Fantasy, Geography, Wagner, and Opera

By Sternberg, Rolf | The Geographical Review, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Fantasy, Geography, Wagner, and Opera


Sternberg, Rolf, The Geographical Review


The longing, stimuli and pains which are expressed in the lyric of Baudelaire and the music of Wagner are not for the worldly segments of the rustic villager, but exclusively for the metropolitan intellectual.

- Spengler, Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 1923

The operas of Wilhelm Richard Wagner (1813-1883) offer an opportunity to explore the physical staging of a distinguished operatic tradition and the extent to which this staging was based on the composer's geographical knowledge, experience, and observations.(1) Wagner epitomizes the romantic era of opera, but he manipulates the physical world to create lifelike settings. If operas of that era embraced certain art forms, the modern period is marked by a more abstract conceptualization of the world, avowedly contemporary in response and with an overarching perspective. Wagner's on-stage fusing of fantasy and myth with geographical reality reflects his imagination, with flashbacks to sceneries he observed firsthand on extensive hikes and travels. He invested much effort onstage to re-creating past environments echoing a visionary reality. In this effort and approach, he achieved Gesamtkunstwerk, an aesthetic unity that enhanced the whole of the presentation.

How did Wagner gain a sense of diverse landscapes? He studied geography in no formal sense understandable now. As a teenager, however, he began to hike and wander widely, and his travels expanded after he assumed positions as conductor or choirmaster in Magdeburg, Wurzburg, and Riga [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 1 AND 2 OMITTED]. The use of natural settings in his operas was extensive, especially as compared with such distinguished opera composers as Mozart, Rossini, or Verdi, all of whom also traveled. Wagner was extraordinarily aware of the environment, as is especially evident in Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Journeys gave Wagner time and the experience to internalize diverse landscapes and their respective aesthetic attributes; the impressions translated into well-composed images that emerged in opera stagings. Furthermore, rustic settings created for operas aptly matched the mythological epics that were his subject, complementing the oral and visual spectacle on stage. His sense of the aesthetic in music took the place of landscape as later interpreted and embraced by twentieth-century geographers.

Wagner took license to blend folk mythology with landscapes of his nineteenth century. The sagas and epics were dated, though how much was known of past environments at the time of his writing is uncertain. German audiences of his day were attuned to nature and rural settings, and Wagner's stage instructions conformed in good measure to a natural and rural world with which audiences could readily identify.

On the operatic stage Wagner created a remarkable interrelatedness of music and geography. As an artist he was unfettered by the conventions of what - then or now - would be considered good geography; he plumbed the geography of his own imagination, projecting his works against the background of the mythical landscapes that inhabited his librettos. He had to shoehorn his works onto stages that lacked the grandiosity and spaciousness required by his operas for truly effective presentations. Nine of his operas have rustic pastoral settings with visually believable scenery, in which actors are silhouetted against formidable geological formations, forests, or raging seas [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 3-5 OMITTED]. In other words, Wagner fused geography and stage planning to provide the needed dramatic visual composition against which to structure his literary and musical works and create Gesamtkunstwerk - a term he would later abandon. He borrowed his concepts from Greek ideals that merged the separate arts and the players, which led to the bonding of art and public. Thomas Grey refers to Der Ring, which gave rise to Wagner's viewing the work, for a time, as a "stage festival play" (Grey 1992, 232). …

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