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.
People love Wagner because the work gets under their skin: The obsession is contagious. Wagner sought to create a new kind of music drama, and he succeeded insofar as there is virtually nothing else like it; meaning that die-hard Wagnerians will travel around the world to see his work (although “Ring” cycles, which used to be rare, are proliferating at a considerable rate, especially this birthday year).
People hate Wagner because they think he was an anti-Semite, which is true, and a Nazi, which is not. The Bayreuth Festival was certainly a haven of arch-conservatism even before the Third Reich, and later a lode star in the Nazi cultural firmament; and Siegfried’s wife, Winifred, who ran the festival through the end of World War II, adored Adolf Hitler, a frequent visitor to the home (her four children called him Uncle Wolf).
You really can’t blame the Nazis on Wagner, who had been dead for decades by the time they came along, but the Nazi association, and the anti-Semitism, is enough to keep his works off the stage in Israel, although several artists, including Daniel Barenboim and Asher Fisch, keep chipping away at the prohibition.
The works are controversial in other cities, too. When German director Achim Freyer’s “Ring” production played in Los Angeles in 2010, with an accompanying Wagner festival, a local activist created a grass-roots movement to try to shut it down.
The question is whether the art itself is tainted, and the answer, I think, is that it is not, simply because art cannot tell you how to think. Art rises and falls on its ability to communicate emotional truths, and characters who were conceived solely as two-dimensional stereotypes would not come to life on stage, as Wagner’s do. Whether Wagner intended to depict his figures in a certain way is almost beside the point; the art, flawed and inexorable, has prevailed precisely because it offers more than the composer perhaps intended to put into it.
This is nowhere clearer than in the women of Wagner’s legacy. Wagner was hardly a feminist, and he tended to treat women’s power, in his female characters, with considerable reserve. Nowhere is this clearer than in “Parsifal,” his final work, in which Kundry and her sexuality are the agents of a symbolic castration, which is cured by a symbolic cauterization — in Wagner’s day, the conventional remedy for female hysteria.
Yet in real life, he left a matriarchy behind him. Bayreuth has been run much longer by women than by men, even given the long tenure of Wagner’s grandson Wolfgang, and it is now in the hands of two of the composer’s great-granddaughters, Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier.
And his female characters have kept taking on a force he may not have fully intended. Francesca Zambello, in her “Ring” production (which began at the Washington National Opera, was cut short after the third opera for lack of funds and will return complete in the 2015-16 season), is not the first director to maintain that Brünnhilde, rather than Siegfried, is the real hero of the piece; she is the one who stays free of the quest for the gold, and saves the world. Indeed, in Zambello’s “Götterdämmerung,” the final opera of the four, which I saw when the cycle was staged in its entirety in San Francisco in 2011, Siegfried even seems a little silly.
Earlier this month, a production of “Tannhäuser” set in a concentration camp was booed so vociferously on opening night that the Deutsche Oper am Rhein saw fit to pull the staging. To many people, this was yet another example of stage directors running amok. Yet the director had reasons for the updating: He was trying to find a contemporary expression of Tannhäuser’s guilt that would be as powerful to modern audiences as making love to the pagan goddess Venus was in Wagner’s original conception. The result: Wagner was at the nexus of a scandal involving Nazis, Jews, German archetypes and questions about the bounds of artistic decency and good taste — a place he spent most of his life. In another hundred years, he may still be there.