Whenever Wagner’s “Ring” cycle comes to town, music critics start hearing about how impossibly long it is. Admittedly, the “Ring” can be a little daunting to a newcomer: It comprises four operas, and the last and longest one, “Götterdämmerung” (“Twilight of the Gods”), clocks in at 5 1 /2 hours. Now that the “Ring” is about to descend on the Washington National Opera (April 30-May 22), the complaints, in my orbit, are starting. Wagner is long. Wagner’s operas are unendurably long. Even Wagner’s intermissions are too long. (“What are we supposed to do for a whole hour?”)
Anne Midgette, writing for the Washington Post, questions why people complain about the length of Wagner’s operas. If people can binge-watch, say, House of Cards, they can surely deal with a four- or five-hour opera, right?
I think it’s different. First, Wagner’s music is terribly dull. (Go ahead, flame me. I’ve tried, and I just don’t like it.) It’s an assault for hours of singspiel, a form of opera where people sort of sing-talk. It doesn’t have easy to grasp melodies, and it’s dull.
I regularly go to the theater, and three hours is generally my limit. Theater seats are uncomfortable, and you can’t get up when you need to go to the bathroom, as you can when you’re watching TV. I’ve never seen a Wagner opera, and I’m surprised to learn that intermissions are one hour long. Here, in the theater, they’re generally 20 minutes, but the sets are much simpler than those used for operas.
The longest opera I ever saw was Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, back in 1984. I think it was five and a half hours long, but the audience was told they could leave and return any time they wanted. (There were no intermissions.) I didn’t; I was riveted by the music. I’ve also attended performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion; it’s more than three hours long, generally with an intermission. The music is transcendent; it’s not Wagner. I watched all of Berlioz’s Les Troyens once, broadcast live on TV. I don’t recall an intermission, and it was five hours long. It was fantastic.
I think the question of length is a red herring. Opera is something you need to learn to like; you don’t just jump into it by hearing a Wagner opera. Even if you appreciate classical music, you might not like opera. I hate the recitatives in Mozart’s operas, for example; I don’t speak Italian, and these parts aren’t very musical. Consider that Wagner’s operas are – more or less – four- or five-hour recitatives… You either like Wagner or you don’t.
Midgette mentions other long works, such as the nine-hour Nicholas Nickleby, produced by my local, the Royal Shakespeare Company, some decades ago; Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15-plus hour Berlin Alexanderplatz (which I saw in a New York Cinema in one day); or marathon performances of other classical works. The difference with them is simple: they are not Wagner. They don’t have his drab, boring music.
I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production of Hamlet this weekend, for the second time. It was more than three and a half hours. My back hurt at the end. But it was worth it.
Maybe it would be a lot easier to see long operas if there were more comfortable seats. Or better music.