When talking about Richard Wagner, one soon realizes the irony in his legacy, he is believed to be a difficult composer to enjoy: someone whose music requires years of preparation and stamina, and yet, Wagner has been successfully integrated into pop culture in ways people don’t even realize.
Here Comes the Bride, something we hear whenever people get married, is nothing less than the Wedding March from Lohengrin. Even The Ring, his massive 16 hour epic of the struggles between Gods and men, has been condensed and spoofed by Looney Toons in cartoons like What’s Opera Doc, where Elmer Fudd chases Bugs Bunny in rather operatic fashion to melodies from Siegfried, Die Walküre and Tannhäuser. The simple fact is despite his rough edges, we are living in an artistic world that owes itself almost entirely to Wagner. His achievements have even influenced more mainstream forms of theater like spoken drama and the Broadway Musical. Finally, Richard Strauss, Wagner’s heir apparent, completed in operas like Salome and Elektra, what Wagner had begun in The Ring. Because of these two musical giants, theater became more centered on the human experience.
Wagner came of age in a world dominated by the showy individualism of Italian opera. This was music theater of the virtuoso. Music was tailored to the lead singers; If they were displeased, the composer would simply write them another aria, or worse, they would insert a piece that they liked better that had no place in the story being told.
Sometimes, the dramatic structure of the piece could be changed to suit the whims of the star performer. From the audience point of view, any notion of cohesive drama was secondary to a performer’s vocal capabilities. They considered the opera background music as they played cards, went on dates, or had dinner in their boxes. Wagner wanted to change all of that. He recognized music’s potential to be a force that united people and taught them about the human experience. He wanted to reinvigorate in opera the ideals of ancient Greek theater, in which music played a vital role in communication of the drama.