All The News That’s Fit To Sing

In an era of fake reporting, the unlikely medium of opera offers a way to try to tell historical truth

Music
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.

Yet if new tech has let us down in this respect, old tech — opera — has much to show, much to teach. If social media and the multi-channel universe are so slick and fast that there is never a pause for reflection or profundity, opera is an anachronism and all the more telling for that. People read Facebook on tiny screens, whereas opera takes place within an auditorium. There’s nothing convenient about it — the sets, the sounds coming pouring from the singers’ mouths are all of a size and a complexity. And that heightens our reactions, switches our senses back on.

If opera is a stylised reflection of life, it’s a reflection on the largest scale. And I was unnerved by what I saw reflected in Wahnfried. Chamberlain — a mediocre mind allied to unfettered ambition and ingrained prejudice — reminds me of some of the most ruinous of personalities. The most obvious parallel to me in America today is not with Donald Trump but with Steve Bannon, a side character, a self-styled philosopher and theorist who somehow finds his way into the centre of power. Before becoming Trump’s aide, Bannon ran a website populated with extreme views, seeking, I suspect, to design a philosophy that in his mind would lead humanity forward to a more perfect future.

Chamberlain turned megalomaniacal, especially after the success of his book. He always maintained that he never advocated the murder of the Jews, but merely wrote that the Jewish race is the most inferior. Yet he does write that once people understand all of this, “They will know what to do.” Did he foresee where his ideas would lead? Could anyone at the time have thought this even a tactical possibility? Even Hitler didn’t implement the Final Solution until the 1940s. So for me, this opera can teach us that, at the very least, the expression of a philosophy that posits a certain group of people as inferior or dangerous can lead to dire consequences.

Opera provides composers with opportunities to express all this through the music as well. Wagner himself, for instance, famously used leitmotifs, propulsive themes associated with particular characters that are developed as the characters progress. Some of these themes are very heroic and noble. And yet, as is pointed out by “the Wagner demon” in Wahnfried to Chamberlain, who has styled himself as a kind of real-life Wagnerian hero, “Didn’t you know that all my heroes fail?” So Wagner himself found an irony through the use of leitmotif. His characters have a deep sense of mission: they feel they are destined for greatness and yet they drive themselves and others to unexpected, catastrophic consequences. In this way one might even say that President Obama also — certainly a man who felt driven by a sense of vision, certainly one who saw an unexpected sequel — might eventually be considered a tragic, operatic figure.

In this sense I came to understand opera as a medium through which history can sing its cautionary tales, as it were, at full voice. People often say that only artists can really chronicle their age. This experience has made me feel that, through opera and in a way that is vivid, sometimes bitingly grotesque and certainly anachronistic, we can also sound jarring warnings from history. That’s one way to analyse the news — nothing fake about it.