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Verdi And Wagner

The opera “therapist,” the opera “terrorist.” Two greats. We’ll listen in with critic Peter Conrad.

In this April 2, 2009, file photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera, veteran American bass James Morris as Wotan stands over Swedish soprano Irene Theorin as Bruennhilde during the final scene of Richard Wagner's "Die Walkuere" during the final dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP)

In this April 2, 2009, file photo provided by the Metropolitan Opera, veteran American bass James Morris as Wotan stands over Swedish soprano Irene Theorin as Bruennhilde during the final scene of Richard Wagner's "Die Walkuere" during the final dress rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. (AP)

The two great opera superstars of the 19th Century were almost absurd distillations of their separate cultures.  Wagner, the ultimate German, with his work all horned helmets, spears, and steel breastplates.  Brünnhilde.  Verdi, the lush Italian.  All silken hats, embroidered slippers, arias and love.  The grand humanist.

Their operas could be the soundtrack of the great North-South euro-crisis divide right now.  Scholar Peter Conrad puts them side-by-side.

This hour, On Point:  grand opera magic – Verdi v. Wagner.

-Tom Ashbrook


Peter Conrad, a cultural critic, he’s the author of Verdi and/or Wagner: Two Men, Two Worlds, Two Centuries.

From Tom’s Reading List

The Daily Telegraph “A battle is engaged: Verdi, the resident of “the middle ground, our human terrain”, versus Wagner, the shuttler “between mountain peaks and the river beds”. Verdi, the responsible Italian national hero, versus Wagner, the annihilating revolutionary who wanted to burn down Paris. Verdi, the melodic soother of nerves, versus Wagner, the chromatic agitator. Verdi, the businessman, versus Wagner, the sponger. It’s cultural criticism as tennis and it quickly leads to a kind of mental neck ache.”

The Washington Independent Review of Books “If the lovers in “Tristan und Isolde” had been Italian, by the end of the second act “they would already have seven children, but they’re Germans, so they’re still talking.” So quipped conductor Arturo Toscanini after hearing the second act of Wagner’s opera. His remark comes close to capturing the stark difference between the two composers who are the subjects of Peter Conrad’s Verdi and/or Wagner. The laconic Italian Verdi wrote music dramatizing the need of imperfect human beings for intimate connectedness, while the expansive German Wagner stressed the hegemony of the individual and “the mind’s proud solitude,” as Conrad puts it. Can one love them both?”

The Guardian “Near the end of this heavyweight, densely written comparison of the two greatest opera composers of the 19th century, Peter Conrad discusses the place of Die Walküre in Apocalypse Now, and of La Traviata in Pretty Woman. He concludes that “Hollywood of course adheres to the customary division between the two composers: Wagner is a terrorist, Verdi a therapist”. Despite the slightly curled lip implied by “customary”, Conrad doesn’t much disagree with the Tinseltown summing-up of his subjects.”

Video: Why Verdi and Wagner are Top Ten

New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini, on why both Verdi and Wagner made his list of the Top 10 Greatest Composers:

Video: Verdi’s Rigoletto

Opera greats Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti sing Bella Figlia Dell’Amore in this clip.

Video: Pavarotti Sings La Traviata

Watch tenor Luciano Pavarotti sing Verdi in this 1993 concert from Brindisi, Italy.

Video:  Wagner’s The Valkyrie

Here’s a video of the Metropolitan Opera’s rendition of Wagner’s The Valkyrie.


“Götterdämmerung,” Ring Cycle by Wagner

‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ from Rigoletto, Act III by Verdi

Act II, Scene I  from Die Walküre by Wagner

Ride of the Valkyries, from Die Walkure by Wagner

“Gualtier Malde caro nome,” Rigoletto by Verdi

Prelude to Tristan und Isolde  by Wagner

‘Libera Me’ from Requiem by Verdi

‘Du siehst, das ist nicht so’ from Parsifal, Act III by Wagner

finale from Falstaff by Verdi

“Johohoe! Traft ihr das Schiff” (Akt II) by Wagner

Patriotic chorus from Nabucco (by Muti) by Verdi

Prelude from “Das Rheingold” by Wagner

From Act IV of ‘Otello’  by Verdi

“Erlösung Dem Erlöser!” from Parsifal by Wagner



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  • Ellen Dibble

    I hope to hear a little of the history.  I can’t understand how Wagner became so celebrated.  With Verdi, I can understand, in the context of Italian history to the tiny extent I know it.  Perhaps Verdi and Italy had a special synergy going, drawing from each other.  But Wagner?  Up top he is referred to as “sponge”????  Was Germany’s fusion into a nation somehow bound up with Wagner?  I doubt it.  Germany had Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn…  (Okay, Germany and Austria, musically speaking, might share one page if not one history.)   But once you have Mahler and Wagner sort of carpet-bombing the musical terrain, blanketing the sound-space, German music is out of my wave-length.  It’s all politics from there out, with some literature and lots of visual arts filling the space.

    • http://profiles.google.com/caleb.b.king X X

      Ignorance would be too great a praise for sentiments so loathsomely barren as your own.

  • Ellen Dibble

    A link to the lyrics of Bella Figlia from Rigoletto.  
    See also the wikipedia plot summary.  I don’t know about the Italians in 1853, but this was an opera I knew like the back of my hand when I was a child.  It played in our house.  This aria (quartet) is an excellent example of what I absorbed from it, which was certainly not the plot.  You’ve got four very different perspectives that in real life are totally out of sync, all spliced together in a transcendent quartet.  Unlike music without human beings representing real characters in a real plot, unlike say concertos, this shows any child something about humans and harmony.  For a long time I took what I think is a standard view of the opera as grounded in the story of paternal love for a daughter, cursed.  To read the plot, it is very clunky. VERY clunky.  And now I listen to the opera as a story about Gilda, about a child being smothered by parental attention, and the way that actually leaves a child vulnerable.    In this case the duke starts, trying to seduce “some stranger,” who like a woman of the world is playing coy.  And then outside the inn, Rigoletto is saying to his daughter Gilda, See, the guy you fell in love with is a cad.”  And she’s saying she doesn’t care.  She especially doesn’t care when she sees he’s been queued up for assassination, and prefers to use a disguise and be killed in his stead.  So total is her love.  I think as a child, what I derived from it all was the sense of inevitabiity, that “things” play out, and to some extent we are “just” onlookers even in our own most extreme experiences.  Life “happens” to us, and we only see part.  Where except but on stage is that all laid out?  Well, sometimes on the internet, if you can read between the lines.

  • Charles A. Bowsher

    The extent of my opera experience is the little blurb shown in “Prety Woman”. I’m out of my league here Ellen. Enjoy yourself.

    • Ellen Dibble

      I will.  But I hate Wagner.  I had an older brother who loved Wagner once he got to be about 13.  I thought he was crazy.  Well, plenty of people think opera is “people screaming at each other and making horrible faces in the process.”

  • Charles A. Bowsher

    I typed my comment before he chimed in!

  • Chris Seeley in Pennsylvania

    I can understand the claim that Verdi’s music is a deep and intimate view of love and the human spirit, but we should never forget the themes of redemption through love so prevalent in Wagner.  Brunnehilde and Seigfried, Tannhauser, Lohengrin and Elsa, the list goes on.

    • Ellen Dibble

      The theme.  But personally I don’t click to the kind of love Wagner depicts.  It sounds like mouthwash gone wild.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I don’t know about Pretty Woman, if it parallels Traviata being about a courtesan, but has her going on a date to that particular opera.  I know that in college a very nice young man invited me to New York to an opera, and for some reason I declined.  I thought that was How to Wreck a Nice Date.  It would have wrecked the opera for me too.  It’s hard to explain why.  Maybe I just wasn’t up for an operatic degree of sharing at that point.

    • Azyuwish

      Is this your personal blog?   Or your diary?

  • Carolin Walz

    I think that’s a bit too black and white a comparison, esp. when it comes to Wagner.  After all, he didn’t just compose the Ring Cycle.  What about the much more common characters/melodies in “Die Meistersinger”?  What about the love tragedy “Tristan and Isolde”?  To make Wagner into a one-dimensional, violence-celebrating composer (and make that part of the Teutonic character) is way too simplistic!

    • Chas Zigmund

      Agree with this. I also feel that Wagner’s music is somewhat apart from his stories, although of course they inspired it. But I listen or attend largely for the music. It is not all martial, as in Ride of the Valkyries from ‘Die Walkure.’ There is also the Spring Song and Wotan’s farewell to his daughter from ‘Die Walkure,’ Siegfried’s Rhine Journey from ‘Gotterdammerung,’ the quintet and the Prize Song from ‘Die Meistersinger,’ the love duet and Liebestod from ‘Tristan und Isolde,’ much from Lohengrin and Tannhauser, the Good Friday music from Parsifal, and more. Some of the most beautiful music ever written. I get transported just writing these titles down. Wagner’s best music for me is on a plane of sheer marvel, and I say this as a lover also of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I did see Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1990s; I went alone, and I missed the first act because first I went to Prairie Home Companion.  So.  I had a great time.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    In Norse mythology, the gods seek allies among humans for the fight of good against evil.  Norse beliefs also included the consent of the governed, whether we’re talking about human rulers or the gods.  Wagner does insert more distance and divine right than was originally there.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Do you suppose Wagner identified with the gods?  Is that it? (Along the lines of Nietzsche with Thus Sprach Zarathustra? I come down from the mountain and lord it over, if you are wise enough to listen?)

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        No, I think he interpreted the gods too much like Louis XIV, instead of what the original stories support.



    The PR problem for Wagner’s music-which I believe is thrilling and as wonderful as Verdi or anyone else’s compositions-is the association with Nazi Germany.  After all those photos of “Der Fuhrer” Adolph Hitler attending “wagnerfest” year after year in Bavaria with Wagner’s relatives…well they are unpleasant to say the least.

  • Mike from Lexington

    I agree with the characterization of Verdi -  but I find the Wagner characterization  narrow.    I find a deep moving human element in many Wagner operas where mortals  (sometimes heroes)  are contending with forces that are out of their control   -  Destiny (the Ring)  ,   Love  (Tristan),  etc.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Oh, that’s what it is.  Something somewhat oedipal in origin, maybe.  The male confronting it all.  Any women want to speak up for Wagner?

      • http://twitter.com/fignaz fignaz

        I’m not a woman, but it is interesting to note that Wagner was an inspiration for feminists (in the US anyway) at the turn of the last century. Joseph Horowitz’s book WAGNER NIGHTS- An American History goes into this in detail.

  • Jeff

    If such genius can be considered to suffer a curse perhaps it is that they are often bound to their own vision. We blissfuly lower creatures can be  awed by both.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Love is unresolved “chords”?  Hmm.  And THAT leads to modernity of Schoenberg and so on?  Hmm.  

  • http://twitter.com/fignaz fignaz

    Though Mussolini might have become a Wagnerite to impress his bff Adolf, when Hitler made a state visit to Italy in 1938, he took him to a performance of SIMON BOCCANEGRA when the two visited Florence. INteresting choice if you know the plot of the opera– a potential tyrant humanized & redeemed by love.

  • Carolin Walz from Lexington

    I just did down below.  Grew up with opera and sang some myself (dramatic mezzo).  Love Verdi and Wagner, each in their own place.  Actually, when it comes to powerful women, Wagner is it – he certainly has strong female characters who have quite an influence on the action, whether in the Ring or in other operas.  As a singer, it was always fun to sing Wagner, though I also love to sing Verdi (he has fantastic mezzo parts).  To say that Wagner doesn’t create emotion, even tender ones (“to the heart”, as the author just said).

  • Ellen Dibble

    Oh, thank you for Verdi’s Requiem.  Thanks!

  • http://profiles.google.com/caleb.b.king X X

    This “expert review” is a farce, with but a parody of Wagner being offered in return for the very best of Verdi – a glorified Petit Bourgeois accompanist of soap operas.  Excesses and occasional camp aside, Wagner was a prophet and an innovator at his core, whereas Verdi was such only at his periphery.  Only a facile reading of Wagner sees him as a champion of Nazism and inhuman might over tenderness…this is not the case, and clearly Conrad understands nothing of Wagner’s metaphors and can only stomach pleasant dinner music followed by a bubble bath in his expensive hotel.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Thanks for making your view abundantly clear.  I’d like to know more about “prophet and innovator,” though.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Verdi could put the fear and terror against fantastic comfort; I believe it’s in the kyrie eleison; maybe not.  It’s called the Manzoni requiem, I think, being a certain friend, I think. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6b6aeYCFcU&feature=related (I am crashing things on line here, searching out all these favorites.)

  • http://twitter.com/fignaz fignaz

    Manzoni was Italy’s first great novelist– also a poet, playwright, & patriot who befriended the young composer in Milan.

  • Paolina

    Interesting conversation Wagner vs. Verdi. As an Italo-American, of course, I vote for Verdi.  The discussion about how national tempers reflect in music brings to mind this question..Arn’t both composers reflecting the ROMANTIC temper of the l9th century..i.e.  mysticism, emphasis on mood, escape from reality to a world of nature, individualism and heroism?  Romanticism gripped all of Europe in the 1800′s.
       Another thought, though perhaps unrelated – is our Western world today less nationalistic and is our modern music more universal both in its creation and in its enjoyment?
      On the discussion that Italy & Germany admired each other’s cultural tradition….this is still true today.  My Italian relatives always say “We should be more like the Germans – orderly, organized, obedient.”  Perhaps that sentiment might have reverberated during recent ship accident off the Italian coast.

    • Ellen Dibble

      No kidding, and then all the psychiatrists of Germanic descent might have to enter the fray and tell the Germanic types if they don’t want to be hysteric ecstatics (words for Wagner from the show), uncompromising and semi-detached from their emotional roots, they had better be more like the Italians.

  • Carolin Walz from Lexington

    Wow, got cut off very quickly here!  No discussion possible, just an initial statement….  I would wish for more discussion of my point!

  • Carolin Walz from Lexington

    The point that most people die in Wagner is not quite accurate either.  Meistersaenger, anyone?  Also, if you look at Verdi, the main characters usually die – just listening to the Otello excerpt….  Even Verdi’s earlier operas, like Ernani, usually have the protagonists die -for love, usually, but dead they are at the end….   

  • Ellen Dibble

    Maybe Wagner never quite came to terms with human mortality.  I don’t see the theme of “redemption by love” in his music.  The IDEA of that, yes, but the reality of it, no. I do think this might be a tone-deafness in me; those who can hear it, bravo.

  • TD

    Why do we have to be in one “camp” or another?  I love both Verdi and Wagner, and believe that both Apollo and Dionysos dwell in all of us.

  • baritonejpg

    As a professional opera singer from Winchester, Mass., I disagree with the premise of the program and by extension the book.

    You have created a false dichotomy between Wagner and Verdi when there is no need for anyone to ever decide between the two. 

    By forcing a choose you have incorrectly characterized Wagner as lacking humanity and Verdi as lacking philosophy, both of which are hugely present in their respective works.

  • Carolin Walz from Lexington

    baritonejpg, I fully agree with you….  That’s exactly what I wanted to discuss on the show, but I was cut off after my initial statement….  Obviously the author does NOT want to discuss any view opposed to his….

    • Ellen Dibble

      I missed your call.  My computer dislocated the audio from Boston.  But I’m wondering how about those of us who are enchanted by certain limited bits of Wagner but not the way he leads us along.  There is a theme in Der Meistersinger that I love; I “play” it in my head.  But that’s not the same as being unable to disconnect from a Verdi opera once it gets started.   A musician would have different perspectives, different interactions with it, of necessity.  

  • http://twitter.com/fignaz fignaz

    That’s a good point. Both follow parallel paths starting from the same musical tradition & the same cultural matrix of Romanticism. Wagner started out trying to write grand opera in the tradition of Meyerbeer (his RIENZI which the conductor von Bülow derisively called “the best opera Meyerbeer ever wrote”). Even TANNHÄUSER, premiered in Paris, still bears traces of the grand opera tradition. Verdi was the same writing DON CARLOS & LES VÊPRES SICILIENNES in the grand opera tradition. However, in both cases each composer remained firmly in the tradition of Italian & German opera respectively as their art grew & matured. Though there may have been general admiration for each other’s culture, Verdi in particular was very vocal about preserving the best of the Italian opera tradition in the face of Wagner’s “music of the future” & wrote & spoke often mordantly on the subject.

  • Carolin Walz from Lexington

    Ellen, that’s perfectly understandable – Wagner requires what we in Germany call “Sitzfleisch” – the willingness to plant your butt in a chair and stay there for a loooong time (too long at times, in my opinion…).  Verdi is easier to stick with. 

    But still, they both have their appeal, and it’s actually not just Verdi vs. Wagner – there are so many other brilliant composers that express emotions, philosophy, and life/death just as well in their own way. 

    In the end, it’s a matter of personal taste – and that is perfectly legitimate.  It’s never a matter of either/or.

  • Carolin Walz from Lexington

    A propos Italy – as a German, I love Italy and the Italians – my dream is to own a penthouse at the Piazza Navona in Rome (as soon as I win the lottery…).  Germans are not as one-dimensional as the author on the show portrayed them either….

    • Ellen Dibble

      Hey, it’s fun to kick around a few stereotypes when people aren’t being especially defensive.  

  • Dan Cooper

    Regardless of quibbles with the conclusions implied or inferred, I think this is a wonderful show.  Great job and thank you for stirring up all these questions and folding this streak into the mixture of our day.  On Point is a blessing!

  • Cyrano

    Commenting late because I listened to the podcast. I am a huge opera fan, of both Verdi and Wagner among others. (I will actually be seeing Gotterdammerung tonight and Ernani in five days.) I generally love your show Tom, and especially your enthusiasm, but the stereotypical, narrow (almost myopically so) view of Wagner presented by you and your guest during this episode was embarrassing. Wagner is significantly more than what was represented by the two of you. The fact that Conrad is not a fan of Wagner was painfully obvious and the whole premise of “Can you like them both?” is childish, bordering on insulting. Quite frankly if you can’t find beauty in the music of Wagner, you are not the music lover that I believed you to be. Was Wagner an unpleasant person? Yes. Does that have anything to do with the appreciation of his music? It shouldn’t. And even if you can’t and don’t like his music, don’t reduce him to a caricature, it does a disservice to your listeners. I, for one, was so turned off by this show that I will be tuning out from you for a while.

    • Ellen Dibble

      Roxane hopes you enjoy Gotterdammerung tonight, and Ernani in five days, without misadventure.

    • Carolin Walz from Lexington

      Thank you, Cyrano!  Totally agree – that’s why I called in….

  • Brassman

    As a fan of both Wagner and Verdi, I also believe both Tom and his guest have overgeneralized the characteristics of each composer.  On Wagner though I believe he paved the way for future epics such as Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars Saga.  Instrumentally Wagner also created new colors through new inventions of brass instruments, such as the bass trumpet, which have been adopted in the 20th Century and beyond.

  • Joseph

    A fine example of why the world needs historical musicologists!

    good vs. evil
    life vs. deathbeautiful vs. bombastictherapist vs. terrorist emotional vs. humorlessConrad’s representation of both composers is truly embarrassing and it’s sad that he has access to a large audience of readers/listeners. Shame on “On Point” (my favorite podcast) for not including a second panelist to counterbalance these worn-out stereotypes. Some of the callers try to share another perspective only to be dismissed.

  • Tim E

    It’s Obama’s fault.

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  • yanzhong

    nice video. much like bj and the bear dvd   , thanks.

  • Azyuwish

    I am a woman and I will start by saying I went to Florence for three weeks, visting Montereggioni and San Giamangiano on the strength of Puccini’s arias I first heard in the soundtrack to “Room With a View”.    I was so inspired that I rented a hotel penthouse with a view over the Arno.

    That being said,  I have recently come to Wagner via Kirsten Flagstad’s  Isolde and her Liebestod.   Beyond being completely absorbed, I am absolutely moved to tears by the music and her, of course, supernal voice.   As I listen to Wagner’s struggle, step forward, step back, climb higher, then down, Isolde’s now bewildered, now confused, now hopeful, again unsure, being inextricably drawn higher and higher, I cannot help climbing the heights.  Her transfiguration is absolutely conveyed viscerally.  It is the most climactic music I have ever heard, spiritually speaking.  Add to that Flagstad’s Supernal voice which is beyond any other soprano ever (including Ponselle).    After listening to her Liebestod, I simply cannot listen to an Italian aria for several days.  No other composer/singer has ever had this effect on me.  

     I only came to Opera in the mid 1980s and it actually truly WAS a result of seeing “Room With a View”.   Before that I was a Led Zepplin girl, which makes sense to me that I would be drawn to Wagner.  My favorite Led Zep tunes are “No Quarter” and “Stairway to Heaven”.   These both have mythic leitmotifs.   Concidentally, my favorite films are The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  I’ve watched it over 100 times.   It has so many layers and levels.   I guess it can be said that I am drawn to epics and epic proportions.   

    I am now getting into Wagner and I am “with” it night and day now. I can’t get enough.   The person who said “I hate Wagner” is like Sleeping Beauty.   Her prince has not arrived yet.

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