I didn’t ‘get’ German Opera until I was old.
Let me tell you up front that I didn’t ‘get’ German Opera until I was old and retired and had enough time in my hands to sit through the entire three hours plus of a Wagner opus. By then I had been going to the opera and listening to operas on Saturday afternoon’s radio broadcasts from the MET with Milton Cross mispronouncing the names of singers, and buying opera LP’s, and much later CD’s all that since I saw my first opera at fifteen – La traviata in Havana – and got hooked on the joys and sorrows of Violetta and Alfredo and their operatic goings on.
But most of all that opera-going and listening and discussing with friends at Juilliard where I went to study Voice in my early twenties was Italian (si!) and a little French (oui!) but hardly any German (nein!) or Russian (nyet!!!).
Maybe it was partly the fault of my teachers: Jennie Tourel – an Opera star in the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s who specialized in French roles – and Marion Szekely-Freschl – a Hungarian Opera star in pre WWII Europe who sang a lot of German Opera but could not bear the sound of the German language because it reminded her of the family she lost in Europe during the dreadful years leading up to and during the Second World War.
So it was all Mozart (in Italian) and Handel (in Italian) and Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti (all in Italian) what made me fall in love with Italian Opera all over again, even though most of the music Verdi and Puccini wrote was beyond my vocal capabilities, as was the entire Wagner canon, written in a language I could not speak and music I could not begin to sing.
The role of Papageno in Mozart’s German-language The Magic Flute was betted by my teachers and it became a suitable choice in the ubiquitous Ruth and Thomas Martin translation.
But that was as far as far as my forays into the German rep went.
And yet and now in my golden years I am starting to love German Opera. I can’t sing it to save my live – never could – but I can certainly listen to it, even an entire Tristan und Isolde in one sitting, as I recently did and lived to tell.
Most people I know can easily identify with most of those father figures in Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra and the hapless heroine of Aida and the head-over-heels tenors in love in Don Carlo and in just about any Puccini opera.
Their plights and challenges and emotional roller coasters are not far removed from those of many of us common folk, even if their exotic or lofty stations as court jesters or royalty or high-class call-girls or enslaved princesses make them seemingly different from mere mortals like you and me.
They are not.
But, when it comes to all those fantastical beings – gods, giants, monsters, talking dragons, swimming-singing maidens, knights who commune with the goddess of love, strangers who go around in boats pulled by a swan, evil magicians, and women and men who drink magical potions that make them fall in love, and singing shoe-makers in love with a girl half their age… well… our capacity for empathy and our ability to temporarily suspend disbelief are challenged.
But then, there is the music.
If an opera producer is fortunate to secure the services of a tenor who can look like a young fellow in his teens (Parsifal, Siegfried) or a handsome hero (Sigmund, Walther, Tristan, Lohengrin) or a soprano who can pass for a maiden of 18 in distress or in love or both (Isolde, Elsa, Elisabeth, Sieglinde, Eva…) and sing with lungs of steel, luck is on his side.
The challenge is that most singers capable to take on the high decibel, sustained, vocally-punishing writing Wagner assigned especially to his sopranos and tenors and baritones and deliver in a house like the MET with its 3,800 seats and be heard over an orchestra that can have over one hundred musicians competing in the anything-you-can-sing-I-can-play-louder marathons that Wagnerian performances can often become, often look like anything but the characters they are asked to portray.
But then, there is the music.
Listening to an opera by Wagner on the computer (Thank you, You Tube) or on a CD is for me much more enjoyable than dressing up and driving to the theatre after paying a hefty price for a pair of tickets for my companion and myself, and trying to stay awake though an eons-long Wagnerian work.
In the comfort of home I can pause, get up to get a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and then come back to slug my way through Tristan und Isolde.
And if I don’t like the modern-dress production by director XYZ – the one set in a WWI submarine (… not making this up… ) – why then I can turn that off and watch another choice on You Tube or, often my strategy, choose a vintage recording with some of the greats of the past (Birgit Nilson, Wolfgang Windgassen, Hans Hotter) and close my eyes and create my very own staging in my mind.
Wagner does not provide many entries for the Opera Hit Parade. His through-composed writing style makes it difficult to pull out excerpts, the way one can with the stop-for-applause-and-start-again approach of most of Verdi and Puccini.
Wagner’s Greatest Hits are orchestral – the overtures to Rienzi, Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, the Preludes to Acts I and III of Lohengrin, the Good Friday music of Parsifal, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Funeral March…
So hang in there, all of you members of the Verdi and Puccini fan clubs, and give Wagner a try.
Start with Flying Dutchman, then work your way through Tannhäuser and Lohengrin… then, when you feel ready for a sixteen-hour journey on the Rhine, go for the four-operas musical marathon that makes up the Ring Cycle.
After that, use some Mozart as a palate cleanser.