiles? or that a bridegroom could reasonably forbid his new wife to ask him his name or seek any information about his past -- and then dump her when she disobeyed?
yes, yes, i understand that we're in the land of symbols and allegories, but from my seat in row P what i see are artists doing their best to give life to the above situations, and try as i may, i can't buy it. the music is wonderful and requires no defense, but the rickety stagecraft cries out for the re-imagined productions (for example, kasper bech holten's take on the "ring" for the royal danish opera, or nikolaus lehnhoff's "parsifal," both on dvd) that wagnerian true believers disdain as eurotrash.

Posted by: davidfavrot | March 31, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Listening now in some disbelief. Does Lebrecht mean to suggest that listening to Les Mamelles de Tiresias will make us all unable to resist changing genders? Or perhaps that taking in Trovatore will compel us to cast our children into a blazing fire? Twenty minutes in, he concedes that it is great music and not a manual for living, but seems still to be laboring under the illusion that by listening to it, we are irresistibly compelled by its morality.

Posted by: maurydannato | March 31, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

1. I became interested in Wagner because of Proust, who I think works in the same aesthetic.

2. Wagner creates dramatic characters of the highest order. Seeing Rene Pape as Gurnemanz was astounding. Or Morris as Sachs. I think one has to have experience this live to actually get the point. He's in the same company as Shakespeare or Tolstoy. On also has to physically endure sitting through the things too.

3. The real pay-off comes from the intimacy. Die Walkure is almost a chamber work - a series of intense dialogues and monologues.

4. I'm not sure Wagner had a unified philosophical vision. There's a much cheesy Christan sentimentality in his work as there is pagan will to power. And of course, Nietzsche hated Parsifa1, which itself could be seen as both pacifist and misogynistic.

Posted by: mfritter | March 31, 2009 7:17 PM | Report abuse

It is irksome in the extreme when persons without the means eloquently to address the purely artistic, not to mention the purely musical merits of Richard Wagner's scores elect to move molecules of over-warmed air about, sounding pointless alarms concerning his bigotries, self-absorption and other character flaws, flaws common to hundreds of millions of people who never wrote so much as the first measure of Die Feen or Rienzi.

In the second act of Siegfried, how is instrumental timbre employed in juxtaposition to vocal timbre in order to heighten the dramatic effectiveness of each moment?

Name the three harmonies that characterize, most strongly, the music associated with Hagen.

How does the voicing of the chords in the final 48 measures of Wotan's Abschied impact what the listener hears?

We have these great living monuments of culture before us - but speaking of them insightfully requires more high-quality thought than does jawboning over the obvious, and obviously unacceptable, profound flaws of the composer as a person.

This is culture, with a huge capacity to enrich any portion of humanity that elects to be enriched by it.

The pharaohs were not necessarily sweethearts, but we don't disregard the aesthetic attributes of Egyptian antiquities for that reason.

Only a philistine would harp without end on Wagner's character flaws instead of focusing on the endlessly fascinating artistic qualities of his works.

Posted by: ScottRose | April 1, 2009 12:06 AM | Report abuse

"The writer’s [artist's] only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies."
William Faulkner, interview with Jean Stein vanden Heuvel, 1956

Posted by: lorenzovenezia | April 1, 2009 1:58 AM | Report abuse

Sorry to post twice, but this Simone Weil quote from a Jamie McKendrick review of Dante translations in the LBR seems apropriate:

"Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. Therefore 'imaginative literature' is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of both)."

Posted by: mfritter | April 1, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Can anyone (Anne?) recommend a good introductory book on Wagner and/or "The Ring"--for a more or less general reader? (Seems like this might a good time to take the plunge ...)

Posted by: arebora | April 1, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

A few refutations of Simone Weil, via mfritter: The landscapes and still lifes of Cezzanne and the Quartets and late symphonies of Haydn. Or -- if only Literature is the subject -- how about the novels of Jane Austen?

Posted by: earshape | April 1, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Please overlook the type in Cezanne.

Posted by: earshape | April 1, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Excellent, earshape. I only recently found myself really enjoying Haydn. I was relieved. Perhaps after 60 years I was approaching something like virtue.

But there's an enormous underlying sadness in Jane Austin, don't you think? Of course, she's neither boring nor immoral. Perhaps the sadness comes from her unflinching moral vision.

Posted by: mfritter | April 1, 2009 8:07 PM | Report abuse

Let me suggest the book: "Wagner without fear" by William Berger (Vintage). I've been a Wagner opera lover for well over 60 years. We all agree that Wagner was not a nice guy. But that hasn't prevented me from attending more than a dozen Rings and Meistersingers, etc.; Bayreuth 4 times; the Berlin 10 opera Wagner cycle; and lot more. To paraphrase the Clinton campaign slogan: "It's the music, stupid."

Posted by: microwaves | April 2, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

To mfritter: Thank you for the comment. I have already appeared here too often, so I suppose we should postpone or pursue elsewhere our interesting parenthesis.

To microwave: I have already observed above that Yes Indeed It's the Music. But that does not mean that all the music is good, and that loving it is always good for your health.

Posted by: earshape | April 2, 2009 8:45 PM | Report abuse

arebora, I'd recommend Ernest Newman's Wagner Nights: old-fashioned but still an excellent resource.

Justin Davidson has a good article in New York Magazine this week dealing with his own mixed feelings about Wagner:

Posted by: MidgetteA | April 2, 2009 11:12 PM | Report abuse

Thanks a ton, Anne. I'll try to find it. Great blog.

Posted by: arebora | April 3, 2009 9:37 AM | Report abuse

The American title of Wagner Nights is -- or used to be -- The Wagner Operas, in two volumes.

Posted by: earshape | April 3, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

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