Author Q&A with Barry Millington

  • October 30, 2012

Barry Millington is the Author of The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His Work and His World.

Barry Millington, The Sorcerer of Bayreuth: Richard Wagner, His Work and His World.

Millington offers us an in-depth overview of Wagner’s life and work, including the sources of the composer’s inspiration, his fetish for exotic silks, his relationship with his wives and mistresses, and his virulent anti-Semitism. Using the latest scholarship, the author reappraises the conventional judgment of Wagner and crafts alternate interpretations of the man and his masterpieces. The resulting assessment is often daring and sometimes controversial.

Barry Millington is chief music critic for the London Evening Standard and the editor of The Wagner Journal. He has written and edited or co-edited seven books on Wagner, including The Wagner Compendium (1992), The Ring of the Nibelung: A Companion (1993) and The New Grove Guide to Wagner and his Operas (2006). In addition to his writing, Millington has been a dramaturgical adviser to several international music festivals.

The men who invented opera in Florence at the beginning of the 17th century called it dramma per musica, drama by means of music. Is that the best definition for opera? How would you define it?

It’s certainly a plausible definition for the Wagnerian music drama. There’s a famous phrase of Wagner’s — “deeds of music made visible” — which many people assume means that Wagner was asserting the priority of music and that his dramas are essentially deeds of music, which then acquire visible form. But if you look at the context of the remark, you’ll see that he means precisely the opposite. Wagner’s making an ironic riposte to a critic who seems to have difficulty watching and listening to the opera simultaneously. And what Wagner says is: What name could I give to these works that are so inaudible and invisible? Perhaps, he goes on, I should call them “deeds of music made visible,” but that would be too much of a mouthful. Well, so it would, but it’s clear from this that it’s the making visible that was of importance to Wagner. As simple deeds of music they would be incomplete, but when they’re given visible, dramatic form on stage, it becomes something much more exciting.

In my lifetime, men and women who stage and direct opera have become dominant figures. Are you happy with their preeminence?

They certainly have a higher profile than in previous eras, but I’m not sure that they’re any more dominant than, say, singers and conductors. It seems to be right, though, that directors should have an equal role in the (re)creative process, especially in the case of Wagner, where, as I’ve said, the dramatic dimension was of overriding importance to him; without their realization on the stage, his musical scores remained incomplete. Or so Wagner thought, and I must say, I rather agree with him.

Nowadays, the dramatic aspect of opera has assumed much greater importance than in years past. The drama has become as important as — sometimes more important than — the music. Does that trend please you?

But I think this is a false distinction. It’s not a question of the drama or the music. For Wagner, the drama and the music are indissoluble. The fundamental conception for him was a dramatic one, but it was expressed through music in conjunction with scenery and so forth. One of Wagner’s most important essays was called “The Artwork of the Future,” which he wrote immediately before embarking on the “Ring.” And in it he set out his ideas for the kind of work he wanted to write. It was to be performed by actors rather than singers, he said, and the performer was to be a representative of “pure humanity,” the stage would become the whole world. He rewrites the whole history of opera in this essay. It’s an astonishing piece, and in fact, I’m publishing a brand-new translation of it, by Emma Warner — the first since Ashton Ellis’s impenetrable one of 1895 — in The Wagner Journal next year.

All of us opera fans have our favorite works and a list of operas we can’t stand. Which operas do you put into those two categories and why?

As a music critic it’s more than my job’s worth to admit which operas I can’t stand. I generally try to avoid them anyway. But there are not many that fall into that category. It’s such an incredibly fruitful and protean genre; composers have used it in so many different ways to express some of the deepest and most basic human psychological needs and instincts. I will admit, however, that I feel especially drawn to the late-19th-century German repertoire: Strauss, Schreker, Zemlinsky and so forth. But I also adore Handel and am keen too on a lot of the 20th-century repertoire — Berg, Janáček, Britten, Henze, Birtwistle.

Some critics dismiss Puccini as sentimental and Wagner as heavy-handed. Your reaction?

Well, I can see what they mean. But Puccini was a master at wringing the emotions, and that’s one of the reasons we go to the theatre, after all. Maybe I have a higher than average tolerance of sentimentality. I love those 19th-century paintings by Waterhouse, Millais, Grimshaw, the pre-Raphaelites and so forth. I think you have to see them as a product of their time, when a particular kind of sensibility was current. But given my enjoyment of that kind of art, Puccini’s no problem for me!

Opera enthusiasts are divided in how they appraise Maria Callas. Where do you stand on that lady?

To be honest, I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other. I’ve never been much of a canary fancier. Which is not to say I don’t have favorite and less favorite singers, but it’s not the reason I’m drawn to opera.

Opera-goers who cherish Mozart and Wagner often discount bel canto composers — like Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini — as trivial. Your opinion?

Well, this could be tricky territory. Let’s just say that when those guys get serious — and I’m thinking of Rossini’s “William Tell” or Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” for example — they’re capable of wonderful things. I can’t get so excited about sopranos trilling unnecessarily up in the ether. And it takes a really inspired production to persuade me that the antics of all those tedious doctors, peddlers and gardeners are very funny. But then I have a problem with the so-called comedy in Wagner’s “Siegfried” and “Die Meistersinger” too.

Do opera conductors have too much power?

I’m not sure that they have any more power than they ever did, do they? Possibly even less than in the era of the tyrant maestro. The ideal arrangement surely has to be one where the conductor, director and singers all work in creative harmony, all contributing to the end product. We’ve just had a very good example of that in London, where Antonio Pappano conducted the revival of Keith Warner’s “Ring.” The understanding between those two, and the way the musical and dramatic conceptions were fused, was phenomenal. Throw in the contributions of great singers like Bryn Terfel and Susan Bullock, really thinking through the meaning of every phrase and how best to embody it vocally and dramatically, and you have music drama at its most enthralling.

If you had to name one perfect opera, which one would it be? Why?

Well, restricting myself just to Wagner, I’d have to say that the “Ring” has its highs and lows for me, while “Parsifal,” gorgeous as the score is, is problematic in terms of its ideology. But “Tristan und Isolde” has none of these negatives. It’s just one expansive arc of extraordinary inspiration, not a note too long. And it really touches us at the deepest levels too — absolutely gut-wrenching in emotional and psychological terms.

Which operas composed in the past 20 years or so will survive? Why?

I’ve already mentioned Harrison Birtwistle and I think several of his, including “The Minotaur” and the “Mask of Orpheus,” will stand the test of time. There’s a lot of other interesting work being done too, but it’s difficult to think of very much that has the feel of unanswerable greatness about it — the sort of works that one would feel confident about placing a huge bet on as far as their joining the repertoire is concerned.

One of my favorite quotations about opera comes from Noël Coward: “People are wrong when they say that opera isn’t what it used to be. It is what it used to be — that’s what’s wrong with it.” Your reaction?

I wish I’d said it myself!

Which infrequently performed operas do you think deserve more attention? Why?

Most on my wish list would be from the Germanic repertoire, which I know best. Several of Strauss’s would be at the top of the list — “Daphne” and “Die Liebe der Danae” among them — followed by Schreker’s “Die Gezeichneten” and “Der ferne Klang,” and works by Krenek, Korngold, Zemlinsky, Weill, Hindemith. I’m also a great fan of Humperdinck’s “Königskinder” and would like to hear more of his nine operas. Going back further, Wolf, Goldmark, Cornelius, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Marschner all wrote works that are worth hearing occasionally.

If you could change one current practice in the way opera is performed, what would it be and why?

I would make booing of singers a prosecutable offense. We’re all disappointed sometimes, but when you think of the huge emotional and physical investment required of a singer on stage, how exposed they are, how they still have to (and generally do) give of their best even when they’re feeling like death, it seems boorish beyond belief to express a subjective opinion of their performance in such a crass way.

Name the singer you most admire and explain why.

Well, that’s a very invidious question, especially if we’re talking about singers today. But since I’m still reeling under the impression of the Covent Garden “Ring,” I’ll nominate Susan Bullock, whom I’ve admired for a long time but who absolutely claimed her place as Britain’s leading dramatic soprano with her Brünnhilde this time round. She brings to the role all the human qualities it needs — after all she’s the Valkyrie who learns and demonstrates the redemptive power of love in a cruel, material world — but combines them with the keenest sense of every word of the text and a glorious tone to match.

The tendency in new productions these days is to depart from realistic and historically accurate stagings and to use modern dress and sometimes surreal sets and costumes and acting. Is that a desirable trend? Why?

Modern dress and more or less surreal sets and acting have been current in the spoken theatre for decades, so I don’t see why they shouldn’t work equally well in opera. I don’t think that every production should necessarily work in the same way; there’s plenty of room for a multiplicity of approaches. And I do think that the reverence one still witnesses in some quarters for the stage directions is misplaced. The productions of Wagner I’ve seen which attempt to follow the stage directions to the letter — as if that were ever possible — are the ones that come alive least in dramatic terms. These works — and the same apply to opera generally — have to be constantly reinterpreted by and for audiences today. That’s the only way to be really faithful to the composer.

Now that your current book is finished and published, what does the future hold? More books?

I don’t think I’ll be doing any more books for the foreseeable future. I have a couple of papers to write for conferences next year, but most of my energy will be going into Wagner 200, which is a London-based festival I’m co-directing with Mark Eynon, to celebrate the bicentenary. The Wagner Journal also takes up a fair bit of time and I run an ensemble called Counterpoise with my wife, the trumpeter Deborah Calland, so I won’t be putting my feet up just yet.

Writer Tom Glenn fell under the spell of Richard Wagner as a child and hasn’t been the same since. As a lecturer on music and especially opera, Glenn is still trying to sort out his ambivalent judgments on the music drama sorcerer.

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