Wagner for a Song

ON Monday night, “Das Rheingold,” the first part of a mammoth new production of Richard Wagner’s opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” will thunder down on the Metropolitan Opera. A 45-ton set will test the theater’s foundations; a reported $16 million budget will test the company’s finances. In the midst of economic troubles, is it seemly to spend such a vast amount on a spectacle that will be seen by a relatively small, elite audience?

Such questions inevitably arise whenever an opera company forges the “Ring” anew. Last season, the Los Angeles Opera completed its presentation of the cycle, spending $31 million. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors became embroiled in arguments over Wagner’s anti-Semitism, and the singer David Byrne asked on his blog whether the money might have been better spent on arts education. “There is a greater value for humanity,” Mr. Byrne wrote, “in empowering folks to make and create than there is in teaching them the canon.”

As someone who makes a living writing about what Mr. Byrne calls “those dead guys,” I don’t accept his critique. But it’s a thoughtful statement, demanding a more thoughtful answer than the bromides that classical-music advocates have dispensed in the past. It’s not enough to murmur that opera is “high culture” or “serious music.” For one thing, opera has a right to be silly, and often is.

As it happens, a more effective riposte comes from Wagner himself. Amid his absurd and repulsive pronouncements on all manner of topics, you can find some acute insights into music’s place in society. He did not write for the high and mighty; his music is as much a critique of power as an exercise in it. And at a time when so much cultural expression seems secondhand and retrospective, young artists have much to learn from Wagner’s mad ambition.

A few words, first, on the question of money. Opera is expensive, yes, but in the latter-day annals of extravagance it wins no prize. A budget of $16 million, or even $31 million, is hardly extreme for a four-part production that will unfold over two years. (Julie Taymor and her producers are said to be spending $60 million on a “Spider-Man” musical, which will presumably last only one evening.) Furthermore, the money comes almost entirely from ticket sales and donations; in the financial year just ended, the Met received just $698,000 from various government sources. And the “elite” image is exaggerated. The average seat at the Met costs $138, which is almost exactly what people pay to see the Rolling Stones.

Yet no matter how much the Met talks up its $20 rush tickets or its movie-theater simulcast series, which reaches millions of people a year, it can’t seem to shake its pince-nez image. Perhaps we’ve seen too many commercials with toffs in penguin suits to accept the fact that operagoers are, in fact, a motley middle-class lot. And the Wagner audience is the motliest of all — emeritus professors sit side by side with “Ring”-loving schoolteachers, fanatic record collectors, neophyte opera mavens and that woman wearing a Valkyrie helmet.

That is how Wagner wanted it. While he had a gift for extracting money from the wealthy, and became notoriously conservative in old age, he rejected the conventional picture of the opera house as a playground for socialites. After he fled Germany for Zurich in the wake of his participation in the 1849 Dresden uprising against the crown, he began to argue that the “artwork of the future” would no longer serve the moneyed classes but instead speak to the masses. He denounced the practice of favoring classics over new work. In a letter to the composer Franz Liszt, he heralded a time when “we shall abandon our habit of clinging firmly to the past, our egotistical concern for permanence and immortality at any price.”

In his essay “Art and Revolution,” he proposed that theaters should be underwritten by the state and that all tickets should be free. In 1876, when he inaugurated a festival and opera house dedicated to staging his works in Bayreuth, Germany, he took pride in the democratic seating plan, which, unlike Madison Square Garden, gives everyone a good view.

The “Ring” itself carries a similar message. The adjective “Wagnerian” has entered popular discourse as a synonym for “grandiose,” but this colossal work is, in fact, a devastating deconstruction of the grand illusions of gods, men and dwarves. George Bernard Shaw, in his 1898 treatise “The Perfect Wagnerite,” influentially argued that the “Ring” is “a drama of today,” the power-seeking characters Wotan and Alberich suggesting the ruinous greed and corruption of a plutocratic society. Likewise, the musical language, with its system of identifying characters and concepts by leitmotifs, rejects operatic artifice in favor of direct communication. “There is not a single bar of ‘classical music’ in the ‘Ring,’” Shaw wrote.

The most potent moments are the most intimate, as when Wotan, chief of the gods, faces his own fallibility and, to quote Wagner’s stage directions, sinks into “the feeling of his powerlessness.” The true test of the Met’s production, directed by Robert Lepage, will come not in the Valhalla spectacle of “Das Rheingold,” but next spring, in that scene from “Die Walküre.”

In 1891, Mark Twain, no fan of elite culture, visited Bayreuth. He sent home an essay that reads at first like a methodical takedown: he notes all the weirdness of the Wagner cult, the confounding aspects of the experience. “Sometimes I feel like the sane person in a community of the mad,” he writes. Then, just when he seems ready to give the knife a final twist, he reveals himself as another convert. “But by no means do I ever overlook or minify the fact that this is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I have never seen anything like this before. I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion.”

In the audience at the “Ring” on Monday night will be more than a few people undergoing the same stunned epiphany. On them, the money will be well spent.

Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, is the author of “Listen to This.”

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/26/opinion/26ross.html