Monday, November 16, 2009

Wagner and Verdi, Bohemian and Bourgeois

Our Adult Education series continues tomorrow night at Seattle University with the first of three Verdi vs. Wagner face-offs this season. We’ll address psychology, politics, and art in the life of these two great opera creators, comparing and contrasting how they responded to three enormous tugs-of-war pushing and pulling back and forth across both their careers: the artistic shift from bel canto number opera to through-composed music drama; the political transition towards national unification, and, simultaneously, globalization; and (starting tomorrow) the ongoing battle between the Bohemian and the Bourgeois.

With that third category, we hope to address an issue--perhaps it’s also known as the tug-of-war between the blue states and the red, between liberal and conservative--an issue that comes up again and again, not only in the operas of Wagner and Verdi, but in most of the world’s most popular operas. The story of Carmen, for example, is the tragedy of Don José: a man torn between what bourgeois society is telling him to do: marry sweet, chaste Micäela, the good girl his mother has chosen and groomed for him, be an obedient soldier and an upstanding family man-—and what his loins are telling him to do: connect with (and try to stay connected to) the sexy, unpredictable, fascinating, infuriating Carmen, no matter what the cost. At Seattle Opera we just saw this battle waged, in La traviata, over the soul of Alfredo, between his uptight father, Germont, and his “fallen woman” girlfriend, Violetta. The issue will come up again, in the love affairs of Leonora, in Il trovatore, and Nannetta, in Falstaff; and it plays out in other Verdi operas as well, especially Un ballo in maschera, Don Carlos, and Aida.

Tomorrow night we’ll look at the centerpiece of La traviata, the Act 2 Scene 1 confrontation between Germont and Violetta, in some detail, and I hope to show how much that scene has in common with the centerpiece of Wagner’s Ring, the Act 2 Scene 1 confrontation between Fricka and Wotan in Die Walküre. Not only do both confrontations come at the same location in their respective operas; both were written the same year, 1853, by composers who turned 40 that year (Wagner and Verdi were both born in 1813). Both scenes are courtroom dramas deciding the fate of a love affair, with one character (Violetta, Wotan) advocating Bohemian free love, the other (Germont, Fricka) pushing a more conservative agenda. The Bourgeois character wins, in both fights, by showing the Bohemian the flaw in his/her life-plans (Germont tells Violetta Alfredo will fall out of love with her eventually anyway, Fricka tells Wotan Siegmund’s sword will fail to cut Wotan free of his dirty bond with Fafner). And in both scenes, both characters, Bohemian and Bourgeois, are presented with sympathy, dignity and complexity; music and text here combine to create a kind of dramatic intensity never before seen in opera.

And Die Walküre is far from the only Wagner opera concerned with this most basic of human struggles. Most of Wagner’s mature operas concern marriage and its discontents, and explore why adultery is so much more fun. And two of his operas—Tannhäuser and Parsifal—are set in a world where chastity is at war with promiscuity: where Tannhäuser doesn’t fit in, either amid the wild Bohemian orgies of the pagan Venusberg, or among Wagner’s strict, sex-phobic Victorian Lutherans of medieval Christendom; where Parsifal must find a way to move beyond the endless war between the self-mortifying Grail knights and the dissolute, superficial, ultimately impotent forces of Klingsor.

At Seattle University we’ll talk about these issues; we’ll explore the image of Bohemian tenor-as-minstrel in Il trovatore, Falstaff, Tannhäuser, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; we’ll put various Verdi and Wagner characters in the dating-game hotseat, with possible dates from the Bohemian and the Bourgeois side of things; and of course we’ll explore how the composers themselves dealt with the issue in their own lives. Neither lived a conventional, Bourgeois life, although Wagner called a lot more attention to his own flamboyant, Bohemian ways than did Verdi. Join us to learn more about these great composers, listen to music from a handful of their masterpieces, and to discuss these important questions with other opera fans.