Sunday, December 14, 2014

Wagner and the Producer's Role.

Those familiar with Bob Hicok's marvelously interwoven and associative poem "Spam Leaves an Aftertaste" will understand the apprehension, trepidation, and hesitation with which I open my email account first thing in the morning. However, I am occasionally rewarded in this process with the discovery of a nugget of great value, something that brings mental rewards instead of the promised instant wealth from helping a Nigerian General hide his money in my bank account.

I have been pleasantly surprised twice in the last two weeks with just such nuggets--two reviews by the Boulezian. No critic currently writes with such erudite, academic prose, musicological insight, and intellectual rigor as Dr. Berry.  I do, however, tremble when he chooses to write about opera.  Still, that is a matter of prejudice--both his and mine.  I suspect his prejudices about opera performances are totally wrong, and I know that my prejudices are totally right.  Therefore, when I see that he is reviewing a new opera production, I am always ready to be disgusted, irritated, and frustrated.  Imagine my pleasant surprise to see that for once he has joined the ranks of the just as he took Christof Loy to task for the director's incredibly dysfunctional production of Tristan und Isolde.

Tears of joy actually ran down my cheeks as I read, "...obviously what matters is a director's inability or unwillingness to understand the work; that, after all, is what he is paid for....[I'll bet the Boulezian's tongue must still be smarting from placed so deeply in his cheek]...It does not seem that he (Loy) necessarily wished to traduce the work, then, but he has certainly misunderstood it."  As good as this is, the opening line of the review is priceless--thank you Boulezian--"Christof Loy has established rather a nice line in taking on works he admits he dislikes, or worse, and ignoring them whilst claiming to direct them." From my point of view, this is the attitude of all of the Regietheater directors who must so despise the directions, effort, and philosophy of the creators of the original works that they must impose their own convoluted ideas onto the works, essentially creating performance art based on the tunes and words of the original.  As a result, what was fine art becomes pop culture. While the Boulezian would not totally agree with me, I suggest that the opera director should occupy a role similar to that of the performers, who use the notes and the words of the composer and librettist to give the best performance possible; the director should do the same--he or she is not to "remanufacture" the work of art.

The second pleasant surprise was a review of Handel Messiah's.  In it, the Boulezian defends the use of modern instruments in performances of old music and requests that the performance of Baroque music occur more often.  Over 150 years ago, the Victorian novelist Samuel Butler argued with passion that Handel's music was the most sublime of all compositions.  With a vaster perspective granted me by time, I would not agree with Butler, but I certainly enjoy Handel almost as much as I do Bach--especially when I listen to the Messiah performed by the late Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra.
The argument about period instruments, while hotly debated in some circles, carries little weight for me.  I ask that the readers forgive this tortured "conceit," but I enjoy taking rides along historic, scenic routes, and while riding in a model T might cause me to attract the attention of observers on the roadside, I would much prefer to enjoy the scenery from the comfort of a modern Lexus, which I know will get me to the end without accident.  Having heard a performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos given by a group whose period instruments included a valveless trumpet, I can speak to discomfort and innumerable accidents during the ride. It almost made me wish that Maurice Andre had been the trumpeter--oh my God, all those ear-numbing Nonesuch recordings by Andre.  The music is the music no matter how the notes are produced.  Sometimes, the music's beauty and meaning becomes clearer when produced by another source, i.e, Wendy Carlos' Switched on Bach or the jazzy renditions of Bach by the Swingle Singers.

Tomorrow I will return to my email account with renewed dread; after all, one cannot be lucky every day.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Happy Days Are Here Again

I sat in my hospital bed last Tuesday night reviewing nearly 80 years of life and the pain in my chest. My body hurt from the cardiac catheter that discovered nothing, while the afib went on.  I thought of the Ebola devastation in parts of the world, of the insanity that is reigniting the cold war, of the reactionary period into which the United States is about to enwrap itself for at least the next two years, of a world of high stakes testing done for the sake of testing, of the dilemma that race still presents my country, which I had hoped had been resolved fifty years ago, and saw nothing on the horizon to lift my spirits or hopes.

The textual studies to which I have dedicated my life seems to be submerged in gender studies, women's studies, and deconstruction.  Worse yet, the latter movement--deconstruction--has led to the near destruction of one of the realms I most enjoy.  Composers, librettists, and writers give us clear instructions on how to stage their productions, but deconstruction has given producers the inflated egos to rewrite the original works and to turn them into their own frivolous visions of what the work might mean or might not mean. Consider Bizet's Carmen. Just because the word car appears in the title is no excuse for Bieito to litter the stage with automobiles.

The travesties of recent Bayreuth productions hit an all-time low this summer with the Frank Castorf Ring. Goodness gracious, even my "friend" the Boulezian had the good sense to castigate this production.  In the back of my mind, I knew that Castorf's protege Meese, a performance artist--not a performing artist--was scheduled to stage Parsifal at Bayreuth.
My nightmares have been filled with visions like these:

I woke up Wednesday to the news that Bayreuth had terminated Meese's contract and that someone else would be producing the new Parsifal. Whatever Uwe Eric Laufenberg gives us, it has to be superior to what Meese would have aborted into our laps.  You see, happy days are here again.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

What If?

While running an errand yesterday, I found myself enthralled with the Met Opera Radio rebroadcast of the 1969 Das Rheingold conducted by von Karajan.  Its original broadcast was America's introduction via a live production to the DG Ring of van Karajan--the Ring that was supposed to displace the Solti/Culshaw Ring.  Fascinated by Zoltan Keleman's Alberich I began to wonder "what if?"  For instance, what if the Cold War had ended earlier or detente had begun earlier--would the Hungarian Keleman have been a bigger star than he was by having greater access to Western houses and audiences.

The Wotan in this Met performance was the versatile Theo Adam,  a fine singer whose career self-adjusted with age going from Wotan in this performance to singing Alberich in the Phillips/Haitink Ring.  Both credible performances, but neither overwhelming.  What if, Rudy Bing had not snubbed Fischer-Dieskau, and what if Fischer-Dieskau (partially as a result of the snub) had not chosen only to do concerts, no operas, in the US.  Anyone who has heard the Karajan Ring on recordings knows that one of the highlights of the set is the Rheingold Wotan of Fischer-Dieskau.  It so impressed Karajan that he pleaded with Fi-Di to sing the other Wotans, but Fi-Di refused. What if Fischer-Dieskau had come to the Met for this 1969 performance, and what if he had agreed to sing the other Wotans? Would the London Ring have faded? Would the Hans Hotter-style Wotan have found competition?  Up until Hotter, the Wotan style of choice was that of Schorr, a style very much in line with Fischer-Dieskau's interpretation.

Martti Tavela was one of the Giants in this production, along with Karl Ridderbusch.  Talvela died at the age of 54--he had already gained great renown for his Boris, Gurnemanz, and Dosifei (in Khovanchina), but what if hw had given us even 6 more years? Would there have been even more triumphs?

Looking ahead, the early broadcast tomorrow morning (October 6) on the Met rebroadcast is the 1960 Parsifal with the so-called lesser lights of the post-War Wagnerians.  Elizabeth Harshaw, who had the misfortune of a career overshadowed by Flagstad on one end and Nilsson on the other, was an elegant soprano who deserved an even better reputation than she has.  Karl Liebl suffered from all heldentenors of these years--the Melchior shadow.  Herman Uhde was building a tremendous career when he died onstage during a performance in Denmark.  What if these three performers had been just a little luckier in the timing of their careers or if the fates had been just a little kinder to them.   Even a five year delay for the Liebl would have made a tremendous difference for the better in his present reputation.  Those five years would have made his career contemporaneous with Jon Vickers and Jess Thomas, both of whom seemed to have escaped the Melchoir shadow.

The fortunes of so many Wagnerians could have been very different if only...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Parsifal Archetypes.

Carl Jung, began his career as a follower of Sigmund Freud.  Eventually he felt that Freud's vision of the "unconscious" was too negative and too limited.  Jung saw the unconscious as broad, deep, and shared humanity.  He referred to it as the "collective" unconscious and explored the archetypes, which he said inhabited it.  Literary scholars have and have not accepted the collective unconscious, but they have heartily welcomed the concept of archetypes to explain themes and motifs in all forms of artistic works.

In her biography of Jung, Clare Dunne observes that the psychologist was convinced that human psychology was essentially religious (others would say superstitious), which became a central feature of his work. As a result, the "scientist" studied Eastern and Western philosophy, alchemy, legends, and the occult.  These studies reveal the archetypes, which Jung said exist in all cultures and are collectively inherited by each of us as a birthright, perhaps "birthrite" might be more accurate.  While we might doubt the concept of a "collective" unconscious," we cannot doubt that the themes and motifs identified with it are part of our cultures and infiltrate our imaginative works. This is particularly true of works based on folklore, legend, and myth.

Richard Wagner's works find their inspiration in the Volk tales and legends of Medieval Europe.  He, as would Jung later be, was fascinated with Eastern philosophy, knew the great Western philosophers (especially Feuerbach-who explained that man's imagination created God-- and Schopenhauer). Noting these contiguous patterns of thought and interest, no one should be surprised that Wagner's works would be rife with archetypes.

A wonderful source for understanding the most commonly used archetypes is a book by Jane Garry and Hassan El-Shamy entitled Archetypes and motifs in Folklore and Literature: a Handbook, which was published in 2005 by ME Sharpe. Of course, everyone should seek out the seminal works by Maud Bodkin from the 1950s, which really introduced the serious study of archetypes in imaginative literature.

The essential archetype of Wagner's Parsifal is the journey/quest.  This archetype centers around a young person who leaves home in search of something which when found and returned will produce a result (positive or negative).  Whatever the object of the quest might appear to be, the real  object is knowledge, self knowledge; hence, this is the motif that dominates the bildungsroman or coming of age story.  While Parsifal is often wrongly described as the quest for the Holy Grail, the truth of the matter is that this quest if for knowledge, knowledge that must be sacrificed for, and knowledge that will lead to salvation--the positive outcome.  The apparent object of this quest is the sacred spear, but that is only a means to an end--Parsifal must first find the knowledge to value the spear and the knowledge to use it for healing and for salvation. Of course, Parsifal's "there and back again" journey does not take him full circle--he does not return to his childhood home--instead he returns to the point where he was first touched by pity, a place that Wagner complicates by placing beyond space and time--a heavenly place that has been torn by pain and strife--much like Milton's Paradise though no one has been cast out. Upon Parsifal's return allows him to bring salvation to those who have suffered by applying the "benefits of of his acquisition during his sojourn and quest for treasured objects."  The quote is from a general discussion of the quest motif from Garry and El-Shamey's Handbook (264), but the description fits almost too exactly.  Another part of the quest motif is "learning what fear is." Unlike Siegfried, Parsifal's need to learn fear is not an overwhelming theme, since Parsifal, the pure fool or total innocent must learn everything.  The archetype of the "chosen one" whose quest will fulfill some grand design infiltrates Parsifal's quest. His innocence for which he earns Gurnemanz' boot out the door is the signal that the boy is the chosen one, the one for whom the knights have been waiting.

Wagner interweaves innumerable archetypal themes into and around Parsifal's quest.  The guide figure whose wisdom and experience points the way for the quester plays a key role here.  Gurnemanz is wise in everything but recognizing the chosen one, but the old man plays an important role late as the welcomer of the proven chosen one, using both the water and anointing motifs to welcome the erlorser home and crowning him king.  The garden motif and the forrest motif play major roles in the quest.  The Grail forest is the doorway to the Grail sanctuary--a magical doorway that leads to a place beyond space and time.  Only those who are called may enter it--once again the motif of the "chosen."  It is a holy place. It is an ancient place. It is an eternal place. It is a well-kept place (most of the time). If we consider the garden archetype, we see that Wagner has chosen to use a traditional place of safety and in contrast to the forest, turn it into a place of danger and betrayal.  Adam and Eve's duties in Eden were to prune and care for the garden--to give it order out of disorder.  By Milton's time this had become a metaphor for the human soul as well--the wise man ruled within himself, pruning and keeping in check his desires, which otherwise would make his life a garden gone to weed and seed.  Just a generation or two earlier, Shakespeare had Hamlet call Denmark a rank garden gone to seed and weeds.  Wagner combines all of this in Klingsor's garden where selfish pleasures are pursued in a place where flowers uncared for wind about one's feet--we assume tripping up that person into sin and loss. Parsifal's quest hosts many other archetypes.

Garry and El-Shamay devote an entire chapter of their Handbook to magic.  Klingsor's magical powers further complicate Parsifal's quest.  The magician's ability to cause the transformation of Kundry from the feminine servant spirit of the forest (Mother Earth?) into the temptress of the garden is a powerful tool that Wagner exploits.  True to the archetype, Kundry is bewitched but retains her original form (perhaps enhanced to be more enticing) and is affected morally by her change.  She adds three more archetypes to the scene--the name, the kiss and the curse. Traditionally in folklore one gains power over an opponent by discovering the opponent's name.  Kundry, in her travels, seems to have found out everything there is to know about Parsifal's past, and as we see in the first act of the opera under Gurnemanz's questioning, even he does not know his name. Kundry begins her seduction of him by calling him by name.  Parsifal says I think I have heard that name in a dream before.  Kundry begins her assault.  However, in what is to be the victory stroke, Kundry allows another archetype to intrude.  In Snow White, in Sleeping Beauty, it is the kiss that wakes the sleeper from unconsciousness.  Kundry's kiss awakens Parsifal; it is a kiss that awakens knowledge as he suddenly empathizes with Amfortas--Amfortas, Die Wunde! He, as the princesses, is awakened from unconscious innocence to suffering and pain.  The awakened knowledge is enough to save him from the enchantress's clutches, so Kundry introduces the third archetype--the curse.  At this point, Wagner complicates the quest even further, because Kundry's curse adds the motif the "choice of roads" (Garry 268).  She screams at him, choose whatever path you will, none will take you anywhere that does not lead to me.

So great is Wagner's skill that with this curse he has supplied Parsifal with the ten years of questing to find the Grail Realm once again.  Here, we learn, that he suffers to protect what he has gained, he suffers to be worthy of the role forecast for him.  At this point Wagner transfers Kundry from where we last saw her in Klingsor's garden to the place in the Grail forest where Gurnemanz discovers her as she was in Act I with the transformation reversed. Subtly, Wagner has resolved the curse.  Parsifal's path now leads both to Kundry (for whom he must also provide salvation) and to the Grail Realm (where he will be recognized as the chosen one and provide the promised help for Amfortas and the rest).

The archetypes and motifs allow us to see the intricacy with which Wagner drew upon the cultural inheritance of the past in order to reinforce his philosophical doctrines of love and sacrifice.




Thursday, August 7, 2014

Nearly Forgotten Wagnerians

For those of us who love Wagner and the artists who make his works come to life, few performers fail to make an impression on us and live in our memories long after their retirement or passing. However, I realize that my memory is much longer than most Wagner lovers today.  Some of the artists who stand at the forefront of my memory may just be names to anyone born after 1975. I try to listen to the contemporary artists performing on today's stage, but with few exceptions I do not find replacements for those with whom I grew up and with whom I began my Wagnerian adventures. I truly enjoy Stuart Skelton's performances (when I can find them) and Catherine Hunold's is a magnificent voice that needs to be exploited.
What can one say about Jonas Kaufmann that has not already been said?  The same goes for Nina Stemme.

However, when one drifts back in time, names that should come to mind as easily as Schorr, Melchior, and Flagstad--whether because of their placement in time, the world history surrounding them, or the misfortune of not being at the right place at the right time for recording purposes--seem to be slipping from many Wagnerians' consciousness.  Theo Adam's fairly recent death has allowed many of us the luxury of recalling his work--during his career he sang nearly every deep role in the Wagner canon.  We can find him as Wotan, we can find him as Alberich. Here he is as Sachs:
Sadly, the voice of Herman Uhde is nearly forgotten. Like Adam, Uhde was unhesitating about singing any of the lower Wagnerian roles--one of my favorites is his Klingsor, but he also sang Amfortas, Wotan, Alberich, Gunther, and Telramund.  Compare his dark, menacing voice as he sings with Astrid Varnay:
Whether the unlucky fact that his birthdate sentenced him to spend his twenties and thirties in Nazi Germany, where he sang the heldentenor roles, had anything to do with his slipping from our memories, I cannot say. He was conscripted into the Wehrmacht late in the war and then captured in France by the Allies.  Upon repatriation, he turned to the the baritone and bass roles.  Throughout the 1950s he was a regular at Bayreuth.  I suspect that it is here that he branched out by taking a variety of roles because of the dominance of George London at the Festival.  Uhde managed to get a contract from Rudolf Bing at the Metropolitan where he sang for 12 seasons and took part in 60 performances.  His is a great voice, but if anyone from the younger generations today remembers him, they do so because of his death--on stage during a performance in Copenhagen.

What Rudy Bing gave, he was also able to take away.  That is the fate of the next artist whom I wish to mention. We know that Mr. Bing released Melchior from the Met.  We know that Bing refused to offer Fischer-Dieskau a contract.  What many have forgotten is that Bing also terminated the contract of Melchior's favorite soprano.  Helen Traubel is one of the greatest American voices. Most Wagnerians know the name, but few have taken time to get to know the voice.  She is just the Soprano who took Flagstad's place during the war and was not needed when Birgit Nilsson came on the scene.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Traubel was an intelligent and sensitive individual who turned down the first offer that she got from the Met because SHE felt she needed more training. Ten years later the Met wanted her again, but the marriage almost did not happen because she now wanted to sing Sieglinde and the Met already had Flagstad and Marjorie Lawrence to sing the Wagner roles.  Within two years, Flagstad had returned to Europe where she remained during the war and Lawrence had her career severely limited when she contracted polio.  Traubel burst onto the scene with a voice that was able to sing with and against the heldetenor of Melchior.  Her voice was strong when needed, delicate when called upon to be, and liquid in its ability to maintain the legato line--in my memory, her voice shares the qualities of Gundula Janowitz and Waltraud Meier. That is a stretch few artists can make.  When we see her pictures, she looks more like Margaret Dumont (Groucho Marx's victim in so many films) than she does a Hollywood starlet.  Both she and Melchior belonged to the Park and Bark school of singing--but that was the tradition at the time.  What is amazing is that the woman also was a top night-club attraction, movie star, and mystery writer (notice I did not say novelist--I do not think those are the same things).  She had a voice to rival Flagstad. Those who took her place, Martha Modl and Astrid Varnay, could never match the flowing liquid registers. Birgit Nilsson's laser voice, while strong and intimidating, could not match the subtleties of Traubel's.  Why, then, did Bing fire her?  He found out that she was performing in New York Night Clubs and that was not the image he expected from a Metropolitan star.
I fear that this great voice will slip into one of those cracks in history caught between those who came before her and those who came after.  She was much more than just a place holder.

I do not fear that the last artist will be forgotten, only that he will not be remembered as the great Wagnerian that he was.  Because of Rudolf Bing, Americans never got to know the operatic side of this artist, except through operatic recordings, but as Conrad L. Osborne and Dale Harris were quick to point out in the late 1960s, there seemed to be one of those a month.  Many Wagnerians say the Fischer-Dieskau's voice was too lyric for Wagner.  I would only point out that those  whom the same Wagnerians consider the great Wagner conductors were the ones who consistently chose Fischer-Dieskau for their recordings.  If we start with Furtwangler, we see that he chose Fischer-Dieskau in the famous Tristan recording that set the standard we still seek to equal today. Carlos Kleiber chose Fischer-Dieskau to reprise Kurnewal in his recording of Tristan. Knappertsbusch was the conductor of all of those 1950s Bayreuth Parsifals, but the one that stands out is the 1956 recording with Fischer-Dieskau as Amfortas.  Solti did not hesitate to have Fischer-Dieskau reprise this part in his recording of Parsifal. The Konwitschny's Dutchman features Fischer-Dieskau and is the recording that Robert Hall and James Morris both say they studied most closely before taking on the role. Any time that Bernstein wished to sing an example to his orchestra he always prefaced his singing by reminding them that he was no Fischer-Dieskau.  Like Uhde, Fischer-Dieskau had to serve in the Wehrmacht and was also a POW. But unlike Uhde, Fischer-Dieskau was nearly 15 years younger, and did not lose much of his career to the war.  As a result, his voice was still young and vibrant in the time when the LP became the recording medium.  Many his recordings were lieder recordings, so the reputation grew quickly.  What people have missed is that Fischer-Dieskau's lieder performances reflect his opera work--his eyes, his body, his acting ability, and his good sense is present in both.

Somehow the past slips away.  We must always strive to hold greatness close to us or it too will be gone.  Some things are irreplaceable.




Saturday, August 2, 2014

In a Fighting Mood

Everyone seems to be trying to pick a fight with me these days.  Oh, not intentionally, but for some reason, everything I currently read “gets my dander” up and makes me want to fight.

First, the eschatological pronouncements of Peter Gelb predicting the end of opera in our time are a perfect example.  Here is an individual hired to direct the major American Opera Company—the company once led by Gatti, Edward Johnson, Schuyler Chapin, and Joseph Volpe, and nearly destroyed by Rudolf Bing.  Gelb seems to be working overtime to emulate the destructive behavior of Bing.  Gelb’s latest pronouncement of opera’s demise is the result of labor problems and disputes complicated by the director’s avariciously accepting a salary of $1.8 million! in 2012 while parsimoniously trying to get the various union members to take paycuts. This is the same little dictator who tried to prevent freedom of speech in the Metropolitan’s own publication—Opera News.  Yes, he has brought productions to audiences worldwide through the HD broadcasts—one wonders where that income went?  Yes, he has mounted new, lavish productions that attracted new audiences, but also drained the coffers.  Now, in what has become a new American tradition, one side in an honorably agreed upon legal commitment seeks to abrogate the resulting legal contract because—whether the result of mismanagement, weak economic conditions, or outright arrogant stubbornness—the terms are suddenly inconvenient.    Gelb says the Met will be bankrupt in two years.  Hmm, are there no other cost cutting possibilities or revenue-earning potentialities except to default on a legally binding contract?  Every production that I see, has an underwriter.  Every new production is the result of a gift from some foundation or benefactor. The math does not add up; the Unions should demand to “see the books” before considering anything! 

This is the same sort of hocus-pocus that American state and local governments are pulling on their own employees.  Government workers from public works to teachers have bargained in good faith to hammer out fair and just medical plans, evaluation plans, and retirement plans.  Led by Wisconsin and Illinois these legal contracts are under attack and have been eliminated or altered not by renegotiation but by fiat.  Worse yet, state courts established at the birth of the nation to protect the law have upheld these actions.  The results have been lost pension plans, loss of health benefits, and ridiculous evaluation systems that measure employees on things over which they have no control (i.e. teachers being evaluated on the test results of student whom they do not teach).
Since such methods seem to work in the public sector, Mr. Gelb assumes they will also work in the private sector.  He threatens to lockout his employees—contracts be damned.  The days of the powerful unions are over.  States have been able to circumvent their legal responsibilities because public sector unions have been allowed to deteriorate.  There are no “strike funds” to supplement lost wages should the union members attempt to fight back. 

Perhaps Mr. Gelb should donate half of his salary back to the Metropolitan.  I am sure that nearly a million dollars would certainly help the situation.  Fight number 1.

Fight number 2.
Imagine my joy upon opening my email yesterday to read the Boulezian’s review of the Bayreuth Siegfried.  I was leery at first since the first picture on the page showed the Woodland harpy ready to swoop down on a hobo, who apparently was Siegfried.  As I read the review, I realized the Dr. Berry got it exactly right.  In fact, I could not have written a better, more intelligent condemnation of this piece of Regie trash.  Finally, I thought, I have won Dr. Berry over to the light, he now sees the incongruity of such productions that have nothing to do with either the philosophy or the story being told.  I have made him a believer in the integrity of the text.  He has become a convert to the exegetical study of the libretto.

Then I opened my email this morning, and there was the Boulezian’s review of the Bayreuth Lohengrin.  I spilled my morning coffee as I read how nice it was to return to a traditional production!  Excuse me Mark.  Since when does five years or less constitute tradition?  Since when do mice or rats or whatever they are have a place in 10th century romance? What tradition?

My problem is not really with Dr. Berry.  My problem and my fight is with Bayreuth.  With all of recent history’s negatives weighing on your festival, why do you persist in mounting operas your founder would not recognize as his? Wagner tried to lift art to new levels—higher and higher.  You seem to be trying to turn it into pop art, popular culture, “performance art.” Please, get back to basics. Stop producing crap that only Helen Keller could endure, and please, oh please, do not let Mr. Meese destroy Parsifal.

End of Fight 2

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Parsifal and Religion

Parsifal and Religion

So many people have so many views of Richard Wagner that trying to sort out the various opinions is impossible.  Sadly, the majority of these viewpoints are based on misconceptions, hearsay, and (I regret to say it) ignorance.  I despair that historical events have made it impossible to get beyond the anti-Semitism of Wagner’s nonartistic writing.  We could level the same charge against the vast majority of Europeans from the medieval period to the middle of the twentieth century, but Wagner put his thoughts in print.  Such ideas are as disgusting to us today as the racist comments, outlooks, and prejudices that linger with us yet, or the homophobic irrationality of contemporary society, or the colonial superiority not only expressed but acted on in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.  To single out Wagner for his prejudice is to be influenced more by Hitler than by G.B. Shaw, Ernest Newman, Willa Cather, Herman Levy, or Daniel Barenboim.  Despite articles and books to the contrary, I would assert that anyone who finds anti-Semitic material in Wagner’s operas, has brought it there and imposed it upon the works.  This is unlike the beautiful, thoughtful, elegant prose of Josef Conrad, which is based on the Colonial world and according to Chinua Achebe is rife with racism.

On the other hand we find those who, like a music appreciation professor (and fundamentalist Christian) I once hired for my College, would not listen to Wagner’s music because the composer was an Atheist. One day in a discussion with her I remarked that I found it sad that Europe went to war over something so irrelevant as the wording of the Nicene Creed.  Her response was that that was not trivial and certainly was war worthy.  Needless to say the discussion ended there. 

Wagner’s religious beliefs seemed to change and vary with time.  We should not be surprised, since this is perhaps the most human of traits.  Emerson told us “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”   If we do not change our ideas and beliefs, then surely we are not growing as human beings, learning new things, or experiencing the world.  In his younger years in Dresden, Wagner was an acquaintance of the Russian Revolutionary Bakunin, certainly no proponent of organized religion. Between 1851 and 1853 Wagner discovered and read several times Das Wesen des Christentums by a follower of Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach.  Feuerbach determined that man created God rather than the other way around. By doing this, he opened the door for Schopenhauer to keep any specific references to God out of his noumenal world.  In this philosophical atmosphere, Wagner intuits Schopenhauer’s ideas and invokes the concepts of suffering, love, and sacrifice (of the ego) as the means to one’s true place in the universe.

Wagner ultimately recognized that the model of the supreme sacrifice was the Pauljne vision of “Jesus the Christ.”   Since the fourth century, this was the only version that Europe knew.  The Cathers had some other ideas, but they were quickly quashed. But with one exception the Christianity that Paul watered down in order to spread among the gentiles was the only Christianity in Europe. Anyone who might now have the curiosity to look into the earliest history of the Church of Jerusalem might seek out Robert Eisenman’s text James, the Brother of Jesus, in order to see how through the first four hundred years and the establishment of a state religion by Constantine the followers of Paul strove to overwrite the history of their own organization, purposely confusing names and making up characters in order to misrepresent the actual characters.—to the point that Jesus’ mother Mary has a sister named Mary—sounds like the Bob Newhart Show to me—this is my brother Larry and my other brother Larry.

The influence of Buddhism was another factor in Wagner’s thinking.  Many trace his Vegetarianism to it, but it is also a source of the concept of sacrificing the ego for the sake of the whole: the oneness of spirit.

So the question becomes, why would a freethinker, a Schopenhaurean with Buddhist overtones write a Christian Opera stressing the Pauline ideals of communion, blood, and body all of which are outside the dogma of the original church. This question drove Nietzsche from Wagner’s circle of followers.  He thought Wagner had “sold out.” What perhaps Nietzsche missed is the very thing that Feuerbach said, “We create our own myths to explain our world.”  That is exactly what Wagner did in Parsifal. To avoid having to do too much explaining, he took the best-known story of sacrifice and used it as a backdrop for his story.  When he explained the Grail to King Ludwig, Wagner told him the story that was accepted in Europe and around which a great mythology had grown up. But in the opera, the Grail exists in the realm that is beyond time and space or in Schopenhaurean terms the noumenal realm, and while it contains the sacred blood, that blood is really the life force that connects all living things, after all it does extend the life of the Knights.  The erloser in the opera is assisted in his sacrifice by the Erloser, but Parsifal is never depicted as divine or supernatural—though he redeems the Grail Realm and saves Amfortas from the agony of the wound.  The Good Friday Spell allows Gurnemanz to illustrate the concept of sacrifice, but the emphasis is on the magic of rebirth that the sacrifice brings. On moves from the “me” to the “not me” and is reborn into (as Carlyle called it) the “Everlasting Yea.”   Just as importantly, the spear is the healing implement, and it was to save it that Parsifal wanders for 10 years in the wilderness keeping the weapon safe.  Wagner wisely removed any mention of the spear bleeding as Ernest Newman reports some of the early drafts suggested.  It is not the blood; it is the sacrifice that is important.

Not surprisingly, Wagner, who may or may not have been a Mason and hence questioning of the divinity of Jesus, chose to follow the tradition of housing the grail with a band of knights.  Tradition tells us that the Knight’s Templar were the guardians of the Grail and its secrets. The literature surrounding this group only leads to confusion when we attempt to identify what exactly they believed, but clearly these knights were concerned with John the Baptist (supposedly, they had his head) and with Mary Magdalene.  Wagner chooses to use these characters or rather their images in Parsifal, with Gurnemanz announcing the coming of the erloser and baptizing him, while Kundry anoints Parsifal with the contents of a vial.  Remember, the word “messiah” means the “anointed one.” The composer is connecting the dots for the audience.  Here is one who has sacrificed for the good of all. He has endured a curse. He has now come to take the reigns of the realm in order to complete his role. 


At one point Wagner began a manuscript for an opera about Jesus.  Reading through his notes, we see that he really cannot light the spark that would lift the material beyond the typical. His attention is on Mary Magdalene, but she is the supposed historical character, the repentant prostitute, who seeks to save the hero with her love.  Obviously there was just too much tradition here for even Wagner to overcome.  Fortunately, even though it took him to the end of his career, he found his way to take the “myth” and bend it to his outlook, his philosophy, and his mastery. The result was Parsifal.