Rhinegold The operas do better than the man: Richard Wagner

Andrew Mellor

Now we’re all grappling with Weinstein, can we find some redemption in Wagner?

8:00, 10th January 2018

At the height of the Harvey Weinstein episode – by which I mean a few weeks after the first flush of revelations, when both the gods in Hollywood and us mortals down below had started to consider what it might all mean for the future – I was up to my neck in Richard Wagner.

It was a pre-diarised, research-cum-listening binge that spiralled into something of a ritualistic retreat. All the usual questions surrounding this most unfathomable of geniuses were spinning around my head, mostly concerning the Ring. But for once, the issue of whether I could legitimately be changed by Wagner’s overwhelming visions of love – and his own suggestion, at the end of Götterdämmerung, that it’s for the next generation to build a better future – was apparently being grappled with by the wider world too, as it reeled from daily revelations concerning the film industry.

Bang on cue, I emerged from six heady days inside the Ring to a newsfeed awash with opinion pieces about the legitimacy of art produced by unsavoury characters. In an article for the Paris Review, Claire Dederer wrote about her love of Roman Polanski’s films and how they had become ‘part of her’ – something many of us feel about Wagner’s works. (Polanski, lest we forget, allegedly raped a 13-year-old girl and has faced new rape allegations post-Weinstein.)

Polanski, quite rightly, has been disgraced. More troublingly, elements of our brave new world of protectionism would see his films sealed off, buried and ignored, lest they contaminate the moral world-view of a new generation. But when you start to remove potentially ‘offensive’ subjects from discussion at a university, you don’t just undermine one of the central purposes of a university’s existence; you surgically remove it. I can’t be the only person interested in opera to be wondering whether the study or even performance of Wagner’s works will eventually be outlawed on the basis of the dubious moral tenets of the composer. Often, the retort is a lazy ‘it’s about where you draw the line’, which ignores the fact that a line is only drawn in order to be moved.

Wagner’s list of foibles does not include sexual assault; and if your forebears were not murdered by the Nazis, setting aside the composer’s odious politics can be a relatively straightforward process. In fact, outside Israel, Wagner seems acceptable right now. Is that because a group of critical, academic and operatic authority figures have interceded between the man himself and public opinion of him? Is it because there’s still a fundamental lack of understanding surrounding what Wagner actually stood for as both his creative genius and his unfounded prejudices evolved in unusual directions?

The real reason, surely, is that Wagner’s operas do better than Wagner the man did. They show us, to paraphrase Dederer, that even a make-believe expression of human belonging can be more beautiful than love itself. Wagner’s Ring operas, in addition to that humbling invitation to a new generation, are prescient and noble when it comes to issues including feminism and environmentalism.

In truth, a general lack of interest is probably a greater threat to Wagner’s future right now than any ideological condemnation of his morality. But on a slightly different tack, there’s every possibility the post-Weinstein era might offer Wagner some form of rehabilitation, as society comes to terms with how to separate the individual from his (or her) art; or more significantly, we learn how to separate the moralising prelate from the individual aesthete inside all of us. If we are disciplined enough to forge our own personal reaction to a flawed artist’s work, then there’s no need to start launching public bandwagons for boycotting or banning their creations. Dederer’s article is vital on so many levels, and for a more nuanced argument on all these issues, it’s well worth a read (‘What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?’ bit.ly/2zY33Aq). But it’s particularly resonant on the subject of facing up to the monstrous elements of our own personalities, especially when they are driven by the pursuit of high artistic achievement.

There have been appalling revelations within our own industry following the #MeToo campaign, many concerning those who interpret other people’s art rather than leaving behind masterpieces of their own for posterity.

Let’s hope the ongoing discussion of the moral dimension focuses on corrupt human behaviours that are at the heart of it, and not on the artistic masterpieces that can help us all love a little better.

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