Johannes Debus On Wagner: "There is something in this music that is so sick"
Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday, 19 February 2017 | 1:31:00 am
Canadian Opera Company conductor Johannes Debus is frank about his relationship with the music of Richard Wagner.
“I always tried to avoid Wagner,” he says. “There is something in this music that is so sick. Something in it that takes you over and doesn’t let you go. It manipulates you. Of course, there are those moments of ecstasy that are so powerful, so strong. And yet, sometimes you don’t want to get close to that, because it’s somehow dangerous. There’s a reason why that music has been used and abused in our history – in German history.”
But Debus has been unable to avoid Wagner any longer. Over the past three years, the Canadian Opera Company has presented three of the four operas of the famous Ring cycle, with Debus leading the orchestra, and soprano Christine Goerke – the next great Brunhilde – featured on stage. Two years ago, it was Die Walkure. Last year, Siegfried. And, starting Feb. 2, the last of the cycle – Gotterdammerung.
Debus’s observations are not entirely new regarding the music of the great, controversial 19th-century opera composer. Debus quotes Leonard Bernstein on Wagner, who said: “I hate Wagner. I hate Wagner on my knees.” (He also quotes Woody Allen: “Every time I listen to Wagner, I get the urge to invade Poland.”)
Traditionally, these qualms have been washed away by citing Wagner’s musical/historical significance, which is undeniable, or absolving the composer from the abuses to which his music has been put, or just noting its power and popularity. But anyone who knows Debus knows that he is an intense, thoughtful, deeply committed artist and citizen in the modern world. Simple answers to ethical and aesthetic dilemmas are not for him. And fair enough. These days the music of Wagner needs to be confronted morally as well as musically.