It’s not every day that the music critic of the New Yorker comes and talks about opera, gender and sexuality all in one lecture. The dramatic marketing poster and complex, intersectional event description of this Music Department Class of 1960s Scholars event convinced me to attend this lecture to explore how Richard Wagner, a 19th-century German composer famous for his music dramas, represents women and gay desire in his operas.
Alex Ross has been the music critic of the New Yorker since 1996 and writes about classical music, pop music, opera, 20th-century history and gay life, among other topics. A MacArthur Fellow, his books and research focus on the cultural impact of music and music history. To my disappointment, the lecture was rather dry in presentation as Ross read fluently from what appeared to me a 20-page document, playing 30-second snippets of music occasionally to elucidate his point.
As an English major, I felt like I was attending a reading, or rather, a sneak preview from a chapter of his upcoming book on Wagnerism. Yet, once I accepted the dissertation presentation style, the intellectual content of Ross’s talk was thought provoking, eye opening and broad-reaching.
Ross spoke on the wide implications Wagner’s music had on literature, culture and women’s movements leading up to the 20th century. Der Ring des Nibelungen is a four-cycle music opera, or more specifically, epic music drama Wagner wrote over the course of 26 years. It revolves around Norse mythology of the land of the gods and mortals, particularly focusing on a Valkyrie (a mortal female who chooses the fate of those slain in battle, or as Ross put it, “a war woman who can bring a man into the house of the Gods”), Brunnhilde. Ross describes the Valkyrie as “holding the actual power” and a “representation of feminine love overcoming masculine superiority.”
This is just one aspect of how Wagner’s operas and Wagnerism led to a “love of fighting for women’s rights.” His operas provide a stage where “it’s the only place men and women stand on the same level and share true comradeship.” The poet Walt Whitman once named Wagner a “true feminist” as his music lends the “feminist view.” (Although, personally I think Whitman gives Wagner too much credit as a white male dominating the opera scene in the 19th century.) Female author Willa Cather wrote two books revolving around the effect of Wagner’s music on the central female psyche. In her 1904 short story, “The Wagner Matinee,” Cather paints Georgianna, the female protagonist, as so moved by a “Wagnerian Utopia” in which “visions of equality are evoked for those born into inequality” that Georgianna’s nephew described her face “trembling as though she has found another world.” I found Ross’s ability to draw these connections between Wagner’s opera and Cather’s words uncanny.
Attending this lecture made me reflect further on how music and culture give progress to the world we live in today, which is still heteronormative and dominated by men in so many ways. Contemporary music theatre and operas could utilize some spirit of Wagner and re-summon the powerful image of the Valkyrie, fearless and in control of the fate of the world.