Richard Wagner was born 200 years ago this week: on May 22, 1813. In most cases, two centuries is enough to establish a safe distance, a historical world of Empire-waisted gowns and early Romantic piano sonatas. Wagner, however, is neither safe nor distant. We’re still arguing, passionately, about his work. We’re still dealing with the members of his family, who remain in charge of the BayreuthFestival, which still performs only Wagner operas. We’re still debating how to think about a bad person who made good art. Giuseppe Verdi, the year’s other bicentenarian and the 19th-century’s other greatest opera composer, transformed the opera of his time. Wagner is still demonstrating his place in ours.
Of course, we say, personality is separate from music; plenty of great artists have had unsavory opinions. But Wagner’s operas are particularly permeated with his personality. He wrote his own librettos, clunkily lyrical, alliterative to the point of caricature and oh so repetitive (Wotan, the father-god figure in the four-opera “Ring” cycle, keeps summarizing the plot throughout his appearances in the first three operas). And he wrote intoxicating, heavy, perfumed, intense music that bores into the ear and the psyche. Both music and text give aesthetic form to various facets of human obsession — obsession being something of a Wagner specialty.
In opera after opera, human will is a motivator so powerful it becomes its own inexorable force: the lovers in “Tristan und Isolde,” the desire for the “Ring’s” gold. And the music pushes and pushes and pushes at the border of release. People used to faint in Wagner’s operas, and I always think of this at the fever-dream moments in the “Tannhäuser” prelude, which convey an aching reach out to the forbidden, the unavailable, the evanescent, something that disappears even as you try to grasp it.
Like many drugs, Wagner’s work functions best when you simply surrender to it. Going to Bayreuth recalibrated my understanding of Wagner’s operas, because when you get to Bayreuth you enter into their time frame rather than trying to squeeze them into yours. If the main event of your day is an opera that lasts from 4 to 10 p.m., with hour-long breaks between each act to enable you to eat a real meal, without rushing, you may find that 90 minutes feels like just the right length for an opera act.
It’s hard to find that kind of time these days. Indeed, Wagner’s treatment of time in his operas may be the most dated thing about them. They were written in a more leisurely world, in which even very busy people had time to stroll in the evening and discuss serious thoughts — as Wagner did, in Bayreuth, with his devoted wife, Cosima. Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt, had left her first husband, the conductor Hans von Bülow, for Wagner; and she continued to rule the festival with ferocious devotion to the Master for many decades after his death, until their only son, Siegfried, nominally took it over. Here’s another example of the intertwining of life and art: It’s hard to discuss Wagner without discussing his family.