Wagnerites: Classical Music's Most Obsessed Fans

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Wagner Fanatic A Wagner Fanatic (Flickr/chrisgoldny)

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.

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Comments [8]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Instititute, Boonton, NJ

FRANZ LISZT who had been a friend of Wagner for many years and had transcribed many of Wagner's choicest selections maintaining their essence and allowing for virtuoso display with elan, also prepared LOHENGRIN's world premiere when Wagner was for political reasons unable to participate. COSIMA, Liszt's daughter became Wagner's second wife and was intimately involved in all matters that touched on Wagner's aspirations and enterprises. Just as BACH's music is performed by all sorts of instrumental ensembles , even the MOOG, so Wagner's music may be thoroughly enjoyed in piano arrangements, but their original versions with singers are the definitive versions. The incandescent beauty and intoxicating spirituality are so transformational in Wagner's oeuvre that any religious belief may be accommodated and synthesized to replicate the sense of selfless empathy for the welfare of others that the sacrificed UNICO represents to us all. That may explain why so many famous JEWISH singers GEORGE LONDON, RICHARD TAUBER, HERMANN JADLOWKER, MELANIE KURT, FRIEDRICH SCHORR, ALEXANDER KIPNIS, EMANUEL LIST, JONAS KAUFMANN, OTTILIE METZGER, LILLI LEHMANN, HERMANN WEIL, DESZO ERNSTER, HERTA GLAZ, MARGARETE MATZENAUER, SOPHIE BRASLAU, WALTER OLITZKY, GERHARD PECHNER, ESTELLE LIEBLING, MONA PAULEE, GUNTHER TREPTOW, PAULA LENCHNER, ALMA GLUCK, ADOLF ROBINSON, IRENE JESSNER, MAX BLOCH, ERNESTINE SCHUMANN-HEINK, HERMANN SCHRAMM, SIEGFRIED JERUSALEM, PAUL KALISCH, ETC], conductors LEONARD BERNSTEIN, JAMES LEVINE, BRUNO WALTER, ALFRED HERTZ, DANIEL BARENBOIM, GEORG SOLTI, WALTER AND LEOPOLD DAMROSCH, ARTUR RODZINSKY, RICHARD FRANK GOLDMAN AND HIS FATHER THE FOUNDER OF THE GOLDMAN BAND THAT PERFORMED BRASS INSTRUMENT VERSIONS OF THE WAGNER "REP," FRITZ REINER, SERGE KOUSSEVITZKY, FABIEN SEVITSKY, ERICH LEINSDORF, and HERMANN LEVI, the conductor whom Wagner himself appointed to premiere PARSIFAL at Bayreuth, Levi's father being a rabbi, and Levi reportedly denied Wagner's request for him to turn Christian, still Wagner decided LEVI was the best one to cinduct his work, ETC. and stage directors HERBERT GRAF AND LEOPOLD SACHSE dedicated the fullest portion of their careers to performing Wagner's music dramas.

Jul. 27 2013 01:54 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

The troubles that tear asunder the prospect of REAL echt WAGNERIAN PERFORMANCES are the total lack of singers with squillo, ping, ringing "juicy', not dry secco , delivery, WAGNERIAN BARKING rather than legato full-throated singing, strained, forced and flat singing, unsupported, undersized and underpowered singing, WITHOUT impressive carrying power and with throaty or nasal ugly voice production. Today's news deals with deficits and declining support for the arts. Tandem to this predicament for the talented is the perception that the current situation will continue for a long time to come. Speaking specifically how this precludes the motivation for young operatic singers who must early on choosing their life's work, many have turned to Broadway or the business world. Nowadays Broadway musicals are out for show-stopping sensationalism with laser distractions, monster sets, acrobatic feats and space age technical projections and featuring dancing over singing. So, for the real thing opera singer, Broadway musicals, outside of Phantom of the Opera and an occasional Les Miserables there is little prospect of a sustainable career. The Wagner oeuvre has suffered the most. Husky physiques, witness the iconic John McCormack, do not offer similar size singing voices in power or stamina. Heroic voices like Melchior, Tamagno, Ruffo and the mature Caruso are nowhere on today's world class stages. Instead we suffer to hear miniscule, non-charismatic, non-distinctively memorable singing voices essaying roles far beyond their underpowered, thin not orotund, singing potentialities. Why has the always controversial political or uniqueness for uniqueness's sake been the overriding context in which the Bayreuth Festival has ALWAYS manifested its presence back to the days when Hanslick, then Tschaikovsky and later Verdi found it an unfriendly atmosphere or decried its "lack of melody (sic !)?" The daughters of Wolfgang Wagner like their dad have managed to incur the wrath of others either more conservative or radical in their concepts of the evolving Wagner music drama production values/concepts. It is an eviscerating condition that feeds upon confrontation rather than productive aesthetics.

Jul. 27 2013 01:41 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richar5d Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

As Max Steiner quipped WAGNER would today be our leading incidental music composer for films if he were an active composer today. Incidental music today in films creates and maintains the desired emotion and ambience.
The composer for my cousin MIichael Blankfort's THE JUGGLER with Kirk Douglas was George AntheiL I was rehearsing with Antheil the tenor lead role of Mosca for its world premiere in New York when he told me that his principle income was from scoring music for films. Although I am an opera composer, my sole attention for subject matter is Shakespeare;'s oeuvre. which I find is resplendent with subject matter. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor with 4 main hall, Isaac Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall solo concerts, 2 of which were ALL-WAGNER. Live excerpts from them are on my website www.WagnerOpera.com

Jul. 27 2013 01:32 AM
Hurd Hutchins from Manhattan

For those interested here are the timings of the major CD productions of the Ring in order of speediness: K. Boehm = 13'39"; M. Janowski = 13'59"; C. Krauss = 14'14"; G. Solti = 14'36"; W. Furtwangler = 15'02; J. Levine =15'20"; R. Goodall = 16"53"! I do not have Barenboim's but from the first two operas I do have he looks about average.
Commentators mostly say that you're in for 16 or 16 1/2 hours of Ring music but as you can see from the above the average is slightly less than 15 minutes (about 14'49"). Even though this average is skewed by the excessively slow pace of R. Goodall (in English), which definitely makes the patient listener wish he'd pick up the pace--a lot!--here and there.

Jul. 26 2013 01:39 PM
Dick Brode from New York, NY

I wonder if anyone remembers an Easter Airlines TV commercial (does anyone remember Eastern Airlines?) from the early '70s? It was filmed in black & white, and consisted only of a pair of hands holding a dove emerging from a darkened window of a white clapboard house. It was in slow motion, accompanied by the Liebestod from Tristan & Isolda. And with the crescendo and climax of that wonderful passage, the hand slowly releases the dove which flies, at last free, into the clear sky. Finally, without words, the Eastern Airlines logo appears. And nothing more. No voice or suggestion of anything else. It was spectacular. After all I remember it to this day.

And it was then that I discovered Wagner. And although knowledgeable of his works, I was not affected again like that until just recently when I saw some HD presentations by the Met of the Ring in the movies. Something struck. Besides the overwhelming presence of the production and singers, of course it was the music. Now just thinking of those viewings, the hairs on the back of my head stand up and my eyes well up. I could very well be on the way to becoming a Wagnerite.

I mean, who else would search YouTube to see Jonas Kaufmann in Lohengrin filmed by someone on the plaza of the Munich Opera House filming a live TV presentation, and who found himself with tears in his eyes again. Not to mention the tears right now listening to a Lohengrin prelude on WQXR.

Now I know what it's like to be a Wagnerite.

Jul. 25 2013 02:33 PM
Joseph Streisfeld from New York, NY

The complexity of Wagner's music is what draws me to it. There is always something new to learn from listening to it. The stories are fascinating and very true to life. I am a pianist and took a course at one point in German opera where we actually read libretti for the famous Wagner works.
I have been an addicted Wagnerite ever since.

Jul. 25 2013 10:46 AM
Arden Broecking from Connecticut

I saw my first "Ring" at a very young age, when my piano teacher, who was a true Wagnerite, took me to four Saturday matinees. I was blown away.I thought that was the greatest thing I'd ever seen or heard, even the long "conversations" some people find boring The teacher lost me right there. I was determined to have something to do with opera,and Wagner, no matter what. I was gifted with a voice, and did become a singer! My voice was not Wagnerian, I was a "soubrette," a Fach not really well known
in the US. I enjoyed my career, sang a couple of Wagner concerts, and still see and listen to Wagner every chance I get.
One of my greatest sorrows is that, though Swedish,I was NOT born Birgit Nilsson!!!!!!!

Jul. 25 2013 09:38 AM
Dr. Britta A. Möser from Frankfurt am Main, Germany

Not all Germans are "Wagnerites" - but, of course, we know the works of the master. I believe, I perceive Richard Wagner the way people in Munich do: at a save distance, with some inherent irony, but respect for the huge size and beauty of the operas.

Jul. 24 2013 08:26 AM

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