June 2007 -- I love opera! Thus recently I saw Die Walküre, the second installment of Richard Wagner’s monumental, four-part Ring cycle, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The music, singing, and acting were superb. But the program notes seemed to have been written by Al Gore channeling Karl Marx.
I won’t attempt to summarize the Ring’s complex and often convoluted story of gods and goddesses, giants and dwarfs, and mortal humans that populate the universe of Wagner’s twenty hours of sound and fury. Let’s go straight to “dramaturg” Cori Ellison’s description in the notes about the opera’s themes (boldface emphasis is in the original).
First, the theme of Nature:
The despoiling of nature through greed and ambition begins even before the stage action does, with Wotan [the king of the Norse gods] sacrificing his own eye to drink from the Well of Wisdom and then mutilate the World Ash tree to create his spear. The destruction of our nation’s environment also began early in our history, with the violation of our rich natural resources and the pollution and disfigurement of our landscape, which will surely lead to our demise if left unchecked.
Oh, how terrible that someone had the wisdom to rip the metals from the intestines of Sacred Earth for all of those horns, trumpets, trombones, and tuba that make up the orchestra’s brass section; to murder those World Ash trees—as well as lots of spruces and maples—that went into all of those violins, violas, cellos, and basses, to say nothing of the stage settings; and to extract all that marble—the torn-out teeth of Mother Nature—to build the Kennedy Center itself, which oppresses acres of the Potomac River shoreline, smothering the grass and flowers that long to thrust up to reach the sun!
I can’t imagine what Ellison would make of the scene in Siegfried, the Ring opera that follows Walküre, in which the title hero sings of felling a great tree in the forest to fire the furnace from which he forges his sword, his weapon again Wotan’s spear. Imagine—raping the environment for weapons!
Next, the theme of Love:
Alberich’s renunciation of love in order to obtain riches is startlingly familiar; it is but the Ring’s first visible example of the sacrifice of love and ethics on the altars of capitalism and temporal power. One need only read the newspapers (not to mention our history books) to see this theme played out daily in America.
Gee, not even a “Thank you” to all those capitalists who provided the money to build the Kennedy Center, either through voluntary charitable donations given because of their love of music (though I hope not of pretentious music commentators), or, unfortunately, through money taken from them involuntarily in the form of taxes to be given to the arts through government grants.
For the record, one standard by which Wagner judged other human beings was the amount of money they would give him—not only to help him stage his operas but to keep him wrapped in silk and living in luxury.
Oh, by the way: For nearly a century, producers of Ring operas have tried to get away from Viking-costumes/horned-helmets stagings, but in recent decades they’ve fallen into their own stale stereotypes. In this Washington production, Wotan was portrayed as—everyone in unison now—an evil businessman! In pinstriped suit and all, in a board room, overlooking a city. Yawn, how unoriginal!
Finally, the theme of Feminism:
More subtly embedded in the Ring, but perhaps most personally important to our team, is the theme of woman’s nature and role in society. The Ring portrays men as the world’s destroyers, while women are its sustainers, sages—and sometimes passive victims.
Gosh, I don’t understand. This opera was actually composed by Richard Wagner, a male. Plácido Domingo, one of the world’s greatest tenors and a male, did an outstanding job in the role of Siegmund, a heroic male character whose son in the next two Ring operas was Siegfried, a hero and—you guessed it—a male!
For the record, Wagner believed there were two proper positions for women: at his feet in worship, or in his bed for—well, you get the point!
Wagner did indeed treat issues like greed and power-lust in his operas. But the dramaturg’s program notes don’t offer a thoughtful discussion of what Wagner might have meant in Die Walküre, but, rather, political bromides.
This is really a case study of postmodernism. Postmodernism is the notion that all things—and especially literary texts—mean whatever observers want them to mean. There is no objective reality. Read anything you want into the works of Shakespeare or into the words of others. It doesn’t matter what they really meant but, rather, what you subjectively “feel” they meant.
In fact, postmodernism is an abrogation of all standards, with a definite end in mind: to denigrate all that is Western—which, to most postmodernists, is synonymous with evil. But this standard, or lack of one, is not applied consistently. As the notes about Die Walküre show, postmodernists in fact are pushing very specific agendas—socialism, radical environmentalism, feminism—that we are not supposed to take as competing interpretations, but, rather, as gospel.
It is also remarkable that such nonsense is flung into the faces of an opera audience that, for the most part, represents just those Western and universal standards, and worse: that the audience members aren’t appalled enough to place a call to Plácido (who doubles as director of the Washington National Opera) and explain that, as creators of the wealth that supports the opera, they could take their money elsewhere if they are considered such evil exploiters.
Wagner’s personal philosophy, expressed in his operas, was certainly a mixed bag. He was a political revolutionary in his early years—mainly opposed to royalists, and getting himself exiled from Dresden—but certainly not a Marxist. He was anti-Semitic, even though the conductor of his last opera, Parsifal, was Hermann Levi, a rabbi’s son.
Wagner was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer took a pessimistic view of life and reason and believed in the superiority of the will. He also believed that the arts, and music especially, offer a release and allow one to rise above the “mundane.” There is thus a lively scholarship parsing the plots and symbolism in Wagner’s operas.
But be that as it may, making Wagner into a Earth First!, man-hating Red is ridiculous.
Still, there are inescapable themes in Die Walküre, Wagner’s most human Ring opera, that are worth mentioning.
Wotan the god has built Valhalla by breaking promises and finds it impossible to escape from the consequences of his own deceit. He complains that “I can create only slaves; a free man must create himself.”
The program notes seemed to have been written by Al Gore channeling Karl Marx.
Wotan orders his favorite daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, to inform the hero Siegmund that he must die in battle. Siegmund takes the news stoically. Brünnhilde tells him that he will go to Valhalla, where he’ll be waited on by maidens, keep company with other great warriors, and even see his father. But when she tells him that Sieglinde, the lover with whom he’s run off, cannot go with him, Siegmund rejects all that the gods have to offer: he declares that he’d rather kill himself and Sieglinde and be together with her in hell than to be in heaven without her.
Confronted by this deep, human love, Brünnhilde disobeys Wotan, siding with Siegmund in battle. Wotan intervenes to break Siegmund’s sword so that he will be killed, and he punishes Brünnhilde by putting her to sleep on a rock surrounded by a frightening magic fire. Who will awaken her? Wotan tell us that it will be only the bravest man—whom we know will be Siegfried—a man who is “freer than I, the god.”
At the end of Wagner’s last Ring opera, Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”), Valhalla collapses, the gods are destroyed, and all that is left in the clean, new world is human love.
Where’s the feminist agenda here? Sorry, postmodernists! What we have here are heroes, romance between men and women, the superiority of human freedom, and a rejection of the gods for life on earth!
And the love of life and human freedom is the essential motive of the creators of wealth in America. To be human is to employ the material and energy resources of the physical world for our survival and for our spiritual well-being—for example, to create operas, opera houses, orchestras, and performances that are thought-provoking and beautiful.
Let’s hope that in the future the beneficiaries of wealth-creators—beneficiaries such as the producers of operas—will thank their benefactors rather than spit in their faces.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.