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My Journey to Valhalla: How I Came to Love Wagnerian Opera (and Opera in General)

Updated on May 16, 2014
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I was lucky enough to have been born into a family that loved good music. My father knew local musicians and introduced me to Maestro Danilo Sciotti, a conductor of a local orchestra - I was a boy at the time but I still remember Maestro Sciotti's music room with a grand piano and sheet music all over the place. (His name, by the way, is pronounced "Shaw-thee," emphasis on the first syllable.) I heard a lot of fine music at home as a kid and, after my father passed away, my mother bought me a piano and a "hi-fi." (I became much more adept at playing the latter than the former! I still have the piano but my stereo system has come a long way since then.) She also subscribed to the Music Appreciation Society and once a month we received a recording (on LP of course) of a symphony, concerto, etc., along with another record analyzing the work. I looked forward to hearing those each month. I believe my favorite composer at the time was Mozart, especially the overture to The Magic Flute.

As I entered my teenage years, I grew to like rock n' roll like most of my peers (I still do, especially the "doo-wop" groups) and I bought "45s" by Elvis, Dion, the 4 Seasons and, in high school, I became a big Beatles fan. I never, however, relinquished my love for "classical" music and alternated between listening to one and then the other. (Some of my friends couldn't understand my love for what they called that "longhair stuff" - their loss!) Both my parents loved opera and I remember my mother tuning in the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on the radio on Saturday afternoons. Being from an Italian family, Verdi and Puccini were the favorites. (As an aside, I asked my mother why she didn't have the opera on one afternoon and she said they were playing some German opera called Tannhauser. I shrugged it off - little did I know!) When I was about 12 or 13, she dragged me to a local performance of Verdi's Aida. I didn't care for it much.

In fact, I hated opera! Much as I loved orchestral music (I could listen to Beethoven symphonies all day), opera turned me off. I thought it was screeching. I changed my mind, believe it or not, when I was a soldier in the US Army. One afternoon in the barracks in Fort Holabird, Maryland, a fellow GI and I were listening to a classical music station when some music came on I had never heard before. I asked what it was and he told me that was the music of the German composer, Richard Wagner (pronounced "Vahg-ner"). I was enthralled. The post library had a collection of (rarely played) classical LPs and I went in to listen to recordings of Wagner's music, albeit the orchestral versions or excerpts. That was it, I was hooked! Eventually, however, I began to wonder what the original operas were like, and I went ahead and listened to Wagnerian opera (if memory serves, it was from Die Walkure ["The Valkyrie"], the second opera of the Ring Cycle). Lo and behold I liked it . . .

My "shrine" to Richard Wagner, CDs, and DVDs.   The James Levine Ring Cycle is on the right.  To the left is the motion picture "Wagner" starring Richard Burton - 9 hours long!
My "shrine" to Richard Wagner, CDs, and DVDs. The James Levine Ring Cycle is on the right. To the left is the motion picture "Wagner" starring Richard Burton - 9 hours long!

Eventually I got stationed in Italy - tough assignment! :) and the Post Exchange had a good record selection and they cost $2.50 per LP no matter what. GIs being the way they are, most of the rock records flew off the shelves BUT there were plenty of classical LPs. Because of the standardized pricing, I could buy a six-LP set of an opera that probably listed for $40-50 for fifteen bucks! So my Wagner collection began to take shape. While stationed in Italy, I attended a concert in Venice's famed La Fenice opera house (since burned down and restored I understand) where part of Walkure was sung on stage. Eventually I got to see the entire opera in Washington, DC. A funny thing happened along the way: I started wondering about the operas I was exposed to in my youth so I turned to Italian opera (eventually to French and other opera as well - I love Carmen), and discovered what I had been missing. Now the cycle was complete. Since then I have attended opera in London, Rome, Salzburg, Budapest, Vienna, and Verona as well as in the US. (Check out my Hub on opera in Verona - the grandest of all grand opera on the largest stage in the world!)

The Wagner LP collection including the LPs I purchased back in the 1960s in the Army - still in excellent condition!
The Wagner LP collection including the LPs I purchased back in the 1960s in the Army - still in excellent condition!

I am not going to comment much on Herr Wagner himself - he was a mean-spirited megalomaniac with a vicious streak. Plenty has been written about him and the subsequent use of his music by the Nazis. (It took a long time before Wagner's music was played in Israel!) A lot of artists were, shall we say, "eccentric" but he was beyond the pale. BUT (a big "but") he certainly was a musical genius and his music is absolutely sublime. Now, people either love Wagner's music or they hate it -- some people consider it to be way too long and boring. Others, like myself, can't get enough of it.

As an introduction to Wagner, I would suggest listening to excerpts from Die Walkure (note - there should be an umlaut - two dots, thus .. -- over the "u" - pronounced "Dee Vahl-KOOR-a") such as the all-too-familiar Ride of the Valkyries. (Remember the Elmer Fudd cartoon? "I captured the Wabbit!") If you are not an opera fan to begin with, Wagnerian opera may be a bit off-putting. I would suggest starting with "chestnuts" like Carmen and Madam Butterfly. Then work your way "up" through Tosca, La Boheme, and eventually Verdi (Aida, La Traviata, Rigoletto, etc.) and then Wagner. I use the term "work your way up" not to mean some operas are "better" than others but from the standpoint of approachability for opera novices. (My favorite Puccini opera? Turandot. Crazy story -- like many operas -- but some of the most beautiful music you will ever hear. You will likely recognize the aria "Nessun Dorma." Other great Italian operas are I Pagliaci by Lenocavallo and Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni - usually performed together. And don't forget Mozart!)

The Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, designed by Wagner himself to perform his "music-dramas."
The Festspielhaus at Bayreuth, designed by Wagner himself to perform his "music-dramas." | Source
The Immolation scene from "Twilight of the Gods," the last opera in the RIng Cycle.
The Immolation scene from "Twilight of the Gods," the last opera in the RIng Cycle. | Source

The crown jewel of opera, as far as I'm concerned, is Der Ring Des Nibelungen ("The Ring of the Nibelung"), four operas and about fifteen hours of incredible music! From Wikipedia:

"Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a cycle of four epic operas by the German composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883). The works are based loosely on characters from the Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied. The composer termed the cycle a 'Bühnenfestspiel' (stage festival play), structured in three days preceded by a Vorabend ('ante-evening'). It is often referred to as the Ring Cycle, Wagner's Ring, or simply the Ring.

Wagner wrote the libretto and music over the course of about twenty-six years, from 1848 to 1874. The four operas that constitute the Ring cycle are, in sequence:

Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold)
Die Walküre (The Valkyrie)
Siegfried
Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods)

Although individual operas of the sequence are sometimes performed separately, Wagner intended them to be performed in series. The first performance as a cycle opened the first Bayreuth Festival in 1876, beginning with Das Rheingold on 13 August and ending with Götterdämmerung on 17 August."

I have only attended Walkure a couple of times but I have watched the entire Ring on video tape and DVD several times. Valkyries (women on winged horses carrying the bodies of slain warriors up to Valhalla), dragons, gods, goddesses, giants, dwarfs, it's all there. I also like Tannhauser (remember that Saturday afternoon when my mother - R.I.P. - turned the radio off because it wasn't Italian?), Lohengrin, and Der Fliegende Hollander ("The Flying Dutchman"). His only "comedy" is Der Meistersinger von Nuremberg ("The Mastersinger of Nuremberg"), a delightful opera with wonderful music, especially the overture. A bit more difficult to get one's hands around are Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. They are masterpieces for sure (the "Love-Death" at the end of Tristan is an amazing piece of music) but I would not start my Wagnerian journey with either - save those for later.

As I stated earlier, people either love Wagner's music or they hate it but it is worth your while to find out which group you fall in. Count me in as a card-carrying member of the former!

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