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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.

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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."

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The modern movie studio, notably Walt Disney, is based on the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (universal artwork), a concept Wagner espoused and explored. However, Professor Reynolds adds, "Wagner did not originate all of the ideas he's credited with developing. But he had the force of will to etch them on the public and to make sure he got the credit. He had a gaming mentality and vocabulary, drawing on the explosion of scientific prose in his day and transferring that vocabulary to music. He would be at home in today's world, and would latch onto every cybertool to promote his artistic vision."

This spirit of innovation inspired playwright Rickerby Hinds to create a hip-hop version of the "Ring," "Keep Hedz Ringin'." The ring of power is reimagined as a magical CD being fought over by urban DJs, music moguls, and venal industry insiders. "Wagner had a very hip-hop sensibility, in its best manifestation," says Mr. Hinds, one that uses whatever it needs, whether it's a DJ with two turntables or break dancers using discarded cardboard as a floor. "The mentality of not waiting until what you need comes about but creating what you need to survive is one of those things that is transcendent," says Hinds, who teaches at the University of California, Riverside. "Wagner had that mentality that said I need an instrument or want to create a different style in opera."

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