When a new production of Wagner's Ring Cycle is planned, opera administrators bank on a significant portion of their audience coming from the ranks of Wagnerites or "Ring Nuts," a breed of Wagner-lovers known for traveling globally to feed their unrelenting hunger for opera's greatest epic.
Wagnerites are classical music's super-fans. They gather in Wagner Societies, sign up for group ticket offers, attend conferences and debate finer points of productions and recordings. Many are enthralled with the ritual aspects of attending a Ring Cycle, which typically takes place over the course of a week. And in this, the composer's bicentenary year, there have been plenty of opportunities.
This represents a degree of fandom that one seldom finds with Puccini or Verdi, says Will Berger, author of the book Wagner without Fear and a producer at the Metropolitan Opera. "Just by the resources you need to produce Wagner, it’s going to be a different sort of experience,” he told host Naomi Lewin. "It is a destination. It has to be. It’s meant to take up a week of your life and be a thing apart."
Like Deadheads or Trekkies, Wagner fans are drawn together by a shared expertise, said Joli Jensen, a communications professor at the University of Tulsa who has studied fans and fandom. "Fans are misrepresented as crazy people trying to compensate for something missing in their lives,” she noted. “But in fact they’re really experts. They’re experts who don’t have institutional credentials but are eager to enact and display and share their expertise and their passion."
One such fan is Andrew Zacks, a self-professed Wagnerite who estimates he has attended nearly 50 Ring Cycles, including one in the Amazon jungle. "To me Wagner signifies the 19th century," he said. "If I want to have a time transport to the 19th century I go see a Wagner opera. It changes your perception of time, the politics – everything is tumultuous in the way the 19th century was."
Zacks embraces the social rituals, starting with elaborate intermission meals and post-performance gatherings with fellow fans and occasionally, performers. Avoiding the usual "business casual" dress, he enjoys wearing black tie to some performances and even Lederhosen when attending a show in Germany (no horned helmets, however). “The conviviality of experiencing it in that fashion is beyond compare," he notes.
But how does one become obsessed with a composer who is also known for his nasty anti-Semitism and misogyny? "I think you have to put him in his historical context," said Zacks. "A lot of people would like to ban Wagner's music and blame him for the people who liked his music in the future, which I think is a little unfair. There was a lot of anti-Semitism in the 19th century."
Of course, Hitler became a Wagner fan of sorts, too. But the composer’s admirers have also included many who are eager to understand and confront his darker side head on. Jensen believes that such fans can serve as a model for others. "That’s why I want fans to have a voice, where they can share their enthusiasm and their passion and their experience," she said. "We can all learn to become richer aesthetically by learning through fans what we’re missing when we’re not fans."
Weigh in: Are you a Wagnerite? What draws you to the composer's music? Leave your comments below.