- Wagner-Dampf:Steam in Der Ring des Nibelungen and Operatic Production
Santa Barbara, 1945. In his last novel, the exiled Austrian writer Franz Werfel catapults himself 100,000 years forward in time to a distant planet. Here, on the "Star of the Unborn," he encounters the performance of something described to him by an indigenous gentleman as a "total work of art." The time-traveling narrator is alarmed:
"Gesamtkunstwerk," I interrupted him, startled out of my composure, "I've heard that word before. Moreover, it seems to me I've heard the thing itself before. It usually lasts five hours. Steam rises from below along with wonderful music that has no beginning and no end, and the bearded singer in the wolf's pelt nervously shifts his long spear from one hand to the other . . ."1
From the distance of outer space (or war-time California), four signifiers sufficed for Werfel to evoke Richard Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen: excessive length; infinite music; a spear-carrying, primitively clad bass; and ascending steam. This last element may take us by surprise: although we are accustomed to jokes about "long quarters of an hour," breastplates, and winged helmets, I doubt that anyone today would invoke steam as an equally defining visual marker of the Ring. And yet, the association of Wagner with all manner of vapor—steam, fog, fumes, and haze—was not confined to Werfel. In 1881, journalist Theodor Goering compared the Ring's music to fog through which "terrific talent" shone momentarily; seven years later, Friedrich Nietzsche greeted Bizet's Carmen as taking leave of "the damp North, of all the steam of the Wagnerian ideal." At the turn of the twentieth century, a character in Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks spoke of Tristan und Isolde as "perfumed fog" (parfümierter Qualm). During early World War I, Paul Heyse likened the effect of this same opera to "a musical hash-obfuscation" (Haschisch-Benebelung), and as late as 1963, in view of Wagner's nationalist mythologization of the past, philosopher Ludwig Marcuse dubbed the composer "the great forefather of generations of German fog-makers."2 The catalog goes on and on.
To be sure, all these comments take sideswipes at Wagner. The foggy metaphors regularly evoked by critics allude to the well-worn stereotypes that his [End Page 179] melodies are endless or formless (hence, nebulous), his harmonic progressions evasive, his orchestral effects narcotic, or his plots impenetrable and remote: "suffocating mist," as Eduard Hanslick called the Rheingold poem.3 On a metaphorical level, then, images of meandering fog pervaded the anti-Wagnerian lexicon early on, and not exclusively in relation to the Ring cycle. With the first performances of the latter, however, steam also acquired a very "real" dimension in critical discussions. There was, in fact, hardly a review of the inaugural Bayreuth Festival of 1876 that did not contemplate the medium of water vapor. After all, Wagner not only invoked it in his stage directions, but—as we shall see—the Ring premieres in Munich and Bayreuth also made extensive use of actual steam, more than ever before on the opera stage. Der Ring des Nibelungen thus effectively introduced the international operagoing public to a visually alluring element that transcended the painted scenery and practicable structures then commonly used for illusionist stage design, an element so versatile that it has outlived all consequent advances in stage and media technology.
Taking seriously the frequency and sincerity of contemporary comments on steam (an umbrella term I use here interchangeably with "vapor" to indicate all kinds of vapors made visible on stage, regardless of their generation), this essay will look more closely at what one could call Wagner's poetics and histrionics of steam. The availability of water vapor, I will argue, was seminal for both the early realizations and the reception of the Ring cycle. Moreover, the amorphous, transitory essence of this medium points to a host of fundamental ambivalences in this Gesamtkunstwerk, which—in its plot, music, and its original staging—veers between the archaic and the ultra-modern, past and future, superhuman myth and human-designed progress, unspoiled nature and industrial society, stasis and flux, realism and...