Music in the Shadow of Politics
Jessa Crispin on the Royal Opera's production of Wagner's Lohengrin
Please enjoy this post from Jessa Crispin, author of several books including The Dead Ladies Project and the forthcoming My Three Dads from the University of Chicago Press. — AHW
Lohengrin, directed by David Alden
Royal Opera House
April 19 - May 14
I felt immediately like I had made a mistake. I had given over five hours of my life to sit in the Royal Opera House on a beautiful 60 degree afternoon when I could be drinking beer outdoors. When you’ve made that sacrifice, art over life, and you are trapped in a small uncomfortable chair for this long, you want to know you can trust the people in charge of your cultural experience. And as soon as the curtain went up, I knew I had chosen wrong.
I was there to see Lohengrin, Richard Wagner’s three act opera about the impossibility of love and what I got instead was fascism cosplay. The set was lined with stark modernist architecture, a group of jackbooted soldiers with plastic assault rifles ran around the stage. I waited for some sort of imagery or context to emerge to help explain why this was the chosen setting. But as the story continued – the woman who is accused by a spurned suitor of murdering her brother, the mysterious man who arrives in town on a boat pulled by swans to defend her, their marriage under the strict prohibition against her asking his identity or origins – it was clear there was no reason for this other than Wagner forever being linked to the rise of the Nazi party in Germany because of his anti-Semitism and his widow’s befriending of Hitler. (Wagner died in 1883, long before the rise of the Nazis. His wife Cosima, however, lived until 1930, probably fueled by spite.) When a red flag with a black and white icon at its center — not a swastika but not that far off — was unfurled, I let out a sharp, loud laugh.
Certainly it was not the first Wagner opera I had seen reimagined in a fascist setting. I saw a production of Rienzi where the singer playing the populist Roman leader had a left hand that trembled and shook like Hitler’s. I saw a Tannhauser where Venusberg was basically Weimar Berlin. They were obvious choices — opera has never been an art form of great subtlety — but at least the parallels made a logical sense. The sensorial overload of cabaret culture and erotic pleasures as a way of getting across Wagner’s ideas of the “profane love” that our operatic hero must fight against, yes, okay.
But what is Lohengrin doing in a fascist state, how does that help us understand the opera better? Ladies, is it fascist to marry a man whose name you don’t know? Almost nothing was done in the staging to connect the libretto’s medieval story of grail knights and chivalry to an all powerful uniquely modern state. Is one of these characters supposed to be a stand-in for Hitler, and if so, who? The king? The swan knight? The witch lady? Why the ominous atmosphere, isn’t it bad enough that Elsa can’t help but doubt her nameless husband and drives him away with her lack of faith? Why does that have to carry a political message, isn’t the loss of love tragic enough as it is?
The staging decisions made by the opera company are simply to make the well-to-do opera goers of London feel better about the fact that they are sitting and watching an opera by Hitler’s favorite composer. This is what passes for making an old opera relevant these days, making sure that everyone attending knows that yes everyone here knows this guy was a bad guy.
Wagner’s guilt is mostly through association. He is locked in most people’s minds right next to Nietzsche and Hitler as related to the rise of Nazism and German nationalism, even for people who aren’t familiar with his music or the massive influence he has had on culture. Once you start to look at his own personal politics to determine whether he is good or bad, it gets a little hazy. I don’t know how exactly one measures just how profound a composer’s anti-Semitism was, does one count all the tirades they made in their lives against the pernicious influence of the Jews? And then does one compare that to all the other composers of the time to kind of grade it on a curve? Alex Ross’s recent 700+ page Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music painstakingly tries to provide some context with which to approach Wagner other than anti-Semitism, going through all of the other influences and references and allusions in his work. You can imagine Ross begging, tears running down his face, “Please, please not everything fascist, some of it is Rosicrucian” while opera directors blithely point to a swan on stage at Lohengrin and declare, “Fascist!”
Ross (or most likely his publisher) made a fundamental error right at the beginning, however, because the correct subtitle probably should be Music in the Shadow of Politics. Just like we can’t listen to the sublime music of Lohengrin until we’ve reminded everyone of Wagner’s bad politics, we can’t watch a film until we’ve plotted the exact position of its various makers on the political compass. I watched as in the last 48 hours my Twitter feed was poisoned by a tweet calling Wes Anderson’s film The French Dispatch pro-carceral and “fascoid” because of the way it trivialized the May 1968 student protests in Paris. This inevitably puts fans of Anderson in the position where they feel obligated to defend this director of cute little things with proclamations like Grand Budapest Hotel is antifa, and somehow no one ever gets around to saying anything about his films other than their interpretation of their political message.
Whereas feminists once had to scream and make noise about an artist’s brutal treatment of women in order to break through institutional silence and protection, now once a transgression or a problematic political affiliation is uncovered it is near impossible to find a think piece or work of criticism that doesn’t center the accusation at the expense of any real artistic insight. At one point, you couldn’t get a book critic to acknowledge Norman Mailer’s blinkered view of women or his history of violence, now no one is capable of writing anything about Mailer that isn’t ultimately about his misogyny more than his work. It’s somehow more objectionable in the case of the Royal Opera, as it is embedding the work into the most cynical version of Wagner, fusing the music and the politics together. At least you can still look at a Picasso without someone screaming in your ear that he mistreated women.
Calling Wagner a fascist probably feels like political engagement, but it’s the opposite. If everything is fascist then pretty much nothing is, and staging Lohengrin in such a way is merely a sign that the people in charge have given up. As we waited for Act Two to begin, I asked the woman sitting next to me what she thought of the show so far. This was the first opera she has ever attended, she said. “I like Wagner, but I don’t understand the staging.” I agreed with her, and I offered my condolences that this was her first operatic experience. “It’s usually better than this.” “Oh, it’s all right,” she said. “I have just been staring at the ceiling, listening to the music.” At least the music still lived, even if in the shadow of the politics.