Looking for your next binge-watching marathon? Try 17 hours of opera. – The Washington Post

Whenever Wagner’s “Ring” cycle comes to town, music critics start hearing about how impossibly long it is. Admittedly, the “Ring” can be a little daunting to a newcomer: It comprises four operas, and the last and longest one, “Götterdämmerung” (“Twilight of the Gods”), clocks in at 5 1 /2 hours. Now that the “Ring” is about to descend on the Washington National Opera (April 30-May 22), the complaints, in my orbit, are starting. Wagner is long. Wagner’s operas are unendurably long. Even Wagner’s intermissions are too long. (“What are we supposed to do for a whole hour?”)

Anne Midgette, writing for the Washington Post, questions why people complain about the length of Wagner’s operas. If people can binge-watch, say, House of Cards, they can surely deal with a four- or five-hour opera, right?

I think it’s different. First, Wagner’s music is terribly dull. (Go ahead, flame me. I’ve tried, and I just don’t like it.) It’s an assault for hours of singspiel, a form of opera where people sort of sing-talk. It doesn’t have easy to grasp melodies, and it’s dull.

I regularly go to the theater, and three hours is generally my limit. Theater seats are uncomfortable, and you can’t get up when you need to go to the bathroom, as you can when you’re watching TV. I’ve never seen a Wagner opera, and I’m surprised to learn that intermissions are one hour long. Here, in the theater, they’re generally 20 minutes, but the sets are much simpler than those used for operas.

The longest opera I ever saw was Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, back in 1984. I think it was five and a half hours long, but the audience was told they could leave and return any time they wanted. (There were no intermissions.) I didn’t; I was riveted by the music. I’ve also attended performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion; it’s more than three hours long, generally with an intermission. The music is transcendent; it’s not Wagner. I watched all of Berlioz’s Les Troyens once, broadcast live on TV. I don’t recall an intermission, and it was five hours long. It was fantastic.

I think the question of length is a red herring. Opera is something you need to learn to like; you don’t just jump into it by hearing a Wagner opera. Even if you appreciate classical music, you might not like opera. I hate the recitatives in Mozart’s operas, for example; I don’t speak Italian, and these parts aren’t very musical. Consider that Wagner’s operas are – more or less – four- or five-hour recitatives… You either like Wagner or you don’t.

Midgette mentions other long works, such as the nine-hour Nicholas Nickleby, produced by my local, the Royal Shakespeare Company, some decades ago; Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-plus hour Berlin Alexanderplatz (which I saw in a New York Cinema in one day); or marathon performances of other classical works. The difference with them is simple: they are not Wagner. They don’t have his drab, boring music.

I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of Hamlet this weekend, for the second time. It was more than three and a half hours. My back hurt at the end. But it was worth it.

Maybe it would be a lot easier to see long operas if there were more comfortable seats. Or better music.

Source: Looking for your next binge-watching marathon? Try 17 hours of opera. – The Washington Post

10 thoughts on “Looking for your next binge-watching marathon? Try 17 hours of opera. – The Washington Post

  1. Not exactly a flame, just a clarification. Wagner’s operas are most definitely NOT Singspiel. Singspiel is a combination of sung and spoken (e.g. Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’). A half-way house between Singspiel and ‘through-composed’ opera would be works where passages of recitative (which is probably what you’re thinking of) are interspersed between set-piece arias.

    As to Wagner being dull: obviously this is a matter of personal taste, but I most definitely differ. Wagner’s music abounds in melody, in the form of Leitmotifs which occur over and over again (mainly in the orchestra), some of which are related to characters, some to objects, others to psychological situations – and all memorable and instantly recognisable. What IS true is that there are no set-piece arias in his mature works, so that the music flows uninterruptedly.

    Dull? I think not. Try the end of Das Rheingold, or the final act of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for outpourings of wonderful music.

    • Thanks for the clarification about singspiel. So how do you describe Wagner’s type of opera?

      I have tried Wagner, many times. I think the whole thing about the leitmotifs is interesting, but it takes away from the music. I listened to that set of discs about the various leitmotifs, and it just makes the music harder to follow. I think that if the music doesn’t speak for itself, then it doesn’t work.

      It is a matter of personal taste. And I wrote what I did knowing that Wagner lovers would flame me, hopefully with the same taste that you have. :-)

      • Wagner himself used the term Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work, would be an approximate translation). Totality in his case was production of libretto, music and dramaturgy — the whole experience springing from a single mind. He wasn’t by any means shy about proclaiming his approach as the way forward, and The Ring is the most obvious example. Considering that composition of the cycle spanned a period of twenty-six years, it is a remarkable achievement by any standards, since it hangs together stylistically despite its long gestation period.

  2. I recently acquired the Solti/Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Ring Cycle on CD. I’ve been meaning to sit down and actually listen to it, and follow along with the libretto.

  3. I definitely disagree about dull, and about lack of melodies. Dragons, dwarves, swords, Rhine maidens, gods and goddesses. How can that be dull? Look to Wolfram’s “O du mein holder Abendstern” in Tannhauser, or “Morgenlich leuchtend” from Die Meistersinger.

    But I do think it’s a matter of taste, and I’m sort of of the opinion that it’s a “love/hate at first sight” thing. The first time (more than 50 years ago) I heard Wagner, I liked it. The first time I tasted scotch, I liked it. I’m not sure a good, peaty Islay scotch is something one learns to like if their first experience is “Yuck, tastes like smoked dirt.”

    There’s too much music to worry about whether we like or don’t like some of it. Billie Holiday, Wagner, and Stan Getz are yes for me.

    • Sorry, I didn’t complete my thought: look to those parts in Tannhauser and Meistersinger for beautiful melodies.

  4. Kirk, is it Wagner’s operas you hate or the late Romantic music period?

    As ‘prep’ for Wagner you could get acquainted with the wonderful symphonies of Anton Bruckner. Bruckner was a disciple of Wagner and many of his symphonies use the same musical structures of his beloved Wagner. I would suggest you go straight for his 7th and then follow up with the magnificent 8th.

    • I don’t really care for Bruckner either. I think it’s that dense, heavy music that doesn’t click for me. I do like Mahler – later, and different enough from the two to be another era – but even that took a while to get into.

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