Wagner, Richard


Wagner, Richard
(1813-1883)
   Composer, theorist. Wagner's influence on staging and architecture was substantial, largely within the context of his vigorous opposition to nearly everything he encountered in 19th-century theater practice. His operas were in large measure "music dramas" (he called them a "dramatic poem set to music"), inferring a rejection of conventions found in Italian operas but also of realism in spoken drama. The Italian predilection for arias, separated by choral passages, separated further by recitative passages, was to Wagner an abomination. He demanded instead the use of a leitmotif ("leading motive") to unify the stage proceedings, because such melodic components could be used to distinguish separate features of the drama. The sound of a leitmotif from the orchestra, for example, could signal a character's concerns even if he were not on stage.
   Wagner's analogous interest in overall unity of staging effects prompted him to reject the kind of "realism" found in much French drama at the time, which he found quotidian in the extreme. He called for a prevailing idealism on stage in its place. He insisted on seamless Handlung (plot line or action) that could entrance audiences, transporting them into a realm of "sublime unity" with performers, in what he termed an "artistic community." Formulas, domestic intrigues, withheld information, chance encounters, sudden recognitions, and other devices he found antithetical to the creation of sublimity. In other words, Wagner wanted all aspects of performance to work toward a common goal, under the omnipotent hand of the director, responsible for creating the Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art." In effect, Wagner's extraordinary emphasis on illusionism required precise synchronization of music, lighting, and set changes, so the demand for a powerful director to coordinate such synchronicity was nearly ineluctable. Yet the director as consummate artist was only one of many influences Wagner had on subsequent German theater practice.
   Wagner's premise of illusionism—the kind that transported audiences into the mythic, manifesting itself in his "ideal" theater structure—ultimately came into existence in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Furthermore, the popularity of his operas forced many court and municipal theaters throughout Germany to emulate the Festspielhaus. Wagner's operas demanded such unprecedentedly elaborate technical apparatus that most theaters, in order to present them, had to renovate their facilities. That often meant tearing down the old house and replacing it with an altogether new structure. The result in most cases, since both spoken drama and opera were customarily presented in the same facility, was beneficial for spoken drama. The installation of electric lighting, hydraulic stage elevators, counterweight rigging systems, and stage revolves became fairly commonplace in many well-established court and municipal venues.
   The practice of dimming houselights for Wagner's operas carried over to spoken drama, creating a convention unforeseen and even contradictory to what Wagner had envisaged. Audiences for spoken drama, instead of being transported into a mystic realm, were transformed into voyeurs by the last decade of the 19th century. Family dilemmas and social problems in plays by Gerhart Hauptmann, Hermann Sudermann, and Henrik Ibsen came under a kind of clinical scrutiny in performance—and such problems were the last thing Wagner wanted to present on the stage. Wagner was most interested in mood, atmosphere, and what he called a "state of spiritualized clairvoyance" within the audience, allowing them to empathize and identify totally with the character. Wagner wanted to arouse the audience's emotions, not engage its critical faculties. Wagner's goals met their principal resistance two generations after his death in the anti-illusionistic theories and practices of Bertolt Brecht.
   In the aftermath of World War II, increased attention was paid to Wagner's virulent anti-Semitism. Wagner published numerous anti-Semitic diatribes during his career (he was a prodigious writer of essays and books, in addition to writing the lyrics for his operas). His frequent targets were Jewish musicians, who he claimed were a deleterious "foreign" influence upon German culture. Wagner's first published attack on Jews appeared in 1850, in which he claimed that the German Volk found the music of Giacomo Meyerbeer (Jakob Liebmann Beer, 1791-1864) and Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) somehow "distasteful" because it was shallow and artificial, with little connection to truly ethnic German sensibilities. What Wagner demanded was the complete assimilation of the Jews into mainstream German culture—though the burden of that effort he placed squarely on the shoulders of Jews themselves.
   In subsequent essays—the 1878 "What Is German?" for example— he accused Jews of merely imitating Germans; if the practice continued, Wagner asserted, Germans themselves would lose their identity as a distinct "race." Wagner nevertheless had several Jewish friends and colleagues, notably Hermann Levi (1839-1900), whom Wagner chose to conduct the premiere of it, although he wanted Levi to be baptized before conducting it. Wagner's widow Cosima (1837-1930) encouraged anti-Semitic interpretations of Wagner's operas, and during the National Socialist period, the Bayreuth Festival came under the jurisdiction of the English-born Winifred Wagner, widow of Wagner's son Siegfried. She was a friend and longtime supporter of Adolf Hitler, whose yearly pilgrimages to Bayreuth became well-publicized state occasions in the late 1930s. Joseph Goebbels frequently employed Wagner's music in radio broadcasts, desirous as he was of identifying his music with their regime. Certainly Wagner's anti-Semitism accorded with that of the Nazis, but the stature of Wagner as proto-Nazi remained questionable. Wagner had been a democrat and a strong supporter of the 1848 revolution, after all. His widely published and frequently quoted preachments against Jews, however, provided useful fodder for the Nazis and their claims as "saviors" of German culture.

Historical dictionary of German Theatre. . 2006.

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