An opera by Richard Wagner. A co-production of the Staatsoper Berlin with the Teatro alla Scala di Milano in cooperation with the Toneelhuis Antwerp under the musical direction of Daniel Baremboin and director/co-set designer Guy Cassiers. Performed at the Schiller Theater, Berlin on 10 October 2012.
The final act confirmed it: Wagner was Indian. Not any regular Indian, but an Indian Bollywood filmmmaker. In spirit at least. The evidence was indisputable in Act 3 of his opera, Siegfried.
A man and a woman cavort on a rock. He woos her. She plays shrinking violet. She capitulates. But no, actually, she doesn’t. He is dejected. Suddenly she gives him hope. But not really.
He tries again. And round and round the rock (as well as up and down it) they go. For a whole hour.
A scene right out of Koch Koch Hota Hai. Heck, that was the entirety of KKHH. In fact, just throw in the name of any Bollywood movie here. And like any good Bollywood movie, man and woman finally acknowledge their love for each other and unite. As we knew they would from the moment they encountered each other.
Pedants will argue that this performance of Siegfried lacked the requisite Bollywood Tree. But the rock was far more versatile because one could actually climb on it, disappear behind it and reappear from a different place, peek from behind it, even jump off it. Big-shot filmmaker Karan Johar (KJo to Bollywood insiders) would do well to take notes.
So, on the night of the performance I attended, when the lovers in Siegfried finally united, the relief was so great that one member of the audience bellowed a triumphant “Yes!” as the curtain was lowered. It was too dark to see the hollerer, but his was the sort of yell that a fist punching the air had to accompany.
And many in the theatre must have felt the same, judging from the laughter that that shout evinced.
Perhaps the yeller meant to echo the climactic end to the opera, where the soprano and tenor did the operatic thing of belting out the final note at the tops of the voices. (And yes, giving life to that saying, ‘It ain’t over till the fat lady sings’, incidentally the first time I’ve seen live, a proper female opera singer of size.)
But somehow, I think that shout of relief was in gratitude for the ending of that last drawn-out scene. Or perhaps it was for having endured the five-and-a-half-hour marathon that was Siegfried (including two 30-minute intermissions).
Siegfried is the third of Wagner’s four operas making up his monumental Der Ring des Nibelungen. Usually staged over four days and written to be seen as a whole, Siegfried alone was enough to bring home the meaning of the term ‘Wagnerian’. In terms of length. In terms of grandeur. And most of all, in terms of the melodrama, the anguished drawing out of emotion.
The staging of this production was highly inventive, particularly with the use of projections, largely of abstract designs, as well as gorgeously innovative props, such as large swathes of material doubling as a dragon and chain mail metal doubling as trees. The whole was exquisitely and brilliantly lit.
But even that last section of Siegfried defeated the artistic director, and the audience was left without a hint of a swirling background or a rolling dancer.
It was Wagner nude, and the seat felt very hard on my bottom.
But it did cure me of my distaste for Wagner. A distaste based on such loose, haphazard and third-handed premises, that I suddenly realised one day, was actually born of prejudice.
This prejudice had been fed by tidbits of information I had gathered all my life about Wagner. These associations fell roughly into three categories: a heavy-handed nationalism, Wagner’s anti-semitism, and the grandiosity of his music.
The nationalist reputation was enforced after a visit I had made to Schloss Neuschwanstein, the fairytale castle in Germany that was built by the Bavarian king, Ludwig II. Before Hitler, Ludwig was Wagner’s biggest fan and had entire rooms in his castle decorated with frescoes depicting scenes from the maestro’s operas.
Granted, Ludwig was a terribly unhappy suppressed homosexual who sought refuge in fantasies, which Wagner’s myth-based operas gladly provided.
But walking through his palace’s fantastical rooms loomed over by larger-than-life creatures with perfect features, made for a bizarre experience and made me wonder at the grip myths have on people, whether Wagner or poor Ludwig (or me, as I will explain later.)
Meanwhile, Wagner’s rabid anti-semitism has been part of his problematic reputation, as evidenced by his prolific writings. Nonetheless, his ideas on race and Jews can be somewhat reasoned as being reflective of 19th-century European and German ideas. Moreover, a closer examination by scholars into his writings shows that Wagner would contradict his own views; likewise, throughout his life, his social and professional circles included Jews.
Wagner’s case was not helped by the fact that Hitler loved his operas. But Wagner never even knew Hitler, having died before the latter was even born. The Führer, however, became enamoured by ideals of heroic German-ness that he found in Wagner’s operatic mythology and, as with Darwin and other sources of ideas and philosophy, appropriated what was useful for his devastatingly effective propaganda.
As for the reputation of Wagner’s music, frequent references to it as embodying Teutonic nationalism, as well as being challenging and monumental, hardened over time for me into notions of a style that was heavy, dull and off-putting.
But I had never listened to a Wagner piece in its entirety, what more seen any of his operas.
It was only when I started researching Wagner that I realised that one of the most well-known pieces of music in the world, the Wedding March – yes, the Wedding March – stemmed from Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin.
Another well-known piece is the Ride of the Valkyries from Siegfried‘s Ring cycle precursor. Apocalypse Now is probably the most well-known movie to use it, but the piece appears in scores of other American films and TV shows as well as advertisements.
So I started playing with the idea of watching a Wagner opera. The Staatsoper Berlin was staging Der Ring des Nibelungen as part of its 2012/13 season in conjunction with Wagner’s 200th birthday. What tipped it for me was the fact that the Staatsoper Berlin’s esteemed conductor Daniel Barenboim, was conducting it; 2012 was a special year for him too, having turned 70. I had never seen Barenboim live.
More than that, Barenboim was a dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerian fan and promoter. Of Russian Jewish lineage, the Argentinian-born Israeli has, for one, been pushing for Wagner to be played in Israel, to no avail.
Make no mistake, Barenboim is clear about Wagner being “a monstrous anti-Semite”, as he stated in a transcript of his brilliant conversation with academic Edward Said on Wagner and Ideology.
However, he also insisted that Wagner’s music was quite the opposite: “noble, generous, etc.” Wagner was in fact, a revolutionary who “influenced a whole history of interpretation of music”.
And so, that is how my husband and I came to be watching Siegfried in Berlin. And to make the Bollywood link.
What’s more, I was as much a sucker for myths as anyone else, particularly on discovering the Ring cycle’s verisimilitude to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (and Peter Jackson’s fabulous celluloid avatar thereof).
For both monumental works featured the same elements: a ring that was coveted and corrupting, a sword used to slay and protect, metal-forging dwarfs who lived underground, a staff-wielding clan leader, and multiple races as well as a flawed hero who anguished over power. After all, both stories were based on the same Icelandic and Old Norse literature.
In the end, and in the face of the multitude of interpretations it has inspired, Siegfried seemed to me really a tale about identity, about a yearning to know one’s self, where one came from, what would make one complete and what one’s limits were.
In the protagonist’s case, the self-realisation occurred in that final melodramatic scene so reminiscent to me of Bollywood. Siegfried’s arrogant quest to know what fear was, ended when he laid eyes on the first woman that he ever met. Luckily fear did not stop the couple from cavorting around the rock and falling in love. For love was what was ultimately needed to complete the self.
And so, I survived Siegfried. More importantly, though, I have now humbly discarded that false elevated moral superiority that I am ashamed to say, has lasted for too many years.
Happy birthday, Herr Wagner. ω
An excellent guide to Der Ring des Nibelungen is the entry on this in the 2008/9 Wikipedia Selection for schools. An irresistible synopsis thereof is performed by the late great Anna Russell, featured on Wagneropera.net.
A thoughtful discussion about Wagner’s anti-semitism is in this essay by Lily Eylon on his much-debated essay ‘Das Judenthum in der Musik’ (‘Judaism in Music’).
Daniel Barenboim’s ‘Wagner and Ideology’ is in Barenboim’s online journal, which features his thoughts on Wagner, peace in the Middle East and other topics.
Title page picture attribution: “Siegfried awakens Brunhild” Original art by Otto Donner von Richter (1828-1911) Engraving by R. Bong (fl. 1880-1908) – Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham. 1892. Character sketches of romance, fiction and the drama. A revised American edition of the Readers’ handbook. Volume IV. Facing page 48. Digitized version from University of Wisconsin Digital Collections. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.