THE BLOG
07/31/2013 03:36 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2013

Wagner, Texas and Myth

There's a new production of Wagner's mega-operatic cycle, The Ring of the Nibelungs, opening this week at the Wagner Festival in the small town of Bayreuth where Wagner was given the land and the monies to build his dream theater and his home by the incredibly generous and possibly unhinged young king of Bavaria, Ludwig II. I am sitting in New York reading articles, getting texts from an 18-year-old student attending the opening of Siegfried ("the staging was the most offensive, disgusting nonsense ... The audience booed every act"), and looking at photographs of the new Rheingold ... and it seemed to require running to the computer to write about the artist-genius, and my longtime inspiration, Richard Wagner.

I should say right here that my first lectures on Wagner and his Ring cycle were given to the German Club at East Meadow High School on two successive Tuesday afternoons in 1961. I was fifteen and had built a puppet theater out of a cardboard box and created scenery for the entire cycle using magic lantern techniques, back lighting, smoke made by blowing air through a straw into a bag of talcum powder and some rear projection. I did not study German at East Meadow High School, but Miss Frieling recognized the madness in my eyes and said, "Ja wohl" to my suggestion of a two-part series. (Those who wish to see something of what I was up to can find a photo taken by Fräulein Frieling on my Website, JohnMauceri.com, under Media/photo gallery/1960s).

In other words, like thousands of other Wagnerites, the music and the vision of Richard Wagner entered my soul around puberty (of course!) and have inspired and challenged me for over fifty years. That we are so engaged in the conversations and are so passionate about what he achieved -- and continues to achieve -- is a mark of the astonishing impact of a man who cannot just be called a composer for he was much more than that. The notes on the page were the excuse for a vision of story-telling that is both ancient as well as unachievably futuristic. One simply cannot do what Wagner asks in terms of synchronization of all things theatrical in a live opera house environment. ("With great exertion, he pushes the body of the dragon in front of the entrance to the cave ...," "The clouds have dissolved into a fine rose-colored veil of mist which now divides so that the upper part entirely disappears above, and at length one discovers the whole bright blue sky of day on the border of the rocky height that now becomes visible as a light veil of fire still glows below ..." and so forth).

One cannot look at the photo in the July 29, 2013 New York Times of the set of Das Rheingold and the report from Anthony Tommasini ["The Real Rhinemaidens of Route 66"], without a renewed sinking feeling about Wagner productions and the confusion of making Wagner new and relevant by making productions of his operas confrontational and superficially modern. This is not to say that stage director Frank Castorf and his designer, Alexander Denic, have done something uninteresting. Perhaps they have. As Tommasini writes, "It could have been worse."

There seems to be a profound disagreement about what it means to interpret myth and fable. Once a work is interpreted by a stage director and a team of designers, is it still myth? Does das Rheingold need to take place today in North Texas at the Golden Motel to make me understand that the story of the Gods is about you and me? Or does this interpretation help a German or a Japanese visitor to Bayreuth smile at American capitalism's various failures and thereby distance themselves from Wagner's vision of one of the most ancient tales we have? (Ring myths exist in every culture that went through the Bronze Age). After all, Wagner has already interpreted it and his retelling and reshaping of the story is why we perform it.

Here is the simple truth about Wagner's Ring: It is about two things: 1) Nature (or in today's jargon, the environment) and 2) the most precious power in the known universe: human love, which trumps material wealth and, indeed, being a god. Any visualization of The Ring that does not embrace either of these two principles is not worth viewing and it might be advisable for opera house dramaturges and artistic directors to put that sentence on Post Its on their desks.

The 20th Century's re-telling of the Ring saga is of course by J. R. R. Tolkien. His is a particularly Roman Catholic retelling with the ring most probably a symbol of pagan religions and the goal of the story being the destruction rather than the possession of the ring. What would happen if a staging of Tolkien's tale took place in the Vatican in the years between World War I and World War II? There could be appearances of Big Bertha, gas attacks, the Kaiser, Lenin and the atheists, Hitler, Britain going it alone and the final victory ... but here the analogy breaks down. The Christian Nazis were, after all, attacking Christian Europe and the atheist Communists won half of the spoils when it was over.

And therein lies the problem with making specific the ambiguities of myth and the power of the symbol.

We can all imagine Ring productions. I suggest having a cocktail party and inviting your guests to suggest ideas over a series of martinis and when the party is over, everyone calls a cab, goes home and sleeps it off.

An even better idea is to call a group together to read the text of the Ring, with guests being assigned the parts, as Wagner did in his home. Someone must read the scenic descriptions. Since Wagner wrote his four-part poem in reverse order, the party can either include musical themes on the piano or not. Now, THAT would be a 200th birthday party worthy of the author! (Please invite me).

In a moving letter that Wagner wrote to Johannes Brahms dated Bayreuth, June 26, 1875 -- a year before the festival opened and before anyone had heard Siegfried and Götterdämmerung -- he wrote:

I am sorry I cannot offer you anything better than a copy of the score of das Rheingold, instead of the Meistersinger score you asked for ... I have been given to understand, on occasion, that my music is merely stage scenery: Das Rheingold will be greatly exposed to that allegation. It may nonetheless be of some interest, in following the subsequent scores of The Ring of the Nibelungen, to observe that I managed to build all sorts of thematic musical matter on top of the 'stage set' that I created. In this sense, perhaps das Rheingold, in particular, will be most likely to meet your friendly consideration.

And there you have it: Wagner had been stung by the criticism that he wasn't actually writing music. He was writing scenery, and that scenery was earth, air, fire, water, forests, sunrises and sunsets. Once Western Music developed the ability to describe things, it became a force of proto-environmentalism and nature became a principal source of inspiration.

When Bayreuth re-opened after World War II, his three grandchildren (a fourth had opted out) ran the festival. The two men, Wieland and Wolfgang, needed a new look to distance the festival from its recent Nazi past. Never mind that the Nazi past was one in which the entire Wagner family participated in. (Only their sister, Friedelind, smuggled out of Germany through London and then America, thanks to the offices of Arturo Toscanini, was cleared of the charges).

Part of the de-Nazification of Bayreuth came with the production style invented by grandson Wieland. The naturalistic sets were replaced by a Cinerama-like curved back curtain, stretched tight (called a cyclorama), on which environments were projected. In the middle of the stage was an elliptical disc that seemed to float because of the black masking at its base. Tilted gently toward the audience, it appeared much bigger by playing on the brain's interpreting the ellipse as a circle. Stairs from behind the disc allowed the singers to appear as if arriving from a great distance. As Friedelind explained to me in 1966, it was also the only way the Wagners could afford to put on operas. Paying for state-of-the-art lighting systems that could be used for every production made a lot of sense, rather than building three-dimensional sets that needed to be stored and refurbished, as had been done since 1876 when the festival opened. (Friedeland was granted 34 percent of the festival by the Americans, and each of her brothers received 33 percent as a gesture toward her role during the war in making speeches against Hitler, whom she said "would ban her grandfather's operas if he actually understood them").

These productions shook the opera world. They were astonishingly dramatic and breathtaking to experience. The Bayreuth Theater, because of its orchestra pit that descends below the stage and is covered from view by the audience, has the possibility of total blackness. The fact that there is no air conditioning means that the basic sound in the hall is the sound of silence. (A recent -- and splendid -- performance of Parsifal at New York's Metropolitan Opera exposed just how noisy the air systems are in that house, where there is no such thing as silence).

Wieland made use of this to startling effect. And the intensity of color made the music of his grandfather all the more overwhelming. That Wieland was a great stage director should be of no debate. The productions did not, however, set grandpa's operas in Texas or the Washington Metro. They existed in some timeless place. There were towers and trees, unforgettably vibrant color combinations right out of Bauhaus designs; skulls of prehistoric animals, slimy forests and Siegfried even had a forge. (The cynics called it "Siegfried's Pizza Parlor"). But most of all, it had endless vistas. The dramas took place on the disc, to be sure, with actors vying for dominance like some Sumu wrestling match -- which was all I could think of, watching Astrid Varnay and Martha Mödl counter each other in Act I of Götterdämmerung. However, these intimate battles among family members were always floating in eternity -- and that is where not modernity but contemporary viability was put on display.

When Wieland discovered composer Pierre Boulez as a conductor, he found the man he was looking for to complete a cleansing of Bayreuth. Whereas the first conductors at the New Bayreuth were men like Furtwängler and Knappertsbusch, who had served German opera houses during the Nazi period and continued the musical traditions set forth a generation before, Boulez brought an coolly intellectual and distinctly post-war view of Wagner that linked it more toward the anti-emotionality of those young men who had been born into the rubble and pain left behind by World War II. The portamento was forbidden. Overt emotionality was put in check and the sound of Bayreuth was changed.

However, something else was taken away from Wagner's operas in 1951. It was not just the sets, but it was the movements of the actors that Wagner had in mind when he composed the music. While working with Hans Hotter in San Francisco for Alban Berg's Lulu in 1989, he told me that the most difficult thing about singing Wotan with Wieland was un-learning all the gestures he had been taught. When one studied the roles in his day -- the generation of teachers were members of the original cast, after all -- one learned the words, the music and the staging. They were all part of the same thing. Not raising the spear at this or that time for a Wieland Wagner production was completely against his training. The great heroic baritone James Morris will tell you that coaching with Hotter was also about where to stand, how to stand, when to move and what to do with that spear. Hotter referred to it as "the language of the spear."

And here is where Mickey Mouse comes in. Readers who care about music will occasionally see the verb "to Mickey Mouse" as a derogatory description of film music that underscores physical gestures by actors. Walt Disney was one of the leaders in this cinematic process, one in which synchronized music could be affixed to celluloid. (One of Prokofiev's goals in visiting the Disney studios in 1938 was to learn how to do this.) Thus, a musical score for a Mickey Mouse cartoon would have a sound effect or a musical motif that would land exactly when a gesture was seen on the screen -- a door slam, a fall down a flight of stairs, a sudden attack of bumble bees. Various systems were developed in Hollywood to allow the composer and conductor to make music and gesture one thing and the structure of the music in those sequences was determined by the gesture. When Ingrid Bergman opens the door to Rick's Café in Casablanca, there is a "sting" in Max Steiner's score that lands precisely when we see her face. For this reason, film music is considered by some music critics to not be music, but accompanimental sound design or musical scenery.

However, this is Wagner's genius, not Disney's. If you go to the published piano/vocal scores of Wagner's Ring, first published by C.F. Peters, you will find occasional verbal commentary by Felix Mottl, one of Wagner's assistants in the preparation of the world premiere of the Ring in Bayreuth. One could only wish for more of them! However, as an example of what Wagner had in his mind when he composed the music, Mottl writes that when Sieglinde first sees Siegmund collapsed at the hearth in her living room and sings, "Ein fremder Mann? Ihn muss ich fragen" ("A unknown man? He must I question"), she takes three slow steps from the back of the stage, and each step happens with the musical phrase that goes "tah-DUM, tah-DUM, tah-DUM." In other words, all of it: music, text, gesture and intention are what Wagner composed. So, when Disney's musicians or any other composer of dramatic music -- whether on film or in the opera house -- writes a synchronized musical gesture it is not Mickey Mousing. It is Wagnerizing. And when Max Steiner, student of Gustav Mahler and the composer of over 350 Hollywood film scores including "Gone with the Wind" was called the father of film music he said, "Don't be ridiculous. Wagner invented it."

And now back to North Texas and Bayreuth's new Ring. Having actually conducted Wagner's Rienzi in Texas, the sight of those spear-carriers during rehearsals wearing cowboy hats is one of those indelible, personal images, along with the visit by Friedelind Wagner to hear it. When we actually performed the opera, it took place in Rome, not in a post-apocalyptic San Antonio.

Richard Wagner was revolutionary but not an iconoclastic theatrical terrorist. Yes, the old gods die in his Ring because human love makes them unnecessary and the gods' attempts at human love fail. Only humans possess that power. And Mother Earth takes care of it in the end when the life-giving river washes away the sins of the gods and leaves an astonished humanity to watch it. (Wagner insists in his stage description, that people onstage watch. "From the ruins of the destroyed hall, the men and women, in the greatest agitation, look on the growing fire-light in the heavens.")

While it is just possible that this new Ring will achieve more than boos and international press, here's a modest proposal: Let's try an historically informed production of Wagner's masterpiece, using all the archival materials at our disposal and follow Wagner's stage action. Let there be one place on earth where we can experience what Wagner had in mind. He did hire the German equivalent of Disney Imagineers in 1876 as well as for his Parsifal. He was a theater man, after all, and the enchantment of the magic lantern shows, the steam curtains, the magnificently painted drops that "took light" and made them three dimensional, might just take our breaths away.

When Anthony Tommasini wrote about Bayreuth's production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman earlier last week, he suggested that maybe it was time to present operas by other composers at the Festspielhaus. In 1966, Friedelind told me that her brother, Wieland, was considering this. (He was already in the hospital and would pass away that October). The opera he was proposing was Paul Hindemith's Mathis der Maler (which is an amazing idea). (Friedelind, who was something of an agent provocateur, also mentioned in that conversation that she had suggested that the Australian comedienne, Anna Russell, whose lecture on Wagner's Ring remains one of the funniest stand-up comic routines in the annals of classical music -- not a big book! --be photographed on the disc in full Brünhilde regalia, her brothers said "nein").

The laws that govern Bayreuth now make the production of any opera except those by Wagner deemed "mature," beginning with Dutchman, impossible. And so there is another possibility, one that is Wagnerian in its hubris and Ludwig-ian in its madness.

Given the politics and passions within the Wagner family and the relationship of the German government with the festival, we might all just back off and let the Wagners do what they do at Bayreuth. Their artistic vision is to produce avant-garde theater using ten music dramas by Richard Wagner for its justification. This is perhaps a dead end street. Perhaps not.

So, while they are pursuing that dream and the concomitant press-grabbing pseudo-scandals, why not just build a replica of the Wagner Theater in the United States? All the architectural plans are published. Some materials can be improved upon -- like the seating and the air system -- and the rest can retain the integrity of what some people believe to be the greatest opera house in the world.

It is not the perfect place for every opera, but it certainly would be a great place for many operas -- those already composed and operas yet to be written. There is a lot of land in the United States and a lot of people who might want to support the building of a modern Bayreuth, where we could experience Aida and Tristan, Pélléas et Mélisande, Moses and Aron, as well as Mathis der Maler ...
We might even build it in Texas!