My love/hate relationship with Wagner

There’s this part of me that thinks I ought to like Wagner. In some ways I do. The Rhinegold was one of the first operas I saw live when Goodall was conducting at ENO and I loved it. I like most of the Ring and I’m very fond of Der Fliegende Holländer but I also see the essential truth in the two great Wagner witticisms:

Anon to Evelyn Waugh – “What was Crete (i.e. the battle of) like?”
Waugh – “Like German opera; too loud and too long”


Wagner lover – “There are some amazing moments in Wagner”
Wagner skeptic – “And there are some damn dull half hours in between”

This really comes to a head for me with Tristan und Isolde. If ever fifteen minutes of plot were compressed into five hours this is it. Essentially nothing much happens; very slowly; and very loud. I think it’s only ever performed because (a) it’s Wagner and (b) that chord. Five hours is an awful lot of bum numbing to experience one moment of musicological history. Maybe this is why directors try so hard to make it look like something is going on? This surely reached utter desperation point in the Met’s HD broadcast, when I thought I was watching a game of Tetris, though the current fugly Bayreuth production runs it close. I know I’m not the only one who has this problem as witness Julia Spinola’s essay Der Kunst der Langsamkeit. I just lack the ability to put my thoughts into German Higher Bollocks. Or maybe my Imperial wardrobe detector kit is more sensitive than hers.

I’m not giving up on Wagner. I like the music in Lohengrin for example and I’d really like to see the current Bayreuth production. Most operas are improved by rodents in my experience. I don’t know Tannhäuser or Parsifal at all well so there’s some exploring to do there. I think I’m done with Tristan though.

4 thoughts on “My love/hate relationship with Wagner

  1. I am also conflicted. I prefer to read about, discuss, write about Wager than actually listen to his music for uninterrupted hours. Especially if we’re talking CDs, without the theatre component: I’ve all but given those up. DVD, fine. Just music — nein.

    Though I’m fine with Tristan und Isolde (as much as one can be); it’s the other non-Ring works that I am having difficulty getting into. Saw a few traditionalist productions on DVD of Lohengrin and Tannhauser and it isn’t something I’m eager to do again.

    Two things I think may dramatically change one’s experience of Wagner:
    — seeing a really good live production. The more of those you experience, the better. And I haven’t seen them nearly enough live.
    — understanding German.

    German I’d also need for the countless Strauss operas which have really interesting language (I hear). But I keep hearing from people: it’s the interplay of text and sound that’s important about Wagner, more than a lot of other composers where the text really is subsidiary.

    So… I know where you’re coming from. I’ll keep at it too because I don’t want to miss out on undiscovered musical pleasures, though they seem to be hiding well for me in that particular corner.

  2. I’ve just found your blog and The Ring Cycle is being performed here in Melbourne next month. I think I have a similar view on Wagner, but it is an opportunity that can’t be missed in one’s own town. Perhaps I can let you know if I survive all four!!

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