- Curtain, Gong, Steam: Wagnerian Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Opera by Gundula Kreuzer
Reflecting on early childhood impressions of the theater in his autobiography Mein Leben, Richard Wagner suggestively highlights a variety of liminal, material, spectral, and immersive qualities as particularly formative. Through his stepfather, Ludwig Geyer, a successful actor and portrait-painter as well as sometime singer and playwright, young Richard had direct access to all aspects of the theater. He could watch performances from a special "concealed loge" that communicated directly with the stage, visit the wardrobe "with its fantastic costumes and all the paraphernalia of illusion," and was given bit parts to play, such as a winged cherub in a festive tableau honoring the return of the King of Saxony from captivity after the Napoleonic wars (featuring music by Carl Maria von Weber).1 Wagner's early fascination with the theater, he recalls, transcended the mere entertainment value of seeing stories acted or sung, focusing rather on a more fundamental nexus of material properties, physical sensations, and imaginative responses, "a tingling delight in finding myself in an atmosphere that represented such a contrast to normal life by its purely fantastic and almost appallingly attractive quality."
Thus a set, or even a flat—perhaps representing a bush—or a costume or even only a characteristic piece of one, appeared to me to emanate from another world …, and contact with all this would serve as a lever to lift me out of a monotonous everyday reality into that fantastical demoniacal realm. Everything connected with the theater had for me the charm of mystery, an attraction amounting to intoxication.2
Wagner even goes on to suggest the origins of his notorious fetish for luxurious fabrics and articles of women's clothing in the tactile and imaginative experience of his sisters theatrical costumes, which they worked on at home ("touching these objects would cause my heart to beat wildly"), and which in some sense served as psychic substitute for physical intimacy withheld by his careworn mother or busy, working sisters.3 The acoustic dimension of these early impressions operated at a similarly primal level. While he responded enthusiastically to popular numbers from Der [End Page 224] Freischütz such as the Hunters' and Bridesmaids' choruses and the atmospheric overture, or Beethoven's incidental music to Egmont, he especially recalls the psychic thrill at hearing "Zillmann's town band" tuning up for afternoon concerts in the Grosser Garten in Dresden. That same thrill of acoustic liminality is often projected in Wagner's music (the sustained trumpet tone of the Rienzi overture's introduction, for example) and was induced early on when "the swelling C of the Freischütz overture announced to me that I had stepped with both feet into the magic realm of awe."4
Wagners emphasis on this array of material, visual, and acoustic impressions—quite apart from those of dramatic texts or musical scores as such—offers striking support for many of the critical intuitions informing Gundula Kreuzers impressively researched, engagingly written, consistently insightful study of material, visual, and acoustic dimensions of the Wagnerian "total artwork," as shared by a range of operatic and theatrical practices across the long nineteenth century. When Wagner later tried to theorize his notions of the "musical-dramatic artwork of the future," he repeatedly stressed the importance of addressing not merely the intellect or understanding but the "feeling," which required realizing the "poetic intent" of the drama for the entire sensorium. While he was mainly thinking of such extraverbal sensory data as the gestures and expressions of the actors, the phonetic textures of his poetic Stabreim, the contours of his vocal melody, and above all the ineffable expression of his "orchestral speech," Kreuzer's book presses such claims even further by focusing attention on a few rudimentary stage technologies outside the scripted "work" that serve to mediate our experience of it in ways ranging from obvious to subtle or even nearly imperceptible. The three main "Wagnerian technologies" of the book's title—the theatrical curtain, the percussive gong or...