Few composers have generated as much fascination as Richard Wagner (1820-1883)--or as much controversy. Even today his music continues to impact film scores, writers and visionaries.
This August, Union Avenue Opera will present the last installment of its four-year traversal of Richard Wagner's "Ring" operas: "Götterdämmerung" ("Twilight of the Gods"). This weekend David Robertson, soprano Christine Brewer, and the St. Louis Symphony are presenting "Brünnhilde's Immolation," the final scene of that opera. Think of it as something of a preview.
I have a dream. I dream that some day I'll be able to walk into an opera house and not be faced with a production in which the stage director has imposed some sort of high concept on the piece that is either irrelevant to or openly contradictory to the intentions of the composer and librettist. Alas, as the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Wagner's "Tannhäuser" demonstrates, that's still a dream.
What is it about the music of Richard Wagner—a composer admittedly stained by insularity, prejudice, bitterness and resentment—that continues to tug at every fiber of the human heart?
In his "Concord Hymn" Ralph Waldo Emerson describes the first shot of the American Revolutionary War as "the shot heard round the world." The same phrase has been applied to the shot that killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. This weekend the St. Louis symphony will be playing the musical equivalent of "the shot heard round the world." Let's call it "the chord heard round the world." Its effect was less violent, but no less revolutionary in its own way.
Union Avenue Opera is nothing if not fearless, often taking on works that strain the company’s space at the Union Avenue Christian Church to the limit. Through next Saturday Union Avenue is presenting the second installment of its most ambitious project yet—Wagner's mammoth operatic cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (“The Ring of the Nibelung”). And it's pretty darned impressive.
Director Patrick McGrady's personal documentary "Wagner & Me" confronts a profound issue. How does British actor/writer Stephen Fry, entranced by Richard Wagner's superb music, reconcile his passionate love of that music with what he knows about Wagner's personal anti-Semitism and historical use, revered as Wagner was by Hitler and the Nazis.
How much can you downsize Wagner without putting him out of business? The late musical satirist Anna Russell once famously cut the entire “Ring” cycle down to twenty hilarious minutes and some change while still telling the bare bones of the story.
It sometimes seems that, nearly 140 years after his death, we are still trying to figure out just who Richard Wagner really was. He was a poet, a philosopher, a creator of dramatic prose--and most of us have heard about his racism, directed towards Jews and others whom he regarded as cultural interlopers. But one fact remains undisputed: Wagner was undoubtedly one of the greatest composers who ever lives, and one of the most inspiring. Even the Nazis, in their stupefied state, were able to realize his greatness, and, sadly, co-opt his message to subsume into their own world view.