After Richard Wagner, opera would never be the same again.
While struggling to give articulation to the extraordinary conception taking shape in his mind over the course of a quarter of a century, the composer was in no doubt about one thing: his ‘Artwork of the Future’, set out in his so-named essay of 1849, could not be performed as part of the ordinary programme of any existing theatre.
Not only were the demands on the singers and orchestral players of Der Ring des Nibelungen going to be way beyond the norm, but the audience itself needed to be prepared for the experience. Rather than coming to the performances after a tiring day in the workplace, people would set aside a period, as the Greeks did for their festivals, enabling them to contemplate at leisure what they were seeing and hearing. That principle is still enshrined at the Bayreuth Festival, where Wagner’s works continue to be performed today largely as he intended.
Wagner’s works were revolutionary in other ways too. In place of the conventional melody and accompaniment that had until then characterised opera composition, he created a new way of setting the text (which he always wrote himself). Sometimes called a ‘musico-poetic synthesis’, this was a fusion of text and musical line that captured all the expressive nuances of the former in a setting that was neither recitative nor aria, but a kind of heightened arioso – somewhere between the two.
This in turn predicated a breakdown of the conventional operatic numbers – aria, duet, chorus and so on – in through-composed scenes that still retained elements of those forms but now organised in large-scale structures. Those structures were themselves shaped according to tonalities and networks of ‘leitmotifs’ – short motifs identified with specific objects (sword, spear, ring), characters, ideas or emotions.
Wagner did not (quite) invent the notion of the leitmotif, but he did develop it as a structural principle and the technique has been imitated to a greater or lesser extent by virtually all subsequent composers of opera. Most operas since Wagner also unfold in through-composed scenes rather than self-contained numbers and a musico-poetic synthesis of some sort is also the norm.
Orchestration is another sphere revolutionised by Wagner. In his own time and country, his nemesis Giacomo Meyerbeer was also pushing the boundaries of tradition as, in France, was Berlioz, but it was Wagner who first gave such instruments as the trumpet and bass clarinet consistently interesting parts, who had new instruments designed (Wagner tubas) and plucked others from obscurity, expanding the tonal resources and imaginative possibilities of the orchestra in the process.
Quite apart from the voluptuous harmonies and rich textures of Wagner’s operas, what attracts many to them is their psychological subtlety and ideological complexity. The latter is often problematic – many scholars believe that Wagner’s anti-Semitism is evident in some of the works themselves as a kind of subtext – but there is an increasing realisation that the works do not necessarily have to be accepted on their own terms. Modern interpretations have found convincing ways of challenging ideologies that are no longer widely held. Wagner’s operas, with their deep truths and ambivalent significations, remain as enthralling, provocative and life-enhancing as ever.
Here, in chronological order, we explore the ten best known. Click on the title of each opera to find out more.
Off the coast of Norway, a mysterious sailor and his equally mysterious ship appear. We learn that the sailor, the eponymous Dutchman, is fated to journey the seas for eternity – only if he finds unquestionable devotion from another, will the spell be broken. Senta, a local seamstress, is smitten. To prove her faithfulness, she makes the ultimate sacrifice.
In 13th-century Germany, Tannhäuser, a minstrel, descends from the magical, sensuous world of the Venusberg to the human realm of the Wartburg, from which he had previously departed in disgrace, and is reunited with his former lover, the pious Elisabeth. In a song contest overseen by the Landgrave, Tannhaüser shocks the assembled company with his unspiritual concept of love. Going on a pilgrimage to Rome to seek absolution, he is told his cause is lost. However, Elisabeth’s suicide, and Tannhäuser’s reaction to it, offers redemption.
When the Belgian duchy of Brabant is under threat from attack, help comes from a knight in shining armour, who arrives in a boat pulled by a swan. Elsa, daughter of the deceased Duke of Brabant, falls in love with him… but Telramund and Ortrud plan his downfall. On the night of their wedding,
Elsa is tricked into asking Lohengrin about the one thing he has forbidden: his identity. This leads to the knight returning to the land from where he came, but only after his swan has been transformed into Gottfried, Elsa’s long-lost brother.
At the bottom of the River Rhine, the dwarf Alberich steals the Rhine gold from the Rhinemaidens, who have revealed that whoever can create a ring from it will inherit the world. Meanwhile, up in the mountains, Wotan finds himself in trouble when he has to hand his daughter Freia over to the giants Fafner and Fasolt as the promised payment for building his castle. The giants agree to accept the Rhine gold in her place, so Wotan and his sidekick Loge head to Alberich’s cave to get it. They succeed but, alas, Alberich has cursed the ring and whoever should own it…
Separated from his twin sister Sieglinde since childhood, Siegmund is reunited with her when sheltering from a storm at the house of her husband Hunding. They fall passionately in love. Hunding himself, though, realises that Siegmund once killed his brother, and challenges him to combat. Wotan, who is Siegmund’s father, sends the Valkyrie Brünnhilde to protect him, but then, on the order of his wife Fricka, changes his mind. Brünnhilde does so anyway. Siegmund loses when Wotan shatters his sword; Brünnhilde, meanwhile, is condemned by Wotan to lie in a magic sleep, surrounded by a ring of fire.
Sailing from Ireland to Cornwall, where Isolde is to marry King Marke, Tristan, who killed her previous fiancé, is persuaded to drink the elixir of death in atonement. Isolde drinks it too, wanting an end to her sorry life. This, though, is not the elixir of death but the elixir of love, Isolde’s maid Brangäne having switched the two bottles. Cue one of opera’s most famous love stories which ends with Tristan being struck by one of Marke’s men. Mortally wounded, Tristan goes to Brittany where Islode arrives as he breathes his last.
In 16th-century Nuremberg, the goldsmith Pogner causes a stir by announcing that he is to hold a song contest with the hand of his daughter, Eva, as first prize. Walther, a young knight who is in love with Eva, decides to take part, despite not belonging to the town’s guild of mastersingers. His effort is ruled out on technical grounds by Beckmesser, who also has his eye on Eva. Beckmesser’s own song gets sabotaged by Hans Sachs, the most famous mastersinger of all, who then helps Walther to win the contest.
Looked after since childhood by the dwarf Mime, Siegfried forges a new weapon from the shards of the sword of his father, Siegmund (see Die Walküre). After some intellectual high jinx between Mime and the Wanderer (Wotan), he is taken to slay the dragon Fafner and seize the hoard of gold that includes the Ring. Mime plans to poison Siegfried and grab the hoard himself, but when Siegfried finds out, he strikes him down. Siegfried in turn learns of Brünnhilde, whom he sets out to free from the flames.
Siegfried is tricked by Hagen, son of Alberich, into drinking a potion that will make him forget his love for Brünnhilde. He then offers to use his power to win Brünnhilde for Hagen’s half-brother Gunther – all part of Hagen’s plan to grab the Ring, currently in her possession. Siegfried succeeds, puts the Ring on his own finger and is subsequently killed by Hagen. But when Hagen tries to remove the Ring he is resisted by Siegfried’s dead body. Brünnhilde takes the Ring back and rides with it into Siegfried’s funeral pyre to purify it. As the opera closes, the Rhine overflows its banks and the Rhinemaidens reclaim the Ring. All the while, up in Valhalla, Wotan has silently been waiting for the end of the gods to arrive…
Amfortas, King of the Grail Knights, has been in constant pain and shame ever since losing the Holy Spear when led sensuously astray in the neighbouring realm of the conniving Klingsor. Retrieving the spear falls to the unwary, innocent Parsifal, who nearly succumbs to the same charms, courtesy of the alluring Kundry, but snaps to his senses. His journey to return to the Grail castle and cure Amfortas’s suffering takes many years, but the outcome is an exultant one.