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Millennium Wagner Project II

Posted by acdtest on October 4, 2003

More On The Millennium Wagner Project

ll installments of the six-part interview by weblogger CTD of ionarts with Carol Berger, the founder and artistic director of the enterprise called The Millennium Wagner Project, and its performing arm The Millennium Wagner Opera Company, have now been posted, and can be read here (the link is to the last installment which contains links to the previous five). My less than sanguine initial comments in response to the first installment of the interview can be read here and here.

After reading the entire interview as well as the Project’s website, I don’t know quite what to make of this enterprise or Ms. Berger. It seems a most strange undertaking indeed, complete with decidedly unpleasant little intrigues redolent of the political rather than the artistic*, and Ms. Berger herself emerges sounding more like the wannabe guru of a new Wagner cult rather than a serious artist devoted to the understanding and presentation of the products of Richard Wagner’s colossal creative genius, his music-dramas. One comes away from reading this interview and the Project’s website with the uncomfortable feeling that Ms. Berger is one of that breed of zealous Wagner-lovers who, as I previously remarked, are more Wagnerites than Wagnerians; those ensorcelled by Wagner the man whom they revere as a great philosopher, thinker, and answer-provider with an important and today-relevant message to deliver, as much as they revere him as a composer-dramatist, and creator of works for the musical theater; a curious notion to which, I think it safe to say, very few if any knowledgeable persons would lend their agreement.

While the consequences of such apostolic thinking are fairly harmless among the groundlings of the opera-going public, they become at least marginally alarming when, for instance, one reads on the website of a presumably scholarly and professional entity such as the Millennium Wagner Project statements such as,

[The Project will present] [l]ecture programs and educational outreach activities for the general public, elderly, disadvantaged or disabled to bring health of mind and spirit…especially [through] spiritual understanding of Wagner’s music-dramas.


The mandate of the Project is to foster music-arts educational programs and spiritual communion and enjoyment through performances of the Millennium Wagner Opera.




[The] [d]ramaturgy [of the opera productions] emphasizes psycho-dramatic relationships, text meaning and spiritual/religious elements.


Finally the Project engages in programs and lectures that bridge impulses toward faith with multi-disciplinary theatrical experience.

And this from the interview:

The creative world owes Wagner a huge debt…. Wagner codified, in a system culminating with Parsifal, the message of fellow-suffering, the message of connecting enlightenment and redemption to the concept of activist fellow-suffering. For that alone, we owe Wagner everything because he stated this in word and music.

and this:

I believe that Parsifal was Wagner’s culminating statement on everything he had been building toward in all of his music dramas, what he called “fellow feeling” or “shared suffering,” this concept of Mitleid. […] That is what I think is Wagner’s primary message to the world, that people need to be sensitized to the suffering in the world and to go out and help people. Not to feel sorry for them. […] [I]n the end I am not looking for an egotistic product in which this is all about performance. My belief is that the greater purpose of Wagnerians in life is a spiritual purpose, an active selflessness, to go out and help people. […] We are trying to be spiritual people in this field [of opera].

So Wagner was in the business of codifying socially and ethically relevant “message[s]” in his music-dramas, was he?

Interesting concept.

This all begins to sound as if we’ve entered Reverend Sun Yun Moon territory, and, to be blunt about it, it’s enough to make one more than wince. None of it would be quite so odious were it coming from some airheaded New Ager, but it’s not. It’s coming from someone who claims scholarly and expert dramatic and musical knowledge of Wagner and his music-dramas. If the idea is to rehabilitate Wagner’s Nazi-damaged and Hitler-associated reputation by such a strategy and such tactics, I suggest that is not the way to go about the thing. Nor is mitigating by half-truths Wagner’s undeniable and virulent anti-Semitism as Ms. Berger attempted in this exchange:

Some people approach Wagner negatively because of his personal life and faults, especially his anti-Semitism. Is it fair to consider Wagner’s personal faults in one’s estimation of his music?

Carol Berger:
I’m very glad you asked me about that. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is a big sorrow to me. […] [But] I remind you that the conductor who premiered Parsifal was Hermann Levi, a Jew. Wagner said to him, “You are my Parsifal conductor.” […] When Jewish musicians needed a recommendation, or they needed a couch to sleep on, when they had been thrown out of a job because of that anti-Semitism, they went to Maestro Wagner, and he helped them.

As Ms. Berger is, I’m certain, fully aware, while Wagner had the utmost faith in Levi’s musical abilities he all but insisted that Levi (not only a Jew, but the son of a rabbi) first agree to Christian baptism before being permitted to conduct the first Parsifal. Wagner finally relented and declared Levi his Parsifal conductor only because of the certainty that King Ludwig, who was footing the bill, would be more than mildly displeased had Wagner not accepted Levi as the conductor (Levi was Munich’s Kapellmeister).

And Wagner was no haven for out-of-work or otherwise in-trouble Jewish musicians, either, also as Ms. Berger is, I’m certain, fully aware. The Jews he allowed or invited to become part of his inner circle were simply useful to him in various ways. That Wagner became fond of them after the fact is beside the instant point. (It was Wagner’s personal cross that those who understood him and his works best were mostly Jews.)

On the other hand, and to be fair, it’s also true that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was a complex matter and not to be characterized in stereotypical terms, and was nothing even remotely on the order of the Nazi anti-Semitism which the ignorant are all too eager to attach to him. But Wagner was a rabid and vocal anti-Semite nevertheless, right up until the very last few years of his life which saw some minor softening in his attitude toward the Jews.

What’s most troubling about the Project and Ms. Berger as its artistic director, however, is the Project’s mandate and statement of purpose, drawn up by Ms. Berger as the Project’s founder, and reaffirmed by her in the interview. That mandate and statement of purpose embodies an approach to Wagner that’s a veritable kiss of death as far as the production of the music-dramas are concerned. As the music-dramas are almost exclusively what’s of genuine worth about Wagner, and along with his writings on his craft constitute his only lasting legacy to the world, care must be taken that they’re presented in scrupulous accordance with the only permissible Wagnerian authority: The scores. If it’s not in the score, it doesn’t exist, and no importing or insinuating of ideas from other sources must be permitted, even if that other source be Wagner himself speaking outside the score as given his forever creative and wide-ranging imagination he was often wont to do.

But Ms. Berger, who, it should be remembered, is the Project’s artistic director, seems determined to play fast and loose with the score as an organic entity, and make the acted-out texts of the music-dramas — their mere armatures — the performing company’s principal focus. Her repeated talk of singers, and the detailed and arduous dramatic (“psycho-dramatic”) training she’s subjecting them to (not to mention in this regard consideration of the above quoted excerpts from the Project’s website and Ms. Berger’s interview), leaves no question about that. Concerning the most critical two things about Wagnerian music-drama in performance she says not a word until, at interview’s end, she’s asked a direct question, and her answer, to any knowledgeable Wagnerian, is positively dumbfounding.

Do you have instrumentalists contracted for Parsifal? Will the performance be accompanied [sic!] by an orchestra?

Carol Berger:
Yes, there will be an orchestra. […] Obviously, we cannot afford a 100-piece orchestra, but I am looking at an orchestra of between 45 and 60 players depending on the opera. We are currently working with an “orchestra-wrangler,” someone who contracts orchestral players for events. We have a number of conductors who are committed to the project, but I haven’t decided on one.

Were she talking about the production of some Italian soap opera that would all be perfectly reasonable. But she’s not. She’s talking about Wagnerian music-drama which absent the full complement of instrumentalists called for by the score, and a conductor experienced and skilled in Wagner performance (a rare commodity at any time) is virtually impossible to produce with even a semblance of what Wagnerian music-drama is all about.

One wonders just what Ms. Berger could possibly be thinking of. Surely not Richard Wagner the creator of musico-dramatic stage works without parallel in the entire history of the art form. No, it appears Ms. Berger is thinking about Richard Wagner the minor poet and writer of librettos; Richard Wagner the pseudo-philosophic essayist, article-writer, and pamphleteer; Richard Wagner the prodigious writer of letters and words about himself; the Richard Wagner who, had he not left the world a canon of musico-dramatic stage works which are among the immortal glories of humankind’s creative achievement, would rightly have been consigned to the dustbin of history immediately the lid was closed on his coffin.

I would earnestly suggest that Ms. Berger needs to reorder her and the Project’s priorities posthaste or it, too, will be rightly consigned to the dustbin of history — aborning.

*I’ve not addressed these decidedly unpleasant little intrigues, especially as concerns the Washington D.C. Wagner Society, as I’ve only Ms. Berger’s side of the story. Request was made of the Society’s officers through proper channels for its side of the story, but as of this writing reply to that request has not been received.
UPDATE (5 October at 1:43 PM Eastern): A brief addendum to this article can be read here.

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