We have all the time in the world for Wagner

The audiences for this immense work ought to be disappearing. In fact, they're growing

Share
Related Topics

There are any number of ways to talk about Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but I guess the most prevalent is just to start talking about yourself. “I well remember the first time I heard Das Rheingold. It was in Rotherham, with my Auntie Sheila standing in for Fasolt due to Dame Blodwen’s throat infection. I can honestly say, it was the single most moving experience of my entire opera-going life to that point in time.”

The next is to start instructing people in ways of listening to it – “If you’re new to the Ring Cycle, a good place to start is the second act of Götterdämmerung, with a handy guide to the leitmotif in your left hand and a box of custard creams in your right. The Boulez recording goes better with chocolate HobNobs, you will probably find.”

Both of these approaches have been much in evidence in Wagner’s bicentenary year, and have reached fever pitch with this week’s concert performance of the whole cycle at the Proms. Interestingly, Wagnerians are at least as likely to start going on about themselves as about Wagner, and the promenaders’ queue is full of people instructing each other about how best to respond to the first appearance of the Redemption Through Love motif.

They have gone so far, indeed, as to evolve various peculiar rituals in response to the master’s work. In the best houses, you don’t applaud the first act of Parsifal – not, however, part of the Ring cycle. You just file out in solemn silence. Why? Well, to give promenaders something to instruct each other over, I suppose.

The responses I find deeply peculiar. Why anyone needs instruction in Wagner beats me. You just sit there quietly for a few hours, soaking it all up, and it’s not exactly difficult – rather an absorbing story, in fact. And the sort of Wagnerian who rushes to share his or her first encounter with the Ring Cycle seems to have missed the point somewhat.

Like no other opera, the Ring operates like a 19th-century novel, exploring the world, and the people in it grow and change like characters in Tolstoy. Behind it all is Wagner’s powerful personality, but he’s not asking you to be interested in him, but in his immense and absorbing world. To come away from that with an urge to talk about yourself seems bizarre; this is something to lose yourself in, like War and Peace.

As I write, we are halfway through the Ring at the Proms under Daniel Barenboim, marking the bicentenary with a week-long performance. In a way, it has been ideal. No producers’ bright ideas; no anti-musical or deliberately perverse gestures; just some of the best singers in the world under the greatest Wagner conductor of his generation, and a Berlin orchestra with the music in its blood and its bones. It has been extraordinary to watch the orchestra for once, rather than bury it in a theatre pit; this one’s players move their whole bodies as they play, so that, unlike a stiff English orchestra, the stage sways and ripples with movement like a field of wheat.

Berliners are used to the magnificence of Barenboim’s Wagner, to the point that it’s usually quite easy to get tickets, even on the day of a performance. But the London audience is astounded, overthrown, trembling with emotion. The end of Die Walküre is always moving, as Wotan says goodbye to his daughter Brünnhilde for ever and leaves her surrounded by flames, glittering in E major.

On Tuesday night, as the great Bryn Terfel left the stage, the audience was silent for 10 seconds of transfixed contemplation before erupting in applause. For many people in the audience, these are going to be experiences they carry with them all their lives. Barenboim was dissatisfied, as genius so often can be; where the rest of the audience saw near-perfection, he saw only problems. He had bawled with rage at the orchestra’s leader at the end of the second act.

If everything went to plan, the audiences for this immense work ought to be disappearing. In an age of tweets and YouTube and five-second exchanges, where is the audience for the five-hour opera coming from? Wagner asks you to surrender a week of your time and your brain – it is truly difficult to do anything between instalments except a little light gardening.

But the audience is, if anything, growing. Perhaps there is a hunger for the immense and absorbing experience; there is an audience for a novel sequence as colossal as George Martin’s Game of Thrones, after all. This week, too, a wise and experienced Man Booker panel longlisted two immensely long novels. They are right to do so. What readers want, if they go to a book or a work of art at all, is the creation of a world and the surrender of the trivial ego for as long as the world lasts.

Personally, I’ve seen it before in its constituent parts, many times, though never the whole cycle from beginning to end. (Once, memorably, I saw Siegfried twice in two days, first in Berlin and then in London – it didn’t pall, unexpectedly.) It always feels special, but this – well, watching this extraordinary conductor, this great orchestra, this incomparable cast – seems like one of the great experiences of existence. I almost feel the urge to start instructing you in it.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
Queen Elizabeth II with members of the Order of Merit  

Either the Queen thinks that only one in 24 Britons are women, or her Order of Merit is appallingly backward

Janet Street-Porter
Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...