Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why Wagner operas don't work

I recently attended the final installment of the Ring Cycle by Wagner. His Twilight of the gods...complete with Valhalla burning, Siegfreid being murdered, the Rhine maidens etc. It was 6 hours long.. and at the end I felt like survivor. I was exhausted...and I felt let down. Lest people attack me for being a musical misfit, I was trained as an opera singer so I am well aware of the immense vocal demands in Wagnerian operas.

Wagner was famous for his motifs. Each character has a theme attached to them, but unlike Rhinegold, the first one, one has no sympathy for any of the characters. When Siegfreid is killed, there are no tears...just great symphonic music with that wonderful brass section. He is carried off. Even when Brunhilde joins him on his funeral pyre which sets the world alight, there are no tears. It is not like Queen Dido with her stirring...Remember me aria.

Wagner fails in his operas to touch our souls. His operas are a mix of mumbo jumbo and myths that are not well done because unlike a good story they fail to capture our imaginations. When Butterfly commits suicide, there is not a dry eye in the house and you can hear the sobs...that is opera! When Don Pasquale is tricked and his new bride makes a shambles of his home...we all laugh at the miserly Don. When Don Carlos's lover sings of his fate and hopes the angels will be can imagine the angels welcoming the unhappy Carlos with them....and everytime Mimi, the fated lover in La Boheme dies, I cry with Rudolpho and dare I say the entire audience.

There is none of this in Wagner. Wagners opera are as sterile as a new petrie dish. The villans stare at you as if trying to show how evil they are. Hagen in the recent Met production had a great voice but 0 acting skills. The music is sometimes thrilling but not memorable apart from the orchestral score.

Wagner holds his audience captive for 6 hours and throws motifs at us, tubas that he invented for his music, rich brass tones, some wonderful staging by the Met and yet in the end, there is nothing that we can hold on to. In a way, the audience as in the same fate as the gods of Valhalla. The gods we are told gloomily await their doom in the great hall. There is no laughter, there is no music there is no life. They await the end, trust me we too were awaiting the end.

Wagner realized he was not an opera composer. Opera is about grand passion, love, hate, devotion, sympathy and to be good it has to resonate with the souls and hearts of the audience. We have to love, or hate the characters. We too must cry when Thais ascends to heaven...we must see ourselves in the characters. Even if it is mythology, we have to care. If something that is called opera fails to do that, it is not opera. 

Wagners orchestration is second to none...but for

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