Big Bad Wagner - Prelude

The next few posts are dedicated to a new friend of mine who is a professional singer living in NYC. The first time we met, she sheepishly confessed that Wagner was not her bag at all. Since then I have been waiting for the right time to broach this subject. But there’s no time like the present, so here goes nothing! 


It’s been said that the people who enjoy Wagner’s epically long operas are the SEAL Team 6 of music lovers. They are hardcore. I kinda agree with that…

A quick personal story:

Wagner’s Ring Cycle is comprised of four separate operas that are between two and five hours each in duration (including the intermissions.) That’s over 15 hours of music! The modern parallel, which actually shares the same source material, is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

The operas are often performed individually but when they are performed together as a ‘cycle’, they are all done in one week as a kind of marathon festival on alternating nights. When I went to see a Ring Cycle for the first time at the Met in NYC, I studied for a year in preparation (because I’m a super-nerd.) I learned all of the leitmotifs by playing them at the piano (to be explained later), I read the text of the librettos, I purchased and read the original Viking myths (called Eddas) that Wagner used as source material, I read several in-depth analyses by noted experts, and I listened to the Ring, or excerpts thereof, many times. I’m exhausted just remembering it. And I still haven’t even begun to learn the actual notes in a way that I would be able to conduct much of it at all.      

When the performance week arrived, I had to strategically plan my sleep cycle, caffeine intake, food sustenance, and during the shows even the bathroom runs across the street (because the lines at the Met are very long at intermission as you might guess…) It is unlike anything else I have ever encountered.

So, as you can see, Wagner takes a special kind of commitment. He demands a lot of you as a listener, but he is also powerfully addictive when you give yourself over to him. Enjoying Wagner requires the musical equivalent of ‘suspending disbelief’; just let the music hypnotize you and then you'll probably get that 'Wagner high'. (One of my favorite Woody Allen quotes is, ‘I just can’t listen to that much Wagner; I start to get the urge to conquer Poland.’)

Now, let us proceed undaunted, excited even!

VORSPIEL (the ‘Before Story’)

Before Wagner, there was no prestige and little market for German opera. Italian opera provided lyrical melodies and gorgeous voices, while French Grand Opera enticed through massive spectacle (like elephants on stage and such like.) The ‘Great German Opera’, by contrast, did not yet exist and seemed an unattainable ideal – Mozart’s best operas were all in Italian, Beethoven’s one opera is dramatically a bit turgid, and Weber only composed singspiels, which included spoken dialogue in between musical numbers. So a truly substantive German opera remained elusive.

Wagner's staunch nationalism and outsized ego meant that he wished to do for opera what Beethoven had done for the symphony; that is, to elevate the art-form above mere entertainment and imbue it with great cultural significance. So that’s what he set about doing.


During Wagner’s youth, Germany was still rather parochial and lacked the musical centralization of a cosmopolitan city such as Paris (Vienna’s concert life was still limited in many ways to the aristocracy; i.e. no thriving public scene.) Much of Wagner’s philosophy formed while he struggled to break onto the Paris musical scene, where his operas failed to gain the acclaim he so desperately sought. Wagner began to view French opera with disdain, and thought of it as little more than vacuous exhibitionism. He became frustrated and overwhelmed with professional jealousy, feeling shut out by the powerful clique of famous French composers (who are largely forgotten nowadays.) By coincidence, these composers happened to be Jewish, which no doubt contributed to Wagner’s lifelong virulent anti-Semitism.

Wagner’s very first operas emulated the trendy Italian and French styles. After all, he also wanted fame and success (in fact, he was dead broke and spent years avoiding creditors.) Once he had created these works, Wagner decided that both of these styles were now 'decadent', meaning they had been fully developed to their utmost and left no further room for evolution. So he turned his attention to the German proto-models that existed. In his new German style, Wagner began to use old Nordic legends and myths as inspiration. This was going to prove inestimably momentous later in his life.


It has been said that no one inspired Wagner like Wagner, and so instead of collaborating with a librettist – someone whose vocation it is to write the text for a composer to set to music – Wagner took on both roles! (And boy are his librettos soggy.) Whatever his creative process had been until then, when Wagner came to compose his first German opera (in 1841) he wrote, ‘From then on I was, in relation to all my dramatic works, first a poet; and only as I fully worked out the poem did I again become a musician.’ In other words, the text was now considered equal to the music in importance.

This represents the first step toward Wagner’s integration of all art-forms into his ideal, which was a universal and comprehensive synthesis of all existing creative modes: music, text, movement, staging, acting, painting etc.     

We've only just begun! More to follow soon… 

Kirsten Hicks