Where is all the liberal hand-wringing over Wagner's The Ring?

Richard Wagner
Richard Wagner

One can hardly move these days for safe spaces, trigger warnings and campaigns to "decolonise" everything from university curricula to our nation’s statues, plaques and memorials – redoubts, so the evangelists say, of white men who got fat off of empire.

One area where such scrupulousness appears not to apply, however, is in the continued appreciation – nay lauding – of Richard Wagner and his opera. Wagner's Ring Cycle kicked off this week at the Royal Opera House, in all its mythical Aryan-extolling splendour.

Which means I’ve been reminded yet again of how odd it is to see so many self-consciously civilised people make a cultish passion out of the grandiose operas of Hitler’s favourite composer. Each year, from late summer onwards, I overhear – shocked – well-heeled lefties discussing which tickets they have to which parts of the Ring; joyful realisations that a whole gang are going and they’ll certainly meet for interval drinks (there are a lot of interval drinks since each opera in the Ring is about 6 hours).

It surely is a sign of our politically mixed-up times that teaching Kant and Plato can be considered imperialist among progressive elites but bagging tickets by any means possible to hear the man whose music Hitler in 1924 swore embodied Germany’s destiny is admirable in their ranks. Chic, even.

I can’t help but wonder whether Jews simply don’t count in the cultural maths of oppression – certainly when it comes to politics, the Labour Party has been giving us this impression for some time now. I’ve always wondered: do those who never miss a the Bayreuth festival (a summer orgy of Wagnerian opera in the Bavarian opera house built to order by the composer), or who spend weeks and months plotting how to get tickets, ever let their musical idol’s links not just with the Nazis but with all blood-and-soil visions of northern European destiny trouble them?

The Royal Opera House's 2012 production of Das Rheingold Credit:  Clive Barda/ROH

It rather seems to me that rather than temper their passion for the composer, it only stokes it. It's as though the dreadful history hanging around Wagner only lends his music a greater subversive thrill.

I’m all for separating out the art from the artist and roll my eyes when I hear about racism in Dickens or anti-Semitism in Trollope, two of my favourite authors. But when it comes to Wagner, hindsight surely demands at the very least a more cautious approach.

If well-to-do liberals of all stripes routinely wring their hands over long-dead artists’ and authors’ connections to empire or the slave trade, Wagner should surely be enjoyed in restrained terms. 

I’ve seen several of his operas and have been transported by the searing, galactic sounds; the drama of the stories. This is very good opera (if baggy). But it must continue to be enjoyed only in context - and therefore, in order to be seemly, robustly but not passionately. 

Ignoring what we know both about Wagner’s own obsessive views about Jews, which prompted his famous 1850 treatise on our inherent lack of musical creativity, and his operatic afterlife, seems not only insensitive but dangerous. Without this context, what’s to stop opera-goers simply indulging in the same self-aggrandising notions of spirit that so moved the high rollers of the Third Reich?

In Israel, understandably, Wagner is persona non grata and almost never played. A Tel Aviv DJ who accidentally played a snippet recently had to apologise profusely on national media for having prompted widespread outcry. I’m not suggesting we need to go that far. But a little hand-ringing, a smidgen of apologetics, wouldn’t go amiss.