Classical Music from Germany – Current trends

The Wagner Year 2013 – Sides-Glances and Tendencies

Jim Rakete / Loriot GmbHRichard Wagner, portrait by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Musée d'Orsay Paris (public domain)Great events cast their shadows before them. On May 22, 2012, the music world will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner’s birth. Even medium-sized and small opera houses are already working on their own productions of “The Ring of the Nibelungs” tetralogy. But even apart from the big stages, everyone is warming up for the Wagner Year. Here a short, critical survey with views.

Emblazoned on the website of the Research Institute for Music Theater at the University of Bayreuth is “WagnerWorldWide 2013”. Since 2010 scholars have already been considering the life and work of Richard Wagner under the aspects of environment and nature, media and film, history and nationalism, globalization and markets. And also of course gender and sexuality.

Wagner research

Richard Wagner (about 1868), foto: wikipediaWagner must be just what gender studies were waiting for – alone against the background that women were not only “practical companions” in his flight from creditors (Minna Wagner) and the moving force behind his works (Mathilde Wesendonck), but also his diarist and keeper of the Hill (Cosima Wagner) and are still the stewards of his legacy. Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, two of Wagner’s great granddaughters, today stand at the helm of one of the oldest and most prestigious, but also most controversial, German cultural enterprises: the Bayreuth Festival.

Whether the University of Bayreuth will succeed in grasping the nettle of Wagner research remains an interesting question. An independent historians commission, engaged by the great granddaughters in 2009, has still not been heard from (the Festival began in 1876 and took place for the 100th time in 2011). With their ideology-critical analysis, publications such as Udo Bermbach’s Richard Wagner in Deutschland (Richard Wagner in Germany) (Stuttgart – Weimar 2011) are already a whole step ahead.

Less present in public awareness is Wagner’s intense interest in Buddhism. Inspired by reading the philosophical writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, the composer devoted himself to a study of Buddhist teachings, especially through the works of Eugène Burnouf and Karl Friedrich Köppen (Die Religion des Buddha (The Religion of the Buddha) (Berlin 1857). For more than twenty years Wagner entertained the idea of a libretto entitled Die Sieger (The Victor), a story that draws on oriental motifs.

Buddha goes to Bayreuth, Rupert Huber, foto by Ursula KaufmannHe never set it to music, however, because, as he confided to Cosima at the end of his life, “the images – the mango tree, the lotus flower, etc. – [...] are unfamiliar, so that the poetry too would have to give the impression of being artificial”. The idiosyncratic interweaving of Christian and Buddhist ideas, as they are brought to bear in Wagner’s last opera Parsifal, is the starting point of a new choral work by Robert Moran for the Ruhr ChorWerk. The American composer has christened his Wagner homage Buddha Goes to Bayreuth, and it will first be heard at a spectacular venue, the Oberhausen Gasometer, on October 1 and 2, 2011, in the cheerful company of works by Moran’s friend John Cage, which were also inspired by East Asian themes. A production by the departing director of the Ruhr Triennial, Willy Decker, performed in the Bochum Jahrhunderthalle under the baton of Kirill Petrenko, traces the Buddhist influences on Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

Adaptations and stagings

Loriot, foto by Jim Rakete / Loriot GmbHAt smaller opera houses such as the Hagen Theater, a “light version” of the Ring is currently enjoying increasing popularity: The Ring in One Evening by the recently deceased German humorist Loriot is a version of the operatic four-pack that spares the listener’s sedentary patience and exercises his funny bone. Its abbreviation is surpassed only by Anne Russel’s legendary retelling of the Ring; she “does” it in 20 minutes.

Abbreviation seems in any case the word of the hour: in the 1990s the director Graham Vick and the composer Jonathan Dove already worked out a version of the Ring that lasts a mere nine instead of the usual fifteen hours and above all can be performed by a chamber orchestra of not more than eighteen musicians. It is an exciting approach to the “adventure of Wagner”, which not only allows a completely new and trimmed down view of the score, but also solves by the way many problems of Wagnerian singing: with a chamber orchestra, even lighter voices can carry the high drama that a huge orchestra would drown out. Taking this tack, the Atelier T&M in Paris together with the Remix Ensemble Porto, directed by Antoine Gindt and under the baton of Peter Rundel, have undertaken a chamber music approach to the Ring Saga.

And even the boss on the Green Hill herself, Katharina Wagner, is preparing the production of a “slightly abridged” version of the Ring, which can be heard in one day and will celebrate its premier in 2012 at the newly re-opened Teatro Colón. Critical observers are already talking of the “shrunk version” that has been developed by Cord Garben, musicologist, program director of the Pinneberg Cultural Association and former record producer. His distillate has reduced the material to only seven hours, omitted narrative repetitions and, by taking Wagner’s “modular method of composition” into account, not braked but only straightened the musical flow.

Wagner on the theater stage

There have also been courageous efforts to seize Wagner’s works for the theater. Ironically in Dresden, Wagner’s former scene of action, which he had to flee after he mounted the barricades in the revolution of 1848, the Hungarian-born director David Marton has used the resources of theater to adapt The Rheingold. He immersed himself in the repeat loops of the leitmotifs, plunged into an aquarium after magical treasure and shredded operatic pathos with melancholy stage wit. Actors’ voices exposed their vulnerability when they dared on the great arches of song and created moments of intimacy in the jumble of myths.

Kaminski ON AIR - Rheingold / Radio play in 3D inspired by Richard Wagner, source: youtube/KaminskiONAIR

The hitch is that only those who already know the operas can enjoy such parodies – and those who love their Wagner usually miss him here more often than they find him anew. Thus it is precisely Wagnerians that look with scepticism upon the negotiations between the Green Hill and Frank Castorf for an anniversary production of the Ring in 2013. Castorf too is a theater man, and the granddad of the “play wreckers”. Wagner societies have called, in this case, for listeners to attend the Ring for Children, which lasts 90 minutes and already proved its audience appeal this year.

But then perhaps you would prefer to tune into Kaminski on Air. On four furious evenings, the actor Stefan Kaminski (also a Dresdener) narrates the Ring in his very own way: as one for all and all for one, as rapping dwarf and as thundering god, as a Valkyrie pleading for tenderness and as a joking blond hero. Accompanied by a small ensemble of multi-instrumentalists, he succeeds in beating the Middle Ages out of Wagner’s narrative and impregnating it with a good dose of the big city. Someone like Kaminski has understood what Wagner meant when he said: “I need actors, not mere singers”.

Rheingold Feuerland, foto by Matthias HeydeOne of the few artists who can be compared to Wagner is Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose seven-part opera cycle LICHT (LIGHT) makes Wagner’s tetralogy seem short. This may have been a personal reason for Simon Stockhausen, together with dramaturge Bernhard Glocksin, to stalk “Wagner’s revenant” and stage it in a dystopian update at the Neukölln Opera. Rheingold Feuerland remixes Wagner’s archetypal figures with the prototypes of the global economy in a melodramatic “reportage” from the rubbish tip of the present. Underlaid electronically, Stockhausen interweaves Wagner’s soundscapes with his own. This season at the Neukölln Opera will then be crowned by an “intercultural Götterdämmerung” by Nuran David Calis.

But no one seems willing to observe the great event as radically as was the birthday boy himself. In a letter to a friend written during his exile in Zurich, Wagner dreams of “10,000 thalers”: “Then I would have a theater erected out of planks after my plan, send for the most suitable singers, and have everything necessary so produced for this special occasion that I could be assured of an excellent performance of the opera. I would give three performances in a row in one week, free of charge of course, then break it off, and the thing would have an end”. To look once again into Wagner’s revolutionary ideas about what it would actually mean for a society if it were to credit art with carrying out the highest human goal – that would provide enough material for discussions well beyond the Wagner Year.

Patrick Hahn
works as a dramatic advisor at Stuttgart Opera and for different newspapers and radio broadcast such as WDR, SWR, NMZ.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
August 2009

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Weblog: Mein Wagner – My Personal Wagner

On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the composer Richard Wagner, our blog will present a variety of perspectives on Wagner’s cosmos.

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