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German composer Richard Wagner

2013 – 1813 = 200 0

Mārtiņš Vanags

2013 will mark the 200 year anniversary since the birth of German composer Richard Wagner. In commemoration of this event, opera houses across the globe are planning to stage his musical dramas.

I recall a professor of German literature at the University of Chicago reminding us that there are only two important numbers in the world – the year that Goethe was born, and the year that Goethe died (1749 and 1832, respectively, if there happen to be any readers who don't know these dates). One could say that the ability to recall dates and facts is usually exhibited by people who have nothing else to say. However, I must admit that I did memorize the dates of birth and death (1813 – 1883) of another great German – Richard Wagner, because they seemed to have a sort of systematic distinctness about them (both dates end with a three, and they have three 8's and three 1's among them), and also because they lie a respectful distance from the turn of the 18th/19th and 19th/20th centuries.

As the timing of Wagner's life indicates, he was a real 19th century phenomenon. But – despite the fact that, in 2013, two hundred years will have passed since Wagner's birth, his art continues to elicit strong reactions which, at least in terms of their intensity, are often no different from the attitudes that many people have towards contemporary art. It seems that a kind of enduring modernism has been encoded in Wagner. This might seem surprising, since his operas, or musical dramas, were based on a remote past and on a mythical worldview. As any follower of Wagner's will have noticed, it is precisely the staging of the operas in some prehistoric, mythical time that allows for distancing the viewer from that which is happening on stage; in turn, this allows one to perceive the story's “morality” as something that can be removed from the time and place in which it is set. In this sense, Wagner has achieved his goal – that of creating works of art which have universal and timeless value, and of which every viewing reveals a constant, and at the same time, an unexpected, truth about human nature.

Wagner's “law of conservation” is also expressed in the way that his musical drama productions – at least the ones created in the so-called Regietheater spirit – seek to “update”modern-day issues through the prism of Wagner's story. For example, visitors to the Latvian National Opera must certainly remember Stefan Herheim's rendition of “The Rhine Gold”, in which the curse of gold –  or, according to the director, the age of capitalism – was deemed to be equally well represented by large masks of Marx and Engels, and Latvia's Freedom Monument (!). In order to illustrate similar problems, Viesturs Kairišs also turned to local symbols in his production of “Twilight of the Gods” (and did so, in my opinion, much more successfully); in interviews, Kairišs even compared the greedy Nibelungs with local oligarchs, and Siegfried's heroic circumstances with the fate of President Zatlers in Latvian politics. In any event, the staging of “The Ring of the Nibelung” by Latvian “symbolist” Kairišs will certainly be the central event in the celebration of Wagner's bicentenary in Latvia – if I'm not mistaken, for the first time in more than one hundred years, our opera house will present, in June of 2013, “The Rhine Gold,” “The Valkyrie”, “Siegfried” and “Twilight of the Gods” as one complete production of “The Ring of the Nibelung”.

Although the Latvian National Opera is generally seen as a respectable opera house, stagings of Wagner's works will also be attempted elsewhere around the world. During the renowned Salzburg Festival, the already-mentioned Stefan Herheim will present “Nuremberg's Master Singers” (August 2, 9, 12, 20, 22, 24, 27). Nevertheless, the central event, at least among festivals, is considered to be the staging of all four parts of “The Ring of the Nibelung” during the Wagner-created Bayreuth Festival; it will be directed by the well-known “post-dramatic” theater director Frank Castorf, and conducted by Kirill Petrenko. If you happen to have a hankering to get a ticket to the festival – for which “normal”people have to wait in a long queue for years – mark the following dates in your calendar: July 26 - 31, August 14 – 19, and August 22 - 27. If you already are in Bayreuth, it is definitely worth seeing the production of “Lohengrin”, which Andris Nelsons does an excellent job of conducting, and which I well remember; the international press has also given it favorable reviews (August 2, 5, 8, 11 and 26).

Director Christof Loy's “Tristan and Isolde”, at the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden, is certainly one of the best and finest productions of musical drama in recent years – I recall that I was so greatly impressed by the production that afterward, even the raucous noises of London at night didn't bother me. But there is no need to go quite so far as London in order to assess Loya's productions, because “right here” – in Stockholm, at The Royal Opera House – he will stage his new production of “Parsifal”, which is scheduled to premiere September 5

Nevertheless, I think that the most appropriate way to celebrate Wagner's bicentenary would be to watch the full, four-opera cycle of “The Ring of the Nibelung”. They certainly will not be the most badly spent 16 hours of your life, and they could even end up being some of the best. If you aren't able to make it to the Latvian National Opera, or even to the Bayreuth Festival's “Ring”, then I definitely recommend the very impressive staging of the cycle by Robert Lepage, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which will be shown three times in April and May (it will also be possible to watch live broadcasts in cinemas). The planned performance of the whole “Ring” at the Berlin State Opera in March and April seems promising, as well as its production at the Paris Opera in February and June, in which the role of Wotan will be played by Egils Siliņš.

In any case – and I don't even “do” numerology – Wagner's bicentenary is a good excuse to discover, or update, the impressions and insights that Wagner's music arouses. And we don't even have all that much time, because even though Wagner's works will probably still be alive and well during his 300th birthday, the same cannot be said of us.