- A Note from the Guest Editors
How is Parsifal faring in this age of virtual reality? A recent stroll through YouTube yielded a few surprises. Some of the videos were predictable (clips from recorded performances), others quaint (a Bavarian boy choir in Lederhosen singing the act 1 choruses). Yet the opera has also met an oddly ambitious reception in cyberspace, inspiring full-fledged expenditures of technological capital. A video collage called "Bye Bye Parsifal," for instance, seeks to explore the "esoteric continuum" between Wagner's opera and the Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie.1 For the most part, this "continuum" turns out to be as sophomoric as it is esoteric: the video takes obvious glee in having Amfortas sing "I've got a lot of livin' to do." But for all its ultimate pretensions, "Bye Bye Parsifal" makes a lasting impression by splicing scenes from the musical's 1963 film onto Hans-Jürgen Syberberg's 1983 film version of the opera. The video's opening gambit, for instance, layers both sound and image from the musical's title song onto the opera's act 1 transformation scene, leading to moments of extraordinary disjuncture: young Ann-Margret is plopped into Montsalvat, and a show tune grates against one of Wagner's thornier chromatic passages. As the Broadway/Bayreuth juxtaposition approaches all-out aural and visual chaos, Syberberg's own notorious contribution to the scene—a Nazi flag—comes into view.
It's no accident that the YouTube video would invest this transformation scene with its most ambitious technological intervention, or Syberberg's film with its political one; nor is it surprising that Tony Palmer would choose to juxtapose the act 3 transformation music with cheers from a Nazi rally in his 2001 documentary on the work. For Parsifal is ultimately an opera that rests on the promise of transformation: time turns into space, a fool into a savior, blood into wine, she-devil into redemptive heroine. Fluidity and change do not simply hold parts of the work together; they constitute the work. And as a result of this transformative impulse, the orientation around its own interstices, Wagner's Bühnenweihfestspiel has proved to be an extraordinarily difficult piece to pin down. No less so now than at its 1882 premiere, Parsifal is a cultural document of enormous ambiva-lence: alternately nostalgic and forward-looking in its music, naïve and blasphemous in its religiosity, and equivocal in its nationalist ethos, Richard Wagner's last opera also remains his most inscrutable.
To be sure, this air of mystery is a selling point, a commodity not unlike Bayreuth itself. In Palmer's film, Wolfgang Wagner proudly notes that Goebbels was wary of banning Parsifal, since Hitler had yet to decide what the [End Page 205] opera meant. But inscrutability works two ways. The Nazis did ultimately ban the opera, and although the reasons why have never been clear, one might suppose that the work's pacifism may have had something to do with it. All the same, Parsifal stages an allegory whose ideological (and arguably racial) overtones lie uneasily between the liturgy of a nineteenth-century art religion and premonitions of a twentieth-century national one—and these premonitions continue to haunt the opera's theatrical realizations. Indeed, the fracas over Christoph Schlingensief 's "multicultural" Parsifal at Bayreuth in the summer of 2004 (reviewed in this issue by Ehren Fordyce) illustrates the extraordinary degree to which this opera's enigmas continue to challenge not only German ideals of communal identity, but also those of Europe more broadly.
Yet this is nothing new; ever since its inception, Parsifal has amplified and resonated with the cultural anxieties that surround its performance, often expressing them in extreme forms. While the drama self-consciously directs our attention to its imagined origins in medieval sources, it also articulates more lateral connections to contemporaneous medical practices, science, attitudes toward disease and vivisection, and discourses on hypnotism—not to mention anti-Semitism, sexuality, criminality, and degeneracy. It would seem both to embrace an aesthetics of empathy with profound affinities for Wagner's music and to embody a Nietzschean "applied physiology" just as...