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.

Monika Rittershaus/Los Angeles opera
Los Angeles Opera’s staging of Richard Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ in its entirety this year is a first for the city.
Asuka Hisa/Santa Monica Museum of Art
A project at the Santa Monica Museum of Art lets Los Angeles teens create art related to Wagner’s ‘Ring.’ Students (from left) Lily Jacobius, Gabriela Curiel, and Sayana Hallal work with instructor Liz Dinerstein.
Keep Hedz Ringin'
Demos Franklin performed in ‘Keep Hedz Ringin’,’ a 2002 hip-hop take on Wagner’s ‘Ring’ by playwright Rickerby Hinds – and one of a host of modern interpretations inspired by the works of the German composer.

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.

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."

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."

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.

"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.

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