Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Resurgence Of Things Wagner

There seems to be a resurgence of things Wagner lately. I saw an essay in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago that spoke, I thought surprisingly, approvingly of the music in general. And I’ve seen news stories popping up here and there as if there were something contemporary, something Britney Spears-like, about the music.

Recently I saw this piece, which brings the Britney Spears metaphor to life by linking the music with a hot, young blonde babe [!] —

High drama as Wagner family rides into battle

By Harry de Quetteville in Bayreuth
Last Updated: 2:58am BST 17/07/2007

In the darkened auditorium of an opera house almost as mythical as the themes set to music by her great-grandfather, Katharina Wagner stares intently at the action on stage. This is Bayreuth, touchstone of Wagnerian opera, and with it the German nation. Everything must be perfect.

Katharina Wagner is determined to become the director of the Bayreuth festival

But despite the flawless harmonies wafting from the boards and the orchestra pit sunk well below them, something is rotten in the house of Wagner.

In a family feud that could rival any operatic showdown, the prima donnas of the Wagner family are fighting for the right to be named Richard Wagner's artistic successor.

The keeper of the Wagner flame is the director of the month-long festival of Wagner operas at Bayreuth that began in 1876 and is due to get under way next week. The post has been filled since 1967 by 87-year-old Wolfgang Wagner. But his frailty has provoked a bitter battle to succeed him amongst the Valkyries of the Wagner line.

They are Wolfgang's niece, Nike Wagner, and his daughter by a first marriage, Eva - both 62.

The third candidate, and Wolfgang's reputed favourite, is his blonde-haired, denim jacket wearing 29-year-old daughter, Katharina. "It is a huge ambition for me," she said backstage at Bayreuth just days before the festival starts.

Laying down the gauntlet to her rivals, she added: "I've been working here at Bayreuth for a decade and I'm very well qualified."

Standing in her way, however, is the festival foundation's committee on which Wolfgang Wagner holds a single vote.

Despite his determination to see Katharina succeed him, the board could deem Nike more experienced. She runs the Weimar festival and has acidly criticised Wolfgang's Bayreuth as a musty institution.

The board has also identified Eva Wagner, who works at the Aix-en-Provence festival in France, as successor material.

At Bayreuth, Katharina has already been directing operas for three years, spicing up the 131-year-old festival with a controversial and innovative style.

"It's very traditional here," she said. "But you have to take risks to build something new. In Germany there is a problem that people always have tradition on their minds, like folk dress and lederhosen. Of course I break with that."

Katharina, whose husky voice betrays months of drilling singers in epic rehearsal sessions for this season's seven operas, including the complete Ring cycle, has the fearlessness of youth.

"You have to keep it out of your mind," she said of Bayreuth's world renown, and the expectations of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the rest of Germany's great and good, who are always in attendance.

For mere mortals, seats are near impossible to get hold of. This year 53,900 tickets, costing between £8 and £150, were issued despite 460,479 requests.

"I have friends who applied 10 years ago who are getting their first tickets this year," said Alexander Busche, a festival spokesman.

But just directing operas at Bayreuth is not enough for Katharina. She is determined to run the whole festival once her father steps aside.

Indeed, this year she is displaying her credentials for Bayreuth's top job with a production of Wagner's most controversial opera, Die Meistersinger von N├╝rnberg.

More than any other work by Wagner, whose scores illuminated Germany in the 19th century just as it was being united by Bismarck, the opera was adopted by and associated with the Third Reich.

Hitler was a regular visitor to Bayreuth and with its nationalist themes, Die Meistersinger was the only work performed after all Germany's theatres closed down in 1943, mostly for soldiers on leave from the front.

In some productions, SS banners were unfurled on stage. But it is the opera's finale, in which the lead calls for German culture to be kept pure of foreign influences, which is particularly sensitive.

In rehearsals for Katharina's staging, to which The Daily Telegraph was given exclusive access, the nationalist themes are deliberately perverted. "Katharina's idea is that the stage is filled with statues of Germany's great thinkers Goethe and Schiller carved in a monumental Third Reich style," said Mr Busche.

"But during the finale they deform and collapse, symbols of what happens when thinkers are trapped in such an extreme ideological system." For the performers however, neither the opera's tarnished history nor the Wagner family feud has dimmed the magic of the festival.

"Katharina has gained all our respect," said Edward Randall, an American tenor who plays one of the Meistersingers. "She has a much older soul than a 29-year-old. We've worked on every detail, every glance and every movement, for weeks.

"This is the Olympics of opera," he added. "It's amazing."

Katharina Wagner is well aware of that. "I've been born with this name," she said. "I'm not like Britney Spears who went out to be a star. In Germany, if you're born with this name you can't escape it. You just have to get on with life."

I’m not much of a Wagner fan. And I’m suspicious of any media campaign that seems to be, so to speak, scattering seeds of Wagner onto global pop culture. Those seeds have been scattered before. And some pretty awful things sprouted up from them.

I never listen to more than about six minutes and fifty-two seconds of Wagner at a time. The only Wagner I recommend is Chuck Jones’ “What’s Opera, Doc?” It’s in the Looney Tunes - Golden Collection, Volume Two.

It’s about the best production of Wagner there ever could be.

Richard Wagner’s Wiki Page

“What’s Opera, Doc?” Wiki Page

“Chuck Jones' Wiki Page

Looney Tunes Wiki Page

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