Will Berger is an author and radio host whose books include Wagner Without Fear. On the occasion of Richard Wagner's 200th birthday on May 22—which we're celebrating all week on Classical MPR—take a moment to enjoy a few of Berger's thoughts on what makes Wagner's music so interesting and important.
What's so special about Richard Wagner's music?
Berger: It makes you sit up and go, hmm. That's something. There is a lot of humanity in it and by that I mean a lot of things that an orchestra or voice or vocal line will say that make you say I have felt that and thought that and didn't even know I had. It seems to anticipate or explain your own thoughts in a certain way.
There's more to Richard Wagner than the grandeur of his lengthy and very detailed operas. What would you say to people who are unfamiliar with his music?
Berger: It's funny because people outside the music world often use the word Wagnerian - I've seen it in terms of architecture and other things beyond the music world. And I want to grab people and say are you sure that's the right word you're looking for? I don't think so because they might be thinking of these moments like the Ride of the V or the intro to Act 3, Scene 2 of Lohengrin that's all just horns and calls and very exciting and martial. But those are the bits of spice in the stew and most of Wagner is not that way at all. Most of it's very subtle.
How did Richard Wagner change the world of opera?
Berger: Wagner changed the world of opera by changing a lot of things... if you have any interest in the arts or in many things even beyond the arts, you're going to have to come across Wagner at some point. He's one of these towering figures that can't be...that can't be relegated to one category only.
He changed things and opened up new vistas but that's not to denigrate what went before. The format of bel canto and earlier opera that had set pieces, that came one after another, now is an aria, now is an ensemble - Wagner obliterated that. But when he did that, he opened up a lot of possibilities that he then exploited brilliantly. Things that you couldn't have said before that he was able to say.
How did Richard Wagner do it? How was he able to create what he created?
Berger: You know, there are certain artists for whom the only logical explanation, the only scientifically plausible explanation is some sort of revelation or some sort of experience beyond themselves. The idea that a score like the Ring, over 15 hours of music, it's not possible that a human being, let alone a human being as flawed as Richard Wagner, could have held that in his mind at the same time. And the beauty of his operas and the Ring especially right now - it's very long. It's very, very, very long. But when you get to the end, you realize he knew where he was going the entire time.
Do you have to know everything about opera in order to appreciate Richard Wagner's operas?
Berger: And as long as they know for example the first act of G is really long - make that stop at the restroom first or don't be hungry or this sort of thing... if you know those basics, that's all people need to know...people will get it. Wagner will tell you the story. And a modern set of ears is capable of hearing it.