Wagner isn’t as bad as he sounds

Anyone even faintly interested in opera will have noticed the recent discussion about addressing the racist and sexist elements in grand opera.

There is nothing surprising in this. Opera and theatre companies worldwide don’t just keep rehashing the same productions, but relentlessly re-jig them. This is done for several reasons. They hope to find find new lessons in, and possibly new audiences for, the classics. For this to occur, productions have to be recast for modern tastes. It is easy to sneer at the search for relevance, but modern audiences don’t want to come along and see a museum piece on the stage. They want the works of famous composers and dramatists, and new ones, to speak to them about their lives now.

Grand opera has come under the spotlight recently for several reasons. First, just thinking of a few core repertoire operas — Carmen, Die Walküre, La Traviata, Madame Butterfly, and Tosca — the heroine gets it in the neck every time. Or, as Lindy Hume puts it, ” … opera narratives of rape, murder and abuse, or stereotypes – from Carmen’s “bad girl” to Cinderella’s “good girl” – go unquestioned by creative teams” (Limelight In Depth: Shifting the Opera Gaze). The Conversation article “Opera is stuck in a racist, sexist past” and one in the SMH “Opera’s tragic heroines should remain centre stage” give further perspectives to this discussion. Butterfly has also copped some stick for the “ethnic exoticism” of its Japanese elements and characters, which is being portrayed as cultural appropriation.

Being a Wagner person rather than an opera person, I have no real argument with any of this. Where I do get a bit tetchy is when the old Aunt Sally of Wagner and anti-Semitism gets dragged into the discussion. This happens in The Conversation article, which takes a passing pot shot at “the lightly-veiled anti-Semitism in Wagner’s Ring Cycle”.

Yes, Wagner was an awful anti-Semite — no argument there. One could be forgiven for thinking that these views were unique to Wagner. In fact, of course, anti-Semitism had a huge number of enthusiastic adherents around that time. In nineteenth-century Europe, many nationalists were also anti-Semitic. This isn’t to excuse his views; it is just to suggest that one needs to see them in the context of the time. 

Pointing to Hitler and the Third Reich is the next thing that Wagner antagonists do. Yes, Hitler was Wagner’s number one fan, and made several trips to Bayreuth. (He dragged along many other top Nazis as well, although most of them were bored rigid by the experience.) This all happened in the 1930s, long after The Master fell off the twig. So it seems a bit unsporting to lay this at Wagner’s feet. (And is the fact that someone liked a composer a valid reason for not liking him yourself?)

The other problem for people who blame Wagner for causing the Second World War is that, if he had not written his essay “Judaism in music”, we would not have known that he held these repulsive views. Why do I say this? The fact is that there are no Jewish characters in his operas. There is no discussion of Judaism in his operas. None. It just doesn’t happen.

Ah, the critics say, look at the unsympathetic characters in the operas; Alberich, Mime, Hagen, and Beckmesser. They supposedly display Jewish characteristics. In this argument, Wagner’s anti-Semitism is in his operas, if you only just know where to look. Well, excuse the hell out of me, but what, exactly, are Jewish characteristics? And how, exactly, do those characters display them? I have seen all the last seven operas either live or in the cinema, including two live Ring cycles, and I can’t see that any of the characters is in any way, shape, or form Jewish. (Bryan Magee, author of the fascinating book Wagner and philosophy, dismisses all these covert-racism claims for lack of evidence.) 

Wagner isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; I would never criticise someone for not liking him, any more than if they disliked Delius, or Percy Grainger, or Tchaikovsky. It’s still a free country! Is it asking too much, though, to expect this opinion to be based on the music? Get a Wagner opera out of your local library, grab a libretto (freely available on the web), and pay him the compliment of listening to his music with an open mind. If you still think it isn’t good music, fair enough. But I’m betting you’ll find a lot to like.

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