September 29, 2010


Wagner for a Song (ALEX ROSS, 9/25/10, NY Times)

Yet no matter how much the Met talks up its $20 rush tickets or its movie-theater simulcast series, which reaches millions of people a year, it can’t seem to shake its pince-nez image. Perhaps we’ve seen too many commercials with toffs in penguin suits to accept the fact that operagoers are, in fact, a motley middle-class lot. And the Wagner audience is the motliest of all — emeritus professors sit side by side with “Ring”-loving schoolteachers, fanatic record collectors, neophyte opera mavens and that woman wearing a Valkyrie helmet.

That is how Wagner wanted it. While he had a gift for extracting money from the wealthy, and became notoriously conservative in old age, he rejected the conventional picture of the opera house as a playground for socialites. After he fled Germany for Zurich in the wake of his participation in the 1849 Dresden uprising against the crown, he began to argue that the “artwork of the future” would no longer serve the moneyed classes but instead speak to the masses. He denounced the practice of favoring classics over new work. In a letter to the composer Franz Liszt, he heralded a time when “we shall abandon our habit of clinging firmly to the past, our egotistical concern for permanence and immortality at any price.”

In his essay “Art and Revolution,” he proposed that theaters should be underwritten by the state and that all tickets should be free. In 1876, when he inaugurated a festival and opera house dedicated to staging his works in Bayreuth, Germany, he took pride in the democratic seating plan, which, unlike Madison Square Garden, gives everyone a good view.

The “Ring” itself carries a similar message. The adjective “Wagnerian” has entered popular discourse as a synonym for “grandiose,” but this colossal work is, in fact, a devastating deconstruction of the grand illusions of gods, men and dwarves. George Bernard Shaw, in his 1898 treatise “The Perfect Wagnerite,” influentially argued that the “Ring” is “a drama of today,” the power-seeking characters Wotan and Alberich suggesting the ruinous greed and corruption of a plutocratic society. Likewise, the musical language, with its system of identifying characters and concepts by leitmotifs, rejects operatic artifice in favor of direct communication. “There is not a single bar of ‘classical music’ in the ‘Ring,’” Shaw wrote.

The most potent moments are the most intimate, as when Wotan, chief of the gods, faces his own fallibility and, to quote Wagner’s stage directions, sinks into “the feeling of his powerlessness.” The true test of the Met’s production, directed by Robert Lepage, will come not in the Valhalla spectacle of “Das Rheingold,” but next spring, in that scene from “Die Walküre.” rising above that feeling, as Christ did.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 29, 2010 7:20 PM
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