The second development that gave the Operatic format a new lease on life is the unified Music Drama that was essentially invented by Richard Wagner. Now I know Wagner was not particularly palatable as a human being, but he was responsible for pretty much all the developments in Classical music after him, so you can’t really ignore him as a composer. He started in the field of German Romantic Opera pioneered by Weber’s Die Frieschutz, with its fondness for fantasy themes and supernatural atmospheres.
However, just as instrumental to the environment that Wagner emerged from was an influence he would never have acknowledged—Felix Mendelssohn (Wagner absolutely despised Mendelssohn, partly due to his all-too-famous anti-Semitism and partly out of professional jealousy). But Mendelssohn, though he wrote no Opera per se, created two legendary works for the theater…the epic Oratorio Elijah and an iconic set of stage music interludes for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And both were instrumental in popularizing the supernatural feel and fantasy subject matter that were the basis for Wagner’s stock-in-trade.
Mendelssohn was a graceful, reserved and, as a rule, not terribly dramatic composer (which is why, despite his genius, he still has a surprising number of detractors to this day), and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his trademark delicacy ideally suited Shakespeare’s play. On the other hand, Elijah was easily the most dramatic thing Mendelssohn ever wrote, grand, sweeping and majestic, and is considered by many today to be his greatest single composition, both due to its ambitious scope and because it is perceived to be one of the few times he really let loose his capacity for dramatic power.
Wagner started out as a fairly straightforward product of these influences, and after some early missteps with the pretty but dramatically weak Operatic fantasy Die Feen and a dreary adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure called Der Liebensverbot (and an attempt at Meyerbeer-style Grand Opera called Rienzi that he preferred to just pretend never happened) he created a second-tier Operatic staple in the same vein with the stormy, atmospheric The Flying Dutchman. This Opera featured some absolutely phenomenal orchestral music representing the storm-tossed sea and the terror of the supernatural. But the work is marred by the limitations of the Operatic format at the time, such as the heavy-handed attempts to emphasize the work’s centerpiece aria, “Ballad of the Flying Dutchman”, or the out-of-place inclusion of a too-conventional love song for the romantic juvenile that breaks up the atmosphere of an otherwise thrilling third act. Understandably, Wagner quickly grew restless at the standard Operatic clichés, and he began to tinker with the format in his subsequent works, blurring the traditional lines between recitative and aria, putting greater emphasis on the orchestra until its role was almost equal with the singers, and seeking to create an increasingly unified structure that would flow seamlessly between musical dialogue and full-on song.
By his true breakthrough work, Tristan and Isolde, he had fused the two into a perfectly unified stream of melody where every note was sung like an aria and every line was structured like a spoken play. I’ve heard Tristan described as the most romantic Musical love story of all time, and while its approach to love is much more philosophical and abstract than most love stories, its emotions are so cosmically epic that I can actually see that point of view.
In a twist that I consider one of the most inspired ironies in Classical Music, Wagner wrote what is still probably the most seamless, unified theater score in history, a piece that, apart from the act borders, never pauses in its continuous, endlessly flowing rush to the next musical passage, and then set this least fragmented score of all time to a fragmented libretto. Wagner gets a lot of flack for his self-penned librettos, and it is true that while he had his moments as a poet, he was not very good at conveying dramatic information in a concise way, which is admittedly a pretty necessary skill in writing for the theater. But in this case, Wagner made no real attempt to convey any comprehensible dramatic information in the text to begin with, so in this particular work that problem is virtually irrelevant. Instead of anything resembling normal theatrical dialogue, Tristan libretto consists of abstract, often near-incomprehensible poetry expressed almost entirely in short, broken phrases like “Chosen to me and lost to me/Death-destined head, Death-destined heart” or “Air! My heart is choking! Open Wide!”
Despite its lack of anything remotely resembling a punctuated set piece, the show has no shortage of vocal or orchestral highlights. Among the moments particularly lauded by Classical critics are the prologue, an explosive Tone Poem mixing sex with cosmic transcendence; Isolde’s long narrative where she lays out her backstory and motivations to some of the Opera’s most stunning music; the beginning of the ‘Love Potion’ scene, where the lovers stare at each other in silence while incredibly rich and nuanced orchestral music conveys the full depth of their thoughts and feelings to the audience; and the ‘Liebesnacht’, or ‘Night of Love’, a forty-minute-long Love Duet sequence that goes from thunderous shouting to tender sighs and back again. To many, one of the most touching passages comes in the form of a slow, heartbreakingly sad musical monologue from King Mark of Cornwall (who is portrayed much more sympathetically in this Opera than he was in, say, Malory’s Morte de Arthur).
Perhaps the most insanely beautiful material comes in the third act’s tragic conclusion. The act begins with an unutterably haunting prelude that makes heavy use of a solo oboe meant to represent a Shepherd’s pipe. It then spirals into a series of three utterly insane introspective monologues for Tristan as he waits for Isolde’s arrival, climaxing with him tearing open his own wounds in a frenzy and dying in the arrived Isolde’s arms. This is followed by another grieving monologue for King Mark, before the score finally comes to a genuine climax with the transcendentally beautiful “Liebstod” (or “Love/Death”) aria, where Isolde follows Tristan into their ultimate fulfillment in death.
Wagner’s other truly seminal work, The Ring of the Nibelung, a four-Opera cycle totaling approximately 18 hours in all, was a sweeping fantasy epic played out on stage. Indeed, it was the prototype for all modern fantasy epics, having clearly been a major source of inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkein always strenuous denied this, insisting that any perceived similarities were merely the result of he and Wagner drawing on the same Germanic legends as source material. But due to Tolkien’s particular cultural position at the time, admitting that he was inspired by Wagner would have been considered wildly socially unacceptable, and the fact that, in addition to the extensive similarity of their plot details, the two works share the exact same structure (a massive trilogy preceded by a much shorter prologue), makes his claim seem more than a bit disingenuous.
Because Wagner’s librettos for the four Operas were written in reverse order, their structure becomes much closer to the conventional operatic model as the series goes on. The ‘Prologue’ Opera, Das Rheingold, for example, is so strictly integrated as a Music Drama that it doesn’t have a single extractible passage…as glorious as the shimmering prelude (which consists of a single repeated, rippling chord) or the grandiose finale “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” are, they just don’t make sense outside of the Opera itself.
The second Opera in the collection, and probably the most beloved, is Die Walkure. The most accessible and human of the set by far, it features one of the all-time orchestral hits, “The Ride of the Valkyries”, but apart from a single set aria, the “Spring Song”, it sticks pretty closely to the rules of Wagner’s Music Drama as far as the vocal music is concerned. Indeed, it contains the most moving use of that format to convey real human emotion in all of Wagner’s career in the famous “Annunciation of Death” scene and the incredibly sad and moving final half-hour.
The third installment, Seigfried, is generally the least popular of the four, being heavy in tone even for Wagner and a little stingier on the take-home tunes than the others, although the “Forest Murmurs” scene and the final love duet are about as fine a pair of set pieces as you could ask for. Perhaps the most significant and forward-looking passage in Siegfried, however, is the “Forging Scene”, a raucous, thunderous sequence that basically invented from scratch the musical sounds we now associate with the Heavy Metal genre. These sounds were of course created by way of orchestra rather than the not-yet-extant electric guitar characteristic of the modern incarnation of the genre, but the sounds themselves are an uncanny foretaste of musical trends that would not fully flower until more than a century later.
The final entry, Gotterdammurung (a German compound word meaning “Twilight of the Gods”), is structured almost like a traditional Grand Opera in places, with thundering choruses, an old-fashioned Oath Trio, and a climactic aria for the soprano lasting a full 18 minutes in total. In place of the ballet sequences that Grand Opera relied so heavily on, there are two orchestral Tone Poems inserted into the action that serve much the same function. It also climaxed with the literal end of the world, and made use of enough spectacle to make Meyerbeer blush in order to do it justice. It was actually a realization of the true potential of the Grand Opera form, an ironic observation given how much Wagner despised the Grand Opera format in general and Meyerbeer in particular.
On the more conventional and audience-friendly of Wagner’s mature works, such the ultra-melodious Tannhauser and Lohengrin and the philosophical comedy Der Meistersingers von Nurnburg, he contrived a variation on the above style that left a little more room for traditional Operatic flourishes. These scores feature relatively traditional Operatic set pieces (like the Wedding Chorus from Lohengrin now universally known as “Here Comes the Bride”, or the ravishing “Prize Song” that forms the centerpiece of Meistersinger), but surround them with formless, free-flowing arioso instead of traditional Operatic recitative. This structure, an effective compromise between the worlds of Wagnerian Music Drama and traditional Opera, already had its roots in the music of Rameau, and it is not really substantially different from the one that is still used today in such modern musicals as the works of Boublil and Schonberg.
Tannhauser and Lohengrin, because they predated Tristan’s breakthrough, still have one foot in the traditional Operatic format, and they feature much more conventional and accessible vocal melodies than the later works. This had led some of the Classical critics to treat them with with a kind of implicit condescension, but it’s worth noting that Lohengrin, at least, has consistently garnered more popular success than any other Wagner Opera for well over a century now, so the public certainly seems to find it as valid an effort as his more “mature” Operas.
Tannhauser was badly received at its premeir, to the point where its disastrous reception has passed into theater legend. This is largely because Wagner went out of his way to “troll” (as we would put it today) some of the most prominent Parisian Opera patrons of the time (to be fair, they by all accounts deserved it). It might also have had something to do with the central character being spectacular unlikable or the fact that the story contains several deliberately shocking moments…in other words, this was not the most audience-friendly material in the Operatic canon to begin with. But the story is insightful and psychologically truthful, and the score has more flat-out hit vocal arias than anything else Wagner ever wrote.
Lohengrin, in retrospect, was fairly obviously based on the Jewish legend of the Tzaddikim, which essentially tells of holy warriors on behalf of God who lose their power if they ever reveal their identity. If it sounds surprising that a raging anti-semite like Wagner would draw on such a legend, remember that his antipathy towards Jewish culture was more of a twisted and perverse obsession than your typical flavor of prejudice—I have no doubt he studied Jewish folklore with a paranoid fixation.
In any case, the Opera centers around a Knight of the Holy Grail who claims to be the son of Parsifal, arguably making Wagner’s final opera a sort of prequel to this one. Certainly they have in common a distinctly mystical tone, although Lohengrin never approaches the level of unearthly trascendence achieved by its “prequel”. That said, it has more sheer vocal melody than anything else in the Wagner canon, and this seems to have served it in good stead, as it has consistently remained Wagner’s most popular work with mainstream audiences, significantly outstripping his more lauded ‘mature’ works in terms of actual performance frequency.
Meistersinger in particular was the lightest and friendliest Opera of Wagner’s career, a warm and philosophical comedy that wavers between airy lightness and robust German revelry, and it would probably be his most accessible work by far if not for one thing: an uncut performance is more than five hours long. Granted, Gotterdammurung is only marginally shorter, and the Ring Cycle as a whole takes roughly 18 total hours to perform (depending on the general tempo of the conducting), but the Ring is a fantasy epic, so on some level you expect it to be long and drawn out. Meistersinger, on the other hand, is essentially a Musical Comedy, the operatic equivalent of something like Guys and Dolls, and the fact that its proportions are so ridiculously heavy actually interferes with the thing it’s trying to be. I’m not normally in favor of those who say Wagner’s operas should be cut to a more manageable length, but before the ‘authenticity’ craze in modern Opera stagings caught on, Meistersinger was nearly always presented with the score cut down to the length of a normal Opera, and while doing so does mean sacrificing some admittedly wonderful music (the score is almost uniformly glorious), that’s still probably the most effective way to actually perform it live.
Wagner’s last Opera, and by all accounts his favorite of his own works, was Parsifal. A retelling of the Holy Grail myth featuring some of the most beautiful and trascendental music of Wagner’s career, It is also perhaps Wagner’s most ideologically palatable work, as its philosophical content tends to emphasize his redeeming qualities (and yes, he did have them). Indeed, this Opera is so pacifistic, compassionate and redemptive in its message that the Nazis had to ban it altogether in order to co-opt Wagner’s body of work into the propaganda-ready narrative for which they were trying to employ his legacy.
Interestingly, Parsifal shares more than a little with the theatrical Magnum Opus of Wagner’s most hated archrival, Johannes Brahms. Because Brahms was something of a fanatic about what he called “Absolute Music” (that is, completely abstract music that exists on its own without any connection to a concrete reality outside of itself), his contributions to the art of Musical Theatre are suprisingly limited for such an important composer. However, he did write an extremely famous Oratorio (he titled it A German Requiem, but the work is quite obviously in the Oratorio format) which became the largest-scale and most ambitious composition of his career. His goal in this German-language setting of carefully curated bible verses was essentially the same as Wagner’s for Parsifal…to provide a secular, humanistic alternative to a traditional religious experience. Even the music sounds similar at times: Brahms’ trademark style, with its flowing melodies and lush harmonies, bears a striking resemblance to the idiom Wagner used for much of Parsifal, particularly the ritualistic finale of Act One and the Opera’s most famous music, the so-called “Good Friday Spell” from Act Three.