The return of the original Ring lord

Epic, fantastic, dazzling, erotic - and coming soon to a stage near you. Jessica Duchen reports on the unlikely rise of Wagnermania as younger audiences revel in his power and magic

Wagner (1813-83) has never been precisely out of vogue, but perhaps he has never been quite so in vogue as he is now. A combination of unprecedented accessibility and powerful advocates - Domingo, Terfel and Daniel Barenboim among them - has been bringing Wagner to new audiences. Over time, the increasing distance of the Nazi era that tainted his music for decades means that younger audiences can approach the operas with perhaps fewer negative preconceptions than their parents would have had.

Indeed, there seems to be a Wagner glut. For the first time, the Royal Opera House and English National Opera have found themselves presenting the operas of Wagner's Ring cycle at the same time, if in very different ways. Glyndebourne staged a Wagner opera, Tristan und Isolde, for the first time in 2003; a revival is planned in 2007, and intriguing prospects are in view for exploring early Wagner on period instruments in the not-too-distant future. Last year, Scottish Opera risked everything to present the Ring, a production that drew packed audiences and huge critical acclaim but almost put the company out of business. Welsh National Opera is to include a new production of The Flying Dutchman in its 60th birthday celebrations next season, with Terfel as the ghostly anti-hero.

A Wagner opera has always been a major event for any opera house. Seats are always costly, but sell out in a flash; critics always carp over productions that inevitably seem to be controversial, no matter their approach. None of that is new. What is new, however, is the way Wagner has begun to break through boundaries in an unexpected way.

Last year, ENO took the final act of its production of The Valkyrie to the Glastonbury Festival, where it played to a crowd 30,000 strong. And at the Royal Opera's Prom, audiences with strong legs could experience world-class Wagner for just £4. Among the seated concert-goers were plenty who had never heard the music before.

Aficionados with ready cash cross continents to hear the Ring and other Wagner masterpieces, and the annual Wagner festival at the composer's own specially-built opera house at Bayreuth has a waiting list for tickets as long as all the orchestra's arms put together. Tickets to hear Wagner can often seem not only unaffordable, but also unavailable. But make him affordable and accessible, and his force hits home. Where does Wagner's power come from? Why are so many people taking to his music when they might never have expected to?

The Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski, the music director of Glyndebourne, suggests that Wagner is filling a cultural void. "I think it's symptomatic of our times that we want to seek out something that takes place on a massive scale, while our lives are reduced to the size of a microchip. People have an unconscious need to experience something larger than life, something of huge emotional force, when it's not possible in daily existence.

"This emotional world is missing in our times. In the 1920s to 1940s, the popularity of Wagner was perhaps explained by the epic dimensions of the time. Wagner was more an illustration of people's lives, while today it represents the missing element. Wagner is also extremely erotic - and again people can find in his music a substitute for what they miss in their own lives," Jurowski says.

Elaine Padmore, the director of opera at Covent Garden, agrees: "It's a fantastic antidote to the mindset of today. Contrary to the idea now that people can't concentrate for more than five minutes, can't take in complex ideas and need different things flashing in front of them all the time, Wagner presents huge spans of long, complex music and philosophy. It requires vast concentration and it hits your brain, your emotions and your ears with equal intensity."

David Pickard, the general director of Glyndebourne, found that "we had an audience for Tristan at Glyndebourne that was totally different from the audience for Mozart". He recalls "getting the bug" for Wagner in his teens and making a pilgrimage to the Bayreuth Festival when he was 17. "There were loads of young people there. Rather like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, once you've sat through the whole of Wagner's Ring you feel as if you've been through a huge emotional experience. At the end, there's a sense of an epic nature that's incredibly appealing, especially to young people." He suggests that the plethora of Ring cycles in Britain in the past few years may be more the result of music directors' aspirations than popular demand - "at some point, every opera house music director longs to do a Ring cycle" - but he agrees that the audience is ready to lap them up.

It's a coincidence, Padmore says, that Covent Garden and ENO are doing the Ring at the same time. "Deciding to present a Ring cycle means an enormous investment in every way, so you work towards it over a long period, and there comes a moment when you are ready to take it on. It's just happened to come up at the same time for both houses, which means that after a number of years with no Ring in London, there are now two at the same time."

But a Wagner "clash" isn't the same as a clash for any other composer. "It probably sparks even more interest, having the two running concurrently," Padmore says. "The productions are very different - one is in English - * * and finding an audience is no problem because Wagner fans can't get enough of it. They're just thrilled to be able to go to two so close together."

Wagner aficionados do seem to be in the grip of an addiction beyond mere enthusiasm. But now it's becoming clear that Wagner can reach audiences far further afield than those already hooked - and the composer would have wanted to do precisely that. When ENO played Act III of The Valkyrie at Glastonbury, in its contemporary-set production by Phyllida Lloyd, it was, says ENO's director Sean Doran, not an attempt to popularise the opera but a way of responding to some of Wagner's own artistic ideals.

"Wagner started out as a revolutionary, standing on the barricades in Dresden in 1848 to fight for ideals he believed in, while taking five years away from composing to write the poem that formed the libretto for the Ring," Doran says. "The Ring was intended in part to draw a line under what he saw as bourgeois opera, and instead to write opera that would reach everybody, no matter their background, with Greek theatre as its model. Our Ring cycle, with its contemporary interpretation, helps to prove that Wagner is perennially relevant, and we should never lose sight of that relevance.

"We wouldn't have thought of taking anything else to Glastonbury. And that was an incredible experience, reaching an enormous number of people. It was a great example of 'trust your audience'," Doran says. "You don't have to talk down to anyone; you just have to make the opera accessible. Opera is a fusion of all the art forms, breaking down all the barriers between them. And audiences today, with their iPods, are very sophisticated musically, more than ever before, and are moving easily from one genre of music to another. Wagner is just bloody great music that can really get to you."

It certainly is - but all the same, it takes courage to go to Wagner for the first time. The operas are vast - most are more than five hours long - and there's always the dread that you won't like it. I remember approaching my first Ring cycle in 1990 at Covent Garden with trepidation. Going in to Die Walküre, I was convinced that five hours of Germanic ranting lay ahead; but I'll never forget emerging, after what felt like two minutes but was actually the whole of Act I, with the distinct physical sensation that I was floating upside down by the ceiling.

The music of that famous incestuous love scene contains such elemental power and staggering beauty that it seemed absolutely impossible not to be swept away by it. It's hard to imagine any musical experience of greater intensity. As Bryn Terfel says: "Wagner seems to have a quality that draws people in; and once you've encountered it, it's very difficult to let it go again."

Nor is it only the audience that feels the heat. For performers, too, Wagner's demands in terms of technical and emotional stamina can prove devastating. Placido Domingo, fresh off the stage after his Prom performance and with his new recording of Tristan und Isolde about to hit the shelves, explained why he's never performed Tristan live: "I accepted to perform it, but discovered while preparing the role that it was incredibly taxing. I felt I could do it, but that if I did, it would shorten my career by several years, and probably some repertoire too. So I've only recorded it, and it will stay that way."

Terfel says: "Unless they've sung the [Wotan] role themselves, there's no way anybody could grasp exactly what it is you have to face. Even I didn't know what to expect when I started it. It would be interesting to see what people would feel if they had to learn and perform even just the second act of Die Walküre. It's not like Puccini or Mozart. Gone are the choral tableaux and the arias - it's pure drama from beginning to end."

As for the audience's reaction, Terfel finds that in Die Walküre "the third act draws unbelievable emotion from people you'd never expect to see in tears. I've seen the number of people who follow Wagner, and if the people who wait at the stage door at the end of the performance are a sign, it's very international. I've met people from every part of the globe, people you don't normally see at stage doors. They have a Wagner map, and they plan out their schedules and know exactly where they're going to go."

Wagner - his music, his life, his politics and his philosophies - is fascinating at every level, from the most academic to the most instinctive. It's said that more books have been written about him than anyone other than Christ. As a writer of great swathes of through-composed music-drama employing revolutionary harmonic language, he changed the course of musical history. Later composers struggled to break free from his influence. Canny politicians, however, harnessed the power of his music and used it to their own ends. Today, Wagner is still so strongly associated with Hitler and the Nazis - exacerbated by his descendants' direct enthusiasm for them - that he may never entirely lose the taint.

And here lies Wagnerphilia's opposite: Wagnerphobia, every bit as strong. There is no doubt that Wagner was a seriously unpleasant character. His anti-Semitic rant "Das Judenthum in Musik" (The Jews in Music) soured an image already scarred by apparent megalomania, financial irresponsibility and adultery. His anti-Semitism was far from rare in the 19th century, but it has attracted far more censure than the similar inclinations of composers such as Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and even Carl Orff, because, as Hitler's favourite composer, the great passion of Wagner's music came to symbolise the fanatical power of Nazi ideology.

Daniel Barenboim, the pianist and conductor who was born in Argentina but grew up in Israel, has probably done more than any musician to break through the ill-feeling surrounding Wagner's annexation by Hitler. "One cannot say, 'I hate Wagner because Hitler loved Wagner,'" Barenboim suggests. "This is simply not so. The Nazis used and abused him, creating a myth that Wagner was the forerunner of Nazi ideology. But this has very little to do with Wagner himself and a lot to do with the Nazis, in the sense that they took some of his writings, and not only his anti-Semitic writings. Wagner was a great German nationalist, and this is what they were looking for. After the Germans lost the First World War, they found in Wagner the quality they needed to help rebuild the nation. The supremacy of the German race or the supremacy of German music and art - I don't think that was even in Wagner's mind."

Wagner's music is not officially banned in Israel, but it goes unplayed in concert halls there through a forceful emotional taboo. In 2001, Barenboim and his orchestra, the Berlin Staatskapelle, scheduled a performance of Die Walküre at the Israel Festival. The issue went to parliament and the Knesset decided it should be cancelled. The orchestra played Schumann and Stravinsky instead, but after the encore Barenboim addressed the hall directly, asking: "As a musician, I would like to ask my audience: do you want to hear some Wagner? If not, no problem. If you do, we have the music. And if you are angry, please be angry with me, not the orchestra and not the festival."

A 45-minute debate ensued. Some audience members were outraged, vociferously so. But about 90 per cent of the audience were in favour. Some 50 people left the hall, and once things quietened down, Barenboim and the orchestra played the "Prelude and Liebestod" from Tristan. The furore in the days afterwards appeared to have been started by people who were not actually at the concert.

Ironically, many of Wagner's strongest advocates were Jewish, notably the conductor Hermann Levi, the son of a rabbi, who took the podium for the first performance of Parsifal. Even Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, was inspired by Wagner, especially Tannhäuser. But no Wagner has been played in Israel since Barenboim's concert.

These arguments will probably never go away. The scars of the Second World War are ineradicable; and those to whom the very idea of going to a Wagner opera is anathema are unlikely ever to be converted by the music alone. The Nazi association, however, grows ever more distant, and for a new generation of music lovers its role is diminishing - something that is almost certainly contributing to the flush of popularity.

What remains is Wagner's power. Attended with an open mind and open ears, he takes no prisoners. Once you enter his musical world, he's got you for ever. And as more people succumb to the Wagner magic, perhaps it's true that he provides the antithesis of modern life: a universe of meaning and beauty and intellect, so absent from the world around us. Like him or loathe him, we seem to need him.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones