Richard Wagner: A Genius Wrapped in an Enigma as the Lyric Opera Prepares to Stage His Landmark Work "The Flying Dutchman," His Life Remains a Puzzle

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Byline: Bill Gowen Daily Herald Classical Music Critic

When Sir Andrew Davis gives the downbeat for the overture to "The Flying Dutchman" at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the world of Richard Wagner will be revisited by those whose idolatry of this composer and his music borders on religion.

For many others it may be the first time they've experienced a Wagner opera in person.

Likely, it won't be their last.

Such is the magnetic attraction Richard Wagner holds, not only in the world of music, but in the rest of the world as well.

Born May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, Germany, Wagner lived a full life - nearly 70 years; the 118th anniversary his death, on Feb. 13, 1883, is just four days away.

More than a century later, Richard Wagner remains a genius wrapped in an enigma. A man of immense musical and literary gifts, he was an avowed anti-Semite and an adulterer; he regarded financial debts as merely a nuisance and was never afraid to walk over his "friends" for personal gain.

Yet, it is the music that defines Richard Wagner for eternity. He raised 19th century romantic music to unheard-of heights, freeing it from the structured forms of Mozart and Beethoven and introducing a new tonal language as well.

"I suppose it just goes with the man's incredible genius," said William Mason, Lyric Opera general director. "You really can't find anybody else of all the great operatic composers - Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Richard Strauss, as well as all the ones who wrote great works, even if they were not singularly great composers themselves - that encompassed the scope of what Wagner did. It included writing his own librettos and poetry, in addition to the music. It was just the breadth of what he had to say.

"I mean, you think of a Wagner opera going on for four, five or even 5 1/2 hours like 'Parsifal' or 'Die Meistersinger,' and we just don't get bored," Mason said. "He just somehow had the stamina, if nothing else, to do it. It's quite remarkable."

Today, we easily accept the accomplishments of entrepreneurial geniuses such as Bill Gates. But Wagner was no slouch in that department, either. His perfectionist attitude would not tolerate performances of his music that did not equal what he imagined in his mind. He hired the finest singers of his day to sing daunting roles like "Tannhauser," the Dutchman or Brunnhilde.

Today, Wagner's operas are as popular as ever, even though there's a perceived shortage of Wagnerian singers. The "Ring" cycle, in particular, is sold out wherever it's performed. A ticket to a Bayreuth Festival "Ring" cycle is considered one of the toughest to secure in the world of opera.

"I think it's simply the passion of the music," Mason said. "Wagner overwhelms us with some of the most glorious sound ever created. I mean, the whole orchestration, the whole gesamtkunstwerke ("total work of art") thing. There's just something about Wagner's music that's difficult to define, but you can see and hear what it's all about. It's the music, the scope of what he did."

When Lyric Opera did three complete "Ring" cycles in March 1996, people came to Chicago from around the world, as though they were reliving Tannhauser's pilgrimage to Rome.

"There are people who are very big Wagnerites who will travel all over the world for the 'Ring' cycle," Mason said. "We had some people here for our cycle who had seen it 15 or 20 times, and there was one person who had supposedly seen 40 'Rings.' They'll fly anywhere in the world to see it; they're sort of like fans of the Grateful Dead."

In addition to his controversial personal beliefs, Wagner was a control freak. He wanted to create the ideal place for his operas to be performed, not in some small opera house built a century earlier for the music of Mozart and his contemporaries.

So, in the late 1850s he began dreaming of building his own opera house. …