”My love and admiration for Richard Wagner is just about his music. As for all the other stuff, I would rather not bother about it at all.”
Such was the remark of a German-born, music-loving, former colleague of mine many years ago when we were incidentally talking about Wagner. At that time the flamboyant and highly emotional Wagnerianism of my youth was slowly and gradually turning into a more sceptical position.
Now at the present time, when arriving at a more mature stage of life, I can finally admit that I have come to share my former colleague's opinion. Wagner's musical genius is an absolute watershed, a sine qua non in the history of music. Once you have been enchanted by Wagner's music, once you have come under its spell, this will stay with you for ever.
But please note: Here I am thus talking about music, nothing else. So in my case, the love for Wagner has eventually boiled down to a wholehearted admiration and fascination that exclusively concerns his musical forms of expression.
For the time being I leave all the issues about Wagner's alleged links to totalitarian and racist ideologies out of the discussion and focus on something more general: the art of opera as such, i.e. the idea of a combined work of art, consisting of four different arts at least, mingled or melted together, as it were. Call it by its Wagnerian term Gesamtkunstwerk, if you like.
Dr. Samuel Johnson called opera “an extravagant and irrational entertainment”. Well, I have nothing at all against art being “irrational”. Art is the wonderful refuge, the free-zone, where we are allowed to set our most irrational imaginations free. Maybe, after all, Dr. Johnson was referring to something else. I rather interpret Dr. Johnson's remark as an expression of the mild bewilderment he might have felt when experiencing the diverging mechanisms of opera. What are we supposed to enjoy at an opera performance? The music? The stage-setting? The gestures and plastic art of the singers? The designed costumes and painted scenery? The texts and poems sung by the singers? The plot? And how are we to put all these elements together into a single experience that makes full justice to all these different participant elements of art?
Artistic styles and ideals of the art of opera have changed several times since the days of Dr. Johnson, but I would strongly maintain that the questions mentioned – and the problems – have not.
Yes, I know that some would argue that opera music cannot be separated from what it is about and that this would go for Wagner in particular. Then, one must ask: How come that hundreds and hundreds of complete opera recordings have been made, in the form of LP's and CD's, and have been greatly enjoyed, with no visual facilities or impressions added to them? Both sound recordings and pure concert performances show that opera music – yes, even that of Wagner – could be experienced as pure music in its own right, music with and without words but yet not carrying any indispensable references to the extra-musical world.
Today the art of opera has become by far the most expensive and cost-consuming art that we know. But still, the question of its legitimacy is not necessarily linked to the cost issue. We will have no problems paying for new opera houses by means of public money as long as we really know what the art of opera is there for. And this is what keeps making the issue of opera a bit tricky.
Maybe the art of opera is capable of providing real peak moments when all the arts involved indeed create a unique and undivided “sterling” art experience. But I am afraid that such moments tend to be rather few. In view of all stage directors, stage designers etc. who want to produce a show that has turned a deaf ear to the music – something which sadly happens more often than not – we could expect several discussions about the art of opera in years to come.
Stage directors come and go, the music remains. Thanks God.
Klicka här för att redigera.