Oh Wagner, dear Wagner. . .

(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

The above title is a derivation on the title of a play from the 1960s, “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mom’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad.” At the moment, I can’t remember the name of the author, but I do remember that just the title alone fascinated the future intellectuals in my high school (East Lansing High School, Class of ’63).

With Richard Wagner, the composer to whom I am referring, I want to say, “. . . Freud Should Have Put You on his Sofa, So You Could Finally Feel Glad.”

Richard Wagner as a composer is unique and tends to be a polarizer–Wagnerians love his work; people who don’t are not Wagnerians. I like Wagner. I find his work over the top, blatant and dark. It also moves me. I might find myself wanting to edit the storyline a little bit here and there, but the man’s dead, his family still owns all the copyrights possible, and so I just go with the often turbulent flow.

Three weeks ago I went to see the live HD performance of “Die Wälkure,” broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to a theater here in Bogotá. This opera is the second in the Ring Cycle, and the Met says it will broadcast the remaining two works (“Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung”) during the next season. I plan to buy tickets as soon as they are available here.

“Die Wälkure” as an opera is an Olympic level for a soprano voice as well as endurance. Deborah Voight distinguished herself as Brunnhilda from start to finish and was accompanied by equally brilliant singers. Bryn Terfel as Wotan (Brunnhilde’s father) is just right as an aging god showing mortal frailties. Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund is young but has a powerful voice and great presence.

But a quick aside–Jonas Kaufmann is incredibly hot. Tickets close to the stage are expensive, but in his case, worth it!!! (HD close-ups are a terrifically good substitute, though!)

What I noticed at the Bogotá broadcast, to get back to the subject, was that “Die Wälkure” attracted a larger crowd of young women than I usually see at these events. More often, the women are 40 and over, but on 14 May, they were 20-something and over. I suspect that they understand the story as an example of feminine liberation and independence, and if so, they were probably disappointed. The exhilaration of the music, and especially the very well-known “Flight of the Valkuries>” (I do not know the German translation; sorry about that) probably does lead the uninitiated to expect a powerful ending, and not a daughter being punished by a father beginning to suspect he’s losing his entire life.

But on the subject of fathers and daughters, I have to confess that this opera is hard for me to digest all at once. The first time I saw it, in a television broadcast on PBS in the 1980s, I cried for at least an hour afterward, and was grateful that I was alone. I saw another version of it a few years later and again, cried terribly afterward.

The Saturday broadcast was the third time and, while I didn’t flood the theater, I was so numb afterward that I almost ran out of the mall to grab a taxi and come home. I could not even write about it for at least two or three days. Any work of art that grabs you like this, and repeatedly, has to work its way into and through your psychological system before you can talk about it without climbing a wall.

In some ways, Wagner was standing on bedrock when he created the relationship between Wotan and Brunnhilde, or at least for his time. In the 19th C., when this was written and composed, fathers could throw their daughters out of the house for whatever reason and absolutely no one would oppose them. In many developing countries today, fathers don’t hesitate to continue this practice, pimping out their daughters one way or another with impunity. Legal ways to get rid of your daughter include marrying her off to the first taker, bartering her out as a servant and requiring her to work on the family farm or in the family business instead of going to school. I can imagine that, when Wotan casts Brunnhilde out and says she can be had by the first man who sees her, only a small handful of women in those audiences might have shuddered, but no one would have protested. Brunnhilde is no longer a goddess, but a mortal, and mortals are not worth much in the Ring Cycle.

But at the last minute, the father and daughter have a small reconciliation. Brunnhilde accepts the fact that she went against her father’s direct orders and must be punished, but asks that she be surrounded by fire so that only a very brave and therefore worthy man can claim her. Wotan agrees and kisses her eyes as she goes to sleep. He steps away from the rock where she lays and quickly sees that his daughter is surrounded by a ring of fire. This ends this particular opera, but not the entire Ring Cycle. This opera, like life, goes on.

I think the reason this opera touches me so much is that my relationship with my own father was never particularly good, but when he died, his widow and her daughters waited 36 hours to tell my brother and he waited another 12 to tell me. My brother lived 80 miles from our father and, at the time, I was in Houston, which is a two-and-a-half hour flight to Detroit. Brunnhilde and her father came to terms, or made peace, with each other. My brother and I never got the chance, which I consider reprehensible, since my 87 year old father did not just drop dead unexpectedly. I’m surprised I still feel the anger, but I guess there are things that stay with you.

At the same time, while Wotan and Brunnhilde get to settle their hash through sung dialogue (and Brunnhilde is no slouch at defying Daddy), I was left with a lot of questions and no answers, as well as a few comments I still believe were pertinent to my relationship with my father. But then, my father did not have quite the backbone that kept Wotan on his doomed path.

It is now common practice to portray the father-daughter relationship with a “positive spin.” Recently, I got to watch Jeremy Irons chew up all the scenery on “Law & Order: S.V.U.” as he dealt with his own past sex and alcohol addictions, other peoples’ sex addiction and the consequences of a sexual assault on his lesbian daughter. By the end of the episode, probably quite a few viewers were quietly drinking something alcoholic just to absorb this convoluted storyline. (And people think Wagner is hard to deal with!) Before the final credits, Irons had made peace with his daughter AND her lover and the viewer was left with the belief that he and they would build a healthy relationship thereafter. All was forgiven.

Viewers want that. TV gives it to them.

Wagner, on the other hand, does not give you that. He gives you those loose ends, right down to and including “Götterdämmerung.” In his operas, nothing is over even after the fat lady stops singing. I think this goes to the heart of his work, or at least the Ring Cycle–nothing is really over. Nothing ends. Everything began at some distant point in the past, flows onward and we watch. Wagner’s personal theory is a German word which escapes me at the moment and which I can neither pronounce nor spell correctly. But the IDEA is that everything is connected, and therefore, everything is of a piece. He worked this out without really placing the blame on one person or one thing or event. At the time, Freud’s theories were gaining ground (as were some of Nietzche’s) and it probably would have been a piece of cake to weave some of those philosophical lines into a plot as intricately constructed as the Ring. But he didn’t. On the other hand, he was a genius and probably felt he did not really need someone else’s theories to sustain his argument. That is also monumental egotism and he was criticized for it in his time. But his work endures, and the critics are mostly forgotten.

I have read that Wagner had quirk that still confounds fans and historians. He made sure that his heroines do not get pregnant, or if they do, they die at childbirth (Sieglinde, for example). For all that his heroes are virile and even prolific (especially Wotan), the women remain pretty chaste. It has been argued that Wagner did this because he was somewhat in awe of the entire childbearing process, which is something men really can not control. He should know; his wife Cosima produced several children, pretty much without his help. (Except for those initial moments, of course.) Therefore, one interpretation of the ring of fire around Brunnhilde is that she will be unable to procreate, unable to defy Daddy or his substitute ever again. By the time this turns out not to be true, Wotan isn’t around to interfere. Wotan, in psychological terms, has a lot of power and control issues, few of which ever get resolved.

My father had the same problem.

In that sense, am I crying for myself or for him?

(C) 2011 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

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