Thursday, September 1, 2022

Five Ways Wagner Changed Opera Forever

German composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883) was tremendously influential on the development of opera. With his groundbreaking music dramas and extensive theoretical writings about art and theater, Wagner changed not only the way people wrote opera, but also the way audiences engaged with the art form. Here are five ways the eccentric polemicist changed opera forever.

1. New harmonic language

Annalena Persson (Isolde) and Clifton Forbis (Tristan) in the 2010 production of Tristan and Isolde. © Rozarii Lynch.

Wagner pioneered new ways of using harmony, violating centuries-old traditions in western music which required dissonance to resolve into consonance, relaxation to follow tension. Driven mostly by a desire to express the unfulfillable yearning, the unsatisfiable desire experienced by his Tristan and Isolde, he pushed western harmony to the breaking-point. Composers who followed him had rich new worlds of chromatic harmony to explore; those who wanted to go beyond Wagner began exploring atonality.

2. Motifs instead of melodies

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried in 2013's production of the Ring. Siegfried's famous horn call is one of the most recognizable motifs in Wagner's tetralogy. © Elise Bakketun.

Historically, opera had always been about big lyric tunes sung by superstar singers. Wagner, wanting a more efficient way to tell a story musically, developed a kind of opera using the motif, instead of the melody, as a building block. (A motif is a small musical idea, sometimes just a few notes, associated with a character or prop or emotion or situation in the story of an opera or a movie.) This way, the drama isn’t constantly on ‘pause’ while everybody waits for the singer to get to the end of a pretty tune.

3. Big orchestras, big voices

The pit orchestra for 2010's Tristan and Isolde. © Rozarii Lynch.

Wagner added more instruments to the opera orchestra (even invented new instruments and made instruments do things they’d never done before) in pursuit of striking new expressive effects. In order to keep up, singers had to develop new ways of focusing and controlling their voices in order to cut through those enormous late-Romantic orchestras of the late nineteenth century. Enter the new ‘heroic’ voice types: hochdramatische Sopranos, Heldentenors, and others who could embody Wagner’s titanic characters.

4. “Eyes up here, everybody!”

Wagner’s personal theater, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, did away with most of the distractions of other opera houses.

When Wagner first started working in opera, the enterprise tended to be more about the lobby than the show; it was see and be seen, particularly in the swankier theaters, and the ‘art’ itself was often little more than entertainment aimed at tired businessmen and bored housewives. Wagner, who had great ambitions for the role of art in society, knew the first order of business was to get audiences paying attention again. With techniques such as darkening the theater, covering up the orchestra pit, writing music that can’t be interrupted with applause, and inventing the world’s first destination summer arts festival, he made sure his audience would focus attention on the show like a laser beam.

5. Art Replaces Religion

Christopher Ventris (Parsifal), Kevin Langan (Titurel), and Greer Grimsley (Amfortas) in the 2003 production of Parsifal. © Chris Bennion.

Following the Enlightenment, religion took a back-seat, in European intellectual life, to all sorts of new ways of thinking about and understanding life and the world. Wagner, who abhorred dogmatism in any field, relished and championed the new freedoms; but he also understood the importance of faith and anticipated the existential and social crises that can arise from a lack of faith. He wanted art—opera, redefined as something closer to the communal festival/sporting event/religious holiday that was ancient Greek tragedy—to bind together the community and help it and its individuals grow. Opera-going suddenly became extremely serious; and if that wasn’t for you, they invented operetta around the same time: high-energy entertainment for tired businessmen and their bored wives.

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