The War of the Voices
An artist's most rewarding discovery is his unique voice, but not many artists in the early 1800s were given much acreage to hunt for theirs. Rules, rules, and rules swam in every head, pushing every pen and playing every instrument. Some of the composers who followed them all became great by getting creative and making them interesting, but few they were, so that by the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the world (whether it knew or not) was developing a hankering for something new. Grand Opera was started, and the mold began to crack. Wagner used the form to find his voice, but as he put together the foundation of what would be his revolution, the Dark Lord, Verdi, also rose. Once they'd become the two greatest operatic world powers of their time, an inevitable cold war broke out between them. There is no existing proof that they ever shook hands or met eyes, but they certainly had a lot to say about one another's work, and their words could clutter up a large portion of any Amazon product comment board. They were the commentors you'd never want to get between. While Verdi did everything he could to take the Italian opera style to the most fascinating and beautiful of dark and stormy places (The Italians invented opera, after all...), Wagner opted for an overhaul, innovating to the point of reinvention, in his life approving of only one Italian opera composer, Vincenzo Bellini. When asked about Verdi's Requiem, Wagner answered, "I think it best to say nothing." He called Verdi's music archaic and frilly, believing himself to be the one composer on Earth who was capable of making "masculine" music. Verdi said Wagner's operas were too long and too large. He admired Wagner's individuality to some degree, but that didn't prevent him from calling Wagner's tuneless style a cop-out or from (as it's rumored) accepting a theatre's invitation to direct one of his own operas only because if he didn't take it, Wagner would be the next choice.
As I've written, ole Rich got pretty tired pretty fast of the Italians once he started composing his own music. Every Italian, that is, except Vincenzo Bellini, because Bellini had a thing for long and emotional melodies just like Wagner... er... well... sorta like Wagner. Wagner started bleeding his work of traditional elements pretty early on, and he made it clear that he thought everyone else should do the same. He rode through the opera world carrying a "T&I" flag at the head of an army of leitmotifs, which we covered in "Five Operas that Changed the World." To recap, leitmotifs are basically musical themes for characters or elements in a story, like Howard Shore's "Concerning Hobbits" and John Williams's "Hedwig's Theme." They pop up over the course of a work, whether that work be a film score or an opera, often in twisted up forms of themselves. In Tristan und Isolde ("T&I"), Wagner substituted every possible tune with leitmotifs in an effort to create a brand new style of operatic composition. He tossed the Italian term for his work, "opera," out to the dogs and mercenaries, calling his products "music dramas" instead, because even though they featured operatic voices and orchestral blends, they sounded nothing like opera. Nope. Nothing like it at all (Can I get a facepalm?). As arrogant as his many book-length (no joke) opinions of his own music may have been, however, his stabbing and tearing and flesh-eating of the operatic genre wound up paying off mightily. He became the most influential opera composer since Claudio Monteverdi, himself.
I've devoted this entire section to the ultimate Wagner work because it is, in pretty much every way, ultimate. The sets are huge. The casts are huge. The orchestra is huge. The music, itself, was considered beyond any Nineteenth Century opera company's ability to perform, so Wagner opened his own theatre to premiere it. He believed in a little concept called "Gesamtkunstwerk" (Don't leave just yet) or "The Total Work of Art." In a total work of art onstage, the music, the story, the set designs, and everything else goes together to form one big, well, work of art! Also, it requires human sacrifice. Okay, so lead tenor role of Tristan und Isolde didn't actually kill the poor guy who first attempted to get through it (Wagner had a tendency to compose roles that are so long that they're just as hard to sing as anything Verdi or Rossini or Donizetti wrote) but there were plenty of accusations to the contrary. Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) shows how seriously Wagner took his own beliefs concerning opera, which included the notion that music is secondary to story. I know, it doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, but, somehow, it works. In the world's most famous opera cycle (sorry, Wagner... music drama cycle) the world of the gods and the world of men collide in one of the greatest fictional battles for power ever to be fought. It culminates in the most complete testament to Wagner's faith in a man's capabilities and fire. Leitmotifs abound and so do "dramatic" singers. Dramatic sopranos, tenors, baritones, mezzos, and basses all have very, very large and heavy voices that are difficult for them to control but that can make a war cry of just about any note they sing, and what was more attractive to Wagner than one or another kind of warfare? Ideally, performances of Wagner's work include "Wagnerian" singers (the ultimate "dramatic" voices), whose highest notes are as large and solid as their lowest. Yes, just like Verdi, Wagner did so much to take opera to new heights that he even has a style of singing named after him.
I've been asked to feature my highest recommended recordings for each of the artists that I write about, so I've decided to start a YouTube channel partly for that purpose. I hope you've enjoyed this article on Richard Wagner and I hope you enjoy the first video of my new vlog-in-progress next week, buds! Happy opera loving!