2013 sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Richard Wagner. Love him or loathe him, it’s impossible to deny the extent of the man’s influence, and the opera world will be celebrating the anniversary with a string of Wagner productions across the globe.

Richard Wagner in Paris, 1861 © Wikimedia Commons
Richard Wagner in Paris, 1861
© Wikimedia Commons

If you’re new to Wagner, a good place to start is Der fliegende Holländer (“The Flying Dutchman”). It’s considered the first of Wagner’s operas to define his mature style, and has the benefit of containing many of his musical trademarks – the romantic atmosphere, the powerful brass and, most of all, the use of the leitmotif – without the great length or extensive philosophising of his later works. When played without intervals, as Wagner intended and as it usually is these days, it clocks in at around two and a half hours and, at least if directed straight, it’s a rollicking good ghost story. You can see it at Zurich opera in December 2012, as well as 2013 performances by Scottish Opera, Bavarian State Opera in Munich and the state opera companies in Vienna and Berlin.

If, on the other hand, you’re already a committed Wagner fan, you’re likely to consider Der Ring des Nibelungen as his crowning achievement, and you’ll be looking for one of the many Ring cycles being performed in honour of the anniversary. Covent Garden got theirs in early, with performances starting in September 2012, but unless you get lucky with returns, you’re not going to be able to see it: the tickets sold out within a few hours of going on sale over a year ago. If you’re in the US and can’t travel to Europe, your choice is pretty much limited to the Robert Lepage cycle at the Met. However, there’s plenty of choice elsewhere in Europe, with complete cycles in Paris, Munich, Berlin, Vienna and La Scala. And if you can find a way of getting hold of tickets, there are three complete Rings at the one opera festival where Wagner is always on the menu: Bayreuth. For the 2013 festival, it’s possible to “order” tickets online (you have to place your requests on their website before October 20th, and they promise to let you know by March 31st whether your application will be successful). We don’t know how many applications they will have, but one might suspect that only a small percentage will succeed.

If you were the sort of child, most probably male, who lapped up books of Norse mythology and Arthurian legends, then the subject matter of the Ring will have immediate appeal, as will two other great Wagner operas: Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde. But don’t expect to find the stories in any form that you’ll recognise immediately: Wagner treated the original tales as a set of characters and a framework on which to build his own conceits. So in the Ring, you’ll find the usual Norse gods, something akin to the Ragnarok tale of the end of the world and a story that takes some characters and events from the Nibelungenlied and the Völsunga saga. But Wagner invents more than he borrows (for example, Kriemhild, the main character in the Nibelungenlied, is totally absent): he uses a whole raft of devices to air his preoccupations with fidelity, purity of intent, redemption and the conflict between spiritual and physical.

Parsifal, Wagner’s last opera, is based on the Arthurian character Sir Percival, but its link to the many original mediaeval stories is similarly tenuous. Wagner picks a particular episode in the story of the Knights of the Grail, adds a healthy dose of orientalism and a strong motif of the degradation and redemption of a once-proud nation. There are those who feel that this nationalism in Parsifal veers dangerously into racist territory, but if you either fail to notice this or choose to ignore it, the music and setting are extraordinarily emotive; there is immense power in the story of the hero who is absolutely pure at heart and is therefore the only one who can heal the poison that afflicts the ailing King and therefore the people who surround him. All this, of course, is accompanied by music that is nothing short of magical. Look out for Jonas Kaufmann singing the title role next year in Vienna and New York, and Stuart Skelton singing it in Zurich; you can also see Parsifal in Madrid, Munich, Leipzig and Ghent.

Tristan und Isolde has a strong claim to be the Wagner work that most influenced later composers. The opening chord progression (famously including a half-diminished seventh which has become known as the “Tristan chord”) is remarkable both because it was discordant in a way that was totally novel and because it set up classical music’s most extended example of harmonic suspension, where the music makes your ear beg to hear a chord resolution which Wagner withholds for an impossibly long time – theorists argue that the Tristan chord is only resolved at the very end of the opera, four and a half hours of music later. In the meantime, an array of memorable motifs are twisted, blended and developed in a bewildering variety of ways. Many operatic composers before and after Wagner have used the idea of a motif to refer to a particular character, but no-one has matched Wagner in the way he interwove adapted versions of his motifs, and this is particularly evident in Tristan und Isolde.

Since one or both of the title roles are on stage for the vast majority of those four and half hours, the technical difficulty and sheer physical stamina required makes these two of the most demanding roles in all opera. Only the best dare attempt it: you can see the formidable Waltraud Meier singing in Munich, with the biggest star pairing in April at Houston Grand Opera, where the lovers are sung by Nina Stemme and Ben Heppner. Stemme is also singing the role in Vienna to Peter Seiffert’s Tristan.

Even major fans of Wagner’s music are likely to accept the statement that he was a pretty despicable human being – self-centred, vain, an inveterate sponger, continually insolvent and unfaithful in relationships with friends and lovers alike. He and his second wife Cosima were also powerfully antisemitic, and the adoption of Wagner’s music by the Nazi regime led to many Jewish musicians refusing to play anything he wrote. It was therefore an epoch-making (and still controversial) event when, on 27th December 1991, Daniel Barenboim conducted the Israel Philharmonic in two Wagner overtures at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium. Barenboim remains one of the top Wagnerian conductors, and you can see him next year conducting Wagner at both Berlin and La Scala. If you’re reading this before October 5th at 9am Milan time: that’s when online booking starts for the Lohengrin opener at La Scala on December 7th.

If you love Wagner’s music but can’t quite cope with the scale of a full opera, let alone a series of four, you can get a taste of the Ring cycle in an abbreivated work The Ring – an orchestral adventure, which runs at just over an hour. It’s being performed by Mark Wigglesworth and the BBC Symphony at the Barbican on October 19th. In the US, you can hear Donald Runnicles presenting three concerts of Ring highlights at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center, with Alan Gilbert conducting his version in June at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall.

Less than a year after completing Parsifal, Wagner died in Venice at the age of 69. Franz Liszt, his father-in-law, evoked the water-borne funeral cortège was evoked in a marvellous piano piece entitled La lugubre gondola. Even in death, he continued to be an inspiration.

David Karlin 1st October 2012