Richard Wagner (1813–1883) was a German composer known for his mostly complex and lengthy dramatic operas. Though a controversial figure due to his nationalist beliefs and anti-Semitism, he is still considered to be one of the best composers in modern history.
Thomas Grey is Professor of Music at Stanford University. He is the author of Wagner’s Musical Prose: Texts and Contexts (1995), as well as editor and co-author of the Cambridge Opera Handbook on Wagner’s Flying Dutchman (2000), the Cambridge Companion to Wagner (2008), and Wagner and his World (Princeton University Press, 2009).
Simply Charly: Music critic Alex Ross has described Richard Wagner as “the most volcanically controversial figure in the history of music,” someone who is both reviled and revered. What kind of a man was Wagner that some 130 years after his death still makes him so divisive a figure?
Thomas Grey: Wagner was, without a doubt, the most controversial musician of his time, and of any musician up to the 20th century. He remains the most controversial figure among “classical” composers (in the broad sense) even today, but for somewhat different reasons.
In his own day, Wagner was notorious as an artistic as well as political revolutionary. Around the time his earlier operas were first becoming widely known, in the late 1840s, Wagner involved himself in the socialist insurgencies that were sweeping Europe (the same era as Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto). He only nearly escaped a potential death sentence or life imprisonment by fleeing his native Saxony and remained in exile in Switzerland for over ten years. At the same time, he began writing his own manifestos about “Art and Revolution,” the “Art-Work of the Future,” and a long treatise on how opera should be reformed along the lines of ancient Greek tragedy, but for modern European society (“Opera and Drama”). All of this writing was really a first step toward the conception of his magnum opus, the cycle of “music dramas” entitled The Ring of the Nibelung, which took him almost a quarter of a century to complete and get performed. The radical changes he effected in harmonic and melodic practice, the ambition to write operas that would reform society and revitalize German culture, and his disdain for nearly all of the other operatic repertoire of his time all contributed to his profile as a dangerous cultural rebel. In many ways, Wagner helped invent the very idea of a cultural “avant-garde,” as well as the idea that art could influence politics and society in fundamental ways.
Since about WWI, however, Wagner’s legacy as a cultural radical began to wane in the face of such modernists as Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, and Arnold Schoenberg. Now he became the idol of cultural conservatives and, above all, of German chauvinist nationalism. Whether works such as Tristan und Isolde had really pointed the way to the atonal experiments of Schoenberg and his school remains a debatable point. By the time the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, Wagner had stood for the “great” German musical tradition, in opposition to most contemporary music. Whether Wagner’s legacy played a direct role in the murderous anti-Semitic policies of the Third Reich also remains a point of vigorous debate (see below). At any rate, the controversies around Wagner’s legacy in the last half century have centered on his role as cultural figurehead in Hitler’s Germany, and the possibility that his outspoken anti-Semitism influenced Hitler and the Nazis. Until about the 1990s, it was assumed that Wagner’s racial attitudes were a separate matter from his artistic oeuvre. But as scholars and critics became more interested in identifying the political substratum of classical music practices, influenced partly by cultural critic Theodor Adorno, a new debate arose over the possibility that Wagner’s operas themselves were suffused not only with nationalist rhetoric but also with a coded anti-Semitic message that could have influenced audiences, consciously or not, over the years. Wagner’s position in music history, “volcanic” as it was in his day, has settled down to firm layer of historical fact. Now it is the question of his social-political legacy that continues to inspire fierce debate. Finally, the nationalist rhetoric of his works, as well as his inspired “psychological” deployment of mythic materials, has made them touchstones for postmodern, deconstructive, or otherwise radically revisionist approaches to operatic staging. So in this sense, Wagner the artistic revolutionary still lives on, too.
SC: Wagner famously said: “I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven and likewise their disciples and apostles.” How great were these influences on his music?
TG: The phrase actually is uttered by a semi-autobiographical figure (called “R.”) who figures in several short stories or musical vignettes Wagner published during his early years as a struggling composer in Paris. Wagner’s character is expressing a deep-seated conviction in the cultural supremacy of German music that was becoming widespread in the early Romantic era. In Wagner’s case, it was exacerbated by his own failure to achieve success as an opera composer in Paris at a time when this was the international capital of “grand opera,” the most influential genre of the early 19th century. Leaving aside the question of God (during his revolutionary years Wagner was surely agnostic, but later on he tried to appropriate Christianity to his own spiritual-artistic vision), the adulation of Beethoven remained a constant. Clearly, he recognized Mozart’s genius, especially as the most important “German” composer of opera before himself. But as Wagner’s musical experiments in the field of opera took hold, he was widely perceived as an antithesis to Mozartian classicism. It was Beethoven who remained his lifelong musical idol. Beethoven’s one opera, Fidelio, was not as important for him as the symphonies, though. The powerful, motivically concentrated, dramatically paced symphonic structures of these works, Wagner thought, pointed toward a new realm of possibility for truly “dramatic” composition in opera. Then Beethoven’s last testament in the field, the celebrated Ninth Symphony, seemed (so Wagner argued) to point the way toward a new synthesis of symphonic music and the sung word, in Beethoven’s setting of the Schiller “Ode to Joy” as his finale. For Wagner, the Ninth Symphony was the prophecy of his own idea of a musical, dramatic “total art-work.” Beethoven’s musical instincts were supposedly channeled into the vast, continuous, dramatically inspired and motivically unified structures that made up the acts of Wagner’s later “music dramas.”
SC: At what point did these influences cease to dominate his music, and the great operatic style for which he’s now known come to the fore?
TG: The most audible echoes of Beethoven’s music occur, not surprisingly, in some of the instrumental juvenilia from the time when Wagner was first trying his wings as a composer. Actually, before he composed any music at all, he drafted a sprawling Shakespearian-Gothic farrago of a play called Leubald and then decided he ought to provide it with some incidental music in the style of Beethoven’s score for Goethe’s Egmont. When he became more serious about composition as his principal vocation, he tried his hand at some piano sonatas and overtures in which one can detect clear traces of Beethoven’s late sonatas or the Coriolanus Overture, for example. His most ambitious early instrumental work was a symphony in C major. When this was performed in Leipzig, early listeners correctly identified Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony as a model for many features of the piece. Wagner was intermittently fascinated with the great Ninth Symphony throughout his life, and during these student years he made a complete piano transcription of the work, as well as copying out the full score by hand. The opening of the overture to The Flying Dutchman (1842) is perhaps the last distinct homage to Beethoven’s music, ringing the changes on the wide-spaced “elemental” intervals of perfect fourth and fifth that open the Ninth, in the same key of D minor. At that point, Wagner was beginning to find his own voice as a composer of opera. After that, the influence of Beethoven’s densely motivic symphonic textures was sublimated into the broader fabric of Wagner’s leitmotiv-based mature style, especially after he started composing the Ring cycle.
SC: Wagner changed our whole conception of the opera by re-conceiving and rewriting the rules for it, and expanding the genre’s forms to unprecedented degrees. What were some of Wagner’s key musical innovations? And what was opera like before and after him?
TG: His theory of operatic reform focused on making opera obey the dictates of regular drama, focusing on “naturalistic” dialogue or psychological monologue, and eschewing the picturesque uses of chorus, ballet, and other popular elements of operatic spectacle. At first he even famously renounced the use of any simultaneous singing in the form of traditional duets or other ensembles, as well as chorus. The traditional operatic aria that could be performed as a stand-alone recital number was also denounced in favor of a continuous musical-dramatic discourse grounded in the spirit of the dramatic material, but at the same time informed by “symphonic” principles (loosely speaking) he had absorbed from Beethoven. The coherence of this new kind of continuous dramatic composition was grounded in large part in the use of so-called “leitmotives,” musical themes or motives associated with the principal figures, ideas, props, or symbols of the drama. The most rigorous application of these reform ideas occurs in the first part of the Ring cycle, Das Rheingold, which consists of four long scenes connected by illustrative orchestral transitions. While, by Wagnerian standards, it is a short opera, it lasts for about two-and-a-half hours in performance with no intermission or even any applause points.
Already with the subsequent parts of the Ring, starting with Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), Wagner eased up on the rigor of his theoretical stance at least a little bit. Brünnhilde and her eight Valkyrie sisters are allowed to sing as a small chorus, in the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” number that opens Act 3. A highlight of the first act is the hero Siegmund’s “Spring Song” (“Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond”), which begins somewhat like a lyrical tenor aria, although its melodious structure gets swept away in the growing passion he discovers for his twin sister, Sieglinde. Still, the later Ring operas or the composer’s most intensely sustained score, Tristan und Isolde, continue to demand the listener’s attention for long, continuous musical scenes of some 20-30 minutes or more, woven into uninterrupted acts lasting more than an hour apiece. Especially in Tristan, Wagner experimented with complex chromatic (half-step-based) harmony, avoiding the kind of cadential resolutions that had punctuated and “formed” classical music since the rise of tonality. The Prelude to Tristan und Isolde is a paradigm of this practice: the whole piece urges the listener onward measure by measure, anticipating some kind of harmonic resolution which is always withheld. The piece builds to a great climax after about seven minutes and then gradually winds down to near silence—and the motives from which it began—but never giving the listener any unequivocal tonal foothold. In this case, the continual ebb and flow of musical tension is meant to evoke the ebb and flow of human desires or the “Will” that, according to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, represents the life force to which every aspect of our phenomenal world is subject. Tristan as a whole was written while Wagner was entirely obsessed with Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the “Will” and the need to achieve a Zen-like Nirvana by finally transcending our subjection to it (or to our desires). Ultimately this can only be achieved in death. “Love” and “Death” are united as a single goal in the so-called Liebestod (Love-death) sung by the heroine, Isolde, during the opera’s final moments.
Wagner’s ideal of a continuous musical drama with a symphonic or leitmotivic score influenced most opera composers of the next generation or two, especially in France (Ernest Chausson, Emmanuel Chabrier, Claude Debussy) and in Germany (Richard Strauss). More far-reaching still were his experiments with extending or distending tonal harmony through chromaticism. Whether this “caused” atonality as practiced by Schoenberg and his school remains a point of historiographic debate, however.
SC: A concept that has become closely associated with Wagner’s music is the German term “Gesamtkunstwerk” (or total artwork). Can you tell us what is meant by this word as it relates to his music?
TG: In his theoretical writings from 1849-51 concerning the relationship of the arts and society, as well as his ideas for the reform of modern opera, Wagner proposed that poetry, music, and the other arts might be combined to create a modern analogue to the ancient Greek tragedy. Since the beginnings of opera in late Renaissance Florence, the idea of reviving Greek tragedy for modern European culture had been popular among humanist intellectuals. But as Wagner saw it, opera had lost its way by catering too much to singers and the purely musical dimension. Much of the text or “libretto” was relegated to uninspired musical declamation as “recitative,” whereas the arias and ensembles tended toward concert music, without sufficient attention to dramatic values. Working as his own librettist and deeply engaged with Classical mythology, Nordic sagas, and Germanic-Christian legend, Wagner believed that a more intimate marriage between libretto and music could form the foundation of a new “total” or “combined” artwork, which would also give new impetus to the arts of acting, singing, stage design, theatrical architecture, choreography, and orchestral performance. He was never sure what he wanted to call this newly integrated form of musical drama, but insisted that “opera,” as it was known at the time, was a deficient genre. His ideal of a “total” dramatic artwork of the future, then, was supposed to be a more perfectly integrated merging of words, music, gesture, and scenic design than had been achieved in opera up to that time. The term Gesamtkunstwerk has been widely applied since the early 20th century for all manner of multi-media experiments. Cinema seemed to be the ideal medium to realize aspects of the Romantic “total art-work,” though the lack of a live performance has often seemed to limit its claims in this direction. The term remains a sort of byword for any new, ambitious merging of diverse media, often with some element of mystical, political, or social significance implied.
SC: The Bayreuth Festival has become Germany’s most important cultural-social event and a pilgrimage destination for Wagner enthusiasts. When and how was this festival started? And what’s so special about the theater itself?
TG: Almost from the time he started conceiving a cycle of musical dramas based on the medieval “Nibelungenlied” and the Nordic sagas from which it originated, Wagner envisioned a special “festival” context for the works’ performance that would recall that of Athenian tragedy—a combination of sacred ritual and civic celebration devoted to the dramatic representation of traditional mythic stories. In the first flush of enthusiasm for this idea, he proposed putting up a temporary wooden structure “on the banks of the Rhine river,” which would later be dismantled, the score and parts of the work destroyed, so that this epiphanic experience would remain nothing but a sacred memory to the select few who had witnessed it. As time went on, his ideas became more pragmatic, but only somewhat. The Bavarian King Ludwig II, whose patronage allowed Wagner to complete his Ring cycle in the late 1860s and early 1870s, had intended to build a special theater in Munich for the work, based on a design by famed architect Gottfried Semper. (Semper had built the second and third versions of the Dresden court theater, and had been a fellow exile with Wagner in Zurich in the early 1850s.) Wagner resisted that plan, however, and looked for a small, out-of-the-way location, but still within Ludwig’s kingdom of Bavaria. The presence of an intimate, deep-staged Baroque theater in the town of Bayreuth, a short distance from the medieval city of Nuremberg, drew the composer’s attention in the early 1870s as he was completing the Ring. Based on Semper’s Munich plans, Wagner had a new theater built in Bayreuth in 1875-76, with Ludwig’s support and an elaborate (though not ultimately very successful) financing scheme based on the advance sale of “patronage tickets” through a series of local “Wagner societies.” (This scheme is the origin of the many Wagner societies that continue to operate internationally today.) The complete Ring cycle premiered, in three performances of the four operas, over several weeks in the summer of 1876. The only other production in the theater during the composer’s lifetime was the premiere of his last music drama, Parsifal, in 1882. The composer’s widow, Cosima Wagner, gradually resumed the festival some years after her husband’s death in 1883. Their son, Siegfried, took over control in the 1920s, and the direction of the Festival has remained in family hands ever since.
The “festival theater” in Bayreuth had a relatively large capacity by the standard of contemporary theaters, just under 2000 seats (less than 2/3 the size of the Metropolitan Opera). Unlike most theaters of the day, however, it avoided the use of balconies above the auditorium or individual boxes around the sides. Instead, the auditorium was a compromise of sorts between a classic amphitheater design and a modern proscenium stage. The unusual depth of the stage space allowed for a fully perspectival set design in the modern style. For what seems to have been the first time in modern theater history, the auditorium was completely darkened during performances to maximize audience concentration on the stage image. Probably the most novel feature of the Bayreuth Festival Theater is the deeply sunken orchestra pit, covered by a tin roof that largely hides the players from the audience’s view and modifies the overall volume of the orchestra, effecting better balance with the singers. While darkened auditoriums and sunken pits are now the norm in opera houses, the “invisible” orchestra of the Bayreuth theater remains unique.
SC: Because of Wagner’s anti-Semitism and his posthumous association with Adolf Hitler, there has been an unofficial ban on live performances of his music in Israel. Do you think an artist should be punished because, as Alex Ross puts it, “he happened to fascinate a lunatic who was born six years after he died?”
TG: The Wagner ban in Israel reflects the extent to which the composer and his works became emblems of the Nazi regime in a way no other music or art had done. One might pose a related question: did the city of Nuremberg deserve to be “punished” by allied air raids at the end of WWII because Hitler and his regime chose to appropriate its long-standing value as a symbol of German cultural heritage? In Wagner’s case, the works were intentionally imbued with values of German cultural nationalism (not something that seemed objectionable in his day), complicated by the increasing chauvinism of Wagner’s personal views in his later life and, above all, his very vocal anti-Semitism. More than any other important cultural figure from the recent past, Wagner made himself available and attractive to Nazi cultural purposes, which only materialized some decades after his death. You might say that the Israeli policy makes a cultural scapegoat of Wagner, but the affinities between Wagner’s aesthetic and political ideologies and those of Hitler’s Germany are not imaginary. Novelist Thomas Mann, a great admirer of Wagner his whole life, was very aware of those affinities, as was Theodor Adorno. Neither of them renounced Wagner as an artist, but they sensed how tarnished the Wagner “brand” had become as a consequence of the Third Reich. The Israeli ban is a lingering, legitimate response to that effect.
SC: One journalist has gone so far as to suggest that Hitler was Wagner’s creation. In a book entitled Wagner’s Hitler: The Prophet and His Disciple, author Joachim Köhler makes a very convincing case that Wagner’s operas are littered with anti-Semitism, which influenced Hitler as a young man. What is your take on this?
TG: Köhler is something of a scandal-monger at heart (he also wrote a book outing philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as gay, based on nothing more than extended innuendo). Hitler’s admiration for Wagner is a matter of historical record, but the claim that Hitler or anyone else recognized clear anti-Semitic “messages” in the operas or their music has no documentary basis at all. Scholars and critics have built up a plausible argument for more or less veiled or coded anti-Semitic gestures in the music dramas (Paul Lawrence Rose and Marc Weiner in the U.S., and before that, Hartmut Zelinsky in Germany). One could speculate that these gestures were absorbed by the likes of Hitler, and conceivably they contributed—along with a whole, longstanding climate of cultural and racial anti-Semitism—to the attitudes that exploded into national policy under Hitler’s regime. But even a cursory glance at the history of European anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries should make it obvious that Hitler did not need to rely on secret meanings embedded in Wagner’s music dramas to become a rabid anti-Semite. Plenty of people did so without ever having heard of Wagner.
SC: Wagner’s operas are not for the faint-hearted. They are long, loud, and, well, over-the-top. Mark Twain may have put it best:
“I have seen and greatly enjoyed the first act of everything Wagner created, but the effect on me has always been so powerful that one act was quite sufficient; after two acts I have gone away physically exhausted.”
For the uninitiated wishing to immerse themselves in his works, where would you suggest they begin?
TG: The Wagner operas are definitely long—generally clocking in at about five hours with intermission. They’re not all so loud as their reputation has it, based on a few rousing items like the “Ride of the Valkyries,” the March (“Entry of the Guests”) from Tannhäuser, or Siegfried’s Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung. The last opera, Parsifal, is often very quiet, and very slow. Wagner’s sometime admirer and sometime enemy, the philosopher Nietzsche, once called Wagner “the greatest musical miniaturist.” Nietzsche was being characteristically sardonic, in part, but he did mean to draw attention to Wagner’s skill at portraying detailed psychological moments or nuances in musical terms.
“Wagner’s music is actually better than it sounds.” That’s another Mark Twain quip, though apparently he borrowed it from a fellow journalist, now forgotten, by the name of Edward Nye. Like Nietzsche’s epigram, it points to the paradoxical nature of many aspects of the Wagner phenomenon. Was he a progressive liberal and aesthetic radical of the 19th century, or a national-chauvinist anti-Semite, avatar of Hitler and the National Socialist party in the 20th? The radical innovator of Das Rheingold and Tristan, or the grand old man of “holy German art” in the tradition of Hans Sachs, Albrecht Dürer, and J. S. Bach celebrated in Die Meistersinger? The spirit of Brünnhilde’s blaring battle-cry (Ho-jo-to-ho!) versus the melancholic psychological introspection of King Marke (in Tristan), the ailing Amfortas, and the pensive hermit Gurnemanz (in Parsifal)? Wagner’s art, like his cultural influence, encompasses a vast range. Naturally, this range is part of his profound appeal.
As for a starting point for the newcomer to Wagner I’d suggest the much-performed orchestral excerpts such as the Preludes to Lohengrin (the visionary Act 1 Prelude and the rousing Act 3 Prelude), the richly textured, melodious Prelude to Die Meistersinger, the swelling grandeur of Siegfried’s Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung, or the yearning “endless melody” of the Tristan prelude that emerges from its opening mysterious dissonant chord (the “Tristan” chord), which is never quite resolved. All of them make excellent introductions to the compelling musical language of the composer. For an introduction to Wagnerian singing, Isolde’s great swan-song, the Liebestod (Love-Death) that concludes Tristan und Isolde (and resolves that mysterious chord) is a good place to start. The ecstatic language of her text makes more sense when one has investigated the whole symbolism of this mythic tale of doomed love, but even so, it gives a good taste of how Wagner invented a kind of highly charged poetic language appropriate to his musical visions. Wotan’s “Farewell” to his daughter, Brünnhilde (“Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!”) from the end of Die Walküre presents the central figure of the great Ring cycle in a sympathetic emotional and musical light, gradually yielding to the beautiful orchestral postlude to the opera, the “Magic Fire Music.” This piece is a great example of Wagner’s skill as an orchestral colorist, later admired by the likes of Debussy and Strauss. For a complete opera, a natural starting point would be Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). By general consent, including the composer’s own, this is the opera in which he first began to find his individual voice. It is no longer than a standard opera by Giuseppe Verdi or Vincenzo Bellini (though at first Wagner toyed with the idea of three continuous acts without intermission). The language reaches back to the German Romantic idiom of Carl Maria von Weber or Beethoven’s Fidelio, on one hand; but the extended, psychologically fraught encounter of the mythical “Dutchman” with his destined soul-mate, Senta, at the end of Act 2 gives a good sense of the mature Wagner’s ideal of a broadly “symphonic” dramaturgy that charts the inner lives of his protagonists. The opera includes tuneful choruses (the sailors in Acts 1 and 3, the spinning Norwegian maidens in Act 2), but also a tremendously dramatic choral tableau in which the human crew of Daland’s ship faces off with the spectral crew of the Dutchman’s ghost ship in Act 3. The final scene is a taught dramatic encounter, quickly paced, culminating in a typical Wagnerian finale of “redemption through love” as Senta sacrifices herself to save the Dutchman’s soul. From there, it is not a bad idea to follow the subsequent operas more or less in chronological order, leaving the late, mystical, and highly ambiguous Parsifal for last.
SC: What do you feel is Wagner’s enduring legacy?
TG: Part of “Wagner’s enduring legacy” at this point is certainly the problematic chapter of Hitler and the Third Reich. The championing of his music dramas by the Nazi regime poses the question, as vividly as any episode in modern history, of the political responsibilities or liabilities of art, even art that seems to have been conceived “outside” of politics. Of course, Wagner was a fervent believer in the creative power of the “German people” and the cultural, as well as political, future of his Germany. This is explicit in a work like Die Meistersinger, perhaps implicit in the Ring cycle (full of Germanic signifiers such as Brünnhilde with her spear and helmet, the dragon-slaying Siegfried, and the array of Norse gods singing in stentorian “Wagnerian” tones). Tristan und Isolde seems to be preoccupied purely with the realm of interior subjectivity: desire, the mystery of interpersonal relations, the question of whether emotional fulfillment is even possible in this life, or only when we cease to live. Parsifal picks up on similar issues of a subjective, spiritual nature, but complicates them with the symbolism of blood (suggesting issues of sexual or racial “purity”), an occult male secret society, apparent misogyny, and overtones of “Aryan” Christianity. As a biographical figure, Wagner was clearly a chauvinistic nationalist and a vocal anti-Semite. He was also not only a brilliant musician, but also a real intellectual, widely read in European (even world) literature, an acute judge of human psychology, an early advocate of animal rights and environmental issues.
The use of Wagner’s operas and his Bayreuth Festival as cultural symbols for Nazi Germany has to give us pause. But it also has to make us think seriously about how we attribute meaning to “great art,” and what such art can continue to teach us about human affairs, politics, history, national identities, and personal identities. There is certainly by now a very dubious side to some of Wagner’s mythic-heroic figures, like Siegfried or the messianic demagogue Rienzi, hero of his first successful opera (and supposedly an inspiration to Hitler in his youth). Romantic music, especially Wagner’s, is very good at glorifying vague sentiments of heroism or national pride in a way that transcends, or suppresses, rational analysis of these feelings. But if we consider any Wagner opera as a whole, or even a single figure within the opera, there is always a genuine artistic and psychological complexity to them that takes us far beyond the simple-minded, jingoistic nationalism of Hitler’s regime, or, for that matter, of most nationalist, partisan, or sectarian politics of our own day. We should remember, too, that the Nazis were eager to capitalize on the cultural cachet of the whole German musical tradition, from Bach to Strauss. They also looted all the great museums of Europe, well aware of both the artistic and economic value of canonic artworks. The art they looted or the symphonies performed by their orchestras did not automatically become “Nazi art” as a result. Wagner may be a special case, but he is also an important test case. The history of his works has made them in some ways more interesting, because more problematic. Modern-day stage directors are fascinated by the seemingly inexhaustible possibilities for new political and psychological readings of these works. Their appropriation by the Nazi regime reminds us that we can and should maintain a critical distance from any one reading. The fact that these are complex artworks, not cheap propaganda, makes this possible. Wagner’s unique understanding of how mythic narratives can illuminate the human psyche, above all his understanding of how music can inflect these illuminations in infinitely nuanced ways — that is at the core of his cultural legacy. Opera as a live artistic genre has probably now come and gone, in the sense that new works no longer play a big role in contemporary culture. But the great operas, Wagner’s foremost among them, will remain with us for a long time yet.