6 of the best opera binges
16 Jan 2019
16 Jan 2019
Wagner is known for writing grandiose operas, usually based on legendary sagas with mythical characters, and his Ring Cycle is the ultimate for marathon viewing. Not only are the four music dramas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung) long operas in themselves, but Wagner intended them to be viewed in a series. These days they are usually performed over four consecutive nights, totalling about 15 viewing hours.
Based on Old Norse mythology and the 13th century German poem Nibelungenlied, Wagner spent 26 years completing the cycle, incorporating recurring characters, interwoven storylines, quirky subplots and magnificent music. Tolkien used it as inspiration for his stories and sitting through Wagner’s Ring Cycle is still shorter than watching all of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films.
A pioneer of electronic music, German composer Stockhausen spent 26 years writing his cycle of operas but took it to another level, producing a monumental 29 hours of music. Each of the seven operas in this cosmic saga of mankind is linked to a day of the week and planet, governed by a melodic super-formula and features the characters of Michael, Lucifer and Eve. Stockhausen described his work as an ‘eternal spiral’ because ‘there is neither an end nor beginning to the week’.
Although each opera has been staged individually, the cycle is yet to be performed in full. Aside from its colossal length – Sonntag (Sunday) itself is over 8 hours – there are numerous logistical problems, not least of all the need for four helicopters to carry each member of a string quartet as they are playing during Mittwoch (Wednesday).
Composer Philip Glass and avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson joined forces in 1975 to create one of the most revolutionary works of the 20th century. They broke many of the rules of conventional opera, even inverting the order in which the work was created: starting with stage design, followed by music then libretto. The story goes that Wilson and Glass met for lunch every Thursday at a Japanese restaurant where Wilson drew images which Glass would later use to compose the music.
A series of recurrent tableaux and abstract dance sequences represent Albert Einstein’s work, backed by continuous musical numbers featuring synthesisers, woodwinds and a chorus singing a text mainly made up of numerals and solfège syllables, while Einstein plays violin downstage. At nearly five hours long with no plot and no interval, audiences are encouraged to wander in and out of the auditorium or take a nap whenever they feel like it.
With approximately four and a half hours of music, Wagner’s only ‘comedy’ was conceived on the same spa holiday in Marienbad as Lohengrin and Parsifal. Wagner originally envisaged it as a short comic digestif to follow a few hours of Tannhäuser, but it swelled in length as Wagner learnt more about the 19th century mastersingers of Nuremberg. The central figure in the opera is real-life cobbler-poet Hans Sachs who, amongst his 4,000 plus works, wrote a play about Siegfried, one of the key characters in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
The length did not deter original audiences and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was received enthusiastically at its premiere. Its strong patriotic message and praise of German art made it one of the most popular operas during German unification in 1871.
Any adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel (with its 559 characters and 361 chapters) is bound to be long. Prokofiev had been wanting to turn the great Russian novel into an opera and was spurred into action by Hitler’s 1941 invasion of Russia, seeing the similarities between this and the times of the Napoleon invasion portrayed in the book.
From a shorter version which had a modest premiere in 1944, Prokofiev continued to work on the opera for the last 11 years of his life, battling with revisions and pressure from ruling Communist authorities. The version which finally premiered in 1957 and in which form it is now mostly performed, ran for four and a half hours, with additional battlefield drama and patriotic moments. In 1973, War and Peace was the first opera to be performed at the Sydney Opera House.
Phew! After all those operatic binges, Parsifal should be a breeze with a mere four hours and 15 minutes of music. Wagner’s final opera is a heroic fantasy (think, The Odyssey or Star Wars) about an innocent young man who must go on a journey to discover the true value of compassion and become the saviour of the knights of the Holy Grail.
Combining Christianity, Buddhism and legend with Schopenhauerian philosophy, Wagner sought to express profound truths through music and drama. A ‘festival play for the consecration of the stage’ Wagner wrote Parsifal for his theatre in Bayreuth, which was designed to accommodate his extravagant productions. Upon Wagner and his wife’s insistence, no production of Parsifal was staged anywhere else until 1903 when it was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.