Who is Wagner?
Before attempting an answer, here’s an excerpt of a fictional conversation about Wagner:
The uninformed: Who is Wagner?
The expert: First, it’s pronounced Va-gner. He’s German. I’ll try not to allow my exasperation to elevate.
The uninformed: Take a chill pill, bro. It’s just that his name pops up on my radar once every year. An arts writer friend of mine says people flock from all over the world to Germany to celebrate him once a year.
The expert: Oh dear, you don’t know about the Bayreuth Festival?
The uninformed: Yeah, that’s the one.
The expert: Exactly. Performances of Wagner’s operas are presented yearly at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Wagner himself supervised the original design of the theater. At the festival, I get to lecture to snooty critics — gosh, that fellow from The New Yorker, who I quote said, “Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history” about Metropolitan Opera’s production of the “Ring” — about Wagner’s widening cultural significance.
The uniformed: Huh? Just tell me, in a few sentences, who is Wagner and why should I care.
The expert: Hmm, that’s a tough one. Where shall I begin?
The uninformed: Exactly.
Wagner is a name that is tossed around inside classical music circles like some common ingredient to a common dish. But once that dish reaches the peripheral for consumption, those who have tasted and understand the Wagner impression might have a hard time conversing with those who aren’t familiar with the musical flavor.
Beginning today, USC is hosting The Wagner Project, a week of Wagner-related music programming in conjunction with WagnerWorldWide: America, an academic conference. The conference is part of a multi-year global initiative organized by the University of Bayreuth in recognition of Wagner’s bicentennial. Conferences, which draw academics from around the world, have been held in Wagner’s native Germany, Switzerland and China.
“We are simply the U.S. episode of that initiative,” said Nicholas Vazsonyi, a USC foreign language professor, Wagner authority and conference organizer.
During the six-day conference, more than 30 of world’s Wagner experts will present their theories and ideas of everything from environment to history to sexuality to globalization. The symposium attendees include: John Deathridge, King’s College, London; Thomas Grey, Stanford University; Celia Applegate, Vanderbilt University; Mark Berry, University of London; Christian Thorau, Universitat Potsdam, Germany; and Na’ama Sheffi of Sapir College, Israel.
We asked three Wagner Project participants — Julie Hubbert, an associate professor and music history coordinator at USC’s School of Music; Ellen Douglas Schlaefer, director of opera studies at USC’s School of Music; and Vazsonyi, USC’s Jesse Chapman Alcorn Memorial Professor of German and Comparative Literature — the same, seemingly simple question: who is Wagner and why is the 19th century composer so revered?
Of course, the answers varied. But each was elucidative. (The responses have been edited for clarity and length.)
“Wagner was a 19th-century German opera composer. But that doesn’t even begin to answer the question. On a personal level, he was very opinionated and direct. He didn’t have any kind of filter, so he frequently wounded people around him. But he was also very quick to apologize and show sincere regret. He had an impish sense of humor and was like a child in the way he would show his joy, spontaneously standing on his head or climbing a tree. Which is to say, like most of us, he was complicated, with lots of layers and deep neuroses.
Unlike most of us — actually, like no one else ever — he had a talent for working through those layers in works of art. He created unique characters and put them in unbelievably involved dramatic situations, and wrote just the right words, blunt words, for them to say and sing. More than anything else, he had a way with sound: melodies, harmonies and inspired combinations of instruments to play them. He created what I would call musical sound worlds. And each of his operas has its own immediately identifiable sound. There is also a range, depth, and intensity of feeling that goes beyond anything words can do, and that stands out as a singular accomplishment in the sonic exploration of human psychology.
His works present a challenge to us all: figuring out how to interpret and perform them (and) trying to unravel all the layers of meaning and feeling. There will be no end to our fascination. No matter how many times I return to a work by Wagner, I find myself confronted with something I never realized was there — new connections, new perspectives and these in turn are in part a reflection of where I am and how I have developed since the last encounter.”
Ellen Douglas Schlaefer
“The man who understood all that theatre can be — story, movement, power, dreams, sounds.”
“Wagner was a 19th-century German opera composer who radically changed the sound and structure of opera. Instead of operas, he wrote Gesamtkunstwerks, total art works where the libretto, the drama and the orchestra’s role was as important as the singing. These ideas absolutely and permanently transformed opera.
But his music and ideas have had an equally profound and striking afterlife outside of opera, in film and media in particular. From D.W. Griffith’s silent epic “Birth of a Nation” (1914) to Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (2012), a film currently nominated for an Academy Award for best picture, (Wagner’s) ideas and music continue to be resonant.
His famous “Ride of the Valkyries” music is still heard in opera houses today, but it’s also heard on film soundtracks underscoring battles and scenes of German citizens and soldiers; on TV promoting game shows; hawking breakfast cereal; and in video games accompanying car chases and alien invasions. Wagner’s image of the Teutonic woman warrior is everywhere, too, from TV’s “Xena: Warrior Princess,” to commercials for J.G. Wentworth.
No other composer — not Mozart, not Beethoven — has occupied the cultural consciousness for so long and so ubiquitously in both high and low art. Wagner is everywhere, today more than ever. And I’m not exactly sure why.”
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.