The controversial opera cities love

No one seems to admire Wagner, but nicer artists just don’t have the same cultural clout

The controversial opera cities loveNo arts community can be taken seriously without Richard Wagner. The Canadian Opera Company already chose his Ring cycle (the four-opera marathon that created the stereotype of the fat soprano in armour) to inaugurate its new opera house, and in 2010, Los Angeles will celebrate its first production of the complete Ring with a city-wide promotion called “Ring Festival L.A.” This plan got some unwanted publicity when Mike Antonovich, an L.A. County supervisor, protested the decision to honour the operas that “inspired Hitler and became the de facto soundtrack for the Holocaust.” The objection was voted down, but another supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky, told Maclean’s that the festival will “delve deeply into Wagner’s anti-Semitism” and “focus on him in the totality of his life and times—for better and for worse.” Nobody can produce Wagner without acknowledging his racism; even the Bayreuth Festival, which Wagner himself founded, has announced that it will produce a report and exhibit on how associated the festival was with Hitler and Nazism. But though nobody seems to like Wagner the man, everybody wants to produce his work.

Even casual music fans are often aware that Wagner’s non-musical writings are full of what Linda Hutcheon, a professor at the University of Toronto, calls “articulate and verbally vehement” expressions of dislike for Jews and Jewish composers. But at this point, casual fans may actually know more about his racism than his work, because except for isolated excerpts like the bits that Bugs Bunny parodied in What’s Opera, Doc?, Wagner’s operas are more talked about than seen. They were good box office in the 1930s, but today, only one (his early effort The Flying Dutchman) appears on a list of the most popular operas in North America. The operas are also tremendously long and expensive to stage, and they make huge demands on singers for little gain: the Ring contains no arias or applause breaks. Why then do cities court controversy by devoting a major chunk of arts funding to Wagner instead of composers whose operas are more profitable (or at least less unprofitable) than his?

The answer is that Wagner has something no other composer does: a fanatical fan base. This was true in his own time, and it still is: there are Wagner societies in Toronto, London and many other major cities, and Wagner fans (or “Ringnuts,” as some call them) will travel the globe to see the operas performed. Yaroslavsky says that “we expect a considerable influx of Ring aficionados from throughout the world for this event,” meaning that a Wagner festival creates tourist trade that cash-strapped California can use. Wagner is like a rock star in the way fans track his work; some people will make the pilgrimage to L.A. to see Michael Jackson’s house, and others will go to see the Ring.

One reason Wagner inspires such passion is that his operas aren’t a purely musical experience. He wrote his own texts, and argued for giving equal importance to all the elements of theatre, including not only music and words, but also sets, costumes, theatre design, and special effects (the Ring operas call for magical disappearances, transformations, and flying). Staging the Ring is a test of everything the arts have to offer; Yaroslavsky explains that the festival will “focus on a large number of L.A.’s cultural institutions,” making it not so much a Wagner celebration as “a festival of the arts in general.” Most opera fans go to the opera to hear the music, Wagner fans go to see what he called the Gesamtkunstwerk— the “total work of art.”

What also drives the Wagner cult is that fans find big ideas in his work. Hitler liked the Ring’s story of supermen and women redeeming the world, but left-wing fans embrace it as an anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian parable. Modern science fiction and fantasy owe something to Wagner’s mix of pretentious themes with supernatural stories, and his fan base has a lot in common with sci-fi buffs; it’s not a coincidence that the director of the L.A. Opera’s Ring, Achim Freyer, has used light sabres and other Star Wars-influenced gimmicks in his production.

That’s why Wagner can bring a city a level of artistic legitimacy that Mozart or Verdi can’t. Yaroslavsky hopes that “this will be the largest arts festival in Los Angeles since the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.” That couldn’t happen if they were celebrating another, nicer artist. For Wagner fans like Hutcheon, the Ring is “well worth the trip anywhere in the world to experience.”