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I Did Nazi This Coming

Metropolitan Opera, New York: Parsifal Act III

Despite being a lifelong lover of and listener to opera, I've never had the ear for Wagner's music. I love hearing everything from Gluck up to John Adams, but skirted around or jumped over Wagner whenever the temptation presented itself.

I used the provocative 'N' word in the title of this post because one of the things that has always made me wary of the Bard of Bayreuth is the stain laid on it by its National Socialist admirers. That's not the only reason.

Reasons why I never liked Wagner:
  • The enormous length of his operas, often five hours plus. And my objection was not to the length per se, but to what it said about his musical language. For example, if like me you are steeped in Mozart's operative language, with its brilliance and variety and liveliness, Wagner's music can seem turgid and static by comparison.

  • The ridiculous medieval stories. Given the chance to watch Mozart or Puccini or Richard Strauss' flesh and blood characters dealing with everyday problems of love, jealousy, farce turning to tragedy and back again, or to listen to a phalanx of knights sing for two straight hours about blood, soil, death, and transfiguration... Well, you know the answer.

  • About the blood and soil stuff: you can't really blame Wagner retrospectively for the fact that Adolf Hitler loved the music, and to a certain extent mapped his terrible life's work according to themes he thought he discerned in The Ring Cycle, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal. But I might listen to half an hour of Tristan and find myself going "oh, right, I bet Adolf would have loved that part," and "ah, yes, that passage could have been used with hardly any changes as a Waffen SS marching song." 
In other words, most of Wagner seemed to be Game of Thrones meets the Third Reich. And I hate both of those about equally.


God help me, I started listening to some Gotterdamerung during long car drives, and realised that I actually liked it.

Then I watched a couple of full operas via the Met Opera on Demand streaming service, and was thoroughly transfixed.

What on earth happened to me?

Here are my preliminary thoughts:
  • I am spending more time driving at the moment, and having played Don Giovanni to death in the last few months, I thought: why not put some Wagner on given that I'm just sitting in traffic anyway? The worst that will happen is that I will tune out.

  • The stories are indeed still ridiculous if you think about them too much. Just describing the plot of Parsifal makes it sound stupendously dull and stupid. But then, so much of opera is like that. Il Trovatore, Nabucco, and Aida may have shorter numbers and more hummable melodies, but their plots are laughably bad and mostly forgettable.

  • My understanding of music has grown a lot since I first tried Wagner, back in my twenties. Before, all I heard was a dramatically heavy footed series of endless cadences, constantly in flow and never resolving, with an apparent separation between words and their musical expression. Now, I'm beginning to see how these facets don't make Wagner worse than Mozart, they just make him different. The constantly delayed resolution in the music, the floating lines that surge and subside, the suppression of highly structured melody in favour of constant sound -- these are the features that give Wagner's music its hypnotising and ultimately thrilling effect.

  • Seeing a great production of one of the operas undoubtedly helps. After subscribing to the Met Opera's online streaming service, I watched their 2013 production of Parsifal (clip embedded at the top of this post). Still lots of dodgy stuff about Wandering Jews, and exhortations to live like Jesus, but the staging was one of the best things I've ever seen. It looked like a 1950s version of a Becket play, all cracked earth, minimal props, drab and dirty clothing. At the rear of the Met's vast stage, projections of dramatic clouds and awe inspiring shots of planets and space. Combined with great singing, it was utterly mesmerising, and didn't feel too long even though it clocked in at 4 and a half hours.
I've heard it said, and I think it's true, that once you just succumb to Wagner's music, and just let it wash over you, you will start to respond to its emotional effect, its slow (glacially slow) crescendo to a moment of transcendent release. That's still the facet that makes me a little suspicious of the Wagnerian effect, compared to Mozart: Wagner requires your submission, while Mozart is like a brilliant host who welcomes you with dazzling, amusing, and brilliant repartee. Nevertheless, despite the fact that I think I will always have Mozart at the top of my personal operatic pantheon, I'm finally making room for horned helmets and magic rings.


  1. Nice piece! I always get along best with people whose tastes expand rather than narrow as they make their way through life. I'll try opera again someday . . .


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