Ap­pre­ci­at­ing Wag­ner the mu­si­cian in spite of Wag­ner the man

MY LIFE WITH WAG­NER FAIRIES: RINGS, AND REDEMPTION: EX­PLOR­ING OPERA’S MOST ENIGMATIC COM­POSER By Chris­tian Thiele­mann Pe­ga­sus, $27.95, 267 pages

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Aram Bak­shian Jr. Aram Bak­shian Jr., an aide to Pres­i­dents Nixon, Ford and Rea­gan, writes widely on pol­i­tics, history, gas­tron­omy and the arts.

More than 40 years ago I spent a week that seemed like a life­time in Bayreuth, the pretty lit­tle Ger­man pro­vin­cial town that once served as cap­i­tal for the Mar­graves of Ans­bach-Bayreuth, mi­nor Fran­co­nian princelings who rented a few reg­i­ments of troops to King Ge­orge III for ser­vice against Ge­orge Washington. Karl Alexander, the last Mar­grave, sold his postage stamp do­main to the King­dom of Prus­sia in 1791 and spent his re­main­ing years as a wan­der­ing pre­cur­sor of to­day’s Euro­trash.

But Bayreuth hadn’t seen its last lo­cal princeling yet. Gov­erned by the Prus­sian Ho­hen­zollerns and then the Bavar­ian Wit­tels­bachs, it emerged from pro­vin­cial ob­scu­rity in the lat­ter half of the 19th cen­tury when “mad” King Lud­wig II of Bavaria, long be­sot­ted by the mu­sic of Richard Wag­ner, de­cided to in­stall the mae­stro at Bayreuth. Mil­lions spent on a new, state-of-the-art opera house (the Fest­spiel­haus where the Bayreuth Fes­ti­val is still staged each sum­mer), Wah­n­fried, a princely villa for the mae­stro, and a salary and ex­pense ac­count that even a mod­ern rock star would envy all con­trib­uted to the fi­nan­cial woes that led to Lud­wig’s over­throw in 1886 and his sui­cide a few days later. While the Wit­tels­bach dy­nasty con­tin­ued to reign in Bavaria un­til the demise of the Ger­man Em­pire at the end of World War I, the hered­i­tary Wag­ne­r­ian mini-king­dom would sur­vive in Bayreuth into the 21st cen­tury.

The mu­si­cally bril­liant — but also vul­gar, glut­tonous, adul­ter­ous, un­grate­ful, and mon­u­men­tally mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal — Richard Wag­ner would be suc­ceeded as un­crowned king of Bayreuth by his son, Siegfried and then by his two grand­sons, Wieland and Wolf­gang. In be­tween Siegfried and his sons, there was even a Queen Re­gent — or Dowa­ger Em­press — in the form of Winifred Wag­ner, Siegfried’s for­mi­da­ble English­born widow. Winifred ruled the roost and ran the Bayreuth Fes­ti­val be­fore and dur­ing the Third Reich. An un­abashed Nazi sym­pa­thizer, Winifred feted Adolf Hitler and his en­tourage at their height, bliss­fully un­aware that while the fuhrer of­fi­cially em­braced Wag­ner’s mu­sic be­cause of its Ger­manic chau­vin­ism — and the com­poser’s ram­pant anti-Semitism — he ac­tu­ally pre­ferred the low­brow melodies of Vi­en­nese op­eretta masters like Franz Le­har. Af­ter the war, Wieland and Wolf­gang shunted their po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect mother aside and, be­gin­ning in 1951, presided over a res­ur­rected, po­lit­i­cally san­i­tized Bayreuth Fes­ti­val that sur­vives to this day.

By the time I ar­rived in Bayreuth to do a fea­ture on the fes­ti­val in an­tic­i­pa­tion of its up­com­ing cen­ten­nial, Wieland Wag­ner was dead, Winifred Wag­ner was a bit­ter by­stander with a dwin­dling, die-hard fol­low­ing of her own, and her sur­viv­ing son, Wolf­gang, was firmly in con­trol of the fes­ti­val. Un­til his older brother’s death, Wolf­gang had been re­spon­si­ble for the busi­ness side of op­er­a­tions, al­though oc­ca­sion­ally di­rect­ing in­di­vid­ual opera pro­duc­tions. It showed. Af­ter a lengthy in­ter­view with him at the Fest­speil­haus I came away with the im­pres­sion of a man who had in­her­ited a fam­ily busi­ness em­pire, the busi­ness of which hap­pened to be opera.

In “My Life with Wag­ner” renowned Ber­lin con­duc­tor Chris­tian Thiele­mann, the vet­eran of many a Bayreuth pro­duc­tion, pro­fesses an artis­tic ad­mi­ra­tion for Wolf­gang Wag­ner that some may find a tri­fle overblown. Wolf­gang un­der­stood his grand­fa­ther’s op­eras the way Henry Ford II un­der­stood cars: not be­cause he had cre­ated them or de­vel­oped the assem­bly line, but be­cause from his ear­li­est years he had been im­mersed in the fam­ily busi­ness. Both men played their re­spec­tive roles well, but few would at­tribute cre­ative ge­nius to ei­ther of them.

In this brief but dis­cur­sive book, Mr. Thiele­mann is at his best when he sets aside history, pol­i­tics, con­tem­po­rary gos­sip and high the­ory and speaks to us as a sea­soned pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian and an in­spired ar­ti­san: “I think all who lis­ten to [Richard Wag­ner’s op­eras] ... have a jus­ti­fied, in­deed nec­es­sary in­ter­est in learn­ing what hap­pens in the Wag­ne­r­ian work­shop: the com­poser’s work­shop and the work­shop of his in­ter­preter. Not all that goes on there is a mir­a­cle or a unique event; there are plenty of things that we can know, un­der­stand and ex­plain.”

Spo­ken like a true crafts­man. The twisted per­sonal mo­ti­va­tions, weird sym­bol­ism and pseudo-myth­i­cal Ger­manic plots and lyrics Richard Wag­ner brought to his work range in qual­ity and char­ac­ter from gen­uinely in­spired to hope­lessly silly. In many ways, the Ring Cy­cle is mu­si­cal sci­ence fic­tion in re­verse: we en­ter into a murky al­ter­na­tive world of the past rather than the fu­ture, a blurry, ir­ra­tional place re­deemed only by the in­spi­ra­tion of a master mu­si­cian whose chords pierce through the on­stage smoke and mir­rors and en­ter into our hearts.

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