MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Parsifal back at the Met

The Met’s revival of the François Girard production of Parsifal has started its run, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting.
My essay for the Met’s Playbill program is here.

Michael Cooper offers this report for the New York Times on >1,000 gallons of fake blood Girard calls for in his staging:

The blood creates striking tableaus — drenching the dress Evelyn Herlitzius wears as she sings the role of Kundry, a wild woman in the thrall of an evil sorcerer; and helping the audience visualize the spiritual quest taken by Parsifal (the tenor Klaus Florian Vogt). And it fits squarely into Mr. Girard’s conception of the opera.

 “We’re talking about life, Christ, Amfortas’s wound, sexuality, all of those things,” he said. “Blood became the connector.”

Filed under: essay, Metropolitan Opera, Wagner



Parsifal at Staatsoper Berlin.

Filed under: Staatsoper Berlin, Wagner

Déjà vu?


I found the above image accompanying a review of The Cunning Little Vixen (aka Das schlaue Füchslein) from a Wiener Staatsoper production reviewed on Bachtrack.

Am I imagining things, or is this uncannily reminiscent of Seattle Opera’s so-called “green Ring” set?

Die Walkure



Filed under: Seattle Opera, Wagner

Jaap van Zweden Takes the New York Philharmonic for a Test Drive


Last week Jaap van Zweden conducted the New York Philharmonic in their first concert together since he was named Alan Gilbert’s successor as music director (starting in the 2018-19 season).

The program was a rich one: the Prelude to Wagner’s Lohengrin, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and the New York premiere of a brand-new viola concerto, Unearth, Release, by the highly talented young LA-based composer Julia Adolphe.

My review for Musical America has now been posted (behind the usual paywall):

NEW YORK—Four-and-a-half years after making his New York Philharmonic debut, Jaap van Zweden ascended the podium on Thursday for his first concert with the orchestra since being appointed …

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Filed under: Musical America, new music, New York Philharmonic, review, Tchaikovsky, Wagner

Wagner’s Swiss Grandson


The Richard Wagner Museum is located just outside Lucerne in the Tribschen villa where the composer lived in the years just before settling in Bayreuth.

This summer’s special exhibition focuses on the little-known figure Franz Wilhelm Beidler (1901-1981). From the museum’s description:

Franz Wilhelm Beidler was the son of Isolde, the first daughter of Richard Wagner and Cosima, who was still married to Hans von Bülow at the time.
For 16 years Franz Wilhelm Beidler grew up in the knowledge that he was Richard Wagner’s first and only grandchild. The paternity suit filed by Isolde in 1914 in order to be recognised as Richard Wagner’s daughter culminated in a public fiasco and an insurmountable family dispute. Franz Wilhem Beidler dissociated himself from the Wagner family, moved to Berlin and married the Jewish woman Ellen Gottschalk in 1923.

Beidler supported the Socialist movements of the Weimar Republic and unequivocally rejected National Socialism. Subsequent to Hitler’s assumption of power, the Beidlers emigrated to Paris before being able to take up residence in Switzerland. In 1943 Beidler was elected general secretary of the Swiss Writers’ Association (SSV) and held the position for 29 years.

The Beidler family was ousted and suppressed by the Wagner dynasty for many years. Featured in the exhibition are the reasons, background information and course of events in the “Beidler Affair,” which included Richard Wagner’s personal involvement and is also closely connected with the history of the Bayreuth Festival. The exhibition also aims to rehabilitate and pay befitting tribute at long last to the Beidler family, whose descendants live in Switzerland.

Filed under: Wagner

What Use Is Religion? Bayreuth’s New Parsifal

“…where Religion becomes artificial, it is reserved for Art to save the spirit of religion by recognizing the figurative value of the mythic symbols which the former would have us believe in their literal sense, and revealing their deep and hidden truth through an ideal presentation.” –Richard Wagner (Kunst und Religion)

The 2016 edition of the Bayreuth Festival began today with a new production of Parsifal, staged by Uwe Eric Laufenberg (Intendant of the Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden) and conducted by Hartmut Haenchen (following the controversial withdrawal of Andris Nelsons).

Laufenberg on the relevance of Wagner’s final stage work for an era beset by religious fundamentalism:

This piece basically focuses on the religion of Christianity. On one hand, the grail knights in “Parsifal” inhabit a realm of charity, empathy and sympathy, and they come to the aid of the needy. Then there’s the other side: a crucified God, blood rituals and military symbolism.

I believe that Wagner wanted to bring out the factors of benevolence and mystery in this work. Not to openly criticize religion, but to enable one to experience it. That’s interesting in our own times of widespread religious fundamentalism – but also in times of a Pope Francis, who has been de-emphasizing the institutional side of the Catholic Church and stressing the factors of mercy, grace and benevolence.

It’s always been pertinent to ask: What are religions doing, and are they allowing themselves to be abused for ideological purposes? What do they really stand for?

Laufenberg on setting Parsifal in the Middle East:

Wenn es um ein Stück ginge, das in Syrien oder Saudi-Arabien spielt, würde ich mich keineswegs um eine Auseinandersetzung mit dem Islam drücken. Wagner hat den „Parsifal“ in den Pyrenäen verortet, wir bringen ihn in den Nahen Osten, Richtung Syrien, Irak oder vielleicht Jerusalem, wo die monotheistischen Religionen einen Wahnsinnskampf gegeneinander führen. Im „Parsifal geht es aber um die Frage: Was ist uns die Religion wirklich wert? Wo berührt uns die Religion eigentlich noch? Was bedeutet das Mysterium des gekreuzigten Gottes?“

Hartmut Haenchen on conducting Parsifal:

BR-KLASSIK: Sie haben in einem Gespräch in Bezug auf “Parsifal” gesagt: Man muss erzählen und nicht zelebrieren. Was heißt es konkret?

Hartmut Haenchen: Wagner hat das Werk ja auch nicht “Oper” genannt – aus gutem Grund. Die Handlung des Stückes ist vor allem im ersten Akt beschränkt. Es wird erst Mal 45 Minuten lang erzählt. Und wenn ich das zelebriere, dass die Texte auseinander fallen, dass man die Textzusammenhänge nicht mehr verstehen kann, weil man Tempi wählt, die Textverständlichkeit unmöglich machen – dann wird es zelebriert, aber nicht erzählt. Und ich lege großen Wert drauf – und da stützte ich mich natürlich auf die Quellen – dass die Geschichte erzählt werden muss. “Der Fluss der Sprache bestimmt das Tempo”, – das hat Wagner selbst gesagt. Und dem muss man sich grundsätzlich unterordnen.

From a 1906 lecture by Rudolf Steiner:

Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote an epic on “Parsifal.” It was inartistic, but it sufficed for his time; for there were in those days men who had a measure of clairvoyance and could accordingly understand Wolfram. In the Nineteenth Century it was not possible to make clear to man the deep meaning of that great process of initiation in a drama. There is, however, a medium through which man’s understanding can be reached, even without words, without concepts or ideas. This medium is music. Wagner’s music holds within it all the truths that are contained in the Parsifal story.

 Complete cast list from Bayreuther Festspiele

Complete libretto (German/English)

More background on Parsifal

Filed under: Bayreuth Festival, conductors, directors, Wagner

Flying Dutchman at Seattle Opera


© Philip Newton

My review of Wagner’s Dutchman at Seattle Opera has been posted on Bachtrack:

Though the legend of a seaman doomed to sail forever was already hackneyed by the time he took it up, it was through his idiosyncratic treatment of this material that Richard Wagner first found his authentic voice. “Do you fear a song, a picture?” sings the heroine Senta in her first confrontation with Erik, her hapless suitor.

But Wagner was well aware of the dangerous potential art possesses when the goal is no longer escapist entertainment. So is director Christopher Alden, whose production (originally created for Canadian Opera Company two decades ago) mirrors the young composer’s sense of thrilling new horizons beyond routine and convention.

continue reading

Filed under: directors, review, Seattle Opera, Wagner

Elder Wagner


Bliss: Sir Mark Elder, who just conducted the opening of San Francisco Opera’s Meistersinger.

Filed under: conductors, San Francisco Opera, Wagner

Meistersinger: Beyond the Revolution


My essay for San Francisco Opera’s new Meistersinger production has now been posted:

Richard Wagner was among those fired up by the fervor and idealism of the mid-nineteenth century revolutionary mindset sweeping Europe. He had tried to jumpstart radical change in the aftermath of the failed Dresden uprising of 1849 (in which he had actively taken part).

After a period spent rechanneling that energy from poetics into art with his new Ring project, Wagner eventually came to recognize the necessity of more gradual transformation.

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Filed under: essay, San Francisco Opera, Wagner

Tannhäuser at the Met

Tannhäuser has returned to the Met. Here’s my essay for the Met’s program:

Wagner never completely came to terms with Tannhäuser. On the
evening of January 22, 1883, less than a month before his death, he
ended a conversation with his wife Cosima by playing the Shepherd’s
Song and Pilgrims’ Chorus on the piano. In her diary entry for that day, Cosima quotes her husband lamenting that, “he still owed the world a Tannhäuser.”

Even if Wagner was merely referring to a production suitable for Bayreuth
(where the opera would be posthumously introduced under Cosima’s direction
in 1891), he remained anxious long after Tannhäuser’s premiere in 1845 abouthow to improve what he had created.

This anxiety bordered on obsession: Tannhäuser stands alone among the canonical Wagner operas as a continual “work-in-progress” over which the composer restlessly fretted, rethinking its premises on the occasion of each new production and periodically subjecting it to revision.

continue reading [pdf: p. 40]

Filed under: essay, Metropolitan Opera, Wagner

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