On the bicentenary of Richard Wagner

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2013 is the bicentenary of the birth of the composer Richard Wagner. As was to be expected, opera houses and music festivals across Europe and North America have splashed out on all manner of productions of his ten most famous works (seven if you count the Ring as one work). For Wagnerians or just admirers of the music, this has been the cause of much excitement, and the arbiters of official ‘culture’ have been out in force. The British Education Secretary, Michael Gove had been instructing schoolchildren ‘to marvel at the genius … [of] Wagner’. One columnist, on hearing that Gove and George Osborne had attended the Ring cycle at the Royal Opera House rather than attending to the Liberal Democrat party conference in September last year, remarked that ‘Wagner [was] more important than the wretched Lib Dems’.

All this elides what were – for a long time – the main wider cultural references to Wagner outside of the opera house: his association with the Third Reich. For ‘dedicated’ fans, the bicentenary has provided the opportunity to bring back the real, proper Wagner, Wagner the great transhistorical romantic artist, whom Baudelaire called ‘the equal of the most exalted and certainly as great as the greatest’.

It is however the desire to use the bicentenary to simplify, diminish, if not to separate the links between Wagner’s music and writings and the Third Reich that is most disturbing. And it has determined the tone of the bicentenary. Breaking this trend last week, a performance of Tannhäuser took place at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf with a pronounced Nazi-theme. Although the directors said they had meant to ‘“mourn, not mock”’ victims of the Holocaust, an outraged audience booed the performance from start to finish, with ‘some opera goers … said to be so traumatised they had to receive medical assistance’. The result was the cancellation of the entire production. Michael Szentei-Heise, the leader of Düsseldorf’s Jewish community, thought that 

the production had strayed so far from the original intentions of Wagner, who wrote it as a romantic opera in the 1840s and set it in the Middle Ages, that it was implausible.

“This opera has nothing to do with the Holocaust”.

‘The original intentions of Wagner’ is the key phrase to grasp. It demonstrates that the distaste is in fact not due to the undoubtedly shocking and disturbing content of the production but rather because an opera which is not ‘about’ the Holocaust is brought into contact with it. Wagner’s intentions are not being respected. He is being politicised; his opera forced into odd and uncomfortable shapes by an apparently alien mould.

Can it not be said that it is the idea of Wagner as an historical figure which is opposed here? By inserting history in the form of the Holocaust into the supposed ahistorical ‘romantic’ time of the opera, the production disturbs the safe and recognisable, even reassuring, image of the great composer-genius. The production identifies in the fabric of the opera the implicit connections between the ideological structures present in Wagner’s work and the atrocities of the twentieth-century; in Adorno’s words, it is locating in the ‘self-praise and pomp … the emblems of Fascism’. In short, in performing Tannhäuser historically, the production refuses Wagner and his admirers the self-image of the ahistorical sanctified artist-genius which he and they desire to construct.

The overriding tone of the bicentenary, seen in the shock and outrage at this production, can be understood, then, as an attempt to ‘reclaim’ Wagner from history. The bicentenary condones a retreat from the political interpretation of Wagner’s work in favour of interpretations which accord with the ahistorical ‘romantic’ aesthetic laid down by Wagner himself. Instead of forcing the music of Wagner uncomfortably against its ideological products in the form of Nazism or the Holocaust, the bicentenary promotes a passive experience of ‘good art’, an experience of Wagner which raises no questions. It is a suppression that is designed to allow Wagner to be consumed without having to interrogate the historical reality in which his music played a central role. Wagner is recast as Wagner, the Wagner Wagner wanted to be – free from the constraints of historical time and the politics which followed him – ‘the man who [sought] immortality during his lifetime’.

It is the dehistoricizing of a man whose work requires interrogation more than that of others which is the greatest danger during this bicentenary. Surely, it is the historical events which occurred after Wagner’s death that make impossible the ways in which he intended his works to be performed. The production at Düsseldorf last week is alive to this fact, and is an attempt to perform Wagner as part of history, to try to reconcile him and his work with the social reality which followed him and to demonstrate his position in that social reality. The vulgarity of this production, its overwhelmingly traumatic dramaturgy, its essentially anti-Wagnerian aesthetic, is the only way in which Wagner can be performed for us today. Moreover, as Žižek notes in his foreword to Adorno’s book on Wagner, this approach ‘enables [us] to conceive Wagner’s anti-Semitism not as a personal idiosyncrasy, but as a feature inscribed in the very artistic texture of his work’. We are reminded that as much as Wagner is implicated, we too are implicated in our attendance, our enjoyment, even perhaps our admiration. It lets us appreciate the brilliance of the composer without ever making him acceptable. As Thomas Mann so precisely put it, ‘music … is politically suspect’. During this bicentenary, it is a suspicion we need more than ever.

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