The Wagner Cliché

There is an image of opera that comes straight from Wagner--the overweight, stentorian soprano wearing horns and breastplates, shrieking rather than singing her part in a feast of noise. Where does that image come from, and how close is it to the truth?

Well, the horns and the breastplate are a relic from the old styles. Up until about World War II, Wagnerian characters (who tend to be mythic knights and other warlike beings) did dress a bit that way--armor and helmets with wings, although I've never seen an actual photo of a Wagnerian with horns. After World War II, though, production designers started shopping for a new look. This was partly because the old wings-and-armor look had become a cliché, but also because it had become associated with the Nazis and people were trying for a Wagner who looked a little less--well, German.

Now, about the weight and the stentorian voice: Wagner made demands on his singers such as no one had ever made before and few have since. He increased the size of his orchestra to titanic proportions, and required his singers to be heard over them for longer periods than ever before; a typical Wagner opera will run well over four hours. As if that weren't enough, the size of a major opera hall today is perhaps three times anything Wagner ever planned for. It takes enormous strength and stamina to sing a Wagner opera, and the rare voices capable of it tend not to come on small frames. Even here, though, Wagnerian sopranos have rarely been huge women.

As for "noise," if you go into Wagner expecting or hoping for hummable tunes and lyricism, you are apt to describe what you hear as "noise." It is not light-weight stuff. The orchestra is big and there is usually a lot going on in it. The singers have to huff and puff a little to be heard. The beauties are there, to be sure, but they are grand beauties, not delicate ones. They are the beauties of Beethoven's Ninth, not the beauties of "Clair de Lune."

Wagner the Man

Wagner was the ultimate Romantic artist-hero, taking the Beethoven image to its arrogant, self-obsessed limit. Personally, I think the Wagner-as-scumbag image has been somewhat overblown, though there's no doubt he was unpleasant and overbearing and tended to like screwing his friends' wives. As to the anti-Semite connection, he was certainly anti-Semitic, but I don't know that he was any more so than most other Germans of his time. Wagner's anti-Semite image is mainly due to something that was not his fault--namely, his deification by Hitler and his crowd, who were looking for a mythology that was uniquely German and found it in Wagner.

A lot of people say that the Nibelungen, the dwarves who mine incessantly for gold, were supposed to be a metaphor for the Jews. Perhaps, but I find that notion so distracting from the story as I experience it that I am simply not interested--like the suggestion that Tolkien's riders of Rohan "stand for" the Anglo-Saxons. Others say that Wagner, had he lived in the 1930s, would have supported the Nazis. Very possibly; after all, so did most of his countrymen.

The bottom line for me is that, for Wagner or Woody Allen or Picasso or anyone else, an artist's moral credentials are not fundamentally important in evaluating or understanding the work. A lot of great art gets created by unlikable people.