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The Millennium Wagner Project

Posted by acdtest on October 4, 2003

[NOTE: This post has been transferred from my prior weblog, and reposted here under its original publication date, and with updated links.]

All installments of the six-part interview by musicologist and weblogger Charles T. Downey of Ionarts with Carol Berger, the founder and artistic director of an enterprise called The Millennium Wagner Project and 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).

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 political intrigues redolent of the Bayreuther Festspiele itself, and Ms. Berger emerges sounding more like a neo-Cosima Wagner, guru of a new Wagner cult devoted to preserving, fostering, and disseminating the ideas of Wagner the man and pseudo-philosopher, rather than a serious artist devoted to the understanding and presentation of the products of Wagner’s colossal creative genius: his operas and music-dramas. One comes away from reading this interview and the Project’s website with the more than uncomfortable feeling that Ms. Berger is one of that breed of zealous Wagner-lovers who are more Wagnerites than Wagnerians: those ensorcelled by Wagner the man whom they revere as a great philosopher, thinker, and even redeeming savior with an important and today-relevant social and cultural message to deliver, more than they revere him as a composer-dramatist and creator of deathless and timeless works for the musical theater; a perverse view of the matter to which, I think it safe to say, very few if any knowledgeable persons would subscribe.

While the consequences of such apostolic thinking are fairly harmless when confined to 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.

and

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

and

SEARCHING OUT THE SIDELINED IN OUR MIDST, TO BRING HEALING THRU MUSIC’S UNCONDITIONAL LOVE, OR AS WAGNER WOULD PUT IT, “REDEMPTION THROUGH LOVE” [emphasis in the original]

and

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

and

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? And a Wagnerian’s “purpose … in life” is to “selflessly … go out and help people,” is it?

Mind-boggling, that. And dangerously eccentric, too.

In short, 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 merely wince. None of it would be quite so odious were it coming from some airheaded New Ager from whom such drivel might be expected. But it’s not. It’s coming from someone who claims scholarly and expert dramatic and musical knowledge of Wagner and his music-dramas. And if the idea is to rehabilitate Wagner’s Nazi-damaged and Hitler-associated reputation by such a strategy and such tactics, I suggest that’s not the way to go about the thing. Nor is mitigating by half-truths Wagner’s virulent anti-Semitism as Ms. Berger attempted in this exchange:

Ionarts: 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 it’s true Wagner had the utmost faith in Levi’s musical abilities, and wanted him as his Parsifal conductor Jew though he was, 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 abandoned his demand principally because of the certainty that King Ludwig, who was footing the bill and providing the musicians for the opera’s premiere, would be more than mildly displeased had Wagner not accepted Levi as his 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 cross to bear 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 and ill-disposed are all too eager to attach to him. But that Wagner was a rabid, virulent, and vocal anti-Semite nevertheless is not to be downplayed.

What’s perhaps 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 operas and music-dramas are almost exclusively all that’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 themselves. The guiding principle that if it’s not in the score it doesn’t exist is paramount, 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 a unified organic entity, and make the acted-out texts of the music-dramas ā€” their mere armatures ā€” 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.

Ionarts: 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 and jingoistic anti-Semitic 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.

All told, the unavoidable conclusion is that The Millennium Wagner Project and its attached “opera company” seem an attempt at a modern-day reincarnation of the repugnant and repulsive entity that was the Bayreuther Festspiele of Cosima Wagner and, afterwards, her son, Siegfried, as does Ms. Berger herself seem to view and regard herself as something of a reincarnated Cosima Wagner. I would suggest to Ms. Berger that as that era of Festspiele history is one to be deeply regretted as is the person of Cosima Wagner herself, a reincarnation of either is not the best way to go about furthering the stagings and performances of the deathless masterpieces that are the priceless legacy of Bayreuth’s founding genius.

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