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Classical 101

Classical Haiku: Richard Wagner

Small were not your ways in opera – forgive me – in music drama. Pop quiz: Let's say an opera composer writes a four-opera cycle based on (a liberal reworking of) a vast Germanic epic, then decides that those four operas can only be performed in a theater built expressly for them. What description would best fit that composer? a) ambitious b) a bit over the top c) silly d) all of the above From this description (and the less-than-cryptic title of this post) you might already recognize the composer in question as Richard Wagner, the author of the ginormous Der Ring des Nibelungen. While it is true that Wagner composed some works of shorter duration, and for smaller performing forces, his operas overshadow everything else in his output in both quality and, if you will, girth. But, technically speaking, it isn't entirely correct to speak of Wagner's "operas." Some of his earlier operas can be called "operas." But at a certain point in time, he changed his thinking about opera. He was not impressed with the unnecessary clap-trap of live horses and other gimmicks he saw on the stages of Paris, then the opera capital of the world. (It also couldn't have helped that Paris showed the young Wagner the door.) And disapproved of the way opera composers left the seams showing from one section to the next. After years of thinking about how music, words, scenery, costumes and all the other trappings of opera can best convey the drama of a plot, Wagner decided that the genre he wanted to work within was not opera, but rather one of his own devising: music drama. Music that drama shines through, music that serves the emotional aims of drama. A semantic game? Maybe, but only slightly. Listen to an opera by Giuseppe Verdi, or better yet, by Gaetano Donizetti and then listen to a music drama by Wagner. There's a difference in how music helps the plot unfold. That, in part, defines music drama. So today's Classical Haiku goes to Richard Wagner, whose music dramas might be a bit much, but only too much of a good thing.