Wagner without Fear: Learning to Love--and Even Enjoy--Opera's Most Demanding Genius

Wagner without Fear: Learning to Love--and Even Enjoy--Opera's Most Demanding Genius

by William Berger

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Do you cringe when your opera-loving friends start raving about the latest production of Tristan? Do you feel faint just thinking about the six-hour performance of Parsifal you were given tickets to? Does your mate accuse you of having a Tannhäuser complex? If you're baffled by the behavior of Wagner worshipers, if you've longed to fathom the mysteries of


Do you cringe when your opera-loving friends start raving about the latest production of Tristan? Do you feel faint just thinking about the six-hour performance of Parsifal you were given tickets to? Does your mate accuse you of having a Tannhäuser complex? If you're baffled by the behavior of Wagner worshipers, if you've longed to fathom the mysteries of Wagner's ever-increasing popularity, or if you just want to better understand and enjoy the performances you're attending, you'll find this delightful book indispensable.

William Berger is the most helpful guide one could hope to find for navigating the strange and beautiful world of the most controversial artist who ever lived. He tells you all you need to know to become a true Wagnerite—from story lines to historical background; from when to visit the rest room to how to sound smart during intermission; from the Jewish legend that possibly inspired Lohengrin to the tragic death of the first Tristan. Funny, informative, and always a pleasure to read, Wagner Without Fear proves that the art of Wagner can be accessible to everyone.

- The strange life of Richard Wagner—German patriot (and exile), friend (and enemy) of Liszt and Nietzsche
- Essential opera lore and "lobby talk"
- A scene-by-scene analysis of each opera
- What to listen for to get the most from the music
- Recommended recordings, films, and sound tracks

Editorial Reviews

This irreverent, informative guide to the life and work of Richard Wagner, written by a true Wagnerite and opera fanatic who is also a composer, bridges the gap between longtime opera veterans and the increasing numbers of young people who are discovering opera with each passing year.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this dumbed-down guide, Berger, a librettist and composer, attempts to make Richard Wagner's (1813-1883) operas accessible to the uninitiated. After a breezy summary of the composer's life, he devotes a chapter to each of his mature works, interspersing plot outlines with chatty commentary. There is a bit of performance history, as well as advice on how to pronounce names, get through the rough spots at the notoriously long performances and when to eat, drink and visit the restroom. He also touches on Wagner's "pseudo-philosophy," especially his anti-Semitism, but like everything else in this disappointing book, it's all oversimplified. There is little discussion of the music and too much cuteness: on Act 3 of Tristan, for example: "These monologues are ballbusters!" and "They're dropping like flies at Castle Kareol!" Some of the sections entitled "Lobby Talk" are thought-provoking--"Nuremberg as City and Concept" (Meistersinger) and the speculation about the power of a person's name (Lohengrin), for example. Chapters on Wagner CDs and the best books to read on the composer and his operas are useful. For the most part, however, Berger underestimates the reader and trivializes the works. Do we really need to be told that Magdalena, Eva's nurse in Meistersinger, is a "female companion," not a "medical attendant" and that The Flying Dutchman is "supposed to be, like, spooky?" It's easy to be facetious about Wagner, but Berger overdoes it. Author tour. (Oct.)

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Premiere: Bayreuth, 1882.


Parsifal is named for its lead character, and it's pretty much pronounced as it's written. If you want to show off your German, hit the r with a slight glottal fricative. British people, perhaps to emphasize their distinctness from Continentals, tend to mispronounce it "Parsi-full."


Parsifal is Wagner's final masterpiece, a depiction of a corrupted society renewed by an innocent young man who becomes wise through compassion. The story of the individual, that is, the "coming of age"
of the hero, is as old as storytelling itself. The interesting thing about this example of the genre is the community where the hero becomes himself, for Parsifal stumbles (literally) upon the knights of the Holy Grail. These worthy men live in a castle in northern Spain, sustained by and devoted to the Grail itself.

The legends of the Holy Grail are complicated, numerous, and extremely far-reaching, embedded in the
Euro-American consciousness by such diverse sources as the troubadours, Sir Walter Scott, and even
Monty Python and Indiana Jones. The definition of the Grail changes in each of these manifestations. For the purposes of Parsifal, the Grail is the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, and that was used to catch his blood when he was pierced on the cross by the Spear. The Grail and the Spear were both transferred by angels to Monsalvat in northern Spain where, in the Middle Ages, the Christian and Muslim worlds were slugging it out for the domination of Europe. A king, named Titurel, was chosen by God to head a brotherhood of knights, and a castle was built that none can find but those called by the Grail. At the castle, the knights are sustained spiritually and physically by the Grail, which is uncovered by the king in a ritual very closely resembling Holy Communion. Thus renewed, the knights embark on adventures for the greater glory of their faith, carrying the Holy Spear with them to battle the heathen and other enemies.

If all this strikes you as a bit much for the opera house, you are not alone. Many people object to the
Christian particularism of the work (Nietzsche, for one, threw a world-class fit), while others find the liturgical language and enactments truly blasphemous. Wagner himself could not bear to call it a music drama, much less an opera, and called it, instead, a Bühnenweihfestspiel, or "stage-consecrating festival play." From the start, it was intended to be performed only at Bayreuth. Parsifal has always had a certain aura surrounding it, a sort of uniqueness perpetuated by fans and detractors alike.

Yet for all its rituals and otherworldliness, Parsifal has a powerful story to tell. All is not well in the kingdom of the Grail. The Holy Spear has been lost to an evil magician, the king lies incapacitated with a wound that won't heal, and the land itself is enveloped in gloom. Wagner used a dark palette in his scoring to depict this, which is part of the reason many people find this work heavy and dull.

Such people are not merely being obtuse. In a word, Parsifal is slow. There is very little external action. The score even includes directions for periods of complete silence. Parsifal is not for the impatient, nor for those who need to be hit over the head with loud sound bites every few minutes to stay awake. In a way, the experience of Parsifal is akin to that of a no-hitter in baseball. It is the very pinnacle for the devoted fan, who writhes in ecstasies of tension and delayed gratification, while the casual spectator languishes in boredom waiting in vain for "action" (hit tunes or home runs).

For all its static nature and its otherworldliness, there is little that is obscure in the score, and it can be appreciated by any open-minded operagoer with the ability to sit still for a few hours. There is no need to sweat out details of the score beforehand. As Cosima put it well in her Diaries, "It is all so direct!"


Parsifal (tenor) A "guileless fool," which is the literary way to say a young man who has done nothing and knows less. Parsifal has lived on his own since running away from home as a young child. He does not even know his own name. In many ways, he is similar to the all-free and unsocialized
Siegfried, although, being somewhat more surreal and somehow less human, he is considerably less obnoxious. Parsifal actually does very little throughout this work in the usual sense of heroic action, beyond the admittedly impressive feat of catching a spear in midair. His growth is largely internal.

Kundry (soprano or mezzo-soprano) The "wandering Jew" of medieval legend. Kundry is generally cited as Wagner's most enigmatic, and most interesting, female character. As a young woman,
she laughed at Christ suffering on the cross, and was condemned to wander the earth until saved, seeking but never finding rest or death. In Acts I and III, she is a wild unruly penitent performing service to the knights of the Grail, while in Act II she is a beautiful seductress and slave to the evil magician Klingsor.
Divas, therefore, love to take on the role of Kundry, since they get to assume three of the best poses in the soprano arsenal: madness, seduction, and piety. She has a foot, so to speak, in each world, and is really the most human character, philosophically speaking, in this drama.

Titurel (bass) The original king of the knights, he is burdened by his years and has made his son Amfortas king. Titurel is kept alive only by the annual uncovering of the Grail (a sort of celestial life support), a duty he is too weak to perform himself. He has a grand total of ten lines to sing in
Parsifal, and they are sung offstage. In fact, his only stage appearance is as a corpse. The role,
however, is important in terms of the story, and his brief vocal appearances must be impressive.

Amfortas (bass-baritone) Titurel's son, the current king of the knights, languishing because of his sin. He was seduced by Kundry several years before, and, while he lay with her, Klingsor stole the
Holy Spear and stabbed Amfortas in the side. The wound bleeds yet. The loss of the Spear and the "wound that won't heal," beyond psychological implications, are the signs of decay in the knights' community and the kingdom of the Grail.

Gurnemanz (bass) The "nice guy" of the story, Gurnemanz is the first to see the possibility of a savior in Parsifal. He is something of the mentor figure familiar from coming-of-age literature.
This role is demanding in terms of the sheer amount of music to be sung, for Gurnemanz does all the explaining (and there is plenty to be done) in this tale.

Klingsor (bass) The bad guy. Klingsor had once aspired to be a knight of the Grail himself.
Titurel refused him, and Klingsor, in desperation to prove his aptness for service to the Grail, castrated himself. This act guaranteed his exclusion from the brotherhood, but also (somehow) gave him power in the arts of black magic. He lives in a magic castle with a garden he has conjured out of the desert on the southern slope of the same mountain range as the Grail Castle at Monsalvat (in other words, he faces
Moorish Spain, while the knights face Christendom).

Flower Maidens (sopranos and mezzos) These are Klingsor's most effective weapons, lovely maidens (although the term "maiden" is probably not to be taken literally) who seduce chaste men.
Members of the audience usually assume these ladies to be supplied by the chorus, but in fact the six Flower
Maidens are soloists with separate billing in the program. Their music is semi-individuated, not unlike some of the music of the townspeople of Nuremberg in Meistersinger, and it is not unusual to find star singers in these roles.



Comment: Wagner described the meaning of the Prelude as "faith—suffering—hope?" The first part portrays faith in simple majestic themes, including a "borrowed" one. Many listeners will recognize the famous "Dresden Amen" from church services, where it remains standard to this day. Wagner must have heard it thousands of times when he was Kapellmeister at Dresden. It was also used by Mendelssohn in his
Reformation Symphony. The suffering theme is an expansion of one of the central measures of the faith motif, which is an excellent theological observation (i.e., spiritual suffering is central to faith), made by means of music and therefore appealing more to the subconscious than to the intellect. For "hope?" we are given a brief moment of the strings playing softly in marvelously unresolved ambiguity. The Prelude is often heard on the radio and in the concert hall, where it is moving, yet annoyingly incomplete. All of the themes heard here are fully explored and resolved in the reset of the score. It is, in effect, an "executive summary" for the entire subsequent drama.

Act I

Setting: A shady forest in the domain of the Castle of Monsalvat, in northern Spain, in the Middle Ages.

Gurnemanz, an elderly but vigorous knight of the Grail, and two young squires are awakened by trombones from the offstage castle. They pray silently. Gurnemanz tells the squires to prepare for the king's bath in the nearby lake. Two knights enter. Gurnemanz asks if the latest potion found by the knights has eased the king's pain. A knight responds that the pain has returned, and is worse. Gurnemanz says mysteriously that only one man can help the king, but when they ask him the name of the man, he gruffly orders them off to prepare the bath.

The knights and squires see Kundry racing madly on a horse toward them. She rushes in, dressed wildly,
hair everywhere, eyes alternately flashing and staring lifelessly. She hands Gurnemanz a potion for the king, saying merely, "If this doesn't help, there's not a potion left in Arabia to help him. Ask no more! I am weary!" She throws herself on the ground. Amfortas is brought on, in pain. He forbids the knights to seek out more potions for him, since the only help he can expect will come from an "innocent fool," as he was once told. Gurnemanz persuades him to try one last remedy, the potion that Kundry has brought from
Arabia. When Amfortas thanks her, she snaps back, "Don't thank me! It won't help! Go to your bath!"

Amfortas is carried to the lake. The knights and squires harass Kundry, still lying on the ground, but
Gurnemanz rebukes them. She may be strange, but she has never harmed the knights. In fact, she has given much service to the brotherhood. Who knows what sin she may be expiating in service to the knights?
Prompted by more questions from the squires, Gurnemanz tells them what he knows. Klingsor, rejected for knighthood by Titurel, had built a magic castle and garden to corrupt the knights, and their king Amfortas had been ensnared by a seductress. Never guessing that the wild Kundry lying on the ground could have been the same woman in a different state of being, he asks her why she didn't help the knights on that fateful day. "I never help!" she growls back at him.

Gurnemanz then repeats the details of the story to the squires: how Titurel had received the Grail and the
Spear from angels, how he built the Castle of Monsalvat and formed the brotherhood of knights, how
Klingsor's garden had seduced many other knights to their damnation even before Amfortas, and how
Titurel had grown old and relinquished the crown to his son, whose fate the squires already know. The squires remark that the one who retrieves the Spear will win lasting honor, but Gurnemanz explains that
Amfortas, praying in atonement after the incident, was told in a revelation that he must wait for "an innocent fool, enlightened through compassion" to retrieve the Spear and heal the wound. The squires repeat "an innocent fool . . . ," as if in prayer. There is silence.

Comment: The whole first part of Act I is slow, stately, expository, and a bit glum. The curtain rises on three sleeping bodies, which sets the tone. Even the passing back and forth of Amfortas is pained. Kundry's entrance provides a little flurry of musical activity, but it quickly fades as she falls asleep on stage.
Gurnemanz's long (fifteen minutes) narrative gives us important information for what follows, and includes many seeds of subsequent themes that, if followed closely, will reveal subtle beauties. The problem is that it's rather dull. Newman assures us that this narrative is superior to others in opera: "It is not a hoary operatic device dragged in willy-nilly, as in Il Trovatore, to tell the audience what it needs to know under the pretext of one character telling another on stage." Actually, it is exactly that, all "psychological justifications" notwithstanding. George Martin is much more direct. "This is the spot to snooze,"
recommends his Opera Companion. While there may be wisdom in both these opposing points of view, they both miss the point. Wagner, who was a genius of the theater above everything else, knew he had to lower the audience's collective blood pressure, so to speak, to put us in a receptive frame of mind for what was to follow. He did this by giving the know-it-alls some arcane leitmotivic titillations for their amusements,
and putting the remainder of the audience fast asleep.

A commotion is heard among the knights—a swan has been wounded in flight by an arrow! The swan flies overhead, and dies onstage. A boy is dragged in carrying a bow. "Did you do this?" asks Gurnemanz.
"Yes!" replies the boy, proud of his shooting skill. The knights and squires call for punishment. Gurnemanz explains that wildlife and humans live together in this holy forest. The swan was seeking its mate to circle over the lake and consecrate the king's bath, and now look at him! The boy breaks his bow in shame. How could he commit such a crime? "I didn't know," replies the boy. Where are you from? asks Gurnemanz.
Who is your father? Who sent you here? The boy replies that he doesn't know to each question. What is your name? "I once had many, but I don't know them anymore." Gurnemanz mutters that this is the dumbest person he's ever met, besides Kundry.

Gurnemanz dismisses the knights and squires, and asks the boy if he knows anything at all. He knows his mother's name, Herzeleide ("Heart's Sorrow"). Since you look noble, why didn't your mother teach you about better arms than bow and arrow? Kundry answers that his father had been slain in battle before he was born, and Herzeleide had reared the boy in seclusion to spare him a similar fate. This triggers some memory from the boy, who remembers leaving his hermitlike home to follow some knights he saw one day.
He never could find them, however, and he had to forge his own way in the world with only his handmade bow and arrows. Gurnemanz says that the boy's deserted mother must grieve, but Kundry answers that she grieves no more. Herzeleide has died of her broken heart—she saw it herself as she rode by. The boy grabs
Kundry by the throat at the news, and Gurnemanz rebukes him for his violence. The boy passes out, and
Kundry fetches spring water. Gurnemanz commends this act of goodness, but Kundry characteristically says, "I never do good!" She crawls off into the forest, moaning how she wants to sleep forever, without nightmares, just die.

Comment: Our introduction to the character of Parsifal is a difficult scene to stage. First of all,
there is the problem of the swan. Sensible productions treat this moment as allegorical, but it is surprising how many opera companies still insist on having a stuffed swan (whose white feathers become increasingly gray as the production wends through the years) tossed on stage from the rafters. Then there is
Parsifal himself. Wagner meant for us to see him as an impetuous twelve-year-old boy at this point in the drama, but there are very few tenors who can pull off the requisite illusion of innocence and latent wisdom (let alone physical youth) in the character. Judging by the ample proportions of Winkelmann, the tenor whom Wagner chose as his first Parsifal, we should probably not waste too much time worrying about the issue.

Gurnemanz notes that the king has done with the bath, and the time for the love feast of the Grail has arrived. "Who is the Grail?" asks the dumb boy. Gurnemanz replies that he cannot explain, but all will be revealed if the boy is called to its service. The boy notes that he is standing still, but seems to be moving.
The old man explains that time and space are one in this holy place. The two disappear, and the scene is transformed to the Great Hall of the Castle of the Grail.

Comment: Wagner's directions for his original production called for a painted scene on rollers moving from one side to the other to achieve the visual effect for this Transformation Scene. These days, audiences are generally treated to a sort of impressionistic light show rather than any vaudeville-style moving backdrops. In either case, the music is what matters here. The Transformation Scene is a five-minute-long tone poem of ravishing beauty whose uninhibited emotionality is in marked contrast to the barrenness of the previous scenes. The themes of holiness and suffering are richly and recognizably depicted in the orchestra,
while backstage trombones and trumpets, tympani, and reverberating bells create an impression of the
Grail Hall as a unique spiritual environment.

The two reappear, and Gurnemanz tells the boy to watch what is about to happen. The boy moves to the side of the Hall and remains there, silent, until the end of the act. The knights of the Grail enter the Hall in procession, singing of the meal that will renew them. Amfortas is carried in along with a small shrine covering the Grail, which is set on an altarlike table in the center of the Hall. An unseen chorus of youths from halfway up the dome sings of the redeeming blood of the Savior. After them, a boys' chorus from the summit of the dome sings, urging the assembly to take the bread and wine of life. This is followed by complete silence.

The voice of Titurel is heard from offstage, as if from a tomb, urging Amfortas to uncover the Grail, that he, Titurel, may live and have divine guidance. Amfortas protests that he is unworthy, as the only sinner among them, to perform the duty. He wails of his lot in life, of his sin, of the pain his wound never ceases to give him, and sinks back, semiconscious. The chorus of boys and youths from above sing of the prophecy of the innocent fool who will end the suffering, and the knights urge Amfortas to uncover the Grail.
Heavenly voices urge the taking of body and blood in token of God's love. In great pain, Amfortas prays before the uncovered chalice. The boys' choir sings, the Hall darkens. A dazzling ray of light falls from above onto the chalice, turning it blood-red. Amfortas, momentarily strengthened, holds the cup aloft, and blesses the bread and wine on the table with it. The knights kneel. Titurel sings in gratitude at the Lord's bright greeting. Amfortas puts the Grail back on the table, and the divine glow fades while light returns to the Hall.

The Grail is covered again. The squires begin distributing bread and wine from the altar. The boys' choir sings of the Lord's transformation at the Last Supper. The knights take the bread and wine. The youths sing of the continuing consolation of the bread and wine. Half the knights sing of the bread, then the other half sing of the wine. Finally, there is an expression of blessedness in faith and love, beginning with half the knights, then the other half, then the youths, and lastly, the boys. The knights embrace solemnly.
Amfortas, bleeding again, is carried out with the shrine containing the Grail, and the knights follow him out.
Gurnemanz, alone with Parsifal on stage, asks the boy if he has any questions about what he just saw, but the boy is too overcome to speak. Assuming him to be dimwitted and uninterested, Gurnemanz shoos the boy out. Alone, he hears a heavenly voice repeat the prophecy of the innocent fool.

Comment: This is the controversial scene of the work. Reading about it, listening to a recording of it, and experiencing it live are three separate matters. When reading a synopsis, such as this, one is struck by the appropriation of the externals of the Communion sacrament for operatic use. Christians of various denominations, non-Christians, post-Christians, and anti-Christians have all expressed problems with it.
There is no doubt that Wagner laid it on thick here. He laboriously depicts a procedure that the Roman
Catholic Mass covers in a few sentences. But comparing this scene too directly with the Eucharist does a disservice to both. Here Wagner has embodied the essence of a religious experience without specifically re-creating one. A person of any religious bent, or none at all, can appreciate the spiritual core at the center of the weighty symbology.

Wagner accomplishes this deconstruction of a spiritual process by musical means. The knights are divided into "choirs" of basses and tenors, while the youths (boy altos) are meant to be "half-way up the dome"
and the boys (boy sopranos) are meant to be "at the summit of the dome." The architecture of the score sends the music up and down, so to speak, throughout the scene, punctuated by Amfortas and Titurel. The
"Blessed in faith, blessed in love" exclamation is a single upward figure beginning in the lower basses,
carried by the tenors to the altos and finally to the sopranos. In a well-rehearsed production, it is a simple but magnificent effect, a vocal ladder of faith uniting all life. On the extreme ends of this vocal scale are the bass Titurel (singing offstage "as from the grave") and the heavenly (female) voices. The grave is united to the heavens by vocal intercession.

• *


If people have come up with wildly differing meanings for the Ring, they have pushed all bounds of sanity with their interpretations of Parsifal. The bare bones of the story are beyond dispute: this is the tale of a community whose once lofty ideals are now fossilized in decadence, subsequently renewed by contact with an innocent individual who has become wise through compassion. After that, one can think anything.

One traditional interpretation is plausible yet difficult to consider. The last line of the libretto has heavenly voices proclaiming that "the Redeemer is redeemed." What could this possibly mean? Does it refer to
Parsifal as the redeemer, and, if so, had he not already been redeemed earlier in the drama? Or has something changed in the nature of the Redeemer, Jesus? The latter is implied, at the very least. Wagner,
in his later years, spoke much of Jesus, to the consternation of Nietzsche and many others. He even ultimately rejected the racial theories of Count Gobineau because they did not take into account the transcendental power of Jesus to unite humanity.

However, the Jesus of Wagner's imagination is very different from the one familiar through Christianity.
Wagner's Jesus was an individual who was godlike because of a perfect compassion, quite unique in essence and not specific to a historical setting. In other words, Wagner had to disconnect Jesus from Judaism. For all his admiration for Jesus, or whoever he imagined Jesus to be, Wagner could not accept any Jewish identity of Jesus, and felt that Christianity would be flawless if limited to the Gospels. While many modern
Christians feel more comfortable with the voice of the Gospels than that of, say, the warlike Book of
Joshua, Wagner was letting his prejudice overpower his intellect. He didn't know the Old Testament, nor did he want to. Cosima's Diaries record that Wagner's entire study of the Old Testament amounted to two days of cursory reading, after which he pronounced the whole work as worthless. Parsifal succeeds
Amfortas, who is weak from having "screwed around" with Judaism in the form of Kundry. The community to be renewed is Christianity itself, and the renewal is based on a blind disregard for history and context that borders chillingly on genocide. This particular interpretation of Parsifal as a plea for the purging of Judaism from Christianity (an undertaking that is like purging water from the ocean) can be and has been supported by various citations of Wagner's writings, and there may well be some truth in it.

Yet it is an insufficient summary of the work. If Wagner had wanted us to see the work in this way, it seems likely that he would have said so explicitly in one of his many writings. And if this be the "message"
of Parsifal, then we may be thankful that Wagner's thoughts on the subject were incomplete and ambivalent enough to be shrouded in a symbology that is so open to other interpretations. Nor was this interpretation enough to make Parsifal acceptable to the ideologues of the Third Reich, who banned the work anyway.

Besides the racial theories that people have seen in Parsifal, there is also a sexual reading of it that won't go away. Charles Osborne thought the work was possibly "a celebration of high-minded homosexuality." It's hard to know how he and others who agree with him arrive at this conclusion, unless it's because Parsifal does not perform the conventional tenorial function of screwing the prima donna when he has the chance in Act II. More likely, those who suspect a latent homosexuality of
Parsifal are thinking of the closed, all-male world of the knights. Certainly Parsifal is guilty of misogyny (as is every other opera—bar none!), but to equate misogyny with homosexuality is pernicious, ignorant, and at least fifty years out of style. One must also ask why Wagner, of all people,
would glorify homosexuality. One hopes these scholars are not basing this on the composer's weakness for pink satin. No, the likelier explanation is that Wagner was despicable, so he must have been homosexual also. Well, he wasn't. Yet the otherwise lucid Robert Gutman is able to see a connection between the monastic knights and "the fellowship of Ernst Röhm's troopers," referring to the Nazi Brownshirts. Such are the dangers of reading history backward.

Yet Parsifal, as has been stated, is pleasing to people of various religious backgrounds, including no religious background whatsoever. What is it that Wagner has hit upon with his piece that gives it such universality? One answer is in the myth behind the story, and in Wagner's treatment of it.

It is an ancient and universal belief that the virility of the sacred king is directly related to the fertility of the land. If the king is impotent or sterile—that is, if he is incapable of insemination—the land itself will be barren. This is a theme of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

The regeneration of the land is echoed in the heavens as well. One of the most universal and primal fears is the fear that the sun won't rise. This is merely the fear of darkness, felt by everyone at one time or another, projected to the cosmic level. To ensure the daily regeneration of the sun, societies instituted sacrifices. Performing the sacrifice guarantees regeneration of the sun. Each sunrise and each springtime awakening of the land is an analogue and promise of resurrection. In Tenochtitlán, Aztec priests performed human sacrifices before sunrise to sate the serpent god Quetzalcoatl so he would not feed off Huitzlipochtli the sun god and so diminish the sun's life-giving power just when it is about to rise again.

In ancient, Egypt, a culture plainly obsessed with the afterlife, the festival of Opet was celebrated by the
Pharaoh and his consort in the spring, when they entered the precincts of the Temple of Amon-Ra at Luxor,
and the consort masturbated the Pharaoh, spilling his sacred seed on the grounds of the inner sanctum to ensure the fertility of the land. Note that this was done in the Temple of Amon-Ra, the sun god. The continuum was obvious to the Egyptians: the sustained virility of the king—the regeneration of the land—the daily rising of the sun—and the resurrection of the body.

This association of phenomena is only slightly less obvious in the Christian tradition. The implicitly sexual language used in the Roman Catholic liturgy, including the word "resurrection" itself, bears witness to the ancient and persisting fears about darkness, barrenness, and the death from which there is no sequel. The mystery of faith, intoned by the congregation, assures that "rising, You restored our life," or,
alternately, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." Christ is the "sacrifice" whose blood has "conquered darkness." The blood sacrifice that ensures the sunrise and the life-giving virility of the sacred king are both united in the person of Christ. For the faithful who seek resurrection for themselves, the "Sacrifice" (so it is called three times in the Catholic liturgy of the word) of the Eucharist must be performed repeatedly.

In Parsifal, Amfortas the sacred king is impotent in his own person (he has lost the Spear, for starters) and is furthermore incapable of performing the sacrifice of the Eucharist for the benefit of the community. In Act I, Titurel commands Amfortas to perform the office of the love feast because he himself is too feeble ("schwach") to do it. By Act III, the situation is critical. Titurel is dead, the land is barren,
there is no chance of resurrection for the knights or the land, and the Great Hall is dark. The knights, in near-panic, command Amfortas to perform the service "for the last time." The stage directions inform us at this point that Amfortas can only "raise himself a little" ("ein wenig aufrichtend"). The terror depicted in the music, with near-atonality and the bells pealing with finality, is not the mere terror of personal death, much less annoyance at Amfortas for failing his duty. It is the all-encompassing fear that the sun won't come up.

Parsifal, a type of Christ (which he clearly is, no matter what waffling Wagner did on the subject),
restores the community by returning the sacred Spear. A transformed suffering motif is then heard. The suffering motif is developed out of the first theme heard in the Prelude (which Wagner called "faith") and one continually associated with Amfortas and the barrenness of the land. It is a progression up a minor scale for six notes, "falling" back down several notes before it can resolve itself in the climactic seventh note, which would complete the scale. At the point in the opera when Parsifal returns with the upheld sacred Spear, the motif continues to rise up the scale and breaks through, so to speak, to the climactic seventh note, which the orchestra then celebrates with the shimmering cascade figures of a pure faith motif. It is an elegant orgasm in slow motion.

It is also a great deal more. The libretto specifies that Parsifal's ability to perform the sacrifice causes the Great Hall to be suffused with brilliant light shining from above. The continuation of life is assured. The sun will rise again. By addressing these issues of eternal significance to people, and by doing so in a musical idiom that had never been previously employed and that has not been equaled since, and by daring, in our modern era, to present a picture of hope and fulfillment, Parsifal can be an experience unlike any other in the performing arts.

Meet the Author

William Berger was born in California and studied Romance languages and music at the University of California at Santa Cruz.  He worked for five years at the San Francisco Opera Company, where he acquired for the comapny's recorded music collection and translated for visiting performers.  He has taught language at Baruch College in New York City.  He contributed to James Skofield's libretto for The Dracula Diaries, an opera with music by Robert Moran, and has just completed the libretto for The Wolf of Gubbio, with the composer Patrick Barnes.  Mr Berger currently lives in New York and is at work on a performance piece, Karajan's Wake

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