That you can love the music while disliking the man is a maxim more often applied to Richard Wagner than to any other great composer. His life was a restless journey of crisis, quarrels and betrayals as he forged ahead in a new musical direction, rejecting the grand Italianate arias of 19th century opera. Wives, patrons, producers, and fellow musicians, were all subsumed to the irresistible force of his creative genius. His stormy relations with his most lavish patron, “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria were legendary. Wagner was notorious for his anti-semitism, too. He published pamphlets attacking established Jewish composers such as Giacomo Meyerbeer, who had generously helped with introductions when the struggling young newcomer had attempted to break into the world of Paris opera. It wasn’t Meyerbeer’s fault that Paris proved unreceptive, yet Wagner’s later triumphs never softened his ire over the early setback.
Richard Wagner died in 1883 but his anti-semitism – though not overtly expressed in his music – found favour with Adolf Hitler, who claimed Wagner as the Third Reich’s favourite composer. This was the most difficult piece of baggage to shed in the immediate postwar years. The Wagner festival at Bayreuth, run largely by the Wagner family, appealed solely to a niche audience. Wagner’s music had to wait the better part of a century to win popular acclaim. The lengthiest of his works – 18 hours of four full length operas collectively known as Der Ring des Nibelungen or The Ring Cycle – finally achieved a dazzling breakthrough in 1976 when French film and theatre director Patrice Chéreau transformed the gods of Nordic legend into bourgeois capitalist men and women of the late 19th century industrial era. Wotan was seen as the guilty head of family, whose descent from law-maker to law-breaker led to global catastrophe. Wagner’s epic, in Chéreau’s production, was eventually taken out of the claustrophobic opera box of Bayreuth and filmed for television worldwide, increasing audiences by hundreds of thousands.
More recently, in the ever growing concern over climate change, another aspect of Wagner is revealed, that of Green prophet. Who would have thought of Wagner as the David Attenborough of the 19th century? Yet if ever there was a musical warning about climate crisis, it comes from the Ring Cycle like a strident alarm. The floods and fire of Götterdämmerung are nothing less than a forecast of the future.
At San Francisco Opera, director Francesca Zambello and designer Michael Yeargan’s recent Zoom Ring Cycle Festival streamed the production that they had first created there on stage in 2018. In addition to the Zoom streaming, there have been a series of webinars where discussions ranged through present day concerns, from feminism to racism and climate crisis. The operas, ostensibly set during and after the Gold Rush of the American West, were also named “the Green Ring.” The directing/design team had worked on the productions for a period of ten years before the pandemic, and it seemed as if the drama that was enacted in the rehearsal room was being mirrored by real life events.
“During those years it was as if the present day world was telling us what the Ring Cycle was about,” said Yeargan. “We went through a whole process that was like being in a living newspaper.”
Wotan’s spear is an illustration of Wagner’s profound feeling for nature. Before the beginning of the first opera Das Rheingold the chief god has hacked down a branch from the world great ash tree and carved law-giving runes on the shaft that give him authority over men and gods.
By the final opera Götterdämmerung – the Twilight of the Gods – the breaking of the branch is denounced as an act of vandalism by the shadowy Norns as they try to undo the tangled ropes of destiny. The life-giving well has run dry, the ash tree is cut down by Valhalla’s heroes for firewood, and the balance of nature sabotaged – evoking thoughts of despoiled Brazilian rain forests in the present day mind.
It’s a long way from the purity of Das Rheingold’s crystalline river and its gleaming gold before the drama is set in motion by the dwarf Alberich stealing the gold and crafting the fatal ring. By the time the hero Siegfried arrives, the Rhinemaidens’ pristine robes are grimy as they gather discarded refuse and bottles into bin bags – an obvious image perhaps but why not remind us that there is a vast sea of plastic afloat in the Pacific Ocean? In his role as spokesman for the “woke” generation Richard Wagner might have approved.
Clare Colvin is an acclaimed novelist and short-story writer, whose fiction focuses on themes of history, music and art. Her first novel A Fatal Season (Duckworth, 1996), a cautionary tale about the perils of role-playing, was set in the London theatre in the mid-1980s. Her second Masque of the Gonzagas (Arcadia, 1999) was set in 17th-century Mantua and Venice at the time of Claudio Monteverdi, the composer of early opera. It has been translated into five European languages and is now published as an ebook. Her third novel The Mirror Makers (Hutchinson/Arrow, 2003), for which she received an Arts Council writers’ award, was set in the court of King Louis XIV during the building of Versailles. Colvin’s short stories have been published in anthologies, including Constable’s Winter’s Tales and Robson’s Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories, by Duckworth and Serpent’s Tail, as well as in literary magazines. She was runner-up in the V.S. Pritchett short-story awards in 2012 for her short story ‘Sehr Schon’ and in 2014 for ‘The Scattering’. She has taught creative writing, specialising in short stories and novels, at Goldsmiths and Birkbeck colleges. Clare Colvin also works as a journalist, opera critic and arts feature-writer. She was opera critic for the Sunday Express from 2006 for 15 years, and now writes as a freelance on opera and the arts.
Photographs of San Francisco Opera ‘Green Ring’ provided by Teresa Concepcion (SFO Communications)