Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Why bother with Wagner?

Anthony Freud, second from left

     The Lyric Opera announced its 2015/2016 season on Monday. I thought I'd stop by the press conference, though I regretted that decision as I walked to the Civic Opera House, feeling first the customary anticipation of  running into my colleague Andrew Patner, as always, followed immediately by the realization that no, he of course wouldn't be there. Then a few seconds went by, and I'd go through the whole cycle again. It felt lousy.

     For some silly reason I thought this was my own private sadness, and so was surprised, and gratified, when  the Lyric's executive director, Anthony Freud, began his remarks this way:
     "Thank you all for coming. Great to see so many of you here. I just want to start this morning by saying of course there is one person who's not here—Andrew— I have to admit I'm still reeling from the shock of his death, I really can't quite believe it's happened. He was such a great, wise man with a deep passion for culture, and a passion for Lyric. All I can say is that we already miss him terribly and there's nothing like an occasion like this just to emphasize the fact he's no longer with us."
    At which point the great critic Wynne Delacoma broke up the room by adding, "Of course, he might not be here at this point" alluding to Andrew's tendency to come bustling in at the last second.
     I don't want to pick apart next year's schedule. They're doing "Merry Widow" again, only six years after last time because—not that anyone said this but, reading between the lines—Renee Fleming is singing it at the Met and wants to sing it here too.      
      We can parse the whole schedule another time, or not. What I want to discuss is the composer currently being sung across the footlights—Richard Wagner, whose "Tannhauser" opened Monday night. 
     I love Wagner. Not the man, the music. That opinion needs explaining. A lot of people despise Wagner on principle, associating him only with Nazism and enormously long works, and that's a great injustice. Well, not the second part. This article was designed to remedy Wagner-aversion, or at least explain why I don't suffer from the common malady. It was written referring to his lighthearted "Meistersinger" and ran only two years ago, but merits revisiting, particularly since a good number of you no doubt missed it to the first time around, having arrived in the past year as the blog's readership has soared. 

     So why bother with Wagner?
     Not the Lyric Opera of Chicago—it has to bother. To its credit, despite the occasional frustration of loyal subscribers, the Lyric views its duty as an artistic organization to not just endlessly reprise two dozen favorite “barn burners,” as Sir Andrew Davis, principal conductor at the Lyric, calls the most popular operas -- an endless rhondo from "Carmen" to "Madama Butterfly" to "La Traviata" and back -- but to explore the entire range of the musical form, which sometimes means poking into the difficult, atonal, obscure, even despised modern works, or the feverish subchambers of Richard Wagner.
     That’s why Lyric puts them on. But why would anyone go? The works of Wagner are long -- in fact, “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg’’ which opens Friday, is his longest. Five and a half hours with intermissions. 
     Then there is Wagner himself, German nationalist, fierce anti-Semite, who referred to “the Jewish race, the born enemy of humanity” as vermin who must be destroyed, which they nearly were by his biggest fan, Hitler. Isn’t enjoying his work today, with its heroic mythologizing of German culture, a kind of tribute? An endorsement, really, of a guy who helped nudge Europe toward ruin?
     “That is in the back of your mind as you’re listening,” said Lyric dramaturg Roger Pines, an expert on Wagner. “It depends on how much you decide you want to know about him. His life is an awful lot more complicated and awful lot more interesting than any other composer you can find.”
     Some people willfully ignore Wagner, the man, and just listen.  “Of course, you can sit there and let the music wash over you,” said Pines. But that is not the path of the hero.
      “I had never really heard anyone be as direct and eloquent until I talked to our director, David McVicar,” said Pines. “He was the orignal director [of this production] He thinks the only responsible way to love Wagner’s art is to be fully aware of the dark side of him. It’s the only way to appreciate how wonderful the operas are.”
    Wagner, who died in 1883, is usually put in the context of how he was later embraced by the National Socialists, who used his triumphant orchestrations as the soundtrack for their Reich. But to understand where Wagner was coming from, as he worked, you have to realize he was in the middle of the revolutionary swirl of 1848 that began to form modern Germany and forced him to flee to Zurich. (As opposed to when fled to London to escape debt. Wagner had a tumultuous personal life and I admired this sentence in one bio: “It is not possible to summarize his many marital and financial difficulties.”) 
     The glib line I use to rationalize appreciating the work of those who turn out to be anti-Semites is that if a person limited his enjoyment to artists who weren’t anti-Semites, it would be pretty slim pickings—reading Isaac Bashevis Singer, looking at Marc Chagall and listening to klezmer music.  Grim.
     The facts about Wagner, true, strain this facile approach, but that leads to a realization even more satisfying. The Nazis insisted on binding art to the artists who create it. Their “Degenerate Art” exhibits were meant to ridicule art done by Jews and others they considered sub-human. To separate our ability to enjoy art from the  flaws, whether perceived or real, of whoever created it strikes me as a refutation of the  screwy Nazi worldview of purity and contamination. I  can think of no greater revenge upon the poisonous failed philosophy of Wagner, Hitler, et al than for a Jew in 2013 to park his latke-larded butt into a seat in the Civic Opera House and savor beautiful music, despite the ugly aspects of the guy who wrote it.
    To be honest, I was inclined against “Meistersinger” not because it is Wagner, but because it is a comedy, his only one. Just as, if I see Eugene O’Neill, I don’t want to see a watery “Ah, Wilderness,” his lone comedy, but his 100 proof “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” so if I’m going to see Wagner, I want horned helmets and Valkyries and those low rumbling notes that sound like the 20th century yawning and waking up.
     As for the length.
     “You can’t deny the fact it is as long as it is,” said Pines. “But in a good "Meistersinger"—and this is going to be a great "Meistersinger"— slides by. The music is glorious. You’re not conscious of the length. You’re taking in all the stimuli, the beauty of what you’re looking at and what you’re listening to. The beauty is all-consuming and the lengthy becomes  irrelevant. It’s a total immersion experience.”
     It is.  Surrender to this world where cobblers are wise and work in libraries and maidens give their hand to the winners of song contests takes an act of will, but the rewards are there, in both pleasure and understanding. “Meistersinger” helps you grasp Wagner, and Wagner  is a key to comprehending the madness that gripped the Germans, because he reveals what was going on in their backs of their minds all the while. 
                                 --Originally published February 8, 2013


  1. Sounds to me like a guilty justification of why you listen this music. You should not. It's like an African American enjoying the art of a Klanner.

    1. Should I then give up my Dickens because he was a horrible husband and father? Or quit speaking English altogether because of Britain's oppressive and racist actions in Ireland and India? Or, God forbid, quit reading this blog because of Neil's fondness for forever frivolously flinging four-letter fornication fantasies at foes? Not me. How about you?


    2. Good point, John -- and love the very funny alliteration.

  2. Don't be sarcastic, John. You are merely pointing out extremes and you know that's not what I meant.

    1. Sorry you took it as sarcasm -- it was intended to be irony.

    2. Hitler also was a vegetarian, but I'm going to keep eating salad.

    3. Is that irony, Tate? You certainly are full of yourself.

  3. A very sensible column Neil, and I'm glad you ran it again.

    Roger pines was right. A good Meistersinger seems shorter than a run of the mill Tosca.

    No denying Wagner was a vicious anti-Semite. But then so was Martin Luther, all of the Popes until WW II, most of the great Victorian writers, the list goes on. He was a combative personality, which explains the virulence of some of his pronouncements, but not a total monster in his personal life. He was kind to his often difficult first wife, gave second wife Cosima one of the great anniversary presents in history, and was popular with the orchestra musicians because he bought them beer after rehearsals.

    The greatest modern Jewish musicians seem to have come to terms with his past. Leonard Bernstein said "I hate Wagner, but on my knees."

    The Lyric Tannhauser, despite a sometimes ugly staging that moves the medieval story to modern times, is presented with a cast that probably couldn't be bettered these days and offers four hours of absolutely glorious song. You really don't have to be a "Wagnerian" to enjoy it.

    Tom Evans

  4. Well no, one would not have to listen to klezmer music if they didn't want to listen to Wagner (whose anti-semitism seems a bit more damnable given he lived well past the enlightenment). Brahms, for example, was philo-semetic, and a pretty damn fine composer. So was a friend of Wagner, the underrated Franz Liszt.

    Hey, if you can detach the art from the moya-foya making it, bless you, go ahead and enjoy it (though if the person is alive, you might ask yourself what the $$$ you are giving that person are going towards). But if you can't, don't let this kind of moralizing make you feel bad - there are other great artists worth those five hours + of your life that you won't be getting back.

    1. Don't know about Brahms, but Liszt wrote at least one anti-Semitic tract, and his daughter Cosima, who became Wagner's second wife was more anti Jew than he was.

      The enlightenment didn't do much to slow down anti-Semitism, at least not in Germany.

      You probably shouldn't go to Tannhauser.

      Tom Evans

  5. Off topic but Neil was write about his write up of Rahm being lesser of all evils. Since then we've learned that Garcia has a gangbanger son that his own dad can't control, let alone stop crime in the city. And his dad gets him free and great legal help so he only gets a slap on the wrist. He's
    got no respect for cops, obviously.


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