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Classical 101

Waiting and Waiting For Wagner

It's summer music festival time again, and every year one of the most famous in the world takes place in the German town of Bayreuth.  The Wagner Festival gets under way in July, but plan ahead if you ever hope to see one of Richard Wagner's operas staged there. If you want tickets, you are informed "You must expect to wait for 7-10 years(!) before you get tickets. It is important that you apply every year.  You can only apply by regular mail. In the end it will be your turn." I knew Wagner's operas were long, but what is it with Wagner and time? You have to wait a really long time to get to see really long operas in what I understand are rather cramped seats. Committed Wagnerites must be very patient people. Is it worth the wait? Many people seem to think so, since the festival is regularly sold out. About half a million people apply every year for the 58,000 tickets that are available for each season's performances. Wagner himself conceived of the festival and had a theater built to his own design specifically for the performance of his music dramas, and to this day only his works are presented there. The festival opened in 1876 with the monumental Ring of the Niebelung, the longest operatic work in the repertoire. The Ring Cycle comprises four operas telling an epic story of Norse gods and goddesses, humans, dwarfs, and dragons, with the action spanning three generations from the beginning of The Rhinegold to the end of Twilight of the Gods. Not only that, but to see the entire Ring Cycle takes four days, one opera for each evening. If you listened to a recording of all four back-to-back, it would take fifteen to sixteen hours, depending on the conductor.

Stories that Take a Long Time to Tell

If Wagner were alive today I think he might be a film director. In the realm of mythic adventures, Peter Jackson's adaptation of  J. R. R. Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings comes in at about nine to ten hours. Maybe only George Lucas comes close to Wagner's Ring if you count all six parts of the Star Wars saga. This is thinking big for works conceived as a single story. But the Ring Cycle begins with music depicting the creation of the world in the swirling depths of the Rhine before the Rhinemaidens and Alberich appear, and the last opera ends with a conflagration and flood that seems to be the end of the world. It's hard to top that for a long time span. There's a kind of Teutonic pacing to the operas, too, that slows down the sense of time passing, making it seem like an eternity for some. However, it must be said this allows for music of an amazing complexity and depth that conveys the emotions of the characters and their interrelationships with great psychological subtlety in a way that only the greatest art can. Seeing and hearing these works in the theater designed for them must be a unique experience. Also, the acoustics in the Festspielhaus are said to be outstanding (the recordings I've heard certainly would seem to confirm that). Still, seven to ten years is a long time to wait just to get in. If you have the time, can spare the expense, and are sufficiently motivated, it may be worth seeing what the denizens of Valhalla are up to on their home turf.  Otherwise, I hear there's a complete Ring Cycle in Seattle, Washington being presented by the Seattle Opera beginning in August (of this year). And if there are no more tickets, there's also one being planned for Los Angeles in 2010, if seven to ten years just seems too long to wait.