Gold, greed, gods, incest, dragons, dwarves, power struggles, magic swords. If I wasn’t “artistically” opposed to such things in general, I’d say those would make the ideal ingredients for an exciting video game.
What they do furnish is the plot for Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) epic four-opera opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of the Nibelungs). Wagner himself regarded it as “three” operas and a “prelude,” designed to be seen/heard over the course of five days, one day off in the middle (for recuperation?). That’s how it was first presented in Bayreuth, Germany, where a theater was built to Wagner’s own specifications, since his operas make demands that may have been made before (special effects, darkened auditorium, orchestra in a lowered pit) by other composers, but were unrealized.
Wagner was not just a “genius”-level composer, but also a driven, opportunistic, ego-maniac, serial debtor, petty revolutionary, notorious anti-Semite, armchair philosopher, sometime vegetarian, Buddhism dabbler, let’s see, the list would take as long to enumerate as listening to one of his (usually lengthy) operas.
That very drive, however, enabled him to create his musical legacy, one that cast a very long shadow on all subsequent opera composers. Wagner’s concept of “Gesamtunstwerk,” one of those delightfully compound German nouns that means “total art work” was perhaps his most characteristic contribution to the arts world. He wanted everything to work together to create maximum impact. He got some of his theories from (mis)conceptions of Greek theater. To achieve his ends, he insisted on total control of every element: words (he wrote his own), music, scenery, and the theater building itself. Control freak, but control freaks often get things done.
The staging of Wagner has driven many an opera company near financial ruin, an ironic mirroring of Wagner’s own legendary financial irresponsibility. The “Ring” in particular is just so “big” that it looms as an ultimate challenge: in casting, orchestra playing, conducting, scenery, direction, and lighting.
Directorial concepts have pushed and pulled the “Ring” over the century and a half since its premiere in 1876. In the 1950s, for instance, abstract stagings, with only colored lights and bare oval slabs on stage were all the rage. These were produced by one of Wagner’s own grandsons. Yes, the family had and continues to have an outspoken, often fractious, role in continuing the heritage. Squabbles over the artistic succession at the Bayreuth festival regularly make the arts news today.
One thing to be said for the “abstract” approach is that it allows the viewer to fill in more with his/her own imagination. If you could see the original “Rhinemaidens” from 1876, well, they weren’t svelte. Nowadays, they are sometimes depicted as pole dancers! And the flower-maidens (from “Parsifal” not the “Ring”) as seen in the historic 1882 photographs are rather large German women wearing grade-school-pageant flower petal costumes.
Which brings me to my “issue of the day”: In our age, so much (SO MUCH) emphasis is placed on so-called “authenticity”: Authenticity of establishing which is the “most” reliable version of the musical score, which are the proper instruments to use, and which are the most “authentic” techniques to use in playing them. Yet, two things routinely fall by the wayside: No one hesitates to alter the visual staging of the piece, and the size of the opera houses in which they are heard is usually nothing like it was in the first (or early) performances.
Hmm, is Daykin advocating a “museum” approach to opera? Daykin isn’t sure, but Daykin suggests that if one is going to exhibit a certain “moral superiority” about Urtexts, instruments, and articulation, then perhaps one ought to be consistent and apply it across the board to other variables. Since opera is such a gigantic “multi-media” art form, it offers the most opportunities to examine sources, especially when they are so generously provided by the composers themselves. (Verdi, Wagner to name but two).
By the way, New York’s Metropolitan Opera is planning a new production of the “Ring” cycle, with the first two “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walküre” to be presented in the 2011 season. Will they be realistic (unlikely, they just had one of those), abstract, updated, downgraded, degraded, relevant? We’ll have to wait and find out.
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs