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.
Katherine R. Syer is associate professor of musicology and theater at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has written widely on opera and, in particular, on Richard Wagner. Her book Wagner’s Visions: Poetry, Politics, and the Psyche in the Operas through Die Walküre was recently published by the University of Rochester Press (2014).
Simply Charly: What initially sparked your interest in opera and, in particular, the works of Richard Wagner?
Katherine Syer: I became passionately interested in opera when I had the chance to attend rehearsals for a production of Tosca (a work I still appreciate immensely) during my undergraduate days. Until then, I had concentrated mainly on piano and instrumental repertoire, as well as choral literature. Seeing and hearing everything come together in a fully staged opera was a very stimulating experience! Soon after, I began writing about opera as a journalist. As a graduate student, I had a team of mentors based in The Netherlands and France who encouraged me to become familiar with the work of a wide range of opera directors and designers. Compelling and highly varied experiences of Wagner’s operas in Berlin and Bayreuth encouraged me to probe the composer’s dramatic art more deeply. I have lectured and published extensively on Wagner and continue to do so, but my interest in the interpretation and production of opera more broadly fuels my current book project.
SC: Can you describe the political and cultural milieu of Wagner’s Germany? How did this climate influence his art and worldview?
KS: It is difficult for us to grasp how negative and lingering the effects of the Napoleonic Wars were, especially in the region of Saxony where Wagner grew up. Horrors of the last century have eclipsed those more remote conflicts. Yet the battle fought at Leipzig in October 1813, when Wagner was just an infant, was substantial; it remained the largest conflict fought on European soil until World War I. This so-called Battle of the Nations (War of the Sixth Coalition) followed just weeks after a major conflict in nearby Dresden, and finally reversed Napoleon’s fortunes, forcing his retreat to France. One year later, fires lit up the night sky across many German regions to remember the devastation and the victory. Four years later, the event was commemorated in a festival at the famous Wartburg Castle. Other remembrance ceremonies followed. Many ordinary people had participated in the final series of struggles—known as the Wars of Liberation—through conscription or as volunteers. Few remained untouched by its ravages, and many felt politically invested as a result.
The manner in which Napoleon pitted various German regions against Prussia stoked the nascent nationalist movement, and with it much reflection on German identity—language, history, and the arts. Whereas political fragmentation had long fostered strong regional identities, the discourse shifted toward finding connections. Prussia, relatively vast and diverse at the time, urgently needed to encourage a sense of unity when she re-entered the war in March of 1813. Significant support came from non-Prussian Germans, including several key figures from Saxony. When dynastic powers reasserted their authority after the wars, many of these supporters felt betrayed. Censure of nationalistic sentiment increased, and disillusionment grew, but waves of revolutionary stirrings followed: around 1830; a decade later in connection with the “Rhine Crisis”; during 1848-49, and beyond.
Wagner embraced the dream of a unified Germany early on while growing up during a repressive era in which it was dangerous—actually illegal—to express freely a democratic orientation. Still, a good deal of print material circulated unchecked, and political songs proliferated amongst those desirous of change. In choosing the theater as his main artistic outlet, Wagner recognized that more nuanced and complex modes of expression were necessary, and he had many successful models to follow. Even in the 1860s, when it became easier to celebrate nationalist and even democratic impulses in public and through art, Wagner avoided blunt appeals. This remained the case after the political unification of Germany in 1871, which disappointed Wagner on several levels. The Second Reich was too belligerent and not culturally inclusive enough for Wagner, who in his last years was often nostalgic for the more idealistic vision of Germany that took shape during the Napoleonic Wars.
SC: During this tumultuous period, Wagner himself became embroiled in a conflict you’ve alluded to—the uprising in Dresden. What specifically led to this rebellion, and how did this set the course for Wagner’s life?
KS: As an employee of the Saxon King Friedrich August II, Wagner needed to balance his strong democratic leanings with respect for the monarch. In his opera Tannhäuser (1845), the first work he conceived and completed in Dresden, we can glimpse his notion of an ideal ruler. In the figure of Landgraf Hermann, who is well regarded in the drama, we encounter a ruler who champions artists and soldiers equally, and art is seen as vital to society as a whole.
Friedrich August II appeared to pursue a relatively liberal path as revolutionary developments got underway elsewhere in March of 1848. Saxon democrats were well represented in the Frankfurt Parliament, and the King appointed liberal ministers in the Saxon government. He also lifted censorship. Things began to heat up considerably in January of 1849, and Wagner would become connected with two influential agitators: August Röckel and Mikhail Bakunin. By late April, when Friedrich August II dissolved the lower house of the Saxon government, Dresden was poised to be the site of a conflict that would draw activists from various central and east European countries. For his part, Wagner had become more vocal in requesting fair and regular support for his orchestra and the Royal Theatre. When fighting broke out soon after, he joined the action together with many artists, including the actress and singer Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, whom he long admired and worked with, and the architect Gottfried Semper, whose later plans for a Wagner theatre in Munich would influence the design of Bayreuth.
One of the outcomes of Wagner’s involvement in the failed Dresden uprising was that he had to live in exile for many years following his successful escape. While he remained active, he was culturally isolated and frustrated, and his financial situation once again became difficult. A similar scenario unfolded when his tenure in Munich in the mid-1860s came unceremoniously to a close. Artistically, Wagner’s experience of the fighting in Dresden and the heady days leading up to it left their mark on the ways he expanded and revised his Ring project to cast a critical spotlight on Wotan and the other gods. From Lohengrin through to Parsifal, however, we find Wagner acknowledging political conflicts, but not advocating them as a means for progress in the future.
SC: The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was a key influence on Wagner. As Wagner put it, his “impact was extraordinary and decisive.” What ideas did Wagner derive from the pessimistic philosopher, and how did they translate into his own work?
KS: Wagner’s 1870 essay titled “Beethoven” features a rare and generous discussion of several of Schopenhauer’s ideas. There we see Wagner lingering on the notion of music as a superior art form on account of its capacity to convey human emotion and the psyche—an idea that had gained much traction through the first half of the 19th century. Wagner also drew upon Schopenhauer’s reflections on dreams and the mental processes through which we become aware of unconscious mentation. Unlike Schopenhauer, who could not discuss music in any advanced technical way, Wagner considered music’s capacity to suggest varying levels of obscurity or concreteness, through rhythm for example. He thus suggested how music could emulate psychological processes and degrees of perceptibility.
In the opera Tristan und Isolde, begun as Wagner digested his reading of Schopenhauer’s writings in the fall of 1854, we see the composer experimenting boldly with what we might term nebulous musical states—dreamy, drifting kinds of passages. He also profiled the emergence or eruption of the psyche more than ever before. Another Schopenhauerian idea that the world we perceive around us is deceptive and lacking in real meaning was a key to Tristan und Isolde. The concept of resignation—renunciation of the will, to put it in Schopenhauerian terms—surfaces too, and then resurfaces in Wagner’s later shaping of Hans Sachs, Wotan (in the revisions he made to his Ring project), and more broadly in Parsifal. Yet it would be misleading to suggest that Wagner adopted Schopenhauer’s philosophy wholesale, for the influences on his creative process were simply too numerous and diverse. Furthermore, we see a sustained focus on love in these works that is not easily reconciled with Schopenhauer’s more negative views on human relationships—views that initially repulsed Wagner when he first read them.
A fruitful way to understand Wagner’s passionately effusive response to his reading of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation is to recall his situation at the time: he had reached a creative impasse with his Ring project and was in need of fresh stimuli. He was in the mood to engage with a substantial philosophical work that readily affirmed some of his own ideas and beliefs, and lent those ideas more nuance, depth, and context. Wagner had long paid attention to current theories about dreams and altered states of consciousness, and he explored ways of representing them in his dramas. Schopenhauer’s attention to the striving will resonated with a broader shift in thinking that prioritized the unconscious as the prime shaper of human existence more than the rational, conscious mind. With Tristan und Isolde, we feel this shift of balance as the inner worlds of the titular protagonists surge and ebb across vast stretches of the drama. Schopenhauer offered Wagner a more fluid model of mental processes than he had found in earlier, more compartmentalized concepts of consciousness.
SC: You recently published a book titled Wagner’s Visions: Poetry, Politics, and the Psyche in the Operas through “Die Walküre” where you explore the psychological dimensions of Wagner’s operas by tracing his literary roots and how he incorporated imagery and metaphors in the telling of his operas. What new insights, if any, did your research uncover about this aspect of Wagner’s work?
KS: In researching and writing Wagner’s Visions, I focused on the formative phases of the composer’s dramatic art. Following a probing study of Tristan und Isolde (which is not covered in detail in the book), I set out to explore Wagner’s conspicuous spotlight on altered states of consciousness in his earlier dramas. Close readings of the texts and scores revealed a rigorously experimental compositional approach reflective of then-current models of psychological processes, along with recurrent imagery, such as that of the Wild Hunt.
Wagner was interested in the emerging fields of psychology and therapeutic psychiatry as more than just dramatic fodder or to keep up with scientific trends. Integrating visions past and present into his dramas, as I show, was a means by which he could convey political aspirations and fears of his times. In addition to having folkloric and mythological associations, the Wild Hunt had political connotations in public culture during Wagner’s lifetime. Prussia’s 1813 offensive against Napoleon included snipers who were officially called hunters (Jäger). Napoleon especially feared the volunteer military unit headed by General Lützow, whose troops were known as the black hunters or riders. Theodor Körner, who hailed from Dresden and fought under Lützow, was a poet and dramatist. Wagner’s letters and writings reveal that he was drawn to Körner’s legacy and knew his song “Lutzow’s Wild Hunt” already as a young boy. He is even reported to have sung it in the very last days of his life! Wagner showed no sign of maintaining admiration for any other patriotic poet/lyricist, but Körner turned out to be a distinctive figure and a heroic political model. Wagner began referring to Körner only in his writings in the 1860s—unsurprising given the times—but in ways that strongly signaled he had earlier been inspired by the poet. This dimension of his dramas is not transparent today and had not yet been probed in scholarship. Similarly, details of Wagner’s recourse to the operas of Christoph Willibald Gluck as political material had passed under the scholarly radar. Close examination of Wagner’s attention to Gluck in his Dresden years, however, yields important models. Understanding Wagner’s use of imagery and metaphors that had revolutionary resonance in his day, but were multivalent enough to skirt censorship, enables us to understand better how the composer navigated this unstable and repressive time.
SC: Nicholas Spice, publisher of the London Review of Books, has said in his essay Is Wagner Bad for Us? that “To play the first minute of a Wagner opera…is a kind of nonsense….since what we learn from this exercise is that Wagner builds his music over the longer timespan through a gradual accumulation of discretely presented elements.” Can you tell us what he meant by this?
KS: Such a view is too blunt or vague to be meaningful, especially given the composer’s stylistic evolution over a half-century. Even the way that he shaped his musical introductions to his dramas changed radically over time. Yet the notion of musical meaning over longer time spans is still a useful one, and can be considered from several angles. In Wagner’s earlier works for the stage, you still find arias and choral numbers that feature regular poetic patterns with likewise patterned musical accompaniment. One quickly deduces the basic musical material—melodies, instrumentation, and tonality—in such passages, and the mood they establish for a stretch of time. Yet already in his first completed opera, Die Feen (The Fairies), we see Wagner developing a kind of supercharged musical recitative that supports colorful forms of storytelling, with new musical ideas emerging with little if any, attention to regular repetitive patterns. And we also see Wagner toying with predictable poetic and musical forms to yield new kinds of dramatic meaning—meaning that at first remains latent and whose potential is gradually developed.
A well-known example of this formal playfulness is Senta’s Ballad in Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), which ends with several twists. After three verses of her song about the legendary cursed seaman, with each verse followed by a refrain that invites choral participation, Senta drops from exhaustion, and the orchestra becomes silent. The female chorus on stage takes over, singing the opening of the final refrain without accompaniment, but then Senta springs back to life and highjacks its ending, changing its key as she transforms it from an unanswered question—where is the Dutchman’s redemptress?—into an ecstatic affirmation that she herself will be his savior. Senta’s transgression involves violating the endlessly repeating form of the song, in which the Dutchman remains trapped in his curse. In doing so, however, she signals alarm, for she appears to believe that the Dutchman, who is regarded as fictional, is, in fact, real. This example also shows Wagner exploring ways of transforming the character of a basic musical idea to suggest an expanded network of meaning. What is uttered feebly and without hope by the women is the recognizable melodic basis of Senta’s rock-solid oath to redeem the Dutchman. Furthermore, this refrain melody is heard in other guises and contexts in the opera, anticipating Wagner’s later, more involved practice of using recurring and evolving thematic material.
SC: From the haunting and poetic Der Fliegende Holländer to the lyrical and enchanting Lohengrin to the monumental and thrilling Das Rheingold to the glorious and transcendent Parsifal, Wagner introduced many innovations that completely transformed our experience of music. Can you give us a sense of some of these innovations?
KS: Wagner took cues from composers he admired, but his approach to motivic development yielded a vastly more organic sounding operatic soundscape than was common at the time. While any lyric drama will include a degree of variety and perhaps even highly contrasting scenes, Wagner composed in a way that suggested relationships between various elements. This could involve varied repetition or obvious recall of material, but at the basic level of melody and harmony, he crafted more nuanced linkages. The outcome is subtle yet effective, and proves rewarding on multiple hearings as more and more connections are perceived. It doesn’t require someone schooled in music to grasp these connections; Wagner strove to make his music accessible. Many listeners remain fascinated by his compositional art. It invites interpretation and yields many layers of meaning.
In Der Fliegende Holländer, for example, one finds small musical figures that, while commonplace (a turn figure of a major or minor second in this instance), are melodically profiled enough to enable us to link the chorus of singing sailors in Act I, through the “Spinning Song” of the female chorus, who are awaiting the return of their sweethearts away at sea. Then, we hear it in a position of prominence at the precarious close of the refrain to Senta’s Ballad, as the Dutchman’s unknown redemptress—his faithful wife—comes into question. While on its own, a simple turn figure signifies nothing in particular, here we feel Wagner drawing together groups of people, or individuals, whose relationships are similar yet different. The parallel between sailors and their spinning partners is more straightforward, while that between Senta and Dutchman proves rather exceptional, not a regular pledge of fidelity by any standards. The melodic turn figure encourages us to reflect upon such musical connections and their dramatic meanings, without spelling out all of the possibilities.
Springing forward to the end of his career, we see Wagner using a series of simple intervals, slightly modified but sharing an overall contour, to suggest an array of links between the realm of the Grail and that of Klingsor. This overlap is broadly suggestive: the two worlds are, in the historical sources, geographically related, while Amfortas’s visit to Klingsor’s castle left him with a wound that is a constant reminder of his own sexual temptation and of the magician’s power to weaken spiritually, as well as bodily, the ruler of a group of knights pledged to chastity. This notion of psychological influence, manipulative or otherwise, assumes a large role in the way we experience Wagner’s music and drama.
Already in his early opera Die Feen (The Fairies), Wagner constructed a scene in which a character plants the seed of an idea in another character’s mind, with the intention of undermining belief or trust. In that instance, Gernot sings a song about a witch but then suggests, with music associated with her, that his prince’s supernatural wife is just as evil and deceptive. That the prince later returns to that thought and considers its possible truthfulness, as his wife behaves in strange ways, involves musical recall of the idea first uttered softly by Gernot. This gives the sense that the idea has risen afresh into his thinking, and lingers. Eventually, he turns on his wife, only to learn that he had misunderstood a great deal. Ortrud is more malevolent and forceful with her chromaticizing influence in Lohengrin. By that time, Wagner had developed a good deal as a composer. Effective in a slightly different way is Alberich’s nocturnal visit to his son Hagan at the beginning of Act II of Götterdämmerung, which involves an oath of fidelity (a descending second) that lingers uncomfortably in the musical air. It returns with a vengeance soon after, when Hagan calls his men together and swings into action as his father’s proxy.
The preludes to Lohengrin and Das Rheingold are remarkable experiments for their ability to suggest something coming into being gradually, from luminous heights and murky depths respectively. Both of these beginnings unfold generously and give definition to focused musical material, to which many other musical ideas are introduced, once their dramas get underway. The prelude to Tristan und Isolde, also sweeping in shape, opens with perhaps the most protean handful of measures of any Wagnerian score, in which the so-called “Tristan chord” is first heard; the prelude closes with its most somber reconfiguration, stretched out as a brooding melody sinking into the bass, while the opera as a whole ends with its tight, pungent form yielding at long last to blissful consonance. A more richly delineated or complex relationship between two people is scarcely found in the operatic literature.
SC: Wagner’s anti-Semitism has long been a controversial and thorny issue for scholars. We find many examples of his distaste for Jews throughout his writings. What is the genesis of his views on Jews? Can examples of his anti-Semitism be found in his operas?
KS: Wagner’s notorious essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Judaism in Music”), first published in 1850 and then re-issued in an expanded version in 1869, stems from the same post-revolutionary period in which he first began re-thinking his Ring project. Following years of being in what many would have considered a dream job in Dresden, Wagner was living in exile without regular employment, feeling humiliated. He had completed the score of Lohengrin but did not have direct access to a stage upon which he could mount it. Wagner’s argument in the essay is largely a personal one, with the Jewish composers/conductors Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer his objects of scorn. Considered more broadly, one notes more of a love-hate relationship with these two figures. At a point at which his own existence as an artist was especially bleak, he intensely resented their financial and public success and turned his own insecurities into vitriolic prose. The questionable nature of his charges is very unattractive, especially the way he extended his critique of aesthetic inferiority into false generalizations concerning the unmusicality of Jews. It is certain that Wagner was counting on some positive response to this vindictive publication and support for his own cause, and this acknowledges anti-Semitic sentiment in the air. When Wagner re-circulated the essay in 1869, he was at another personal nadir, with the idyllic phase of his life in Munich supported by Ludwig II having come to an end. When cast out of the spotlight, Wagner seemed to have selfishly felt the need to lash out at others in print.
Wagner’s anti-Semitism is difficult, if not impossible, to reduce to a consistent perspective or mode of behavior. He interacted with many Jewish figures and artists throughout his life. There was, to be sure, a strain of the nationalist movement that was markedly anti-Semitic, and it gained ground in the wake of the failed revolutions of 1848-89. However, Wagner did not appear to have identified in any sustained way with that intensification.
To think that these prejudices and beliefs would not be reflected in creative works of the period is naïve. Our own era offers plenty of examples of how intolerance of various kinds seeps into various public modes of expression. At the same time, it should be obvious that Wagner did not compose operas solely to express anti-Semitic views, just as they were not merely nationalistic political statements either.
The character Mime in the Ring is an interesting case, and one that is often pointed to as an example of Wagner’s negative portrayal of a Jewish stereotype in his operas. Wagner’s initial sketch was of a rather benevolent, talented figure, and the relationship with his foster child Siegfried was smoother than is found in the finished work. While Wagner clearly restricted Mime’s artistic abilities and made him devious in ways that trigger his death, the dwarf is not entirely an unsympathetic figure. Wagner added some rough and boisterous edges to Siegfried in his depiction of the hero as a young boy, and his thanklessness actually endears us somewhat to Mime. Wagner was very proud of the role he eventually shaped for Mime and specifically wanted it to be performed without caricature. He considered it a real challenge on the acting front and enjoyed performing the role himself in rehearsal.
SC: Some scholars have argued that while Wagner’s views were offensive and repugnant, they were pretty mainstream in 19th and early 20th century Germany. Wagner, they argue, was a product of his time, the German Late Romantic Period, and his art was an expression of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of that time. Therefore, his views should no longer be taken seriously, and we should not believe that enjoying his music requires sympathy with his worldview. Do you agree?
KS: The figure in the Wagner household who emerged as the more focused anti-Semite in later years was undoubtedly his wife, Cosima. In her role as matriarch of the family and in promoting the so-called Bayreuth Circle for many years following Wagner’s death, she fostered an anti-Semitic profile. It was she who drew in Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a true progenitor and devotee of Hitler. Chamberlain and Winifred Wagner, who married Wagner’s son Siegfried, were both British. Winifred’s infatuation with Hitler and her acceptance of his financial support to run the Festival at Bayreuth tightened the connections between Wagner’s legacy and the Nazi ruler. One often reads in the media that Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer, but a more accurate view would acknowledge that he was a passionate music and opera lover with diverse tastes. The range of his musical interests included much that was officially considered degenerate; some of his preferred performers included Jews and homosexuals. Hitler’s love of music was sometimes at odds with party ideology.
Cosima made it clear in her diaries that she was much more enthusiastic than her husband about the visits of the French racial theorist Arthur Gobineau to their home in the composer’s later years. While Wagner clearly expressed anti-Semitic views at several points during his life, he did not appear to have fully shared Cosima’s more trenchant outlook, which connected her directly with figures who would act upon a radically intolerant view of Jews in the 20th century.
It is important to remain aware of these issues, but there is no way to argue successfully that those who enjoy his music necessarily sympathize with an anti-Semitic stance. With the passage of time, the connections between Wagner’s family, his works, and the Nazi party have loosened. Wagner’s operas are now performed more often and in more corners of the globe than at any point in the 20th century, evidence of their broader transnational and transcultural appeal.
SC: Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is arguably the single most ambitious theater work ever created—challenging conductors, singers, opera producers, and indeed audiences. What was Wagner hoping to achieve with this work when he began composing it?
KS: Der Ring des Nibelungen has its roots in the volatile end phase of Wagner’s tenure in Dresden. He and many of his associates had high hopes that the liberal Saxon King would lean ever more in the direction of a democratic monarchy. Wagner’s initial conception of a single drama about the death of the legendary Siegfried thus concluded with the hero being born to Valhalla to join the realm of the Gods. The grand conflagration that consumes Valhalla and the Gods at the end of the finished work only came into being after the failure of the May 1849 revolutionary uprising in Dresden in which Wagner participated. The subsequent expansion and revision of his Ring project into a four-part drama absorbed this great disappointment into a complex critique of the political status quo. Its main intended audience was the working class that had mobilized throughout the 1840s. Today it should appeal to the middle class that has lost ground in recent decades, as Thomas Piketty shows in his recent book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
In turning his attention to the Nibelungen saga in the first place, Wagner participated in the broader movement to draw upon stories with special German significance. Interest in the Nibelungenlied had arisen in the mid-18th century when a 13th-century manuscript was rediscovered. During the Napoleonic Wars, it assumed importance as a German Iliad of sorts. What is striking about Wagner’s early dramatic interest in Siegfried is that he focused primarily on the manipulation of the legendary hero by Hagan. Siegfried’s status as a vulnerable rather than an invincible figure is conveyed through the rather limited heroic achievements he sings about toward the end of the final drama, the opera originally named Siegfried’s Tod (Siegfried’s Death), and later renamed Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods). This is not the legendary medieval hero who has slain thousands of men, but an artistic singer of tales who is easily framed and murdered. Wagner thus molded Siegfried to harmonize with the model of the Romantic artist-soldier hero tied to the Wars of Liberation in 1813 and embodied in the figure of Theodor Körner. While several aspects of Siegfried’s Tod and the prose backstory that he had fleshed out by 1848 would change, this conception of Siegfried remained remarkably consistent.
That Wagner wrote a multi-generational prose tale already in 1848, before imagining that he would write four librettos and not just one, reflects his preoccupation with multi-partite works such as Aeschylus’ Oresteia and Euripides’ Iphigenia dramas during the immediately preceding years. In adapting Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis (which has an operatic sequel) for performance in Dresden in 1847, Wagner thought about the ways that related dramas could be linked. The notion of a festival is also connected to his burgeoning interest in Greek drama during these years. As for the revolutionary underpinnings of his cycle of four operas, they continued to resonate in the early years of the Second Reich and beyond.
SC: For the uninitiated coming to Wagner, where would you advise one begin?
KS: I would recommend attending a staged performance, if possible, and watching, at least, part of a recorded production in advance. It’s helpful, I think, to grasp a sense of the generous time-spans across which Wagner develops his dramas before sitting in the theater for several hours. Some parts of Wagner’s dramas are fast-paced, with the action moving fairly swiftly along. More expansive reflective passages are aided by the widespread practice of using supertitles (but not yet in Bayreuth!), which help the audience grasp some of the finer details of the text being sung. Reading a good synopsis of the story in advance also enhances appreciation. Many opera companies today offer rich, high-quality online materials in support of their productions; a modest amount of time invested in this way undoubtedly reaps rewards.
A good starter opera, speaking from my own experience, is Die Walküre. There are some unusual dimensions to the story, but it is generally quite accessible, and the music is impressively expressive and varied. If one is attracted to Wagner’s style of musical storytelling, there’s no shortage of literature, recordings, and online materials at various levels by which to probe the music and drama more deeply. In terms of what kind of a production (live or recorded) someone new to Wagner should seek out, it really depends on one’s tastes and experiences with theatrical stagings. For decades, I have found the Bayreuth production of the Ring directed by Patrice Chéreau to be successful for Wagner newcomers. To that, I would add the more recent Ring staged in Frankfurt by Vera Nemirova, also available on DVD. While more abstract in its design, it is clever and stimulating without being too challenging. Most importantly, the narrative is not obfuscated by layers of directorial interpretation, and the characters and their relationships are richly fleshed out.