All The News That's Fit To Sing
Keeper of the Wagnerian flame: Christina Niessen as Cosima Wagner and Matthias Wohlbrecht as Houston Stewart Chamberlain in “Wahnfried” (©Falk Von Traubenberg)
We are told these days that there are three kinds of news — soft news, hard news and fake news. Fake news has itself become hard news, as something that influences presidential elections and that presidents themselves brandish as a sometimes-useful insult. So where then do we turn for our news, and for our news analysis? Would you be surprised if I said, turn to opera?
That would have surprised me a few years ago. As a composer growing up in Israel — a place where every kind of news is a debate and where there is only one opera house — opera was not at the top of my agenda. For my entire career, I’ve concentrated on symphonic and instrumental music. New operas are big, big enterprises — costly of a company’s resources, and costly of a composer’s time and energy. They take years to create. Yet when the Staatstheater Karlsruhe approached me to write what eventually became Wahnfried, I gratefully accepted. Karlsruhe is an important German house, with a great music director in Justin Brown, and the story they offered me was too fantastic to turn down.
It’s the tale of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the failed British scientist who became obsessed with the music of Richard Wagner, then moved to Wagner’s hometown of Bayreuth, and married the composer’s daughter, becoming close too to his widow and self-anointed “keeper of the flame”. He also wrote an enormous tome, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, one of the first texts to advocate the idea of a racial hierarchy with Aryans at the top and Jews, malign and parasitic, at the bottom. The book became a bestseller in Germany, France and Russia, and young Adolf Hitler was so influenced both by it (he would later make it a central Nazi text) and Chamberlain (whom he would visit) that he regarded the older man as something of a father figure, finally making a pilgrimage to speak at Chamberlain’s funeral in Bayreuth.
For me, this was history, and a personal one at that. Many of my own family were murdered in the Holocaust, and growing up in Israel it is a collective, ever-present memory. But news? That didn’t occur to me until we actively started to work on the opera. Gathered for our first working forum in Karlsruhe (by now, the great English director Keith Warner was also on board), news came in of the failed coup in Turkey. Suddenly the opera felt very immediate. There’s a scene where Wagner’s daughter Isolde is banished from the fold and Chamberlain says, “We say who is a Wagner, we know who is with us and who is against us; we determine who has good blood and who has bad blood.” I started hearing colleagues say, “This text feels like reading the newspaper,” as the daily news was about Turkey’s police arresting thousands of people simply because the government said they were part of the coup.
The further into the process we went, the more I realised what this was. We live in a time when most people, especially young people, don’t have a sense of history. The advent of social networking has made history almost irrelevant — on some platforms conversations intentionally disappear, literally erasing history. With the erosion of the mainstream press, the manipulation of public forums and the “No he didn’t/Yes he did” style of political discourse, the truth often gets lost.