Wagner, racism, & musical addiction

I’d heard that the operas of Richard Wagner are addictive, yet I was hesitant about settling in for six hours of Teutonic posturing. I’ll admit that my friend had to convince me to take in the Met Opera broadcast at our local theatre. It’s not the joy of seeing a real performance, but it would have to do for a Thursday afternoon.

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I would soon learn why Wagner was Hitler’s favorite artist. [The sound you hear is my grandmother who survived the concentration camp at Ravensbrück rolling in her grave.]

My friend and I brought a thermos of coffee, pillows, blankets, and snacks. We were the youngest people in the theatre by possibly forty years. We were in this for the long haul. Six hours, two intermissions: this is not an opera for a newbie.

One of the most celebrated groupings in all opera is known as The Ring Cycle. It’s a series of four epic dramas by Wagner that tell a mythological Nordic story. The most famous icon to come out of these stories is the image of Brünhilde wearing a horned helmet and singing with Die Walküre (the Valkyrie). Your prototypical “fat lady singing” of opera. Non aficionados will know Brünhilde from Bugs Bunny:

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On this day we were viewing Siegfried. Siegfriend is an Aryan über-man. Brünhilde doesn’t enter into the story until the final hour of the piece when our hero wakes her with his kiss. Instead, the majority of the opera is a confused psychological jumble: Siegfried is raised by a character named Mime, who is described as disgusting to look at. He is a troll-like character; he loves only gold. He is also a member of a race of underworld people and their entire reason for being is to collect gold. [I couldn’t figure out why gold was so important to these characters since they live underground and they presumably don’t have shopping malls in the underworld.]

Mime found baby Siegfried in the previous opera and learned that the boy can grow up to be a dragon slayer. So, Mime raises Siegfried with his only motivation to use him as dragon fodder and liberate some ingots as well as The Ring. [It’s a magic gold ring capable of producing more gold! You can see why Mime is excited.]

I’ve seen people carry their dogs in a Baby Bjorn and give them pedicures. The idea that this character can raise Siegfried from infancy to seventeen years old with the sole intention of someday sacrificing him is absurdly unrealistic. Yeah, okay, there’s a dragon in this story and the dragon can sing. Maybe Wagner wasn’t going for emotional realism. Now, unfortunately, I have to tell you what he was going for.

Pretty much every scholar who has looked at Wagner’s notes for his operas acknowledges that Mime and his race of Niebelungs are a stand in for how Wagner and his ilk felt about Jews.

Oh, Richard. You were a giant racist!

Despite the racism and nonsensical storylines, why does this music endure and why is it so addictive?

In the first hour of the show I honestly felt like I’d made a mistake letting myself get dragged into this incessant caterwauling of loud German. But then… sometime in hour three… something weird happened. It was as though the entire audience became seduced by the power of the Hypnotoad.

Myself included.

This show could have gone on for ten hours I would have been delighted. What was going on? I felt like more of my brain was engaged than usual, I felt creative, excited, like a religious ecstatic. People who love The Ring Cycle are sometimes called Ring Nuts and they will fly to far-flung places on earth to take in the sixteen hours of opera when the shows are presented back-to-back. Was I turning into a Ring Nut?

This whole thing reminds me a bit of friends who will watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in one sitting. [There’s a magic ring in that, too! Maybe it’s to do with magic rings? *head tilt*] 

Here’s my theory: Wagner hypnotizes the audience. The constant repetition of leitmotifs* and “all of those notes” that singers complain about are a transportive conduit for the human brain. The alert, creative feeling is the real addiction; the music and mayhem of Wagner’s unfortunate pathology is the means. [That man could cook a composition like a Mofo.]

* A leitmotif is a signature tune for a character or important object, such as the magical sword, Nothung… you knew there had to be a magical sword in this thing. C’mon! You totally knew.

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