Parsifal – Wagner’s sublimely shocking masterpiece.

Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal, Metropolitan Opera, New York 2013

I’ve been listening to Richard Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal (1882) bringing me to the final Wagner work in my long and self-imposed chronological journey through the history of classical music. I had never heard the piece from beginning to end before (never quite wanting to set aside those four hours or so for the experience) but I have known a lot of the music for most of my life as one of my very first classical records was of Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral version of the main scenes, the Good Friday Music and Parsifal Symphonic Synthesis from Act III. I loved it without much idea about what it was all about  – actually that’s no different to most adult audiences for the opera. It has stayed with me ever since, playing in my head like those especially internalised pieces do. I was drawn to its mix of beauty and melancholy but, probably, as a young teenager, without realizing it at the time, its passion and dangerous sensuality too.  All sensations that I confused with that often over-used word, spirituality.

Parsifal, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2013

All that stuff about the knights of the Holy Grail and the lost spear that pierced Christ’s side at the Crucifixion were to me then just melodramatic symbols as exciting as other tales of Medieval chivalry, King Arthur and the knights of the Roundtable. I was fully smitten by the music’s suggestions of the unimaginable so as a thirteen year old I would have been a willing convert to the Order of the Holy Grail. Luckily for me, no such organisation existed.

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) in 1882

I was not so out of kilter with Wagner himself when I settled down to Parsifal over the last week. It took him twenty-five years to complete from first prose poem to final opera so it had spent some time floating around in his brain too. In the meanwhile, in my lifetime, I had heard much about the opera’s ‘sacred’ supremacy and how it should be treated as a quasi-religious event. This probably put me off going to see it in the opera house especially but, as I’ve found out, all that reverence really came from Wagner’s widow, Liszt’s insecure, arrogant and intellectually challenged daughter who became Wagner’s dictatorial myth-creating wife. It was she who turned Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival Theatre into a shrine.

Cosima Wagner (1837 – 1930)

The Wagners were helped in their feverish ideas for the  creation of the Bayreuth theatre by “Mad” King Ludwig of Bavaria who, as Kings can do, threw loads of dosh at the project to feed his own Wagner obsession and his crazed identification with Wagner’s operatic heroes, especially Lohengrin and Parsifal. Parsifal was the only Wagner opera that was written with the Bayreuth theatre specifically in mind and it was always going to be a highly unusual work.

King Ludwig of Bavaria (1845- 1886)

Much of the music was written in Wagner’s silk-draped, perfumed boudoirs, decorated with materials and scents selected for him by his ‘muse’, the intelligent, witty and very sexy Judith Gautier who may or may not have been his mistress. She also helped with the clothes he liked to wear in his ‘grotto’,  mostly silk ‘dressing gowns’ lined with fur. The music, unsurprizingly, has more than a hint of erotic charge about it.

Judith Gautier (1845 – 1917)

For all the opera’s reputation as a ‘sacred’ Christian work, Wagner himself knew differently. At a dinner party on the eve of its premiere he said: “Children, tomorrow it can finally start! Tomorrow all Hell will be let loose! And so all of you who are involved in the performance must see to it that you have the devil in you, and you who are present as listeners must ensure that you welcome the devil into your hearts!” He told the delighted Judith Gautier that the opera was in fact a black mass.

Parsifal at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, 2012

He was trying to be provocative no doubt but the work for all its Christian and Buddhist symbolism and its pessimistic German philosophy, is in its own way a very personal but also profound exploration of the human psyche, we can all, as human beings,  identify with the unhappiness, torment, love-grief, erotic hunger and joy as expressed in this sublime but dangerous music. Wagner isn’t writing about a Protestant Holy Communion service, he’s writing about humanity lost in this terrestial veil of tears.

Evelyn Herlitzius as Kundry in Parsifal, Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 2012

No wonder then that it has provoked such outrage and confusion and so many wildly imagined productions in some of our most respected opera houses.

Parsifal,  Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 2012

Detlef Roth as Amfortas in Parsifal, Bayreuth 2012

Andrew Richards as Parsifal, Stuttgart 2010

I like to think that even if Cosima Wagner is cursing us from her grave, Richard Wagner would be grinning and, just as he cheered the Flower Maidens at the opera’s premiere not caring that he got hissed by the audience, so now he would smile to think that we recognise that there is more to this music than meets our prejudices.

Amalie Materna, Emil Scaria and Hermann Winkelmann in the 1882 premiere production of Parsifal

There isn’t room here to discuss all the horrible things about Richard Wagner, the racist nationalist bigot, but no matter how much of his personality and his writing I despise, I have always been bowled over by his music.

Leaving the controversial productions of the work behind, in the end, I return to my childhood and enjoy listening to Leopold Stokowski’s wonderful Parsifal digest. Here, I can let my imagination follow Wagner to places that we would never dare put on the stage.



My novel, Stephen Dearsley’s Summer Of Love, was published  on 31 October 2013. It is the story of a young fogey living in Brighton in 1967 who has a lot to learn when the flowering hippie counter culture changes him and the world around him.

It is now available as a paperback or on Kindle (go to your region’s Amazon site for Kindle orders)

You can order the book from the publishers, Ward Wood Publishing:
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