Taste in opera: a window to the soul

So, do you prefer the ‘absolute shit’ Wagner or the therapeutic Verdi? Your answer is likely to be very revealing.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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There’s a theory that if you prefer The Beatles to the Rolling Stones, you’re more likely to prefer Tintin to Asterix, and cats to dogs. Likewise, fans of the Stones will be more partial to Asterix and dogs. The theory works on the premise that serious and geeky people are drawn to types of music, literature and pets that reflect their own character, and that the same goes for confident, fun-loving simpletons.

I like the theory. Anecdotal research shows that it holds true (I fit squarely into the first category). Yet I think a fourth test could be added: whether you are inclined towards Richard Wagner or Giuseppe Verdi – the dark and apocalyptic Teuton versus the lyrical and bombastic Latin. It doesn’t take a genius to figure into which category each belongs.

This year is the bicentenary of both composers’ birth, and the convergence has already generated harsh words. Daniel Barenboim’s decision to open La Scala’s season with his beloved Wagner caused understandable consternation. ‘This choice is a smack for Italian art, a blow for national pride in a moment of harsh crisis’, declared one commentator in Milan’s daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera. Italy’s economic subservience to Germany is bad enough without having to celebrate German culture, too.

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear critics of the Euro invoking the pair, epitomising the contrast between cerebral northern Europeans and the hot-tempered Mediterraneans. The Euro crisis has already spawned a lot of rusty old rhetoric about character differences between northern and southern Europeans, a dichotomy that scholars of Matthew Arnold or Edward Said would recognise. Leipzig Opera’s director of productions, Peter Konwitschny, recently remarked of Wagner and Verdi, ‘the German thinks with music, the Italian sings with it’. Thus, the two are divisive figures not for nakedly chauvinistic reasons, but for two different mindsets often allied to national stereotypes. The pairing of the two prompts us to ask a fundamental question: should music be foremost intelligent or pleasing?

Wagner saw his music as primarily intellectual, and thought seriously about what his art represented. He wrote of gods and heroes. He wanted (his) music to be the new religion purged of Christian dogma and doctrine. The operas Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal are influenced by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and Wagner was initially worshipped by a young Friedrich Nietzsche. Heroic works such as Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tristan and The Flying Dutchman portray triumph often through death, as Wagner declared contempt for ‘the happy ending, an intolerably banal prospect’.

‘He understood the modern world and its spiritual anguish, and provided modern people with the mythical narrative in which they could come to consciousness of their predicament’, observes Roger Scruton: ‘Verdi could not conceivably have composed a masterpiece like The Valkyrie, in which a profound metaphysical idea is made concrete, haunting and believable.’ David Pountney, the artistic director of the Welsh National Opera, says ‘Verdi composed the drama of melody, melodrama, contrast. Wagner, that of ideas and transformation.’

Verdi was happy with protagonists with imperfections – the hunchback in Rigoletto, the self-serving old knight in Falstaff, and the jealous princess Amneris in Aïda – and flawed human beings who sought connectedness. His melodies are soothing or joyous. La Traviata therefore became the music to the film Pretty Woman, ‘The Triumphant March’ from Aïda was adopted by Dutch football supporters, while the overture from La Forza del Destino – thanks to an old TV advert – evokes bucolic images of drinking lager in the sunshine. By contrast, Die Walküre is the music of Apocalypse Now.

In Verdi And/Or Wagner (2011), Peter Conrad observes that ‘Hollywood… adheres to the customary division between the two composers: Wagner is a terrorist, Verdi a therapist’. The Italian saw art as a comfort for the human spirit. The German revolutionary wanted his music to drive people crazy and burn down Paris.

Although Wagner was ‘an absolute shit’, as WH Auden concluded, he evidently captivated a certain generation and gothic mindset. Only a composer with Wagner’s exceptional ‘capacity to engross our time and take over our lives’, writes Conrad, could thus get away with operas that last 16 hours. (‘The Teutonic reputation for brutality is well-founded. Their operas last three or four days’, observed Edmund in the First World War sitcom, Blackadder Goes Forth.) Today’s youngsters dressed in black listen to groups with umlauts in their names; their predecessors listened to operas with umlauts in their titles.

Conrad implies that we need Verdi to temper our inner Wagner, to embrace ‘the virtue of charity or caritas as opposed to the rage of the egotistical will, a need for human connection as opposed to the mind’s proud solitude’. This is what makes me uneasy about Wagner, especially his obsessive fans such as Stephen Fry and Adolf Hitler.

There remains something irredeemably teenage and ’emo’ about Wagner, with his adolescent belief that there is something glorious and romantic about death. There’s enough self-pity and death worship in modern society as it is. The spate of public figures boasting their wish to be euthanised is but the most recent example. There’s a surplus of self-important anger in the Twittersphere. There’s too much emphasis on ‘meaning’ in the art world, in that works ‘pose difficult questions’ and ‘raise important issues’ at the expense of producing something pleasing for its own sake. Clichés about ‘relevance’ and ‘meaning’ are invariably a defence against well-founded charges of mediocrity and narcissism.

In his 1968 essay ‘The Naivete of Verdi’, Isaiah Berlin favourably contrasted the Italian’s work to Wagner’s as a ‘symptom of sanity’, with Verdi an un-selfconscious, natural genius in the mould of Homer, Shakespeare and Goethe. Verdi may not have had his contemporary’s intensity, but he was more popular and prodigious, and his tunes are rightly more widely performed today than Wagner’s. As Rodney Milnes, former editor of Opera Magazine put it: ‘Verdi says as much as Wagner about the impossibility of power and love, but in a quarter of the time and with real tunes.’

Therefore, I would opt for Verdi’s rumpty-tumpty melodies over Wagner’s introspection-and-incest combo. This, unfortunately, also happens to leave my opening theory buggered.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland and author of Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.

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Topics Culture


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