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Bah Humbug: Richard Wagner - banish him from the stage | reviews, news & interviews

Bah Humbug: Richard Wagner - banish him from the stage

Bah Humbug: Richard Wagner - banish him from the stage

There's nothing to be gained from the intellectual or dramatic thrust of his operas

'Wagner was no doubt an exceptional artist. But he was an even more exceptional anti-Semite'

Now that The X Factor's finally over, can we please get back to heaping opprobrium on the only Wagner that really deserves it? In the coming year opera houses around the world will be deciding whether to temporarily bankrupt themselves in 2013 to celebrate the composer's centenary. Opera Australia have announced a £10 million Ring Cycle.

LA Opera and the Met are in the middle of new bank-busting cycles (£20 million and £15 million respectively). No doubt ours will want in some way to follow suit. Yet they would do well to steer clear. We cannot afford it. And we should not be encouraging this least admirable of middle-class addictions.

Discouraging people from getting into Wagner isn't, to be honest, very hard. Just three little words will scare away all but the hardiest. Here's. The. Libretto. No one - not even the great Bryan Magee, who plays a very fun game of Schopenhauerian snap in Wagner and Philosophy - has ever managed to give a decent defence of Wagner's operas without adding a thousand qualifications.mime_alberich_1896-e1286063224590

Everyone admits that the plots are, of course, very silly. And dramatically deficient. And virtually impossible to stage. And that there's no realism to any of it. And that the jokes aren't worthy of the Chuckle Brothers. And that the inclusion of potions to further psychological development is hugely primitive. And that Siegfried is a bit of a twat - as is Parsifal. And that the characters of Mime (pictured right with Alberich, right, in Cosima Wagner's 1896 Ring) and Beckmesser are both nasty Jewish caricatures. And that the music can be a bit suffocating. And that no one's ever seen a decent production of any of them. Er. Sounds... great. Get me a £1,000 ticket tout de suite.

Any Wagnerian worth their salt would then counter with the argument that these defects are merely dramaturgical. Wagner's genius is primarily as a breathtakingly original composer, not as a playwright. His music eclipses the faults of his librettos. And yet if this was true, if his genius lay mostly in the music, and this same genius almost completely, embarrassingly, fails him on stage, why do we continue to fritter away millions of pounds attempting to fix his faulty theatrics?

We do it because we believe Wagner to be an exceptional artist with exceptional things to say about the human condition. Wagner was no doubt an exceptional artist. But he was an even more exceptional anti-Semite. His thoughts on the human condition are, therefore, exceptional only in their monstrosity. And nowhere is this misanthropic, monstrous world view more fully or clearly formulated than in his operas. In every character, in every plot line, in every philosophical postulation in every verse, Wagner's own fundamental inhumanity reveals itself.

He may vacillate philosophically between a mawkish Marian Christianity and Schopenhauerian nihilism but one life-sapping constant threads its way through his intellectual convulsions. Wagner believes that redemption can only be wrought from annihilation, whether suicidal (Isolde), homicidal (Siegfried), self-sacrificial (Elisabeth), sexual (Parsifal), holocaustal (Brünnhilde) or through Untergang, the destruction, of the Jews. There is no artist in history who has so often allied himself to and propagated the values of death in all its many permutations.winifredbettcor276-1

That his music became the soundtrack to the Nazi regime, therefore, was no coincidence. Wagner fits as snug as a bug in a rug within the ideology of Nazism. He wasn't co-opted against his will. His operas' music and meaning wasn't manipulated to work within the concentration camps. Rather, they goose-stepped along to join in. No other artistic oeuvre could possibly lay the cultural and philosophical foundations for the ethos of the Nazi regime better than Wagner's. “Every time I hear Wagner, I feel like invading Poland," says Woody Allen. There's a lot of truth to this joke. Hitler (pictured left, being greeted at Bayreuth by Winifred Wagner, Wagner's daughter-in-law) wasn't a Nazi who happened to enjoy Wagner. Hitler was a Nazi because he enjoyed Wagner.

Wagner's foot soldiers - the Stephen Frys of this world - will continue to insist that most of the repellent philosophy doesn't make it to the operas. Yet, much of it does. A few years ago Channel 4 were censured for allowing the bullying of the stuck-up Indian actress Shilpa Shetty at the hands of Jade Goody. Goody's pugilism was, however, nothing compared to the torrent of openly racist abuse unleashed by the glorified hero of The Ring Cycle, Siegfried, upon his foster father, the hideously caricatured Mime. Parsifal is no better. The eponymous hero shows his worthiness to become an Aryan saviour through arrogance and cruelty.

As a musical architect, Wagner cannot be ignored. But as a guide on life or love, he offers no nourishment

The only decent characters in Wagner are those who represent the soon-to-be-swept-away old order: humble Wolfram (pictured below right: Christian Gerhaher plays Wolfram in the recent Royal Opera House production) in Tannhäuser, noble King Marke in Tristan und Isolde, the rationalist Fricka in Die Walküre. The figures that are showered in musical glory, however, are the vain warriors who live life according to the codes of instinct, emotionalism and violence. One doesn't have to look to his life and his political writings to be repulsed by Wagner. One just has to read the surtitles.

Gerhaher_WolframThe significance of the music remains. And it should be heard. But in these parsimonious times, is it justified - morally or financially - to stage dramas that even the most ardent fans cannot defend? Is it justified to keep his racist librettos as they are? As we approach his centenary, should we not reassess our slavish devotion to the composer? Should we not be as radical and disrespectful to his works as he and his works were to the world? Should we not rip out those mouldy librettos? Should we not banish his profligate dramas from the stage? Does he not deserve to be roughed up like a Vichy collaborator?

Don't get me wrong. As a musical architect, as a historical reality, as an artistic influence, Wagner cannot be ignored. But as a guide on life or love, he offers no nourishment. We must acknowledge this; that there is virtually nothing to be gained - and everything to lose - from absorbing the intellectual and dramatic thrust of his operas. Die-hard Wagnerians (over-fed and under-washed) tend to be living proof of this: of how not to be.

At up to £20 million a hit, Wagner is the most expensive, addictive and deleterious drug the middle classes have. And it is the tax-paying poor who will have to pay for it. Opera houses should be forced to clean up their act and remove this John the Baptist for the Third Reich from their repertory.

At up to £20 million a hit, Wagner is the most expensive, addictive and deleterious drug the middle classes have

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Oh dear. Where to begin in answering this one, which shows up nothing but your own ignorance. Controversy for controversy's sake is just silly I(maybe you just want negative comments like this). Please don't go down this line, Arts Desk.

Excellent! Absolutely hilarious. Good Christmas cheer. My compliments. You're a comic genius. ACD

Well argued. See you at the next performance.

OK, yes, let's ban everything from stage, opera house, film, television, literature, art and music that dares to make us feel uncomfortable, or that raises awkward questions. Then we can all live in a little bubble and watch nothing but the X-Factor and Strictly. Hitler was a Nazi because he enjoyed Wagner? What a breathtakingly ignorant and shallow statement. I enjoy Wagner, but I am not a Nazi. Neither am I over fed or under-washed, for your information. I really don't know why I'm wasting my time responding to this clap-trap. Or perhaps the article is some sort of Christmas joke. If so, it's about as rubbish as the ones that fall out of Christmas crackers.

Sorry, totally agree with Matthew - if you're going to throw this in the spirit of humbug spoofery, then 'Hitler wasn't a Nazi who happened to enjoy Wagner. Hitler was a Nazi because he enjoyed Wagner' is a step too far in my books. For fear of unleashing a further stream of invective, I hardly dare say I agree with Michael Tanner that there really isn't a shred of evidence in the text - though some think there are cantorish inflections in the vocal lines - to characterise Beckmesser or Mime. The former in any case is the kind of nasty piece of work you'd find in any 'respectable' society, based on a person whose writings also reveal him to be a nasty piece of work, the latter a schemer prepared to murder his foster son. Yes, many of Wagner's writings are odious or offensive. No, I don't see them rubbing off anywhere but in Parsifal, with which I do have a problem if they're staged in a certain way; but such is their richness that they can take any number of opposite readings. A short piece isn't enough to do justice to this delicate issue.

I had promised myself that I wouldn't waste time commenting on your reviews. I hope that when you are older you are not too embarrassed by the naiveté of the views you express on the artsdesk. Perhaps one of your older colleagues should have a quiet word with you. I enjoy reading polemical pieces but this is simply factually incorrect provocation. I believe in certain circles I would be advised not to feed the troll.

This article is "hit-whoring" at its best/worst. It's kind of disappointing that Arts Desk have decided to play that game.

Is this April 1st or just total bollocks?

Shouldn't this rationale be applied to all opera (especially the penultimate sentence)?

This criticism of Wagner's operas is valid. Wagner denies the Enlightenment (as did Hitler) which is so fundamental a fault as to condemn Wagner absolutely . Art is powerful and if misused is dangerous. Whether one enjoys a work of art is a secondary and self-indulgent matter. The world would be a safer and happier place if we all detached ourselves from the human predicament rather than wallowing in it. Compare the eighteen bars when the Commendatore is dying in Don Giovanni with the fall of Valhalla. Look here upon this picture and on this.

The whole article is laughable. So much has already been written to completely backhand all your offensive, disrespectful and fundamentally unfeeling comments. Is the author deaf and blind? Also, to one of the comments: can't you see that the Holocaust is the apotheosis of the heartless rationalism of Enlightenment? Not of holy redemptive art. Long live Richard Wagner, miracle worker and redeemer.

David Damant: 'The world would be a safer and happier place if we all detached ourselves from the human predicament rather than wallowing in it.' And no doubt the world would be a 'safer and happier' place if all we ever listened to was such undisturbing fare as 'The Sound of Music' and 'Mamma Mia.'

In the spirit of fairness and objectivity, I trust that the artsdesk 'powers that be' will ensure that Wagner operas are reviewed by someone who can approach each performance with open-mindedness and a genuine critical perspective. Toronyi-Lalic is now 'soiled goods' with regard to Wagner operas (unless he changes his mind, of course - he is young) and each of his Wagner reviews can now only be met with the response: "well, he would say that, wouldn't he".

Graham Greene understood that good and evil cannot be prised apart as neatly as you suggest. He wrote about the 'cracked vessel': the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory who was a force for good despite his personal imperfections. So it is with Wagner, whose legacy is his music, not his personality. You, though, prefer the 'ethnic cleansing' option of causing someone's work to vanish if you don't like it. How Hitler would have approved. Next, please, an article explaining why we should all boycott bad-boy Benjamin Britten.

Much ado about nothing. Wagner should be appreciated for his musical talents and not his personal opinions about the Jews.

Blimey! Ok. These require a lot of untangling. Those who are assuming that anyone who dislikes Wagner and his racism must be joking are revealing a remarkable poverty of imagination. Das is kein Spaß, folks! Sorry! And neither, Arthur, is this an attempt to be deliberately controversial. Rather it's a pretty solid and self-evident position to take when you know the evidence. Only the seductions of the music blinds the mind to the facts and coaxes it into mad special pleading - which I used to do too. The more one reads, however - and the less one listens - and the more one discovers to what extent Hitler's ideological development and Weltanshauung (Hitler was very clear about this - see Joachim Fest below) was guided, shaped, and fed by Wagner's philosophy, the more one is forced to condemn Wagner. Wagner was no casual or accidental anti-Semite in the manner of a TS Eliot or Chopin. He was a out and out bold as brass bragger of an anti-Semite. You don't have to be a scholar to unearth it. It stares you right in the face everywhere you look. Racism wasn't just a sad adjunct to his personality, Mark Valencia, it was an integral cog to how his mind and operas worked. Ok, David, fine, if you disagree with the suggestion that Mime is a Jewish stereotype (going against much evidence to the contrary, including Gustav Mahler's observation that he recognised his own Jewishness in Mime: "No doubt with Mime, Wagner intended to ridicule the Jews with all their characteristic traits - petty intelligence and greed - the jargon is textually and musically so cleverly suggested"),  you cannot deny that Mime is a racial stereotype of some kind. And it is Mime's racial differences that Siegfried chooses to beat him with. Siegfried murders Mime because of his otherness. And we are meant to celebrate that murder, the music is quite explicit about that. Matthew Somerton-Raynor, no. My suggestion isn't to ban Wagner. It's to banish him from the stage, thereby consigning him to the concert hall where the only truly interesting element of his output (the only thing that 90 per cent of those who attend Wagner operas go for) the music can shine in all its glory, saving society money and saving our impressionable young minds from racist infection. Don't really understand your point about Wagner being "challenging". You don't seem to deny that his operas are racist or anti-Semitic - or you don't provide any evidence to counter my argument. Is it your contention that the act of being racist or anti-Semitic is "challenging" because "it raises awkward questions"? A very odd idea if so. Or are you talking about some other "awkward questions" and "uncomfortable" feelings? Enlighten me. Factual inaccuracies, Peter? Pray tell? I can change them if you point them out. Have already corrected my lazy description of Mime as a step-father rather than a foster father. What I find most absurd - and very revealing - about all this special pleading is that anyone can seriously think that this composer, who folded virtually every philosophical and social thought into his operas, who integrated all his essays' conclusions into the final product, should decide to draw a unique line at his thoughts on Judaism. Equally absurd is the thought that that Wagner's thoroughly well worked out theories on Jewish inferiority and operatic narratives on racial purification completely passed the young Adolf Hitler by. Here, in Wagner's work, you have an amazingly prophetic template for what would become Third Reich policy - virtually a mirror image in certain respects - and we're seriously meant to believe that this young Wagner-obsessive wasn't influenced by it at all? 'Hitler wasn't a Nazi who happened to enjoy Wagner. Hitler was a Nazi because he enjoyed Wagner'. For those that think this is a step too far, I leave you with the words of the revered historian and Hitler biographer Joachim Fest:  "the Master of Bayreuth [Wagner] was not only Hitler's great exemplar; he was also the young man's ideological mentor. Wagner's political writings were Hitler's favourite reading, and the sprawling pomposity of his style unmistakably influenced Hitler's own grammar and syntax. [Wagner's] political writings, together with the operas, form the entire framework for Hitler's ideology: Darwinism and anti-Semitism..., the adoration of barbarism and Germanic might, the mystique of blood purification expressed in Parzifal, and the general histrionic view in which good and evil, purity and corruption, rulers and ruled, stand opposed in black and white contrasts. The curse of gold, the inferior race grubbing underground, the conflict between Siegfried and Hagen, the tragic genius of Wotan - this strange brew compounded of bloody vapors, dragon slaying, mania for domination, treachery, sexuality, elitism, paganism, and ultimately salvation and tolling bells on a theatrical Good Friday were the perfect ideological match for Hitler's anxieties and needs. Here he found the "granite foundations" for his view of the world."

O gott, what a thing to be debating on Xmas Eve! Only hours ago I was baasking in peaceful carols at St Paul's. But my last words are these. To most of what you say, Igor, the opposite can be asserted, and the complexity will pull the rug from under your feet as much as it will from mine. That's the wonder, as well as the horror, of Wagner. Of one thing, and one thing alone, I'm certain: the anti-semitism so horribly prevalent in the essays doesn NOT stare out at us in any explicit way in any of the operas you mention - even Parsifal is a moot point, the others aren't even ambiguous. Siegfried murders Mime because Mime has been about to murder him. Mahler saw in Mime what he wanted to see (and did it stop him revering and loving Wagner as a conductor and a music-lover, any more than Bernstein or Barenboim? Absolutely not). You can play him as a Jewish stereotype; you can play him as the opposite without twisting the 'meaning'. Likewise Beckmesser, though here the rooting in actuality gives even more argument against a semitic portrayal (was Hanslick Jewish? I'm on shaky ground there as I'm not sure, but read his criticism and it's clear he was a lazy-thinking shit. Which you, dear Igor, as you know I fervently believe, are anything but, and I do hope everyone reads you carefully and between the lines before lynching you for a couple of the more oversimplified points. Anyway, on to Tannhauser! I'm longing to find out if Heppner deserves your scorn. I won't pass judgment until I've seen for myself, but in everything I've encountered him in, the voice HAS redeemed the, erm, stolid stage presence.

"Those who are assuming that anyone who dislikes Wagner and his racism must be joking are revealing a remarkable poverty of imagination. Das is kein Spaß, folks! Sorry!" —————————————— It was NOT your "dislik[e] [of] Wagner and his racism" that provoked my remark, but my giving you the benefit of the doubt. Your piece could have been written only by someone whose comic intention was to play Scrooge vis-à-vis Wagner's stageworks as Dickens's Scrooge was vis-à-vis the celebration of Christmas, or by someone who is a manifest Wagner ignoramus and an opera simpleton into the bargain. Your above response makes clear which of the two you are, and makes clear as well how unworthy you were to receive my charitable benefit of the doubt. ACD

"Factual inaccuracies, Peter? Pray tell? I can change them if you point them out. " How about: "Everyone admits that the plots are, of course, very silly. And dramatically deficient." Clearly not everyone does admit this. Dramatically deficient by what criteria? Aristotleian? Brechtian? Or any other theory of drama? Your quotation from Fest does little to substantiate the claim that "'Hitler wasn't a Nazi who happened to enjoy Wagner. Hitler was a Nazi because he enjoyed Wagner'". Alexander the great slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow but many readers now regard the Iliad as a work that problematizes war as much as it glorifies it. How people appropriate works of art to their own ends is a fascinating subject and you have added yourself as a further example of this progress by recruiting hatred of Wagner to your campaign against the subsidized arts.

Dear Igor I have thought more about what you have written. And also I take from David Nice's contributions that he has some respect for your abilities. I am sorry that my response to your article was so dismissive. I share your horror at Wagner's antisemitism as expressed in his prose works. He also seems to me to have led a pretty selfish life and had scant regard for others' feelings. But I think that you make a fundamental methodological error in the privileging Wagner's prose writings as a source of interpreting his operas. Analogous problems arise in the tragedies of Seneca (on which I work) - the author of the only surviving Roman Tragedies. Seneca wrote a great number of prose works where he constructs himself as a stoic philosopher and exhorts his readers to take up the stoic life. In antiquity he was attacked for double standards as he was involved directly and centrally in the Neronian regime and acquired vast wealth as a result of this. In modern times scholars have struggled to square the philosopher with his historical persona as recorded favourably by Tactitus and more hostilely by later historians on the one hand and the meaning of the Tragedies on the other. Some see the Tragedies as fundamentally anti-stoic and therefore contradictory to his prose works. Others see the Tragedies as programatic stoic instruction. Central to this controversy is what weight you give to the prose works. In deciding this one has to understand that the prose works have a very specific function quite different from the function of Tragedy. Tragedy is a more open structure in which the the many competing voices lead naturally to questioning of a point of view. This is a complex area of literary theory and I have simplified but I hope not distorted the position. In Wagnerian opera there are likewise many competing points of view. Characters change as do our understanding of them the world and ourselves. To see everything through the lens of ant-semitism by privileging the prose works is as limiting as insisting that the works are performed as "originally intended by Wagner" whatever that might mean. How can someone whom I think of as a terrible failure as a human being produce such music? I have no idea and perhaps there is no answer. How is it that his music can be recruited for evil purposes? That can happen to any music. Should we be critical of productions that simplify the complexities of Wagner's operas? Of course.

My formal and fuller response to Mr. Igor Toronyi-Lalic's article can be read at URL: soundsandfury/2010/12/ bah-humbug-wagner-not-christmas.html ACD

Hmm. Young Igor may be Wrong, but he's much more fun to read.

Well, Igor, I don't think your response to the criticism has really improved your argument very much. I'll stick to the specifics that you raise concerning my initial response. I'm glad that you don't want to ban Wagner's music completely, but you say instead that you want to restrict him to the concert hall, thereby saving our minds from "racist infection". Well, firstly, I don't think I'm feeble-minded enough to become a racist just because I listen to a bit of music, and secondly you seem to be contradicting yourself by suggesting that the operas themselves are not racist- or are you actually suggesting that the music be performed without singers? Or perhaps re-write the libretti? I'm sure Tim Rice is available. Or if it's all about saving society money, then let's scrap a couple of orchestras and close down English National Opera. After all, we don't need all those orchestras in London, or two Opera companies. The question as to whether his operas are racist or anti-semitic has been debated at great length over many years by far greater minds than ours. Some think they are, some think they are not. I suggest that you go off and do some reading. You might actually learn something. How the operas are perceived is to a great extent dependent on the production, a part of the entire experience that you seem to consider unimportant. When I attend an Opera, whether by Wagner or Mozart, I go for the whole exerience, musical and theatrical, and I suggest that 90% of those who fork out considerable sums of money for a ticket feel the same way, otherwise they'd all stay at home and listen to a CD. Under your fascistic proposals to ban Wagner from the theatre, we would have been denied such great stagings as Patrice Cherau's centenary Ring from Bayreuth, or the recent ROH Meistersinger. Finally, I have no idea whether being racist or anti semitic is "challenging", because, despite listening to , and attending Wagner operas for the last 30 years or so, I have not- are you sitting down? - been "infected with racism". And if you really cannot see the other issues that Wagner raises in his operas- issues about the nature of power and what man will do to gain it, and how it can corrupt; love, and it's trnasformative power for both good and evil; and questions about the very nature of society that are still relevant today, then it's no wonder that you have such an ignorant and jaundiced view of the composer. But if you approach him with such a closed mind, then I suppose it's not surprising.

Igor, the untangling process has tied you in knots. Let me reiterate the two challenges I made that you chose not to address. 1. Your desire to ban something because you disapprove of it is an inherently Nazistic attitude, don't you think? I'm sure the irony of that isn't lost on you. 2. Plenty of other composers have written fine works with dubious messages, so why pick on Wagner? You could have taken issue with several Britten operas that reflect, to varying extents, the composer's paedophilic predilections. You could also ban Monteverdi, whose Il Coronazione di Poppea is a celebration of evil triumphant.

Wagner's plots are not silly in the least. They are no sillier than the plots of any of the greatest plays or films etc. The stereotypical image people have of obese singers in ridiculous pseudo Viking costumes has long contributed to the myth that Wagner's plots are "silly". Blaming Wagner for Hitler and the Nazis makes about as much sense as blaming Christ for the Spanish Inquisition. Yes, he was an anti-semite,and this should not be condoned. But Wagner never advocated genocide against the Jews or any one esle. He looked down on the Jews as a people and believed that they were incapale of creating great art, but he never came remotely close to the insane hatred and bigotry of Hitler and the Nazis,and as the old cliche goes,"some of hios best friends were Jews".

Hitler would have had an equally terrible Weltanschauung if the Jewish race had never existed - though having that world view he instigated the Holocaust. The anti-semitic aspect should not dertermine criticism of that terrible world view, great slices of which are refelected in Wagner's music.

Having now seen the Royal Opera Tannhauser for myself, I understand where part of Igor's argument might be coming from: its ludicrous angel/whore thesis makes it unstageable today other than in an ironic or twisted fashion (Albery's answer is to make the 'teure Halle' a war-blasted wreck). So yes, I'd much rather see Tannhauser in concert (though even then I'd say that any longueurs at Covent Garden were more due to a certain heaviness in Bychkov's approach, for all its textural revelations). On the other hand, if you stage Meistersinger by trying to be true to its many wisdoms, as Richard Jones did, you vindicate it as a perfect theatrical comedy which never feels like its five hours. If, too, you stick to the Ring's basically sound theme of love versus power, you should find something essential truths there too. Wagner knew what to draw from mythology, and by and large it was an anything but sinister or proto-Hitlerian message. Aren't the Nazis the Gibichungs, after all? And I don't for a minute believe the notion that these are symphonies with voices attached. They keep us gripped by introducing a new musical-dramatic idea every quarter of an hour or so. Mr. Damant, please spend time listening, reading the text and finding out whether your view really tallies with what you hear. Compulsory Wagner studies for you, my man! Here endeth the New Year's Day homily.

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