New Wagner Books Offer Mysteries, Eroticism and Worship

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Those inclined to hyperbole claim that only Jesus, Napoléon and Adolf Hitler have caused more ink (and pixels) to be spilled than Richard Wagner. Not in dispute is that Wagner’s bicentennial has brought a fresh surge of books inspired by the enthralling master. Here are some picks for Operavores looking to delve deeper into Wagnerian mysteries.

Wagnerian sights

Alex Alice is a French graphic novelist best known for his Third Testament series. Siegfried and Siegfried II: The Valkyrie (Archaia) are the first two installments in a trilogy loosely based on Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. While they make splendid introductions to the composer’s mythic world for up-and-coming opera fans, they are decidedly not for youngsters alone.

Hardcover volumes printed on lush stock, they include appendices with artist interviews and historic images (for example, stills from Fritz Lang’s Nibelungen films). Alice’s gorgeous, saturated drawings crackle with energy and are a worthy visual counterpart to Wagner’s grand, sweeping music. And stay tuned: an animated feature film of Alice’s Siegfried is in the works.

Another beautifully wrought tome, Evan Baker’s From the Score to the Stage: An Illustrated History of Continental Opera Production and Staging (UCP, forthcoming) is a wholesome corrective to the Romantic fancy of the artist as a solitary, self-contained creator, one that clings to many composers, Wagner perhaps most of all. Baker traces the 400-year history in Italy, Germany, France and Austria of the technologies, spaces and professions (stage manager, scenic artist, machinist and others) that bring opera to life.

Citing Wagner’s production sketches and colleagues' recollections, Baker argues that he was “the first truly modern stage director who involved himself in all areas of staging” and also, against common wisdom, a pragmatist who "possessed the capacity to accept changes, deletions, or additions to the scenic effect as necessary.” The author pays scant heed to the ideological implications of Wagner's devotion to theatrical illusion: that concealing human labor, as Theodor Adorno argues, also conceals awareness of the injustices associated with it. Still, From the Score to the Stage will bring many hours of pleasure and enlightenment to Wagnerites and to Operavores of all stripes.


Wagnerian mysteries

The next few months will bring two keenly awaited DVD releases of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal: one led by Christian Thielemann, and the other last season's unforgettable Metropolitan Opera Parsifal directed by François Girard and conducted by Daniele Gatti (to be shown on PBS in coming weeks).

The English National Opera Guides and Cambridge Opera Handbooks series both include illuminating primers on this enigmatic work, but William Kinderman’s Wagner’s 'Parsifal' (OUP), the best of the bicentennial books that I have examined, surpasses them both. Elegantly written, drawing from cutting-edge scholarship and historical sources, Kinderman’s study probes the genesis, literary roots, music and afterlives of Parsifal along with its many contradictions, chief among them that a work centering on compassion and reconciliation was one from which Hitler drew inspiration.

Kinderman is too ready to see anti-Semitism in Parsifal primarily as a matter of “disastrous German reception history”; at one point he even floats the nonsensical idea of a “pure work of art.” To his credit, and in contrast to more starry-eyed Wagnerites, he does look squarely at Kundry’s disquieting demise, swept away by an A-minor undertow, and quotes another scholar to the effect that “there are good reasons for finding distasteful a redemption of woman which, to be blunt, first renders her dumb and then liquidates her.” I finished this insightful volume with dozens of flagged pages, a clutch of intriguing books and articles to track down, and the desire to turn back to the preface and dive right back in again. 


You with the stars in your eyes

Raymond Furness’s Richard Wagner (Reaktion) offers commentary of the starry-eyed variety. He ascribes to the composer views on Jewishness "of considerable originality," asserting that if Wagner must be "stereotyped as an anti-Semite," his bigotry was "of a very idiosyncratic kind." At the same time, he declares that there is no anti-Semitism “in the whole of [Wagner’s] musical and dramatic œuvre,” a claim with which many (including Mark Weiner, Paul Lawrence Rose and Robert Gutman, to say nothing of Gustav Mahler) might take issue.

Otherwise, his compact book, with handsome black-and-white illustrations, offers a pithy overview of Wagner’s works and life and a recommended discography. Be warned, though, that its tone is worshipful and some of its assumptions ingenuous: that the Ring’s meaning is “timeless” (meanings, like all earthly things, are time-bound and contingent); or that a particular staging is “closest to Wagner’s heart, going beyond his wildest aspirations, yet truthful to his intentions”—as if such things were transparent (or somehow binding on us).

Nacht der Liebe

Finally, Adrian Daub’s Tristan’s Shadow: Sexuality and the Total Work of Art after Wagner (UCP, forthcoming) investigates Wagner’s artistically fruitful misreading of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who contended that “only resignation in the face of the inevitable frustration of the will… can bring the human being to peace.”

According to Daub, Wagner believed that “erotic love could bring the will to rest in another human being” and that “the erotic and the total work of art were linked, could be linked, or had to be linked in and through opera.” He characterizes the ideas that shaped Tristan und Isolde as both “revolutionary” and “reactionary,” “antibourgeois” and “indebted to... commodity culture” and examines how subsequent composers (including Wagner’s son Siegfried, Richard Strauss, Franz Schreker, and Kurt Weill) grappled with them.

The ink and the pixels continue to flow, then, unleashed by the unending fascination of Wagner and his works.