Opera Review

Can lefties like Wagner?

Graeme Arnott previews his granddaughters’ forthcoming production of her great-grandfather’s opera ‘Lohengrin’.

It’s August 1876 and Nuremberg’s hotels are full to bursting with Wagnerians attending the first Bayreuth festival. Unable to obtain a room, Marx ends up spending an uncomfortable night on a railway station bench. Aggrieved, he castigates Richard Wagner as nothing but a bourgeois state composer.

Fair or unfair as criticism, it’s hardly the worst that has, or could be said, about the controversial composer. For the Adorno of the 1930s, Wagner and his works are always guilty of stirring up the age-old German hatred of the Jew. Indeed, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to understand the ideology of the Third Reich without citing Wagner. Somewhat wryly Alain Badiou observed that Wagner bears an appalling anathema from both the majority of the pro-Palestinian, European left and the government of the state of Israel.

Recently though there have been a number of creditable entreaties for a communist rehabilitation of Wagner. Žižek for one, whilst by no means denying Adorno’s central thesis, that Wagner’s anti-Semitism was not an idiosyncrasy but a feature inscribed into the very artistic texture of his work, has called for a violent gesture of re-appropriation that would necessitate nothing less than a putting aside of a hollow academicism that searches for proto-Nazi elements in Wagner’s operas.

Lohengrin was composed between 1845-1848 when Wagner worked as Kapellmeister at the Royal Dresden court. With its sentimental shimmers and sound ideal of masculine rectitude as the essence of knightly virtue, Lohengrin certainly appears to earn Marx’s opprobrium. Yet despite Wagner’s official position at court, or perhaps because of it, he was an operational member of the local Vaterslandverein at which, in June 1848, he made an enthusiastically well-received speech calling for the extinction of the last glimmer of aristocratism. The speech alerted the authorities to Wagner’s increasingly extremist views that now bordered on Terror-ism: within a year he was fighting on the barricades in the failed Dresden revolution. Though the precise extent of Wagner’s participation is uncertain, an arrest warrant charged him with procuring hand-grenades, and acting as a military observer on behalf of the provisional government. By the time of Lohengrin’s Weimar premiere in 1850, Wagner had escaped capture and fled Germany to seek political asylum in Zurich where he was a well-respected member of the Young Hegelian left.

Lohengrin tells the story of the eponymous grail-knight and his doomed effort to come to the rescue of Elsa von Brabant. Based on a thirteenth-century legend, it has everything that one might expect of a nineteenth-century Romantic opera: a part historical, part legendary, part fairy-tale setting, political skullduggery, a mysterious metamorphosing swan, a damsel in distress, a knight in shining armour, and most importantly; a forbidden question. Whilst many of these elements have gained an aspect of kitsch, Wagner described Lohengrin as his darkest tragedy; one in which beneath the surface actions there is a darker level where utopian visions pale before deep-seated fears; fears that even today can only be addressed by a strategy based upon progressive political ideologies.

Although titularly named after its ‘male hero’, Lohengrin is dramatically centred on the tragic character, Elsa von Brabant. The Duchy of Brabant is in the midst of a political crisis. Elsa is accused of murdering Gottfried, her missing brother and Christian heir to the Brabantine dynasty. Elsa prays for a champion to defend her, and Lohengrin arrives on a schiff, magically pulled by a white swan. Before proving her innocence in a trial-by-combat, Lohengrin betroths himself to her, on the single, all important proviso that she never asks his name or enquires about his origin. She accepts, but having doubts sown about the legitimacy of Lohengrin’s power, Elsa, on her wedding night, asks the forbidden question and by doing so shatters the fictitious unity of her sham, mercantile marriage. Lohengrin, forced to reveal his true nature, abandons her and Brabant.

Having promised never to ask the forbidden question, Elsa is, of course, put in an impossible situation by her husband, to whose better nature she cannot appeal. Even with a majority of supporters at court she cannot gain the legal right to ask the forbidden question; and so despite her vows and promises; despite her isolation, the manipulation and the political intrigue; and despite the knowledge of the loss that it will bring, she further provokes the crisis by asking the forbidden question: anything less is intolerable: it is a heroic decision. Wagner later reflected that it was Elsa who made of him a complete revolutionary.

In Barcelona there have been over two-hundred performances of Lohengrin at the Liceu since its first staging there in 1883. Katharina Wagner, in a previous production of Lohengrin in Budapest, interpreted the action as taking place during an election campaign. Staging Lohengrin in Catalonia, where the forbidden question of independence has already been asked, provides this production with more than just piquant significance. Scottish Opera, however, has never staged Lohengrin; and it is surely now time for them to do so. It’s time to put the forbidden question front and centre on the Scottish stage.

Katharina Wagner’s production of Lohengrin was to be performed is at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona from 19 March to 5 April (https://www.liceubarcelona.cat/ca/temporada-2019-2020/opera/lohengrin). It has been cancelled and will be rescheduled.

Graeme Arnott is a member of the Wagner Society of Scotland. A fully referenced version of this article is available online. https://wagnerscotland.net/