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Sex and The Married Wagnerian

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday 10 July 2017 | 11:58:00 am

One from the archives: 7 years ago (where does the time fly?) our editor published the following. Followed a few weeks later by part two- which can be found here by clicking here.  We have gained many, many new readers since then, and find the audio parts especially worth revisiting for their benefit alone

I am presently reading - it has been sitting here for months - Laurence Dreyfus's "Wagner and the Erotic Impulse" (see here for a review). As tends to happen (Jung and all that synchronicity nonsense no doubt) while skimming through the Wagner Journal this morning, I find, what appears to be at first glance, an interesting, mainly, Marxist/Feminist critique of the book by J.P.E. Harper-Scott. Indeed, from a quick read, Harper-Scott seems to suggest that in Wagner's works - especially the Ring and Tristan  - Wagner is making pre-Marxist statements about male/female "power relationships" and women as "economic currency" - I think. (it's about much more than this but this might be described as it's central thesis - the essay, not necessarily the works.) Anyway, it begins:

"Wagnerian women

When it wanted to conduct an inquiry into the erotic qualities of Tristan und Isolde, the New York City public radio station WNYC invited the vintner and opera fan Natalie Oliveros onto its ‘Evening Music’ programme. After listeners had been presented with virtually all of the second-act love duet the presenter asked his guest what she thought about the sexual content of the music. ‘It’s what we call tantric sex,’ she answered with a giggle, ‘and I wonder if Richard Wagner himself could last like that. I think that every woman just once in their life would like to have that kind of passion and emotion and experience that kind of love that you hear in the music. I think he was probably a very giving lover.’

And what are her qualifications for saying this? Well, in addition to being a vintner, Oliveros, who is addressed on the show by her professional name Savanna Samson, is a hard-core pornographic actress with Vivid Entertainment, the world’s largest producer of pornographic videos. Is there any composer other than Wagner for whom the association with porn would not seem immediately ludicrous? Or, to put it another way, is it only in Wagner that we can find such a suggestive parallel between tonal music whose functional control of desire and (denied) resolution is radically reduced to its fundamental elements (essentially a teasing focus on variously powered dominant chords) and an art form whose current dominant style similarly treats human bodies, and particularly female ones, literally as body parts, as partial objects of desire, many-holed machines for producing orgasmic outcomes from certain inputs conceived in orthodox fashion?

It seems that there is something naughty and at the same time very masculine about the erotics of both Wagner and mainstream pornography, and listeners to the WNYC show seem to be invited to be uncertain whether it is the music, the woman talking about it, or the combination of the two that is most meant to make their blood flow. In a certain sense, Savanna Samson is a typical operatic woman. Within the masculinist–capitalist ideological space she inhabits, she is a sexual commodity serving the function of gratifying male desire at the same time as expressing male power over her.

It is interesting that although she gives a woman’s response to Tristan, focusing on what she sees as the sexual experience from a woman’s perspective (one which in its tenderness and patience is entirely at odds with the obscene haste and functionality of modern pornographic film), that response is folded straight back into the ideology. Here is a woman who is up for it, available for purchase ($29.95 a month from her website), and happy to present her male listeners with advice on how to impress a woman like her sexually (be as tender a lover as she imagines Wagner to have been; physical appearance irrelevant). Many operatic women are judged according to their success in performing this kind of function, and criticised if they don’t. Turandot is monstrous precisely because she refuses to submit to this purchase arrangement; the Dyer’s Wife (in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten), who refuses to submit to pregnancy, is taunted by a chorus of her unborn children; Brünnhilde is placed defenceless and asleep behind the very effectively secured shop window of her fiery rock until any man who evinces the right purchasing power (fearlessness, in this mythic codification of the exchange) can take her away for his private consumption" J.P.E. Harper-Scott
Now, how many other composers journals would have that sort of discussion? Who said academia needs to be boring.

To continue reading Harper-Scott's essay, buy a copy of the Journal or subscribe. More details here:  The Wagner Journal

EDIT: I have just been informed that Harper-Scott has made the full essay available on his blog. Go there to read his new introduction and then to the article itself as a PDF - J.P.E. Harper-Scott:Wagner, Sex, and Capitalism . But don't forget to go to the journal's website also. Go on, you know you want to.

 The radio show cited by Harper-Scott at the beginning of his essay below:

Blue Wagner:

What makes Tristan und Isolde so sexy? Anthropologist Helen Fisher weighs in on just how Tristan gets the juices flowing. Also, adult film actress/"Vivid Girl" (and Tristan fanatic) Savanna Samson chats with George Preston about the lusty side of Wagner's music—and shares recordings of her favorite "sexy-voiced" singers.

Tristan Mysteries: Highlights

"It's a well-known fact that music can arouse more than just the ears. On this installment of The Tristan Mysteries, Amy O'Leary uncovers the aphrodisiac qualities of Wagner's opera. Also, George Preston examines the sex-appeal of Tristan from the clinical—and decidedly non-clinical—point of view, with anthropologist Helen Fisher and adult film star/"Vivid Girl" Savanna Samson.

Contributors to The Sexual Mystery include:
Terrance McNally, Playwright & Librettist
Colin Levin, an opera student at the Oberlin Conservatory of MusicA Soprano who wishes to remain anonymous

Executive Producer, The Tristan Mysteries: Limor Tomer
Producer/Host, The Sexual Mystery: Amy O'Leary
Producer/Host, Blue Wagner: George Preston
Web Producer, The Tristan Mysteries: Brad CresswellThe Tristan Mysteries is supported, in part, by a grant from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting."