My Year of Wagner

By: Greg Campbell

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There are few careers where you feel inclined to do what you do when you're away from work. I know pilots will sometimes fly “for fun” in their off time, and athletes probably still have fun playing games with their friends and family. But what about those of us in the trenches at performing arts organizations? Most of my colleagues and I still attend many concerts and performances during our off hours, and this year has been remarkable for me because it's had a lot of Wagner in it!

Parsifal at Houston Grand Opera. Photo by Robert Kusel

My opera year started in January at Houston Grand Opera, where I checked off a biggie on my opera to-do list, Parsifal. Wagner's final opera is an experience not to be missed; for me, it was akin to a spiritual experience. The music is meditative, and the story asks big questions about redemption, sacrifice, forgiveness, and acts of kindness. Between all my duties at Lyric Opera this spring, I slipped away to Berlin to see The Flying Dutchman at the Komische Oper, amongst many other operas and concerts throughout the city. The Flying Dutchman is early Wagner; the score is outstanding with rousing choruses. ‘Dutchman asks less of its audience intellectually than Parsifal, but it shows what self-sacrifice, love, and kindness can do to alleviate another's suffering. Now you and I are off to the Der Ring des Nibelungen world right here in Kansas City with our new production Journey to Valhalla. ‘The Ring’ is about a lot, but at its most distilled, it's about what greed does to people (or, in this case, gods) and that we can be redeemed through love and self-sacrifice. (Noticing a theme yet?)

Schillertheater in Berlin, the current home of the Komische Opera.

I've only pieced together these themes between Wagner's operas this year. As somebody who feels like they're speeding through their 40s and trying to create meaning in their lives professionally, personally, and artistically, I'm struck by this theme of self-sacrifice and unselfishness for the benefit of others. It might be easy to see this as being influenced by Christian theology, but Wagner was well-read on Eastern religions, and in fact, Kundry in Parsifal represents the three desires in Buddhism. It's pretty wild, considering it's a story about a bunch of dudes protecting the holy grail! 

Getting caught up in all this heady stuff can be intimidating, so feel free to avoid getting wound up in the big philosophical questions of Wagner's operas and just let the music and story wash over you. In the end, these stories give us a way to process the human condition and maybe give us new insights and perspectives about our own lives, and a degree in 19th-century German philosophy isn’t required. That's really what any storytelling is at its most basic level: an outlet to process our own lives, except with opera, we get the addition of one of humanity’s biggest accomplishments to bring the story to life: music.