Mark Twain’s reactions to grand opera are epitomized by a passage from A tramp abroad in which he described a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin.
“The banging and slamming and booming and crashing were something beyond belief. The racking and pitiless pain of it remains stored up in my memory alongside the memory of the time that I had my teeth fixed.”
“There was little of that sort of customary thing where the tenor and the soprano stand down by the footlights, warbling, with blended voices…no, it was every rioter for himself and no blending. Each sang his indictive narrative in turn, accompanied by the whole orchestra of sixty instruments, and when this had continued for some time, and one was hoping they might come to an understanding and modify the noise, a great chorus composed entirely of maniacs would suddenly break forth.”
“We only had one brief little season of heaven and heaven’s sweet ecstasy and peace during all this long and diligent and acrimonious reproduction of the other place. This was while a gorgeous procession of people marched around and around, in the third act, and sang the Wedding Chorus. To my untutored ear that was music—almost divine music. While my seared soul was steeped in the healing balm of those gracious sounds, it seemed to me that I could almost re-suffer the torments which had gone before, in order to be so healed again.”
“There is where the deep ingenuity of the operatic idea is betrayed. It deals so largely in pain that its scattered delights are prodigiously augmented by the contrasts. A pretty air in an opera is prettier there than it could be anywhere else, I suppose, just as an honest man in politics shines more than he would elsewhere.”
Excerpted from “Mark Twain on opera” (The NATS journal XLIII/3 [January–February 1987] pp. 19, 49).
Above, the author around 1880, the year A tramp abroad was published; below, the “little season of heaven” at Bayreuth in 2010.
At the time of the 1876 Bayreuth premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen, Alfred Pringsheim, the future mathematician and father-in-law of Thomas Mann, then a 25-year-old postgraduate student, displayed a sometimes unseemly fervor for Wagner’s masterpiece.
In October of that year he fought a duel with pistols with the Berlin theater critic Isidor Kastan, who Pringsheim believed had insulted Wagner (fortunately no one was hurt), and after the premiere of Siegfried he fell into an argument with the Shakespeare scholar Friedrich August Leo in a tavern, leading him to hit the professor on the nose with a beer mug. The latter incident earned Pringsheim the nickname der Schoppenhauer (the beer-mug thumper).
This according to “Der ‘Schoppenhauer’ und das Pistolenduell: Alfred Pringsheims kämpferischer Einsatz für die Bayreuther Sache” by Dirk Heißerer, an essay included in Alfred Pringsheim, der kritische Wagnerianer: Eine Dokumentation (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2013, pp. 63–80).
Below, Pringsheim’s arrangement of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll for strings and piano.
In 1879 Richard Wagner joined the growing movement in Germany opposing the cruel medical practices of animal experimentation with an open letter published in the Bayreuther Blätter.
His arguments for the pointlessness of these experiments were original; they followed from his experiences with traditional medicine and his well-developed critique of civilization. His contemporary allies, however, ignored these arguments and simply used the Wagner name.
The open letter led directly to Wagner’s much-discussed essay Religion und Kunst, in which, among other things, he paints a horrific scenario of the unimpeded development of science and technology.
This according to “Richard Wagner als Gegner von Tierversuchen: Ein visionärer Zivilisationskritiker” by Ulrich Tröhler and Joachim Thiery (WagnerSpectrum XI/1  pp. 73–104). This journal, along with many others, is covered in our new RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text collection.
Above, the composer with his dog Pohl; below, no horses were annoyed during this performance.
When Wieland Wagner engaged the 24-year-old Grace Bumbry for the role of Venus in the 1961 Bayreuth production of Tannhäuser he received hundreds of letters of protest, and the German press exploded with sensational headlines about the black intruder in the sacred Aryan shrine.
The neo-Nazi Sozialistische Reichspartei Deutschlands called the appointment “a cultural disgrace”, and one correspondent asserted that “If Richard Wagner knew of this he would be turning in his grave.”
But Wieland Wagner stood by the artist who had been dubbed die schwarze Venus (the black Venus), saying that the role “must convey eroticism without resorting to the clichés of a Hollywood sex bomb, yet she cannot personify the classic passive idea…When I heard Grace Bumbry I knew she was the perfect Venus; grandfather would have been delighted!”
Indeed, following the production’s first performance on 24 July a jubilant audience commanded 42 curtain calls during its 30-minute ovation, the most rousing demonstrations occurring during Bumbry’s bows.
This according to “Grace Bumbry: Modern diva” by Rosalyn M. Story, an essay included in And so I sing: African-American divas of opera and concert (New York: Warner, 1990, pp. 141–56).
Today is Bumbry’s 80th birthday! Below, the historic production.
Gil Kane’s and Roy Thomas’s graphic novel Richard Wagner’s “The ring of the Nibelung” (New York: DC Comics, 1997) transforms Wagner’s dramma in musica into dramma in pittura.
Kane’s artwork visually follows Wagner’s musical fabric while retaining the means of expression characteristic of the comic-book format. His images do not autonomously narrate the tale; rather, they double the musical narrative form established by Wagner.
For example, the drama of Die Walküre begins not with the curtain opening on the first scene, but with its instrumental Vorspeil, which depicts the storm through which Siegmund is running. In his graphic version of the opera, Kane begins with four pages of pictures without text, depicting visually the action painted by Wagner’s orchestral score.
This according to “Od glazbene do slikovne drame: Roy Thomasov i Gil Kaneov strip Wagnerova Prstena Nibelunga by Zdravko Blažeković (Hrvatsko slovo: Tjednik za kulturu I/18 [25 August 1995] pp. 22–23).
Today is Wagner’s 200th birthday! Above, the immolation scene and finale from Götterdämmerung (click to enlarge); below, Anne Evans’s legendary performance at Bayreuth in 1992.
Related article: Operas as graphic novels
Wagner’s obsession with sexuality prefigured the composition of operas such as Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal. Daring to represent erotic stimulation, passionate ecstasy, and the torment of sexual desire, Wagner sparked intense reactions from figures like Baudelaire, Clara Schumann, Nietzsche, and Nordau, whose verbal tributes and censures disclose what was transmitted when music represented sex.
Wagner himself saw the cultivation of an erotic high style as central to his art, especially after devising an anti-philosophical response to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of sexual love. A reluctant eroticist, Wagner masked his personal compulsion to cross-dress in pink satin and drench himself in rose perfumes while simultaneously incorporating his silk fetish and love of floral scents into his librettos. His affection for dominant females and surprising regard for homosexual love likewise enable some striking portraits in his operas.
In the end, Wagner’s achievement was to have fashioned an oeuvre which explored his sexual yearnings as much as it conveyed—as never before—how music could act on erotic impulse.
This according to Wagner and the erotic impulse by Laurence Dreyfus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010). Below, Kirsten Flagstad’s historic recording of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.
Darwin’s On the origin of species and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, both completed in 1859, share an articulation of the shift from one worldview to another: from change as a repetitive circular movement to development as a cyclic process. Darwin’s treatise is more than a scientific theory—it is an aesthetic account of the wonders and beauty of nature. Wagner’s opera is more than a subjective work of art—it clearly reflects dimensions of evolution akin to scientific explanations of the phenomenon.
This according to “Darwin and Wagner: Evolution and aesthetic appreciation” by Edvin Østergaard (The journal of aesthetic education XLV/2 [summer 2011] pp. 83-108). Below, the unresolved harmonic tensions of the opera’s prelude create (in Østergaard’s words) a feeling of ongoingness, unfinishedness, and incertitude in a performance by Zubin Mehta and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester.
Filed under Opera, Science
Scholars have long known that Wagner had a deep and lasting interest in Buddhism; less known are the specific insights garnered from Buddhism that are manifested in Parsifal. The key to understanding this connection is the enigmatic figure of Kundry.
Contrary to the common interpretation of Kundry as the incarnation of the will, and in light of Wagner’s admiration for Schopenhauer, she may be seen as the personification of desire. Desiring, which is different from wanting, is a fundamental aspect of Buddhism. As Buddha explained in his very first sermon, desire is the cause of suffering (dukkha). Buddhist teaching holds that suffering can only be overcome when desire is vanquished.
Kundry appears in three forms in Parsifal; these correspond to the three forms of desire in Buddhism. This interpretation aligns the work’s Christian, pagan, and Buddhist symbolism as an expression of the inner way that is shared by all who tread the path of religious mysticism.
This according to “Kundry: The personification of the role of desire in the holy life” by Cittasamvaro (Phra Pandit) (Wagnerspectrum III/2  pp. 97–114). Above, Christa Ludwig as Kundry; below, Jordanka Derilova in the role.