The Wagner Equation

We’re reading Alex Ross’s Wagnerism for my podcast right now, and it’s got me thinking: who would be today’s Richard Wagner?

The truth is that no single person could provide a perfect analogy. But if you add a bunch of people together, I think you’d get close. Here’s the equation I’ve come up with:

1 part Julian Assange

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy in central London, 5 February 2016

Before he wrote The Ring or Tristan or Meistersinger, Wagner was a political rabble-rouser, a leftist revolutionary actively involved in the civil unrest of 1848. He was a hero of the movement for democratic reforms across Europe.

Wagner fled Germany when it looked like he might be imprisoned (or executed) for his actions, and lived in exile in Switzerland and Italy for close to a decade. During this time he published many political and philosophical tracts, including some of his most repellent antisemitic essays.

In the end, he was more than willing to play ball with government powers if they would fund his projects. The impressionable King Ludwig II funded his opera house in small-town Bavaria (with additional financial assistance from the Khedive of Egypt and the Ottoman Sultan), and the opening of the Festspielhaus was attended by emperors, kings, and aristocrats.

1 part Morrissey

I had to put a musician on the list, but there’s no classical composer today who has wound people up in their sound world like Wagner did. But people sure as hell do worship The Smiths.

Like Wagnerites, Smiths fans have to confront the complicated opinions of their idol. On one hand, Morrissey is a vegan animal rights activist, something for which I admire him. Wagner was a vegetarian by way of Schopenhauer, who came by his ethical stance from studying the recently translated Hindu vedas.

On the other hand, Morrissey has adopted a far-right, anti-immigrant political stance that can’t be ignored. His extreme outspokenness forces the people to love his music to decide if and how they can separate the art from the artist.

1 part James Cameron

Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron

Film is the obvious 21st century parallel to Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerke. But how to settle on which filmmaker properly represents the Wagnerian ideal?

I could have gone with Peter Jackson (especially since LOTR — including the score — borrows so much from Wagner) or Steven Spielberg (someone you often see put forth as the Modern Day Wagner), but I’ve chosen Cameron because of his inventiveness and grit.

By inventiveness, I mean just that: he literally had to invent (or have invented) new technologies to realize his film projects. He wrote the treatment for Avatar in 1994. It wasn’t released until 2009 because of all the new motion capture technology that had to be created.

What did he do in the meanwhile? He made Titanic.

It took Richard Wagner 26 years to write the Ring cycle. After writing the second act of Siegfried, the third of the four operas, he stopped work and wrote Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg , two colossal projects that would have defined the careers of any other composer. After eleven years away from Siegfried, he picked up his pen and carried on where he had left off.

Once had written his tetralogy, he had to work with inventors and architects to create the theater that could stage it according to his immersive vision. His designers pushed the boundaries of the stage technology, from the size and depth of the pit, to the lighting, to the acoustics. The building remains one of the largest free-standing timber structures ever built.

And let’s not forget, that even on the musical level, Wagner needed new technologies. After all, where would the score of The Ring be without the Wagner tuba?