Wagner’s operas are an acquired taste, and it took me about a decade to acquire.
Not only was Wagner one of the two most influential opera composers of the nineteenth century, he was also a huge influence on Hitler and the rise of the Nazi party in the twentieth. The book Wagners Hitler by Joachim Köhler (translated into English as Wagner’s Hitler, the Prophet and his Disciple) lays this out in great detail. Although some of Köhler’s conclusions might seem overdrawn, he does make a convincing case for the impact of Wagner’s world view on Hitler’s.
Hitler was not a highly educated person, but what little education he had came from watching Wagner’s operas (with cheap standing-room tickets) at every opportunity when he was a young man in Vienna and Munich. That explains a few things, but of course does not make Wagner responsible for Hitler’s crimes.
Eventually I realized that despite Wagner’s megalomania, his German chauvinism, his male chauvinism and his inexcusable anti-Semitism, he was still a great opera composer. So I do go to his operas, and nowadays even enjoy them. Here’s the list:
1. Die Feen, composed in 1835
Wagner, in his later years, disowned this opera and refused to let it be performed at Bayreuth. It was in fact never performed anywhere during his lifetime. I have seen it only in a concert performance in Frankfurt in May 2011.
2. Das Liebesverbot, 1836
This early comic opera was later disavowed by Wagner and banned from Bayreuth. I saw it in a concert performance in Frankfurt in May 2012.
3. Rienzi, 1842
This is a huge opera in the French “grand opera” style, complete with duets, trios, crowd scenes and even a long ballet in the second act. Wagner later turned against this sort of opera and disowned Rienzi, but opera houses kept playing it with great success throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hitler loved it, apparently.
I have never seen Rienzi on stage, but I attended a concert performance in Frankfurt in May 2013.
4. Der Fliegende Holländer
(The Flying Dutchman), 1843
If you are new to Wagner, this is a good one to start with. It is relatively short (about two and a quarter hours, usually played without a break) and still shows a lot of the Italian influence that Wagner tried to expunge from his later works. As a young man Wagner was a Bellini fan, believe it or not. Though this is a deadly serious opera (Wagner was always deadly serious, even when he was trying to be funny), it was based on a short humorous passage in a book by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), as I have recounted in one of my Augsburg posts, among other places. I have seen The Flying Dutchman in Frankfurt am Main, Mainz, Wiesbaden, Augsburg and Dortmund.
5. Tannhäuser, 1845
Tannhäuser is a long Romantic opera that takes place in and around the Wartburg, a large castle on a hill overlooking the city of Eisenach, Germany.
In 2007 at the Frankfurt Opera we had a marvelous production of Tannhäuser by one of my favorite stage directors, Vera Nemirova. She even made the second act come to life — normally one of the most soporific acts in the history of opera.
6. Lohengrin, 1850
Lohengrin is another long Romantic opera that I always thought would be quite boring, but here in Frankfurt I have seen two good productions of it, one by Nikolaus Lehnhoff in 1994 and the second by Jens-Daniel Herzog in 2009. Traditional Wagner fans were outraged by both these productions.
In 1994 the character of Lohengrin was portrayed as a caricature of an old-time pompous German militarist.
In 2009 the hero stepped down from the movie screen and into the heroine’s life, as in the Woody Allen film The Purple Rose of Cairo. He was a hero only in the eyes of the star-struck Elza. Everyone else, including the audience, saw him as slob.
7. Tristan und Isolde, 1865
Despite its molasses-like tempo, this is actually a steamy love story, inspired by Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wesendonck while he was living in exile in Zürich. In a letter to her he said he thought Tristan and Isolde would banned, and that a good performance of it would drive people crazy.
Well, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I have seen several good performances of Tristan and Isolde in recent years (mostly in Frankfurt, but also once in Copenhagen), and I don’t think it has driven me crazy (no crazier than I was before, in any case), but I must admit the music keeps going around in my head at odd times, such as when I am cycling home at night after seeing some other opera entirely. Tristan und Isolde is said to be the most advanced music Wagner ever wrote, advanced meaning atonal, foreshadowing the “modern” music of the 20th and 21st centuries.
8. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 1868
It’s hard not to hate this opera, since it was Hitler’s reason to choose Nürnberg for his mass rallies in the 1930s. Also Wagner’s anti-Semitism shows through quite clearly in his treatment of the character of Sixtus Beckmesser, and the ending is blatantly nationalistic.
Nonetheless, a good stage director can salvage it and turn it on its head, as Christof Nel did in Frankfurt (1993 and 2002) and as Uwe Eric Laufenberg did in Cologne in 2009. Among Laufenberg’s many good ideas was to place the last scene in 21st century Cologne, not 16th century Nürnberg, and have it take place right in front of the opera house with all sorts of typically Cologne things going on, both live and on a video screen, to distract attention from the nationalistic pathos.
In 2022, the Frankfurt Opera came out with a new production of the Meistersinger by violinist-turned-stage-director Johannes Erath. His solution for the closing monologue is to have the text, apparently written by the apprentice David and his girlfriend Magdalene, passed from hand to hand until it reaches the cobbler-and-poet Hans Sachs, who pretends to be reading it aloud as he sings, thus distancing himself from the content. Beckmesser stands next to him throughout the monologue, and they shake hands at the end. As the chorus sings its rousing finale, a large electric sign is lowered from the ceiling, showing just one word, GERMANIA. At the very end, the letters GER go dark, leaving just the word MANIA lit up in the darkness for a short time. This provoked a few loud boos the second time I saw it, but not the first time.
9. Der Ring des Nibelungen
The Ring is Wagner’s gigantic four-part opera with sixteen or seventeen hours of music, depending on who is conducting. Typically the four parts are first staged separately and then put together in a cycle on four different days in the same week. In Frankfurt I have seen two complete cycles of the Ring, one by Herbert Wernicke in 1994 and the second by Vera Nemirova in 2010-2012. The four parts are:
• Das Rheingold (1869): a short introduction (short = two and a quarter hours, usually played without a break). Here the three Rhine Daughters are supposed to be swimming in the Rhine, which can look quite silly if they just run around doing swimming motions, but Vera Nemirova had the great idea of putting them in an inflatable rubber boat as environmental activists with signs reading “Save the Rhine!”
• Die Walküre (1870): The love story between brother-and-sister Siegmund and Sieglinde, resulting in the conception of Siegfried. Also the story of Wotan, the king of the gods, being henpecked by his wife Fricka; and the story of Brünnhilde, Wotan’s favorite daughter, being punished for doing what Wotan really wants, rather than what he says he wants. (I have seen Die Walküre in Stuttgart and Düsseldorf, as well as several times in Frankfurt.)
• Siegfried (1876): This is a long opera, even by Wagnerian standards. I once saw a dreadfully boring performance of it in Berlin, which delayed my appreciation of the Ring for several years.
• Götterdämmerung (1876): The Twilight of the Gods, in which Brünnhilde sacrifices herself and her horse on Siegfried’s funeral pyre. In addition to the Frankfurt productions, I have also seen it in Wiesbaden in a staging by John Dew, in which Wotan is a high-powered business executive wheeling and dealing in a luxurious air-conditioned office on the top floor of a skyscraper. (This seems facile in retrospect, but at the time I thought it worked quite well.)
10. Parsifal, 1882
This is Wagner’s last opera, a long religious piece which he intended to be played on Good Friday. I have seen it several times in Frankfurt, both in a concert performance and in a quite effective staging by Christof Nel. I love the music of Parsifal but have trouble relating to the story or the message, which I have decided not to worry about.
My photos in this post are from 2007, 2009 and 2022. I revised the text in 2022.