Thursday, 22 May 2014

"Wagner reading Wagner": an idea whose time has come

A year ago today I chose to celebrate Richard Wagner's bicentenary in a way many would no doubt consider decidedly odd -- by dressing up to look like him and inviting a live audience to hear me read the full text of The Flying Dutchman (in English), supplementing this with a complete recording of the opera itself, coupled with a slide-show of appropriate images that had been edited to fit the dramatic context from moment to moment (all of which has been reproduced below, for the enjoyment of those with sufficient time on their hands). 

In answer to the obvious question -- Why? -- I could say a good deal, but will limit myself here to the briefest explanation I can manage.  Over the last twenty years or so, I had come to believe that Wagner's libretti -- or, as he preferred to say, poems (Gedichte) -- were by no means as dreadful as their reputation suggested.  Even in translation, their frequent traces of archaism, quaintness and inadvertent comicality struck me as adding to, rather than detracting from, their appeal, and I would increasingly find myself reading them aloud for effect, just as one might do with favourite passages of English poetry or excerpts from a novel.  Eyewitness accounts of Wagner's own readings of his works at gatherings of his friends and admirers even reminded me of the famous public reading tours given by Dickens -- which have been successfully recreated by actors more than once.  Might not something similar be tried in the case of Wagner?  Nietzsche repeatedly berates him for his theatricality, charges even his music as being at root nothing more than acting, even overacting, and Ernest Newman (in the second volume of his Life of Richard Wagner) describes how, in reading all the parts, he was able to suggest "varieties of character by his own extraordinary histrionic powers, making the vicissitudes of the drama clear by changes in the quality of his voice and nuances in the tempo of delivery".  And given the peculiar nature of these performances, might not an amateur enthusiast be better suited to the task of recreating them than a professional actor? 

In addition, as entertaining as the readings might prove on their own, their educational value would surely increase if they could be presented in combination with the operas themselves -- so that each scene in turn would first be read, and a recording of the same played immediately afterwards.  Thus, in place of the usual subtitles, the audience would get the translation in advance and in dramatised form, and be placed in an ideal position to appreciate how the completed work appears almost to grow out of the text, or -- as Wagner himself liked to put it -- how poetry quickens the fertile womb of music. 

In any event, that is what I made up my mind to do, opting for The Flying Dutchman as being the earliest, shortest and arguably most accessible of Wagner's major works.  And here, a year later, I am delighted to publish the complete performance for the first time.  Although I had posted the footage of the readings themselves quite soon after the event (when they received a generous boost from The Wagnerian -- here:, I have until now hesitated to include the clips of the opera itself, since I could not be sure whether parts of the recording and/or some of the accompanying images might be protected by copyright.  But since everybody else seems to do this kind of thing with impunity (and there are already numerous versions of the overture out there, sometimes even using the same images in a different sequence), it appears I may have been erring on the side of caution.  (One or two of the clips appear to be "unavailable in some countries", so it may not always be possible to view the entire production.)

Without more ado then, here follows my complete version of The Flying Dutchman, as it was given on the evening of 22 May 2013 in the Beethoven House auditorium, St Peter's campus, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa.  The recording used (almost) throughout is that of a live performance given at Bayreuth in August 1961 under Wolfgang Sawallisch, in a production by Wieland Wagner, with Franz Crass (the Dutchman), Anja Silja (Senta), Josef Greindl (Daland), and Fritz Uhl (Erik), reissued by DECCA, 2008.  The images were selected from the wide variety available online and consist of stills from staged productions, both recent and historic, set and costume designs, artists' impressions of the opera and/or material related to it. 

Act I

We begin, of course, with the Overture.  It is worth noting that in this recording, Wagner's original 1841 ending is used, which has the advantage of not preempting the Dutchman and Senta's final transfiguration, as found in the more familiar revised version of 1860.

The stage being set, I begin the reading, following a short introduction, with the opening scene -- doing my best to channel RW in the best Burtonian manner, while making Daland et al sound suitably nautical.

The corresponding scene is then repeated in a further clip from the full recording and with pictures added as before, in the style established in the Overture.  The idea is now that text and action will remain sufficiently clear in the audience's memory for the scene to be followed without difficulty. 


The reading then picks up at the point where it left off earlier -- with the entrance of Vanderdecken himself.  I now felt I needed to go overboard, so to speak, using the kind of style Michael Green recommends in The Art of Coarse Acting (a text I can't help thinking Wagner might have appreciated). 

And this once again prepares the way for the corresponding scene in the opera -- a terrifically impressive one.

And so I proceed to the final scene of the act, now trying to contrast comic and tragic registers in the way Wagner evidently intended should be done.  (By the way, the first few seconds of the next clip can be heard playing before the footage ends, which will give you some idea of the continuous nature of the presentation on the night itself.)

By now, I'm sure you get the idea -- as it was read, so shall it be played.  (You might also appreciate the look on Daland's face in the picture that pops up as he wonders -- in effect -- "Did I hear aright?"  This is a relatively rare example where the right image in the right place contributes perfectly to the overall effect.)

In total, that was already more than an hour's worth of entertainment.  On the evening in question, we broke for refreshments at this point.  (And if any of you have actually been following all this, I imagine you might like to do the same.) 

Act II
A new challenge was now raised by trying to work out what "changes in the quality of his voice" Wagner would have felt suitable for the presentation of female characters.  There seemed no other option but to speak falsetto, though hopefully without sounding completely ridiculous (except in the part of the housekeeper, Mary, where it was unavoidable). 
As before, the same scene is then repeated with pictures and music -- including the "Spinning Chorus" and "Senta's Ballad", the core of the entire drama.
Slight technical glitch at the beginning here -- sound but no picture for a few seconds.  We have now reached the scene between Senta and Erik.  

And one more time, as usual.  Managed to include some especially haunting images to underline Senta's obsession with the portrait. 

Now comes the central climax of the drama -- the portentous meeting of Senta and the Dutchman.

And again -- a truly spine-tingling duet.
By this time, my live audience was taking a bit of strain -- unsurprising when you consider we are essentially performing the whole opera twice.  Fortunately, there were still a few refreshments left. 
To conclude, then, the short but climactic final act.

This is in fact the well-known "Sailors' Chorus", using the rollicking theme first heard in the Overture.  
Erik's last bid to change Senta's mind -- first spoken.

 & then sung -- shortly but sweetly.
And the very last scene of all -- with appropriate gestures.
Finally, an apology to purists.  At the last moment, just after Senta's sacrificial leap from the clifftop, I suddenly change recordings -- substituting the closing passage from a Georg Solti recording of the Overture.  This sudden shift is obviously far from ideal, and may sound jarring to sensitive ears, but was a decision forced on me by the need to find, at short notice, a version of Wagner's revised ending of the opera -- which alone does justice to his transfiguring vision of the Dutchman's redemption.  Under other circumstances, I might have found a smoother solution to this problem, but at least it makes for a rousing finish to a well-spent evening. 

Although I originally billed this production as a "one-man opera", I could certainly never have managed it all on my own.  I would therefore like to thank the many who helped to make it possible: my wife for her patience in putting up with so lengthy and consuming a distraction; all those of my colleagues at Rhodes who assisted me by making funds available, printing posters and programmes, and arranging catering; the Music Department in particular for kindly providing the venue and facilities; the Rhodes Theatre Wardrobe for helping me put the finishing touches to a convincingly Wagnerian costume; Justin Archer for recording and editing the video footage; and the many friends, colleagues and students who assisted and supported the enterprise (and not least those who helped move the set into place).  Finally, I owe a particular debt of thanks to my graduate student and invaluable amanuensis, Amy Goodenough, for pulling off the considerable feat of editing the sound and image files to such a high standard and with such unfailing good humour. 
Forthcoming Attractions
As the attentive among you may have guessed, the current production -- ambitious as it is -- is intended as only the first instalment in a long-term project, comprising similar presentations of all ten of the great Wagner operas.  In fact, I have since performed Tannhäuser (over three evenings) -- of which I presented an excerpt at a most enjoyable conference in Oxford last September (as reported here: -- and am currently editing the footage.  And Lohengrin is in the pipeline -- an unfortunate image, but there it is. 

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