MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

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.

continue reading

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

Thielemann’s Bayreuth Ring


The Bayreuth Festival season is approaching, so I dug up an old review (published on of Christian Thielemann’s Bayreuth Ring from 2008, which originally came out on Opus Arte:

It’s no coincidence that the technologically forward-looking Opus Arte — an early adopter of the high-definition DVD and Blu-ray formats — here documents the current Bayreuth “Ring” via good old-fashioned CDs. In fact, this set marks the company’s first foray into the CD market. The stage direction by octogenarian German playwright (and opera novice) Tankred Dorst, which revolves around the idea of the modern and mythological worlds coexisting in parallel universes, has gained few fans since the production was unveiled in 2006. Instead, the real buzz around this “Ring” has focused on what Thielemann and the orchestra accomplish.

continue reading

Filed under: Bayreuth Festival, review, Ring cycle, Thielemann, Wagner

Another Wagner Comedy

No, Die Meistersinger is not Wagner’s only comic opera. Ahead of Seattle Shakespeare Company’s new production of Measure for Measure, here’s a taste of the German’s operatic take on this “problem comedy.”

Reviewing a production of The Ban on Love at Glimmerglass Festival back in 2008, the critic Philip Kennicott remarked that this youthful outing “is 99 percent a study in everything the mature Wagner is not.”

Kennicott goes on to note:

Wagner turned away from so much of the spirited energy he let loose in “Liebesverbot.” When it premiered in 1836, he stood, briefly, for free love and revolution and the creative destruction of the collective libido. By the end of his life, in 1883, he viewed sexuality as a kind of sickness, and his final work, “Parsifal,” celebrated a monkish cult of men devoted to celibacy and arcane religious rituals.


“Liebesverbot” is fascinating — not because Wagner discarded its musical and ethical worldview, but because he would spend his life thrashing its remnants out of himself.

Filed under: Shakespeare, Wagner

Die Meistersinger

My new essay on Die Meistersinger for the Metropolitan Opera’s program book (production starts 2 December 2014):

In the spring of 1861, Richard Wagner endured the very worst humiliation of his mature career—a humiliation of Beckmesserian proportions. The high-profile revival of his early opera Tannhäuser, thoroughly revised for its Paris premiere, caused such a scandalous uproar that Wagner pulled up stakes and canceled the production after only three performances. That failure reinforced his burning sense of resentment against the opera capital of the world, where he had already experienced crushing rejection nearly two decades before.

continue reading (essay starts on p. 42 of pdf)

Filed under: essay, Metropolitan Opera, Wagner

Nike Wagner on Talking Germany

Nike Wagner, the third of revolutionary director Wieland Wagner’s four children and the great-granddaughter of Richard, headed the Weimar Festival for a decade before being named new director of the Beethoven Fest Bonn.

Here’s an interview (in English) she recently gave host Peter Craven for Deutsche Welle’s Talking Germany program. Craven gets Nike to talk about what it was like growing up after 1945 as a Wagner, her relationship to the family (and especially her father), and its connections to Hitler.

There’s not very much about great-grandpa himself, though she attempts a capsule summary of the essence of Wagner’s genius. And Nike discusses some of her ideas about the Beethoven Festival, including the importance of dramaturgically thoughtful programming.

On his blog, Craven offers a few more glimpses of his guest:

Our initial encounter is very warm. She offers me a hand and, while I’m thinking that I like this lady, I’m also registering just how small her hand is, how thin her bones, and how frail and delicate she seems. It’s certainly a light frame, I reflect, to shoulder the heavyweight history of her family and the role it has for the better part of two centuries played here in Germany.

Eventually he gets Nike Wagner to share this:

“You know, everybody has a specific weight. I’m light. I love to jump, to run, to swim. And … what do you call it in English? … to hover. Not in a moral way. They always think I’m strict. I can be strict. I’m not a moralist: but any kind of injustice drives me mad. I change planes, trains, apartments. But I’m faithful. When I love a person, I love a person. And I love to go dancing. Waltzing. Discotheques. Well, not any more. Private parties these days. I love to move!”

As a descendant of Richard and Cosima Wagner, Nike is also the great-great-granddaughter of Franz Liszt. Here’s an interview (in German) on her planning while she was still heading the Weimar Festival:

Filed under: Beethoven, music festivals, Wagner

Hell, Paradise, and Parody

The Flying Dutchman by Albert Pinkham Ryder (c. 1896)

The Flying Dutchman by Albert Pinkham Ryder (c. 1896)

Here’s a piece I wrote for San Francisco Opera’s new production of The Flying Dutchman – a look into Wagner’s attraction to the source material he used for his breakthrough opera:

“…[T]he faithful woman hurls herself into the sea and the curse on the Flying Dutchman is lifted, he is redeemed, and we see the ghostly ship sinking to the bottom of the sea. The moral of this piece, for women, is that they should beware of marrying a Flying Dutchman; and we men should draw from it the lesson that women, at best, will be our undoing.”

It might not be unreasonable to assume this quotation comes from a critic hostile to Wagner. Or perhaps it represents a merry ribbing of the unintended absurdities that never seem far from the surface in his operas, a la Anna Russell? (“The scene opens in the River Rhine. IN it.”) Yet this sardonic wink at the climactic scene of The Flying Dutchman is actually taken from the chief source Wagner used for the opera in which, as consensus has it, he began to realize his authentic voice for the first time.

Richard Wagner: drawing by Julius Ernst Benedikt Kietz, 1840-1842

Richard Wagner: drawing by Julius Ernst Benedikt Kietz, 1840-1842

That source is “The Fable of the Flying Dutchman,” an episode contained within the longer unfinished novel Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schabelewopski (From the Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski), which was published in late 1833— eight years before Wagner composed the bulk of his opera. Its author is the great German–Jewish writer Heinrich Heine (1797–1856), and his narrator recounts this story as the plot of a play he has witnessed; his retelling of what he sees onstage moreover embeds an erotically titillating episode involving a seductive fellow audience member (her sexually loose behavior making her a kind of anti-Senta).

Heinrich Heine: portrait by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

Heinrich Heine: portrait by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

Heine here applies his celebrated genius for irony to the tale of the wretched mariner whose defiant pride has doomed him to sail forever on a phantom ship. (In both Heine and Wagner, “the Flying Dutchman” refers not to the protagonist, who is unnamed, but to his doomed ship.) Heine’s bathetic parody of Romantic pathos was so effective precisely on account of the popularity of this relatively modern variant of an ageless legend (a principle that can still be seen operating in the success of films like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise). The meme of the Cursed Sailor and his crew likely took shape as European empires expanded their maritime trade activities. While it had made the leap from oral folk tale to literature only recently, the culture was already saturated with this meme when Heine added his cynical depiction of “Mrs. Flying Dutchman”—already by 1826 the London playwright Edward Fitzball could score a hit with a partially farcical, over-the-top melodramatic treatment of this material.

Everyone loves a good ghost story, of course, and Shakespeare and Stephen King alike know how to captivate their audiences with a chilling yarn that can simultaneously provide entrée into something more profound. But the Dutchman motif proved especially alluring in the emerging era of Romanticism. From poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and Thomas Moore to popular German storytellers of the early nineteenth century, it quickly made a trans-Atlantic crossing and became a theme frequently encountered in American letters. Examples include the writings of Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe (both the short story “MS. Found in a Bottle” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym introduce Poe’s own fascinating twists on this material).

The Flying Dutchman, published in Collier’s Weekly, December 8, 1900 (oil on canvas), by Howard Pyle (1853–1911)

The Flying Dutchman, published in Collier’s Weekly, December 8, 1900 (oil on canvas),
by Howard Pyle (1853–1911)

The Dutchman’s eerie fate gratified a craving for tales of supernatural crime and punishment that also found expression in the work of several of Wagner’s predecessors: most notably, the German Romantic operas of Carl Maria von Weber and Heinrich Marschner (who composed one on a faddish vampire story) and Giacomo Meyerbeer’s early French grand opera Robert le Diable.

Nor was Wagner without precedent in recognizing in his cursed protagonist a resonant metaphor for deeper existential questions. The Gothic sense of alienation from ordinary society that is key to Wagner’s portrayal of the Dutchman taps into related currents of darker Romantic angst about modernity—as seen, for example, in Lord Byron’s world-weary anti-hero Manfred and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s precocious novel Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. In addition, as Dieter Borchmeyer remarks in Drama and the World of Richard Wagner, the Dutchman of lore can be viewed as “a symbol of the hubristic spirit of discovery that transgressed the boundaries of knowledge and experience” dictated by religion” and “is thus the maritime equivalent of Faust.”

Frontispiece to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (revised edition from 1831 of the novel first published in 1818)

Frontispiece to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (revised edition from 1831 of the novel first published in 1818)

It’s not by coincidence that during his exile in Paris, Wagner abandoned work on a Goethe-inspired Faust Symphony not long before embarking on The Flying Dutchman. (He later published what he had completed as an independent concert overture.) The composer himself analyzed this move toward “the specificity of the drama” as a liberation “from the mists of instrumental music.”

Wagner’s intense attraction to the Dutchman legend can hardly be explained as an attempt to exploit a topic made fashionable by popular culture. In fact, hot on the heels of his first commercial success with Rienzi, the more artistically adventurous Flying Dutchman initially earned a lukewarm reception (there were only four performances of the original Dresden production).

Another angle from which to consider the tale’s grip on the composer’s imagination, according to Joachim Köhler’s controversial biography Richard Wagner: The Last of the Titans, is arguably an inner need to exorcize “the traumatic experiences of horror and the fear of ghosts that kept him awake at night”—terrors that in Köhler’s portrayal had been imprinted on him as a sensitive child. And in a fascinating essay on The Flying Dutchman in the context of the operatic genres of its time, Wagner expert Thomas Grey writes that the composer turned the “melodramatic” claptrap associated with the story—“with its mysterious portraits, invisible voices, ersatz folk ballads, and sentimental ‘romances’”—into “an allegory of Romantic alienation, love, and redemption.” In doing so, “Wagner was aiming to rehabilitate this ailing branch [the “homely genre” of German Romantic opera] of his artistic patrimony.”

Last scene from the Dresden premiere production: Leipziger Illustrierte Zeitung, 3 January 1843

Last scene from the Dresden premiere production: Leipziger Illustrierte Zeitung, 3 January 1843

Yet what drew Wagner so compulsively to the satirical version of the legend set forth by the notoriously anti-Romantic Heine, whose ironic posture he simply stripped away? Heine, in fact, exercised a far-ranging influence on Wagner’s future career. The aspiring young artist had been befriended by the poet, a fellow exile in Paris who welcomed him into his circle (and quite possibly even helped Wagner polish his French prose in the scenario he prepared for submission to the Paris Opera). Köhler points out that “virtually all the mythological themes that were to be associated with Wagner’s name were already touched on” in Heine’s writings (such as the Grail legends, the tale of Tristan and Isolde, the riding Valkyries, and Tannhäuser’s excursion into the forbidden Venusberg). And in his earlier autobiographical accounts, Wagner credited Heine for giving him “all I needed to adapt the [Dutchman] legend and use it as an operatic subject”—though Wagner’s metastasizing anti-Semitism likely underlay his later suppression of any reference to his debt to Heine.

“One must be able to joke about the most sublime of things,” declared Wagner (as reported by his wife Cosima in her diaries). Borchmeyer adds that “as early as 1840 [before he had even completed his Dutchman libretto] he had written French parodies of Senta’s Ballad and the Sailors’ Chorus, showing how tragic themes immediately evoked parodic associations in his imagination.” (When you get down to it, “The Ride of the Valkyries” is not such a great distance from vaudeville.) By way of making sense of Wagner’s transformation of the satirical source he discovered in Heine into a primal existential drama, Borchmeyer suggests that “the subject has reacquired its former tragic seriousness, having lived through the experience of its own comic negation…which explains why, in turn, Wagner’s music dramas have repeatedly invited writers to parody them.”

(c)Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: opera, Wagner

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