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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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Over the past century, pricey tickets and language barriers may have marginalized opera, but when young people raised in an era of music videos encounter opera, "they really get it," says Tracy Brightman, director of educational programs for the LA Opera. A group from Santa Monica High School, participants in a festival-inspired project with the Santa Monica Museum of Art (SMMoA), attended the dress rehearsal of "Götterdämmerung" and then created Wagner-themed art.

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"The themes of jealousy, greed, betrayal, and infidelity are all things anyone can grasp," says Asuka Hisa, SMMoA director of education. Despite the long running time, Ms. Hisa says the teens were inspired. "The actual opera was an amazing experience," says Steven Mayorga, a junior, who says he listens to music, occasionally classical, while he does his art. "To be honest, without it, I would have said, 'Who is Wagner?' But I know he's really respected and I can relate to all those ideas of sacrifice and betrayal."

His bronze sculpture depicts a syringe with a snake swallowing its own tail. He got the idea from the greed-inspired struggle over the ring in Wagner's opera, he says. "The syringe and the snake show how much people sacrifice when they're greedy or abusing drugs," he says. "I don't know if I'd go back, but I know Wagner is big."

Bigness is both Wagner's legacy and challenge, notes Duke University humanities professor Bryan Gilliam in an e-mail. "Wagner was all about expansion: size of orchestra, length of operas, and harmonic language." Musicians had to grapple with Wagner's vision. "For some that was a good thing and for others a more negative aspect."

"Those who liked Wagner savored all the new expressive possibilities unleashed by this music of unprecedented power, emotion, and specificity," Professor Gilliam says. "Those who didn't like Wagner did so for the same reasons. For them, music had lost something in all this sonic expanse. They might well accuse Wagner of coercing his listeners, manipulating them with his overwhelming sound."

Waiting for the second act, waiter John Yi and designer Theresa Ballard debate Wagner. "He became the reference point for every other musician," says Mr. Yi, noting that Wagner's overwhelming vision of sound and theatrical narrative became a touchstone for generations of artists.

"He was the godfather for all those big-picture artists of today," adds Ms. Ballard, who says that Wagner's most likely heirs in today's culture are not so much the composers as the big movie auteurs. King of the world James Cameron, perhaps? "Yes," she says.