The opera festival in Bayreuth, which performs only Wagner’s works—usually Der Ring des Nibelungen, and two or three others—continues to induce in some spectators the feeling expressed by Mark Twain when he attended it in the Nineties, that he was “a sane person in a community of the mad.” Because of the length of Wagner’s operas—the prologue and first act of Götterdämmerung, for example, is longer than all of Rigoletto—the performances begin in the mid-afternoon, and hour-long breaks are planned between acts. But this does not greatly relieve the discomforts of the experience. Formal dress is expected even in great heat and even though the theater is not air-conditioned: some men wear the stiff, high-collared, white tie one would associate with figures like Max of Baden or Count Keyserling, and one sees women who have woven sprigs of flowers into their hair in imitation of the Flower Maidens in Parsifal.

The doors are guarded by alarming young women attendants, who shut them precisely at the required hour and make no exceptions for late-comers. The seats are too close to one another, and ideal for thick-bottomed army generals and young devotees but few others. One cannot cross one’s legs easily, and if one coughs more than once in an act one is liable to be told by a neighbor that such behavior is “forbidden” and to consult the house doctor without delay. One night a woman sitting directly behind me suddenly slumped to the floor, her upended handbag leaving a trail of face powder, lipstick, and shattered eyeglasses as she was carried out by four men in shirt sleeves; her surviving neighbors snorted their displeasure at being interrupted by such bad manners.

Wagner was, if not moral in this dealings with others, an ardent moralist who saw his work as an instrument of moral instruction, not as “entertainment,” indeed not as “opera” at all. Even the design of his theater, which he modeled on an auditorium he had visited in Riga, had something like a moral aim. It is almost all wood, with plaster pillars and uncarpeted floors; everything in this design is intended to ensure that the music of the orchestra is reflected, not absorbed; comfort and luxury are sacrificed. The theater is not a horseshoe-shaped auditorium with tiers of boxes and social clubs and saloons, but more like a stadium and there are no separate sections for different social classes; the rows of seats are built on a rise, so that each spectator has an unobstructed view of the stage. The orchestra is hidden under the stage, beneath a black wooden covering, so that no one will be distracted by the conductor or by what Wagner called “the wind players’ horribly swollen cheeks and distorted physiognomy,” or by “the boring up and down movements of the violinists’ bows.” Such innovations have not been imitated by our conductors, who demand to be seen, although others of Wagner’s innovations, such as his invention of stage sets that move sideways, have been.

They were in any case part of a thoroughgoing reform of musical theater proposed by Wagner, a return (in his mind, a mind profoundly influenced by Winckelmann and other worshipers of ancient Greek culture) to the aims of art in ancient Greece. As Wagner expressed his view in works like Opera and Drama, the arts of ancient Greece—music, poetry, dance, architecture, sculpture, painting—were fused or “synthesized,” and barely distinguishable from one another. They were used not for private amusement but to celebrate and affirm communal and religious values in great public ceremonies. The great dramas of ancient Greece were mythological plays. “What is incomparable about myth,” Wagner wrote, “is that it is true for all time, and its content, intensely compressed, is eternally inexhaustible.” But since then the arts had gradually dispersed and each of them lost this distinctive moral purpose. They now needed to be brought together again, something Wagner thought he had done in works like the Ring.

This is his celebrated idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art, and that it is nonsense is easily demonstrated, at least in Wagner’s early and most celebrated formulation, according to which each art has an equal standing with every other and is fused with the others in the work of art. The various arts develop at different rates (if such a claim makes sense at all) under different kinds of pressures; they cannot be compared along a single scale of movement or “progress.” Furthermore, few artists are familiar enough with all of the arts to be able to adequately combine them. This was certainly true of Wagner, whose taste in the visual arts, for example, ran to the self-indulgent, mythological, decorative paintings of Hans Makart. As Thomas Mann dryly noted, the logical consequence of Wagner’s theory is that Siegfried is to be ranked higher as a work of art than Goethe’s great verse drama Torquato Tasso, which makes no pretence of blending music, words, dance, and painting.


Wagner believed that great art always expresses the aspirations of society and the “genius” of its “people,” and therefore can be used to improve society by articulating and dramatizing these aspirations. A corrupt society, he argued, encourages diversions which serve no moral purpose, like Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine and Fra Diavolo. Wagner acutely felt the need for political reconstruction in his own society, and he actively joined the Dresden uprising of 1849, when people demanded electoral reforms from the King of Saxony and rioted in the streets. He wrote in the same year to Franz Liszt that he had “an enormous desire to commit acts of artistic terrorism.” He believed in music for “the people” and wanted a large audience for his own work, and he probably appreciated the enormous Concerts Populaires devoted to his work presented in the Sixties by Léon Pasdeloup at the Cirque Napoleon. He probably would also have admired the seriousness of his Russian admirer Anatoli Lunarcharsky, who proposed that a Wagnerian “temple of art” should be constructed in the Soviet Union to instruct the people in socialist ends and give them a suitable aesthetic education.

But Wagner’s plan to revive the Greek ideals of public art has never been taken up successfully. What can be asked of audiences has changed; their attention span, for example, is shorter and more selective than in his time. The musical form of the opera, including the music drama, is cultivated less today than in the nineteenth century; the significant opera composers of our century can be easily enumerated and would include Strauss and Puccini, as well as Berg, Bartók, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, even though each of the latter group wrote only a few operas. Shorter, more accessible musical forms have been developed, music videos, for example, the short subjects shown on television to promote new songs. These have been compared to miniature operas because some of them are narratives that combine lyrics, music, and movement to evoke human problems of love, injustice, or war. But it is hard to be impressed by most of these narratives; they are usually rather silly attacks on adults, bosses, or other authorities set to unmemorable music, and too short to make any effective point.

Popular opera has been gradually displaced by different kinds of musical spectacle, such as rock concerts. But Wagner would probably have loathed the huge noisy congregations of young people at rock concerts since he would think that most of them are merely promotional events that do not reflect upon serious questions but swamp all thought by numbing electronic and other technological effects. Wagner was himself not averse to the use of modern stage technology, and he eagerly used it in creating the underwater world of the Rhine Maidens and the dragon Fafner in the first production of the Ring. But this attitude went along in him with some unfortunate ideas about the staging of his works. He criticized singers who used exaggerated gestures, and preferred the stylized poses of antique tragedy. But these static poses were often heavy-handed illustrations of musical motifs, and they were the source of amused irritation among visitors to Bayreuth for years. One wonders whether Wagner would have welcomed or understood filmed or recorded representations of his work, especially since films of opera often track very closely the characters on stage and do not faithfully reproduce what the eye of a spectator sees at an ordinary performance. Proposals to film Wagner’s work have been made since the first popular use of film: Eisenstein wanted to create “on film, a kind of modern Götterdämmerung, a visual history of the deaths of the Titans, of Basil Zaharoff, Lowenstein, Kruger, Deterding—a kind of dynamic Pergamon frieze, possibly with Richard Wagner’s music post-synchronized.”1 But only when the brilliant television film of Patrice Chereau’s production of the Ring was widely shown on television did we get any sense of what televised Wagner can be.

Wagner was in his lifetime a young person’s enthusiasm, a spiritual liberator, and he was surrounded by young disciples, many of whom he treated abominably.2 He presented himself to others as a genius “ahead of his time” (according to the theory of progress in the arts he helped to invent), and as an artist whom the world had an obligation to support; this attitude, which thrilled many younger artists by its ruthlessness and indifference to bourgeois morals, allowed him to treat his patrons with a kind of contempt, as when he sold the same copyright to more than one of them. He borrowed money freely and extensively—without, one suspects, intending to pay it back. While pleading that he was poor and needed money to support his composition, he decorated his houses with expensive furniture and carpets and silk portieres and maintained a household that included numerous servants (one of whom was required to wear pink knee breeches) and a collection of animals, including a pair of peacocks named Wotan and Fricka.3


Wagner stood with young romantics of his time in opposition to many developments in modern life, indeed to industrial civilization itself, with its excessive inequalities of wealth, fragmented city life, positivism and utilitarianism, abstract rationality and rules. Like them, he spoke of the superiority of “inner feeling” over reason. He deplored religious philosophies like those of Catholicism that he felt denied free will and pleasure and other expressions of our inner lives; he also felt that when Christianity became an institution—the Catholic Church—it abandoned the simple teachings and way of life of Jesus by hypocritically justifying the terrible lives of suffering and poverty most people must endure by the promise of a spurious afterlife.

Wagner’s philosophy of art and life, as well as his dramas, were the product of the ruminations of a mind preoccupied in the manner of a young student with unexamined abstractions like “power” and “love”; his simple formulations, constantly repeated, such as that love and power are incompatible, or that love is not possible in a materialist society, are passionately expressed but are rarely clear or persuasive. His music seemed frankly to evoke, even imitate, the tension and longing for resolution of passionate sexual love, which proved as congenial to the young people of his time as similar music of a less sophisticated kind appealed to young people of the Sixties. He constructed glorious myths and fairy tales that allowed people to inhabit in imagination a world of magic potions and goblins and miraculous acts of faith, a world in which strong warriors wearing animal skins slay dragons in deep German forests. These ideas and attitudes, as well as his incomparable music, which seemed to give his images and impulses tangible expression in orchestral and harmonic textures unlike any other composer’s, appealed to other inspired and intelligent artists of his time and of the period that immediately followed it—Baudelaire, Shaw, Mallarmé, Virginia Woolf, Cézanne, Thomas Mann, Debussy, Mahler, Huysmans, Schoenberg, Nietszche, among others.


Der Ring des Nibelungen is a magnificent comic-book tale which Wagner derived from many sources, especially Norse and Icelandic sagas—the Volsunga and the Thidreks sagas—as well as medieval German myths, all the while changing plot and character to suit his own dramatic purposes. As we learn in its prologue, Das Rheingold, Alberich, a member of the race of Nibelungs—dwarves who live beneath the surface of the earth—has discovered the existence of a treasure of gold in the Rhine river guarded by three Rhine Maidens; he also learns that whoever possesses this gold can make a ring out of it that will enable him to dominate the world. The gold cannot be successfully molded into such a ring except by one who is willing to renounce love. Alberich cares only for power, and he therefore is willing to renounce love. He not only steals the gold and creates the ring, but uses it to force his brother Mime to acquire a magic helmet that allows him to assume any shape he wishes.

Wotan, the leader of the gods and the central character in the drama of the Ring, now appears. He has acquired world domination by drinking at the spring of wisdom that lay beneath the World Ash-tree, in exchange for which he had to sacrifice an eye. He tore from the tree a branch which he shaped into a spear and carved on it the universal laws of morality and law. The spear gave him not only immense power over the world but also a responsibility to uphold the laws written on it and to protect contracts and obligations arising from their observance. This history gradually emerges during the drama, and must be pieced together; but productions that ignore Wotan’s position as a failed guarantor of the moral law, as many do, tend to be incomprehensible.

When Wotan learns of the theft of the ring, he makes a contract with a pair of giants, Fafner and Fasolt, who belong to the race that inhabits the surface of the earth, to build him a castle to which he can retreat if Alberich tries to attack him. In exchange for their work the giants demand that the goddess of youth, Freia, be turned over to them, and Wotan agrees, even though he knows that the gods owe their immortality to the goddess. Realizing his error, Wotan contrives by a series of tricks to steal the gold—and the ring—from Alberich and offer it to the giants in place of the goddess, a proposal that they accept. He thereby commits the first of several acts that create an impossible ethical bind for him, an act of deceit and theft that it is his duty as a god to punish when committed by others.

Before surrendering the ring, Alberich has cursed all who possess it, and Wotan has already seen this curse take effect when Fafner kills his brother out of greed for the gold. (Fafner then takes the hoard to a forest, where he transforms himself into a dragon and lies down on top of it.) To protect himself Wotan mobilizes his Valkyrie—the nine warrior-maidens he has fathered by the earth-mother Erda (the most prominent is his favorite daughter, Brünnhilde)—to lead “those who have fallen in battle to Valhalla,” the castle built by the giants.

But how can Wotan set right in an ethical way the problems created by the theft of the gold? He cannot steal the ring from Fafner—how can the lord of contracts break his own contract?—but he deludes himself that he can create a man who “not through me, but on his own, can achieve my will.” In Die Walküre, we learn that he fathers a pair of mortals, Siegmund and Sieglinde, and separates them in order to expose the boy to hardships. Later, however, he arranges for them to meet. Sieglinde has married a forest chieftain, Hunding, and Wotan has attended their wedding disguised as a wanderer. In a tree in their hut he has fixed a sword with magic powers, which only Siegmund will be strong enough to dislodge, and which he will use to rescue the gold.

Siegmund succeeds in extracting the sword. But contrary to Wotan’s plans, the young hero, independent of, yet obedient to, his will, turns out neither to acknowledge nor to respect Wotan’s laws or contracts; he recognizes Sieglinde and they fall into an incestuous embrace while Hunding sleeps. In Valhalla, Wotan’s wife, Fricka, the goddess of marriage, observes these events and is outraged: the lord of the gods has created a pair who have violated the laws not only of marriage but of fundamental morality. Unless Siegmund is punished, she says, her “honor” will be insulted and the gods scorned; Siegmund must die “for my honor,” she demands. Once more the protector of law must act to undo his own ambition. He must “murder the son I love so.” Wotan therefore promises to obey Fricka’s demand that in a battle with Hunding, Siegmund will die and his magic sword be shattered. But Brünnhilde, protective of her half-brother, disobeys Wotan’s orders not to intervene in the fight and tries to rescue the warrior. Wotan uses his spear to shatter the sword of the lawless Siegmund, and then punishes Brünnhilde by putting her to sleep on a rock surrounded by a powerful barrier of fire; there, according to an agreement between them, she will sleep until awakened by a hero strong enough to break through the fire and take her for his bride.

A third music drama is named after the son of Siegmund. After the fight with Hunding in which Siegmund is killed, the pregnant Sieglinde is hidden by Brünnhilde in a forest, and there she gives birth to a son called Siegfried, who is looked after by Alberich’s brother, the smith Mime. He raises the boy in the hope that Siegfried will kill the dragon and free the golden hoard (after which he intends to kill the boy himself). Siegfried, who has come to despise the calculating Mime, welds together the fragments of his father’s sword—which Mime has been unable to do—and slays the dragon. When he tastes the blood of the dragon, he is able to understand the language of the forest birds around him, one of whom warns him of the treachery of Mime and guides him to the rock where Brünnhilde sleeps. Siegfried kills Mime and follows the bird to the rock, where he breaks through the barrier of fire and awakens Brünnhilde; the two recognize their love and Siegfried marries her and gives her the ring, thus once more setting Alberich’s curse into motion.

In the final drama, Götterdämmerung, we are introduced to a new character, the son and agent of Alberich, Hagen, whose plot to return the gold to his father leads to the destruction of Siegfried and of the gods and Valhalla. Hagen, we learn, is the half-brother of Gunther, head of the wealthy Rhine clan of the Gibichungs, and his sister Gutrune. Hagen convinces Gunther and Gutrune, both of whom are unmarried, to induce Siegfried, by the use of a magic potion, to disguise himself as Gunther with the help of the magic helmet, and to bring back Brünnhilde to the Gibichung hall as Gunther’s bride; his reward will be the hand of Gutrune. But when Brünnhilde is brought to the hall, she sees Siegfried with the ring he had given her on his finger, the ring he took back when disguised as Gunther, and she accuses him of betrayal.

Soon after she helps Hagen to kill Siegfried while on a hunt in the forest by telling him of the one place where he is vulnerable, his back. Brünnhilde’s anger soon dissolves when she learns that she has been duped by Hagen and his father. She brings about an end to the ever-increasing series of wrongs committed by the gods by leaping on her horse into Siegfried’s funeral pyre and by throwing the ring of gold into the Rhine, thus lifting the curse laid by Alberich. The Rhine overflows, and the Rhine Maidens drown Hagen, who has rushed into the flood in search of the ring, by dragging him into it. Flames consume Valhalla, where Wotan has assembled the gods and his heroes, and where he presides, awaiting his end, “enthroned in silence, stern and sad, the spear in splinters grasped in his hand.”


Wagner wrote that “the Ring is the greatest thing that has ever been written,” but that it is a disturbingly uneven work is a commonplace even among those who admire it enough to see it more than once. For all the occasional beauty and psychological suggestiveness of its music, there are also many ill-composed and tedious passages. The dramatic construction of the piece is disfigured by clumsy devices such as magic potions and by repetitions of the story line by characters who seem to have what Shaw called a “mania for autobiography.” The meaning of the work is unclear. Does the ending, for example, depict the destruction of the entire human and physical world of the Ring and the extinction of the desires of greed, love, and domination that gave rise to its story? Or does it on the contrary celebrate the death of the corrupt gods and their world of rules and contracts, and look forward to a new order of freedom, spontaneity, creativity, in which a new kind of human being will be able to exercise his free will? Wagner wrote that the music of the ending of the work did not need to be accompanied by any philosophical summations. A more likely explanation is that given by the great Wagner scholar Carl Dahlhaus, who has written that “Wagner himself was by no means certain what his own work meant.”4

Wagner tried to justify and explain the work, in long, ambiguous, and often hastily written statements of theory and doctrine marked by a determination, depth of learning, and polemical intensity rarely seen before in a composer. We must not expect, he tells us, to be pleasantly entertained for an hour or two by the Ring, as we might by an “opera” in the style of Halévy or Adam. Opera had become “grand opera,” a divertissement for tired financiers and society people, and had to be replaced by a new form of art. This was the “music drama,” or “word-note drama,” a new musical and theatrical form in which the music expresses the interior life of characters whose outward actions make up the visible story of the drama; the larger purpose of the music drama, he wrote, was to offer an “unconditional unmediated representation of perfected human nature.” The “music drama” must not be identified with the libretto or text—or with the music, which, like the text, is only one “means of expression” of the music drama, not itself its end. His views on this question changed, in fact. In a music drama, he once argued in accordance with his theory of the Gesamtkunstwerk, each art is on an equal footing and each contributes in its own way to the construction of the art work. But after reading Schopenhauer’s theory of music in the 1850s, he came to believe that music is in a privileged position and can uniquely and directly express erotic agitation, happiness, pain, and other states of our emotional lives.

Another feature of the music drama that distinguishes it from opera, on Wagner’s view, is the absence of arias, duets, recitative, and other formal blocks of musical material. The music is continuous and becomes imposing and powerful only when required by the drama; for example, in Wotan’s enormously long monologue in the second act of Die Walküre there is at times hardly any music at all—none is called for, since we are asked to concentrate on Wotan’s explanation of his conduct—whereas in the scene in the third act of Parsifal when Parsifal returns to the castle of the Grail and kneels and prays before the holy spear, there are no words: as Wagner wrote, “it would be impossible to express what was happening at that moment with words.” Musical phrases identified with an idea, person, or event, later called leitmotifs by students of Wagner’s music, are used to create effects of recollection and anticipation, and to express the inner thoughts of characters.

As Wagner multiplied such motifs, however, he realized that the listener is not likely to be able to remember many of them; he therefore reduced the number of motifs he used but was able to create a large supply of other motifs by varying the basic motifs in different modulations, rhythms, orchestration, tempo, harmony, or key. These motifs, Wagner wrote, “restlessly appear, develop, combine, separate, blend again, grow, abate, finally struggle, embrace, and intertwine.”5 The skill and invention with which he accomplished this purpose are abundant and ingenious, as when (in an example he mentions) he uses the same theme to depict the happy cry of the Rhine Maidens who guard the gold, and later, in a darker key, to suggest the evil motives of Hagen. To this he added an ability to create voluptuous orchestra effects of changing musical color and light (especially in his writing for brass and horns), for example, to change within the space of a single bar of music the psychological tone of the luminous wedding music of Gutrune into that of despair, an ability he exploited perhaps most successfully in the agonized frémissements and melting tonalities of Parsifal.


Can such a fantastic work as the Ring, which demands so many changes of scene and the most arduous displays of singing, be produced successfully today? The problem of raising money to pay for the Bayreuth festival, acute in Wagner’s own time, has somehow been solved for many years now, and the difficulty of finding “Wagnerian” singers waxes and wanes according to the popularity of his works, but they are apparently easier to find today than in the composer’s time, when he traveled across Germany to look for them and when many of the singers at Bayreuth were “mere animated beer casks,” in Shaw’s expression. The traditions of Bayreuth promoted by Wagner’s widow and son were long thought to be the only ones faithful to the Master’s own ideas, and were followed not only until they both died in 1930 but until the festival was discontinued during the war. They were undermined forever when Wieland Wagner mounted his productions after the war, set on bare stages surrounded by darkness, or on empty flat disks against the background of giant stone monuments, allowing the mind no distraction from the problems that the characters of the drama struggle with. These productions invoked Jungian psychoanalysis, as well as the ideas of the Swiss theater designer Adolphe Appia, who believed that lighting, costumes, stage settings should express the feelings and emotions of the characters rather than naturalistically illustrate the action of the drama. But Wieland Wagner’s experimental and imaginative productions brought Wagner into the modern world and suggested to audiences that he may have had something to say about problems and concerns of their time.

More recently, the 1976 centennial production of The Ring by Patrice Chereau had something of the same effect. It is true that he had to work with inferior singers and that he held a rather simple-minded interpretation of the work which owed much to Shaw’s idea of it as an allegory of nineteenth-century capitalism, portraying Alberich as a greedy Jewish entrepreneur who wishes to exploit his fellow men and Siegfried as an anarchist eager to overthrow all existing law and states. But Chereau, much helped by Pierre Boulez’s consistently intelligent conducting, succeeded in making the work exciting and challenging. This was largely because his production was animated by a single conception, a vision of the brutality and violence of a world without love.

Chereau showed Hunding throwing over a table in rage and kicking Siegmund in the side after he has murdered him. He made details such as the bear that Siegfried brings home to frighten Mime convincing and frightening. He movingly portrayed the relations between Wotan and Brünnhilde, and he enlivened the famous dialogue between them in Die Walküre, whose length can be excruciating, by the use of a giant pendulum whose circular swishing movement constantly reminded us of the god’s preoccupation with the passage of time and history. Chereau also had a feeling for the direction of large groups of actors, as when he assembled dozens of silent, shuffling, and sinister men to respond to Hagen’s announcement, made bizarrely on a steer horn, that Gunther is approaching with his new bride.

This year’s production of the Ring at Bayreuth, by contrast, is a pretentious failure. According to its East German director, Harry Kupfer, “we begin this Ring with the assumption that the entire story has already taken place, and the ruins you see onstage are the result of a type of Götterdämmerung.” He continues:

What we see is our world a million years later, after it has been destroyed by a nuclear bomb. Life was almost wiped out, but the buildings are still standing, rusting away into ruins…. The streets of this strange world are crumbling too, and the surviving population lives among these ruins, wondering about their mysterious ancestors. 6

Wotan and some of the other male gods are dressed in leather ankle-length motoring coats of the Twenties and he wears Hell’s Angels sunglasses with one frame blackened out. The goddesses wear flowery housecoats. Siegfried wears army fatigue uniforms and laced boots.

Again and again the production offends verisimilitude and shows that more thought should have gone into it before it was presented to the public. Although Kupfer promised us that “we have lasers that will create marvelous effects of fire and water,” the magic laser square of fire that was supposed to envelop Brünnhilde failed to close, so that far from its looking forbidding, it was clear that anyone could simply walk in and out of it (see illustration below). One might also expect in a production that prides itself on technological sophistication that it might have found a better way of introducing the bird who speaks to Siegfried. Kupfer had Wotan stride clumsily onto a broken girder with a mechanical toy bird on a stick, a piece of stage business neither effective nor called for in Wagner’s text.

What the text calls for, on the other hand, Kupfer sometimes omits. Wotan is said several times to use a pair of ravens as messengers and gatherers of information. They are described by the Valkyrie Waltraute, invoked by Brünnhilde, and play an important part in the death of Siegfried by distracting him so that his back is turned to Hagen. Kupfer dispenses with them altogether. This is only one of a series of Schlimmbesserungen, or disimprovements, made by Kupfer. In Das Rheingold, Wagner was careful to depict musically the great plodding walk of the giants—whereas in the present production, the giants are on rollers, spoiling the effect. In the same drama, the gods ascend to their new castle in a stately walk that is reflected in the march rhythm of the music—whereas here the gods perform an embarrassing dance to celebrate the solution of their problems and then take what looks like a glass Hyatt Hotel elevator to Valhalla; the march music makes no sense.

In Kupfer’s Siegfried, Mime inhabits a rusty boiler, lit, as is most of the work, in an unvariegated gray, and he is played as a mixture of a camping queen and the anxious comic figure in laboratory coat portrayed by Woody Allen in Sleeper. Such a characterization was explicitly disdained by Wagner, who saw Mime as a figure of pure evil. The second act of Siegfried, once more a study in ugliness and depression arranged by Kupfer’s designer, Hans Schavernoch, even though Wagner designated that the act should take place in “the depths of the forest” (and later, with a sunny knoll in the foreground) amid “forest murmurs,” is set in what seems to be the ruins of a viaduct, amid twisted girders and mounds of concrete.

With Götterdämmerung Kupfer seems thoroughly confused. The twilight of the gods is depicted as a nuclear holocaust in which huge photographs of skyscrapers appear at the sides of the stage (see illustration below). The photographs seem to crumple in the nuclear attack. It is a strangely selective catastrophe, however, for it leaves a group of men and women in formal evening dress watching the event on television—presumably using the sort of television cable that needs no repair during a nuclear explosion—while an annoying child couple in party clothes walk about in the foreground trying to find their way with the help of a flashlight.

Kupfer simply failed to put across to us what his conception of the Ring is, and why he thinks his characters behave the way they do. Setting the Ring in a nuclear ruin and ending it with yet another nuclear blast may suggest a concern for arms control but it in no way helps to illuminate the action of the operas. Kupfer is unable to effectively direct his cast. Throughout the work he has them run about, seemingly aimlessly, on a giant disused concrete airfield or highway, or up and down stairs; at other times, they clench their fists for no apparent reason, or fall into each other’s arms in meaningless exhaustion—a regrettable fate for Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraute Meier, who play their namesakes. Kupfer frequently has his performers stand about in congested friezes and static groups, suggesting he does not know what else to do with them.

Nor has he achieved cooperation among his singers, who seemed ill-prepared: some of them do not appear to know the meaning that is carried by the words they are singing; they consequently neither look at one another in a way appropriate to the words nor can they be heard clearly or distinctly. This is not a small failing on the part of a director of Wagner, when one recalls the fastidious care he applied to creating his librettos and the importance he attached to them in the music drama. The sound of the Bayreuth orchestra is magnificent (as is the chorus). But Daniel Barenboim’s direction of it, like Kupfer’s staging, was impaired by the absence of an overall view of the work; as a result, his tempos were inconsistent—at some times exhaustingly fast and at others so sluggish the singers had difficulty sustaining their notes. It is dismaying to consider that the production will be performed annually until 1992.

Uncertainty about the aims and principles of opera production is so widespread today that many critics who attended the festival at Bayreuth seemed to be unwilling to say anything critical about it. Le Monde’s critic thought highly of the ending of the last act of Götterdämmerung, which was, to speak plainly, dreadful. John Rockwell of The New York Times delivered the timid judgment that the production was “striking, if controversial,” which tells us very little one way or another, and then made the scarcely intelligible remark that a group of singers had “all made important statements about their roles.” Time asserted that Kupfer’s was a “brilliantly theatrical production” and that “in a couple of years, when they are accustomed to it, they will be cheering.” We are not told why, except that Kupfer has challenged “tradition.” But “tradition” is one of the vaguest words in the vocabulary of aesthetic appraisal. It is not always a virtue to abandon tradition.

A production like Kupfer’s, or even more radical efforts like Ken Russell’s La Bohème of a few years ago, set in wartime Paris, in which Rodolfo and Marcello are Nazi collaborators and Mimi a drug addict, exemplify a current fashion in opera production, marked by a director’s approach that relies heavily on the work of designers and justifies the mixing of images and sounds from different periods or styles by its ability to provoke us or to induce in us unexpected reactions, and even by its shock value. Moses und Aron, for example, might be set in Maidenek or Pelléas et Mélisande in Disneyworld. References in the librettos are mockingly “quoted” or gratuitously incorporated (as when Hagen calls upon his companions to sacrifice a boar to the Norse god Froh and a goat to Donner in the postnuclear world of Kupfer’s Ring), somewhat in the way that details or devices from widely different styles of architecture are often brought together in “postmodernist” buildings; the consistency of musical idioms with the actions and attitudes of the characters on the stage is set aside.7

This fashion in opera, which sometimes gives the impression of a desperate effort to rescue it from becoming a museum form, has led to productions that deliberately fail to create an effective collaboration among the music, setting, and text. Such productions, one feels, disperse these elements of theater and even at times set up a struggle among them that diverts us from the work itself. Inconsequential spectacles that appeal to the eye but infrequently to the moral sense were the object of Wagner’s contempt in his own time; and he thought his music drama provided a new dramatic form that might be used to bring the arts into collaboration, not antagonism. Now such spectacles seem to be returning, occasionally in the production of Wagner’s own works. He would ask once more: Why not try to replace “opera,” or at any rate this way of producing opera, with a new, morally serious form of musical theater?

Wagner continues to interest us not only because he raised such questions himself and tried to solve them in works of poetic and musical genius. His personality, and the relations between it and his work, are almost as engrossing as these works. We know that he was a consummate borrower, a self-important braggart with an opinion on every subject, something of a crank (though probably not a bore), and treacherous in love. He was not merely a charming rascal, a lesser Hochstapler, but unquestionably a genuine swindler, indifferent to the feelings of others, calculating, ruthless, and coarse. He was a master of opportunism—Marx called him a “Staatsmusikant“—and a visit to Bayreuth inevitably leads one to ask oneself whether he would not have welcomed Hitler to the festival theater as effusively as did his son and daughter-in-law. And the views he was prepared to identify as his own included his lifelong conviction that the “Jewish race” is “the born enemy of humanity,” incapable of creating music of feeling and passion because incapable of creating a genuine culture of its own and because of its refusal to assimilate into German society and thus acquire such a culture.

These views proved to be embarrassing to his friends, as did the overtly racist arguments he sometimes held in his last years, for instance that the intermarriage between Germans and Jews (whether assimilated through conversion or not) can lead to the creation of undesirable blood mongrels and the decadence of German art and life through “alien” influences. Those who love Wagner’s music are forever trying to minimize, soften, or “explain” these views, although they have difficulty with his view that Christ was not a Jew but probably a migrant from India, or that “the Jewish practice” of meat eating is “the bane of modern civilization.”

The Wagner museum at Wahnfried, the house in Bayreuth where Wagner lived, arranged in 1984 an exhibition on “Wagner and the Jews” whose accompanying catalog, while condemning the whitewash Wagner’s views on Jews have received from his followers, nevertheless disquietingly reminds us of some old, bad arguments. It rather too insistently reminds us, for example, of the large number of Wagner’s Jewish colleagues and prominently contains pictures of many of them. We are not really told how appallingly Wagner treated these Jewish friends and disciples, made fun of them, and urged them to “atone” for their sins by ceasing to be Jews. The catalog also claims that we cannot “objectively judge” Wagner’s anti-Semitism unless we recall how “old” and “widespread” it was in Wagner’s time, and that if we take a proper historical perspective we will learn that many men of genius and wisdom of his time and earlier periods, like Luther, Napoleon, and Kant, made anti-Semitic remarks at one point or another in their lives. But this argument tells us nothing: however old and widespread it was, many contemporaries of Wagner’s did not become anti-Semites and found anti-Semitism repulsive. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the argument is intended mainly to diminish Wagner’s responsibility for his beliefs about the Jews.

Wagner’s flaws of character—his immodesty, his self-indulgence and lack of self-control, his megalomania—seem at times to color his music, indeed to be as much a part of it as its other features. The same composer who can hypnotize us with a single chord, such as the final one of Hagen’s watch in Götterdämmerung, or can create melodies of overpowering beauty (such as the short musical phrase played by the strings when Siegfried reflects on his mother in the first act of Siegfried), can surprise us with musical effects of astonishing crudity and mediocrity, as in the glee-club choruses in Parsifal and Lohengrin, or the Warner Brothers wartime musical anthem sung by Brünnhilde when awoken by Siegfried. This vulgarity does not just recur from time to time in Wagner’s work, but can be found throughout it. Other examples come too easily to mind: the upward step-by-step theme that opens the prelude to the second act of Die Walkürie; the cloying pop tune sung by Amfortas in the third act of Parsifal; the excruciating, talking passages in the first acts of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, which show Wagner’s lack of concern for the stamina of his singers and audience alike; the nationalist Sunday band chorus at the end of Meistersinger. Wagner was frequently unable to shorten his work, or end it; page after page of his scores lack taste, let alone coherence, unity, elegance, and other marks of the greatest musical art.

This may help to explain a frequently noted point. Greatness in a composer is made up of many kinds of talents—melodic invention, and originality in harmony or orchestration among them. Yet even though Wagner wrote works, such as Tristan und Isolde, whose originally and historical influence few would dispute, there can still be anti-Wagnerians but few, if any, anti-Mozartians or anti-Bachians. Wagner’s coarseness, his vulgarity, which were so much a part of his personality, must inescapably remain a consideration in our understanding of his art: such qualities no doubt partly account for his never attaining the very front rank of composers—Beethoven or Mozart or Haydn, for example—and no doubt, too, they are what the acerbic Debussy had in mind when he described Wagner as a “man who was underendowed only in humanity to be truly great.”

This Issue

November 10, 1988