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Time to Rethink Your Take on Wagner?

For presenters and audiences alike, Richard Wagner is both a composer of genius and a problem to be reckoned with. America’s two most influential opera companies have been revamping their approach to his operas in recent years. Is it time for you to rethink yours?

“Not as bad as it sounds” was Mark Twain’s witty take on Wagner’s music. But for modern audiences, the problem is not so much the music in all its heavenly length as the dramas, which reflect Wagner’s personal cosmology. His Antisemitism aside, his operas mix elements of Christianity, pagan magic, medieval mythology, and German nationalism into a brew that exalts ideas that are often repugnant to operagoers who aren’t longtime Wagnerites. To stalwarts, the problem is how to keep them fresh.

How are we to experience Wagner operas in today’s world? Apologists such as Father Owen Lee, sorting through the operas’ themes and Jungian archetypes, found shreds of humanism that were hardly there.  But we can’t just sit back and listen; as Wagner himself insisted, the music exists only as an embodiment and projection of the drama. Yet these are the music dramas changed art history. Contemporary accounts relate how the opening bars of Tristan und Isolde caused listeners to faint in terror before the curtain rose. This was the famous “Tristan chord,” actually a progression that hangs in the air, unresolved and ambiguous, expressing inchoate longing as nothing in art ever had before. If Wagner could venture so deeply into thoughts and feelings (his own), rejecting the world of external reality, was anything off-limits to the artist?

The Metropolitan Opera — by most measures America’s largest performing arts organization, with an annual budget of over $300 million — was founded in 1883, the year of Wagner’s death. Through the middle of the 20th Century, the Met was a bastion of traditional Wagner productions, with naturalistic set designs and starry casts including Traubel, Melchior, Flagstad, and Nilsson. In the 1980s, it rounded out this lineage with a complete Ring cycle directed by Otto Schenck with set designs by Günther Schneider-Siemssen and musical direction by James Levine. It delighted Wagner enthusiasts, many of whom attended like Wagnerian Trekkies, dressed as their favorite Ring characters.

But opera cannot stand still — not even for Wagner. By the 1990s, Joseph Volpe, who had risen through the ranks to become the Met’s battle-hardened general director, knew that Wagner symbolized the Met’s conservatism at a time when European productions were increasingly experimental. His new productions discomfited Wagner diehards by turning Isolde and Tristan into game-pieces on a giant chessboard, and by stranding Elsa and Lohengrin on a severely abstracted stage set of glowing white and blue that was compared to a giant electric Rothko. Diehard Wagnerites booed this Lohengrin’s avant-garde director, Robert Wilson. Yet few directors have been more attentive to Wagner’s music than Wilson, who precisely calibrated his stage movements to the opera’s score. More recently, during the Peter Gelb era, the Met has given us Robert Lepage’s highly abstracted, mechanized Ring, and François Girard’s integrated visions of Parsifal and Lohengrin.

After the Wilson Lohengrin was retired, the costly Lepage Ring became the focus of loyalists’ ire. But if the Lepage Ring fails — and that charge is highly debatable — it is also, arguably, the kind of failure the Met desperately needs, with startling ideas and a fresh directorial approach drawn from outside the world of opera. The under-appreciated Peter Gelb, who brought Lepage to the Met, is surely accustomed to the fact that his patrons are eager to blame him and reluctant to credit him as he takes steps to build new audiences and find younger patrons.

The Santa Fe Opera, yin to the Met’s yang, is also rethinking its approach to Wagner. The company was founded in 1957, and in its first years was an obscure destination for hard-core opera fans; it became known for its productions of Richard Strauss operas and all but abjured those of Wagner until last season’s landmark Tristan und Isolde. Like the Met, the SFO has appointed a general director with far more business sense — and a firmer grip on the harsh realities of arts management — than his predecessors.

Though the SFO has an annual budget less than one-tenth of the Met’s and operates during a festival (summer) season, it has always punched far above its weight. Its record in producing major U.S. and world premieres is unmatched in American opera, giving it international standing. And it has shared productions and singers with the Met — for example, creating Cendrillon and La donna del lago on Joyce DiDonato. Soprano Tamara Wilson, who made an impressive role debut as the SFO’s Isolde, was a persuasive Elsa in the Met’s Lohengrin this year. The SFO Tristan staging was refined and understated…a good start. This year the company essays earlier Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer. Stay tuned.