Monday, August 23, 2021

Loving Wagner, Hating Wagner...and the Middle Path

Listen now
wherever you get your podcaststo Seattle Opera's episode "Loving Wagner, Hating Wagner...and the Middle Path." 

Seattle Opera Scholar-in-Residence Naomi André and Dramaturg Jonathan Dean discuss the most controversial of all opera composers, Richard Wagner, whose Die Walküre the company will present, in concert (and abridged) at Fisher Pavilion on August 28. Wagner’s astonishing masterpieces continue to challenge and delight audiences, although his legacy is tainted because of his obnoxious attitudes and how his work was appropriated by the Third Reich. André and Dean discuss approaching Wagner, not from an ‘either/or’ mentality, but from a “both...and” way of thinking.

A few excerpts of their conversation below:

Dean Williamson rehearsing the orchestra of Seattle Opera, May 2005 © Rozarii Lynch

The importance of the orchestra

Jonathan:
It's such an orchestra-driven experience. Wagner is a very curious artist in many ways. You think, oh, he's an opera composer. He must be about the voice and he was—but he also completely changed how you use the orchestra in an opera, the harmonic language, and the musical structure and how music can tell the story. He changed all of that.

Naomi:
He does all of that. And you're right, that Wagner was doing incredible things for the voice. The orchestra, the voice in opera—he’s changing and making both of them part of this different type of tapestry where the orchestra isn't primarily accompanying the voices. The orchestra is singing with the voices.

Jonathan:
Right, and the voice becomes like another instrument in the orchestra.

Naomi:
Yes. And so the orchestra almost goes on stage in some ways with the importance of what it's doing and in the narrative, and the voices sort of jump into the orchestra in terms of how that sound is wafting together. That's just one of the things that makes Wagner so important; it gives us this new experience with how the orchestra and the voice and the staging all come together.

Wagner’s Die Walküre, Alwyn Mellor (Brünnhilde), Greer Grimsley (Wotan). © Elise Bakketun photo

Loving the music, hating antisemitism and racism

Naomi:
So let's help people get a sense of why this is okay to listen to after a time where we have all been inside. We've had sort of an awakening around issues with the Me Too Movement and Black Lives Matter. And then the situation at the Capitol building in January, we're a much different nation in some ways. We're still Americans, but we're articulating new things. And some people might think Wagner with its history to antisemitism might be a tough thing to open up with.

Jonathan:
Yeah, I think it's a little bit what must have happened in 1951. Let's open the festival again and come up with a different way of thinking about it, a different way of doing it. You and I were talking just a moment ago about the controversy that you love Wagner or your hate Wagner. Well, if you're committed to an absolutely binary way of thinking about the world as plus and minus, there are other paths available. I like the idea of maybe thinking more freely.

Naomi:
One construction I find that's really helpful is rather than this either-oryou love it or you hate it, and there's no in-between is to say"Well, wait a minute, isn't there a spectrum of a both-and?" While we can hold all of these complicated ideas in our head, we're not going to pretend things haven't happened. We're going to talk about them, or we're going to acknowledge that some of this is very painful. Yet, there's also a lot of other wonderful things, and we have to hold it together. And for an opera company to say we're going to be bold and admit the pain and admit the joy...That's the place where I like to besort of in this in-between. Having both and.

Seattle Opera's Community Conversations series has been a space to unpack the complexities of opera, appreciating the music, while taking a deeper look at how these stories impact people today. Sunny Martini photo 

Wagner and Antisemitism

Jonathan:
We should talk about certainly antisemitism is something that immediately comes up to everybody's mind with Wagner. He lived in the 19th century Germany where antisemitism was kind of the norm.

Naomi:
And before that's right. He did not invent this. It would be great if we could say, "Oh, it's just one bad egg." But sadly, this was part of the culture. Part of the atmosphere.

Jonathan:
It goes worse after his particular period. And there's a role that his writings played in that increased intensification of antisemitism once you got into the 20th century, Wagner lived 1813 to 1883. So there was no such thing as a Nazi when he was alive. There was a socialism and he sort of dallied with socialism, and ended up what we might consider somewhat of a conservative, although also a member of the green movement.

Naomi:
Yeah. He was really interested in antivivisectionism, which has to do with honoring animals and nature and sort of all of that.

Jonathan:
Animal rights.

Naomi:
Yeah, really. So things we'd think of as that were really progressive today, but I think what makes the antisemitism issue kind of difficult in addition to his tapping into that world that was already there, his writings, which Das Judentum in der Musik, the Jewish people in music.

Jonathan:
Jewishness in music.

Naomi:
Yeah. That's definitely a better translation, which is we know that Meyerbeer, Giacomo Meyerbeer, who was a German Jewish composer, was nice to Wagner when Wagner went to Paris in the early 1830s. And then Wagner ended up just writing mean terrible things about him. So we've got that world with Wagner, but then I think what makes it so hard for us today, and the more immediate legacy has held Wagner was appropriated by people later, including his own family members, in Bayreuth where Wagner had his home there. Hitler was a frequent visitor at certain points in the thirties.

Jonathan:
Huge fan of Wagner.

Naomi:
The nicest thing about Hitler perhaps is that he had good musical taste in my opinion. And not to joke about this, there were some really serious, dangerous things about how Wagner fit into this pure Aryan master race.

Jonathan:
Certainly all that thinking that then went into Nazism comes out of an intellectual circle, which they were very comfortable at Bayreuth.


Alex Ross book

Naomi:
You know, as you were talking about what it means for us individually to think about Wagner and love Wagner, a really helpful place to think about thisboth for people who are brand-new to Wagner, as well as to folks who love Wagneris Alex Ross' new book, Wagnerism, Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music. I confess I have not read it from cover-to-cover, but what I really love is that you've got this overview of the past up to the present. So you've got chapters that are devoted to sort of hot topics around Jewishness, Blackness, queerness, as well as philosophical ideas, Wagner and Nietzsche, the Fin-de-siècle Vienna, turn-of-the-century, symbolism, modernism.

He has chapters that look at World War I, World War II and beyond. It's not called Wagner, it's called Wagnerism and the legacy and reception and continuing history with its importance and its pain of what it means today. So I think it's for people, listeners who are interested, oh gosh, do I really want to buy that really big thick book? I say, "Yeah, go ahead. Jump in." Because you can sort of pop in and get sort of some of these, it just came out recently. So it's written for today, but talking about these real tough issues from the past.

Jonathan:
What I found so fascinating about it is Wagner, he was so prolific and he never stopped talking and he never stopped writing. And he has these immense operas and they're so complicated and they're so full of ideas and you can sort of make it mean anything you want. And Alex Ross is evening the structure of the book with the chapter on the black Wagnerites and the gay Wagnerites, the Jews. It can go in all these different directions. The feminist Wagnerites, with this history that we have of appropriation and this really dreadful appropriation of Wagner used as kind of the theme music for for Germany's Third Reich.

The McCaw Hall flyloft, Summer 2005 © Bill Mohn

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