Richard Wagner: He broke the rules and inspired generations to come
The L.A. Wagner festival showcases a host of modern interpretations inspired by the German composer's work.
Two hours into Richard Wagner's "Götterdämmerung" – the final of four operas known as "The Ring Cycle" – the first of two intermissions brings up the lights on a packed Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Patrons pour into the sunny afternoon, stretching their legs and dissecting the vibrant, Cirque du Soleil-meets-Salvador Dali-style costumes and sets of this updated opera classic. A few steal guiltily to the parking garage below, but most remain for the full 5-1/2-hour show.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
This ambitious tetralogy, refined over a nearly two-year production arc by the Los Angeles Opera, is the cornerstone of an even larger undertaking. That is a 10-week, citywide "Ring Festival, L.A.," a joint effort of more than 100 arts and community groups to examine, celebrate, and reimagine the music, artistic vision, and life of 19th-century composer Richard Wagner. In addition to three full "Ring Cycles" (all four operas performed within a week), events will range from country-and-western and hip-hop "Ring" productions to a new light-and-sound show set to Wagner scores, dozens of art exhibits, symposiums, lectures, and educational outreach through libraries and schools.
It is the largest cultural event in Los Angeles since the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984, and the first to offer up strictly local talent. But more important, it celebrates an artist whose contribution to Western culture has been profound and long-lasting, say musicians, scholars, and city officials – in spite of the controversies surrounding him, most notably a virulent anti-Semitism that made his music a favorite of the Nazis.
"No other composer, with the possible exception of Beethoven, has had the kind of impact that Wagner has," says festival head Barry Sanders. "His influence has been overwhelming. Other composers like Chopin and Brahms, their music was beautiful. But none of them changed the music world the way Wagner did."
The music world can be defined in terms of before and after Wagner, says Deborah Burton, assistant professor of music at the Boston University School of Music. This was utterly intentional, adds Carol Reynolds, music history professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "Wagner understood the necessity of achieving artistic immortality. He had a naked, and thoroughly modern, ambition: He expected to change lives," she writes in an e-mail.
To do this, he forced his audiences to confront his creative vision. Nineteenth-century opera was the most important popular entertainment of its day. But Wagner redefined the terms of engagement. He stripped his own opera house of the box seats. He trapped audiences by removing aisles and, as in today's IMAX theaters, he steeply raked the seating to give patrons the best sightlines. He created a new kind of covered orchestra pit under the stage, so his massive instrumental forces could make a huge sound out of sight while still blending with the singers on stage. His development of musical themes to express the psychological journey of each character – known as leitmotifs – has been his signature, one that has flowered particularly in films over the past century showing up in everything from "E.T." to "Lord of the Rings" and "Avatar."