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Length not only Wagner challenge

Updated: March 10, 2013 6:15AM

So why bother with Wagner?

Not the Lyric Opera of Chicago — it has to bother. To its credit, despite the frustration of some subscribers, the Lyric views its artistic duty to not just endlessly reprise two dozen favorite “barn burners,” as Sir Andrew Davis, its principal conductor, calls the most popular operas, an endless rondo from “Carmen” to “Madama Butterfly” to “La Boheme” and back. The Lyric feels obligated to explore the range of the musical form, which sometimes means poking into difficult, atonal, obscure, even despised modern works, including the challenging, deeply weird world of Richard Wagner.

That’s why the Lyric puts on Wagner. But why does anyone go? The works of Wagner are long — “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,’’ which opens Friday, is his longest. Five and a half hours if you include intermissions.

Then there is Wagner himself: German nationalist, fierce anti-Semite, who referred to “the Jewish race, the born enemy of humanity” as vermin who must be destroyed, which they nearly were, by his biggest fan, Hitler.

Isn’t enjoying Wagner today, with his heroic mythologizing of German culture, a kind of tribute? Almost an endorsement?

“That is in the back of your mind as you’re listening,” said Lyric dramaturg Roger Pines, an expert on Wagner. “It depends on how much you decide you want to know about him. His life is an awful lot more complicated and awful lot more interesting than any other composer you can find.”

Some patrons willfully ignore Wagner, the man, and just listen. “Of course, you can sit there and let the music wash over you,” said Pines. But that is not the path of the hero.

“I had never heard anyone be as direct or eloquent until I talked to our director, David McVicar,” said Pines. “He was the original director. He thinks the only responsible way to love Wagner’s art is to be fully aware of the dark side of him. It’s the only way to appreciate how wonderful the operas are.”

I agree. Wagner, who died in 1883, is usually cast in light of how he was later embraced by the Nazis, who used his triumphant orchestrations as the soundtrack for the Third Reich. But to understand what Wagner was aiming at, you have to realize he was part of the political swirl of 1848 that formed modern Germany (a closeness that forced to flee to Zurich, as opposed to when he fled to London to escape debt. Wagner had a complex personal life, and I admired this sentence in one bio: “It is not possible to summarize his many marital and financial difficulties.”)

The glib rationale I use when appreciating the work of those who turn out to be anti-Semites is that if a person limits his enjoyment to artists who weren’t anti-Semitic, it would be pretty slim pickings — reading Isaac Bashevis Singer under a bare bulb in a white room while listening to klezmer music.

The facts about Wagner do strain this facile approach but lead to a conclusion even more satisfying. The Nazis insisted on binding art to the artists who created it. Their “Degenerate Art” exhibits were meant to ridicule creative works by Jews and others they considered sub-human. To separate our ability to appreciate art from the flaws of whoever made it strikes me as a refutation of the screwy Nazi worldview of purity and contamination. I can think of no greater revenge upon the poisonous failed philosophy of Wagner, Hitler, et al., than for a Jew in 2013 to park his latke-larded butt into a seat in the Civic Opera House and savor beautiful music despite the ugly aspects of who wrote it.

To be honest, I was inclined against “Meistersinger” not because it is Wagner, but because it is a comedy, his only one. Just as, if I go see Eugene O’Neill, I don’t want a watery “Ah, Wilderness,” his comedy, but a jarring “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” so if I’m going to see Wagner, I want horned helmets and Valkyries and those low rumbling notes that sound like the 20th century being born.

But in “Meistersinger” you see the warm, liberal side of Wagner. “Why not consider old rules in the light of the new?” asks its wise heroic cobbler, Hans Sachs. It shows us the road not taken. As for length: “You can’t deny the fact it is as long as it is,” said Pines. “But a good ‘Meistersinger’ — and this is going to be a great ‘Meistersinger’ — slides by. The music is glorious. You’re not conscious of the length. You’re taking in all the stimulate, the beauty of what you’re looking at and what you’re listening to. The beauty is all-consuming and the length becomes irrelevant. It’s a total immersion experience.”

That it is. Surrendering to this world, where cobblers have large libraries and maidens give their hand to winners of song contests, takes an act of endurance, but the rewards are considerable, in pleasure and understanding. “Meistersinger” helps you grasp Wagner, and Wagner is a key to comprehending the madness that gripped the Germans, because he reveals what was going on in the backs of their minds all the while.

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