Music Made Visible

Stephen Walsh

  • Wagner and the Art of the Theatre by Patrick Carnegy
    Yale, 461 pp, £35.00, September 2006, ISBN 0 300 10695 5

Among the operatic victims of what its enemies nowadays refer to as ‘directors’ theatre’, Wagner has suffered as much as anyone. Keith Warner has the Wanderer crash-land his fighter plane into Mime’s cave; Phyllida Lloyd has Brünnhilde as a suicide bomber who blows herself up in the immolation scene; Jürgen Flimm turns Nibelheim into a microchip factory. In Ruth Berghaus’s Frankfurt Götterdämmerung, described in some detail by Patrick Carnegy, the murdered Siegfried ‘was not solemnly borne aloft but brutally kicked aside by Hagen’s men’. Not all of these images are stupid or anti-musical, but as a whole they are symptoms of a process that has invaded opera over the past thirty or forty years, as directors have sought ever more contorted ways of making modern sense of Samuel Johnson’s ‘exotic and irrational’ entertainment.

To blame Wagner for these developments would be as ridiculous as to blame him for Auschwitz. But in the one case, as perhaps in the other, there is some kind of connection, and tracing its history is one of the main threads of this often richly absorbing book. Wagner was not the first composer to theorise about the theatre: Peri, Gluck, Hoffmann and Weber all preceded him. But he was the first to do so under the influence of the ancient history of drama from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, not to mention the more recent history of German idealist philosophy, from Kant to Hegel, Schelling, Feuerbach and – a little later – Schopenhauer. Wagner not only wrote more books than any other major composer, he must certainly have read more.

In a sense, his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk – the total artwork – was born out of an intellectual practice which constantly linked seemingly disparate ideas, roamed through myth and history in search of operatic subject matter, confused practical organisation with millennial politics, and in the end succeeded in combining all these elements in a single theatrical enterprise that still survives, more or less unscathed, a century and a quarter after his death. If his dramas have become the playground for every conceivable intellectual, aesthetic, political and psychological tendency, it may or may not be regrettable, but it is hardly surprising.

In view of all this heavy reading and even heavier theorising, and leaving aside his musical genius, the two most impressive things about the author of The Artwork of the Future have always been how remarkably practical he was when it came to hands-on work in the theatre; and how traditional he was in his conception of the visual aspects of the stage. In contemplating the Gesamtkunstwerk, he had no idea of bringing in an outsider whose imaginative work would somehow be integrated with that of an egghead stage designer and a brilliantly inventive lighting specialist, to the general enrichment of his music. All he needed was a set of technicians who would realise his own ideas in practical terms. As he once told a harpist, he couldn’t play the harp but he knew what he wanted it to sound like. He could see the stage in his mind’s eye, though he lacked the expertise to design it himself.

When it came to visual idiom, he was essentially a verist. In fact, his whole quarrel with the operatic stage of his young manhood, which he knew all too well from galley years as chorus master and musical director in more or less decrepit opera houses from Würzburg to Riga, was precisely that it was weighed down by convention and artifice (I’ve always loved his description of the chorus of his day as ‘scenery that has learned to march and sing’). For Wagner, as to some extent for Gluck, operatic reform meant not only reintegration but also deconventionalisation; and one of the biggest problems he faced in staging his works was how to bring off the complicated magical or supernatural effects in such a way as to make them real and vivid, instead of merely symbolic or, worse, risible.

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