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  • What Does Wagner Want? Thoughts on an Aesthetic (and Ideological) Vocabulary
  • David J. Levin (bio)

Let us begin where Die Walküre begins - or at least, where it begins dramatically: with Siegmund's astonishing intrusion into the Hunding family living room. I have always been struck by the force of this intrusion, although, admittedly, I have rarely been struck by it in performance. If a director were to stage the opening of Die Walküre as a scene of breaking and entering (which is, after all, what it is), then s/he risks disorienting us just as we are trying to gain some sense of orientation. The scene toys with the logic of what, in cinema, is known as the establishing shot: the opening of a scene - and surely, the opening of the opening scene - should give us our bearings, settle us into the drama just as we are settling into our seats. And in opera, as in melodrama with which it shares so many aesthetic properties, the terms of identity are supposed to be transparent, the juxtapositions at once palpable and transparent.1 But of course, this is not opera. And that, surely, is part of the point.

Die Walküre essentially opens with a dis-establishing shot, a point of disorientation - for us, as for the characters on stage. The curtain opens on the interior of a house. Some guy stumbles in and announces that he doesn't care where he is, he has to rest right here, and then he collapses on the floor. This pathetic, exhausted figure is supposed to be our hero? Surely this is not a conventional entrance, let alone a conventional entrance aria. Indeed, it is not just that the guy on the floor is supposed to be a hero, but the circumstances of his entrance mark him as such. But how so? The first two scenes of act 1 of Die Walküre provide an exposition of these allegorical terms, enabling us, over time, to comprehend how and why Siegmund's intrusion at the outset is so scandalous. In attending to those terms, we gain a sense not only of what is at stake in Siegmund's intrusion, but beyond that, what Wagner is getting at (or indeed, what Wagner wants) in Die Walküre and, beyond that, in Der Ring des Nibelungen. This is surely not self-evident to all, so I propose to take a brief tour through the language and logic of Wagnerian allegory in search of an explanation.

Let us fast-forward to an important moment in the (real-life) history of what we usually refer to as The Ring: to late in the evening of 17 August [End Page 693] 1876. The world premiere of The Ring has just come to an end at the new Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. Each time the curtain had fallen upon one of the preceding works in the cycle, Das Rheingold (on 13 August), Die Walküre (on 14 August), and Siegfried (on 16 August), Wagner had refused to appear on stage despite the audience's frenzied applause, so overwhelmed was he by the futility of the whole enterprise. Now, after the final curtain fell upon Götterdämmerung, and after a half-hour of delirious applause, the Master finally appeared on stage, surrounded by the cast. 'You have seen what we can do,' he said to the audience, 'now it's up to you to want. And if you want, then we shall have an art!' (In German: 'Sie haben jetzt gesehen, was wir können; nun ist es an Ihnen zu wollen. Und wenn Sie wollen, so haben wir eine Kunst!')2 It was a typically Wagnerian pronouncement, at once sententious and hermetic. The audience, so the report goes, was utterly perplexed, the artists offended. (After all, if art is merely a future possibility, then where does that leave everything that came before - Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven? Let alone that evening's - or the preceding week's - achievement?)

'To want' is a key verb in the Wagnerian lexicon - not just because it appears frequently in Wagner's voluminous writings, but also because of its polemical shading, distinguishing a...


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