Ten of Wagner’s operas, all except the first three, are regularly produced around the world. While many run four hours or more, they also contain a fair proportion of the greatest music ever written for the stage. Excerpts from the operas are concert staples, along with the Siegfried Idyll, a serenade to Cosima on the birth of their son. Listening to these excerpts is an excellent way for beginners to approach Wagner’s music.
- Orchestra innovations: Throughout his career, Wagner steadily gave the orchestra more prominence in his work, making it a kind of omniscient narrator, or Greek chorus. For The Ring, Wagner expanded the lower brass section of the orchestra, adding several new instruments. He invented the so-called “Wagner tubas,” modified French horns with a deeper, mellower sound. With the large string section Wagner called for, the total number of instrumentalists in The Ring may reach 106, though many opera houses use fewer.
- Loving the leitmotiv: A leitmotiv (leading motive) is a short theme, sometimes merely a chord or two, given to a character, idea, or thing. They occur in all of Wagner’s main operas. In the later operas, Wagner used them extensively to create webs of musical meaning and reference, and to help underscore the progression of the drama and character psychology. Classic movie scores took up this technique, which you can hear in famous scores by John Williams. (See here.)
- Come again?: Wagner coined the term gesamtkunstwerk (unified work of art) in The Artwork of the Future, and it stuck as a description of his operatic reforms. His operas are also sometimes called music dramas, to distinguish them from “number” opera.
- Wagnerian singers: For most of his lead roles, Wagner relied on singers with rich, heavy voices — meaty in the low register, with plenty of power and stamina. These voices are sometimes called heroic (as in heldentenor, “heroic tenor”), sometimes just “dramatic.”