On Wagner and Opera

Monday Musings” for Monday May 20, 2013

Volume III, No. 19/122

Wagner

Happy Birthday to Richard Wagner: A Few Thoughts about Opera

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA

Day after tomorrow is Richard Wagner’s 200th birthday (May 22, 1813- February 13,1883). We celebrate his bicentennial natal anniversary with joy and some added reflections: Wagner was a German musician, opera composer, and a disciple of the German  philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, (Feb 22, 1788- September 12, 1860) with whom he split over the issue of “toleration”. Wagner was truly a genius. But he hated the Jews and the Italians, all of whom he called barbarians. He also hated the word opera because it is an Italian word and he thought Italians are of a lower race. Instead, he called his work “Music Drama“. Wagner was a contemporary of Verdi (October 10, 1813-Jan 27, 1901), the world famous and renowned Italian Opera Composer. Toward the end of his life, Wagner had a change of heart about Italians and had some good things to say about Verdi. But he remained a staunch anti-Semite.

Richard Wagner, the ruthless, racist and megalomaniacal genius not only composed his own opera but wrote the libretto (pleural, libretti), designed the stage, and conducted the work. His compositions are not just opera but an all-encompassing Gesamtkunstwerk, like the Super Bowl halftime show! In addition to writing the libretto, composing the music, and designing his sets, he was a brilliant prose writer. I recommend getting a hold of some 12 volumes of his original work and read them for the sheer power of their syntax and thematic composition.

He also architecturally created the Bayreuth Opera House where his work was produced and staged.  After 200 years, almost all of his operas including Flying Dutchman, Ride of Valkyries, Tannhauser, and Die Meistersinger Von Numberg are a steady diet of most opera houses and symphonies throughout the world.  Exactly a year ago, North Carolina Symphony, played in the first half of the program Prelude to Act I, Lohengrin. The second half featured the memorable performance of virtuoso violinist, Itzhach Perlman playing Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 35, by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. As an aside, North Carolina Symphony had just played Carmina Burana on May 11 and 12. On May 17, there was a special program of classical music for the NCS patrons, and on May 18 and 19, the vocal music of Steve Lippia fed the souls of music connoisseurs. Raleigh has an extraordinarily rich cultural life.

Wagner’s writing and Teutonic operas tell us that he had a deep knowledge of history. His operas, especially Tristan and Isolde, and the “Ring Cycle” consisting of four operas, 18 hours, are full of Zoroastrian parables, Buddhist reference to “nothingness” before becoming “something” and the writings of Rumi, Shams Tabrizi, and Baba Taher Oryan. He loved Aryan Persians as much as he hated the Jews. He spoke of the Jews as inferior creatures preoccupied with usury, money changing, and nothing else. He made fun of Jewish cantorial music and ridiculed the religious tradition of the Jewish synagogue.

Delving into his personal life, one discovers that he was an illegitimate child of a Jew, Ludwig Geyer. He was born in the Jewish quarter of Leipzig, the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner who died six months after Richard’s birth, following which Wagner’s mother began living with the actor and playwright Ludwig Geyer with whom she had a longstanding relationship. Ludwig was a friend of Richard’s late father. Richard almost certainly suspected that Geyer was his natural father. He and Ludwig whom he publicly called “Dad” shared a love of theater, opera and language. Around age 14, however, Richard changed his name from Richard Geyer back to Richard Wagner.

In his early life, Wagner was heavily influenced by Shakespeare and Goethe. He was determined to set the writings of these two illustrious authors into music. In 1826, at age 13, he started to take music lessons. By 1827, the family had moved back to Leipzig. Wagner’s first lessons in harmony were taken in 1828-1831. In January 1828 he first heard Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and then, in March, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony performed in the Gewandhaus. Beethoven became his inspiration, and Wagner wrote a piano transcription of the 9th Symphony. He was also greatly impressed by a performance of Mozart’s Requiem. From this period we have Wagner’s early piano sonatas and his first attempts at orchestral overtures. In 1829 he saw the dramatic soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient on stage, and she became his ideal of the fusion of drama and music in opera. In his autobiography, Wagner wrote, “If I look back on my life as a whole, I can find no event that produced and left so profound an impression upon me.” He had an unsuccessful marriage to Cosima, and had disastrous relationships with other women including Minna Wagner.

In Wagner lies an enigma. He was a truly brilliant artist with gifts in music composition, writing, poetry, and deep knowledge of history who was pathologically intolerant of others, especially Jews. Yet he was the son of a Jew and had Jewish DNA. His profound anti-Semitic rant has given to millions of words of psychobabble attempting to explain that his hatred of Jews was deeply rooted in self-hatred. As a person, he had no shred of decency and no touch of sublime humanity. He broke up with his idol and mentor, philosopher Schopenhauer, because of Wagner’s extreme hatred of the Jews. Schopenhauer could not take Wagner’s extreme intolerance of the Jews. Personally, I take and enjoy Wagner’s rich and lasting contributions to the arts and literature, and merely ignore the rest of him.

On the local scene in Raleigh, for the opera lovers, North Carolina Opera is growing. It produces two or three operas a year. I am looking forward to the day we will have an opera house built on the proposed Dix Park. Then we can not only do the more lavish and demanding Wagner operas, but stage some modern operas the list of which is approaching 90. I have noticed and admired the Met’s willingness to add some of the modern operas such as Cyrano de Bergerac with Placido Domingo as Cyrano, Sondra Radvanovsky (Roxanne), and librettist Henry Cain. I have yet to see any opera in America  by Michael Tippett, Hans Verner Henze and Olivier Messiaen (I saw his Saint Francois D’Assie in Paris last year), and other composers.

Meantime, Happy 200th Birthday to Richard Wagner!

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*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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