A brief note on Wolf-Dieter Ernst

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A brief note on Wolf-Dieter Ernst

Post by alberich00 » Fri Feb 22, 2013 5:05 pm

Dear members of, visitors to, the wagnerheim.com discussion forum:

It's not my intention (I don't have the time and energy in any case) to review all of the lectures being presented as part of the Wagner WorldWide 2013 symposia at the Univ. of Bayreuth, the Univ. of South Carolina, the Univ. of Bern, etc., but merely to touch on whatever excites my passion, pro or con, in relation to what I consider worth discussing re Richard Wagner's legacy, in any of them which meet this standard. A few I will review in detail, while others may only elicit from me a brief word or two about one or more issues discussed, which meet the criteria of possessing what I regard as significant interest to Wagnerians.

Such was the case with the lecture entitled "Wagner and Distributed Aesthetics" presented by Dr. Wolf-Dieter Ernst of the Univ. of Bayreuth on 12/21/2011. For the most part, Dr. Ernst discussed what I regard as largely self-evident ways in which media, the internet, and social media have enlarged Wagner's audience, enlarged the way that Wagner's diverse audience can respond to his work and to its performers, and expanded the ways in which Wagner's legacy can be received and known. Dr. Ernst appealed to Network Theory as a basis for his discussion. 99% of the talk seemed to concern Network Theory, and 1% of it Wagner's legacy. In other words, what he was saying about Wagner could also be said of opera in general, or any other performing art. The main point of his talk seemed to be that a far wider and more diverse audience, many of whom know Wagner only through media rather than through direct on-site experience of live performances within a theater (thanks largely I suppose to expense), are now making their likes and dislikes known in ways that may well affect how we understand Wagner's audience and its impact on the future of Wagner productions, and even, he seemed to imply, how we understand Wagner's works. Ernst poses the question: how does this huge expansion of Wagner's audience, and its needs and wants, alter our understanding of the opera as a performing art?

I draw this talk to your attention merely because Dr. Ernst gave considerable attention to something which I regard as a pernicious tendency in some contemporary approaches to Wagner. It is the idea that the history of reception of an artwork, whether that reception is based upon any real appreciation for the artwork in question or not, is somehow a part of the evolving meaning of that artwork. I will present his most egregious example of this reasoning shortly.

Ernst seemed uncomfortable with Wagner's notion that Bayreuth and its audience constitute a sort of sacred space and closed community. Granted, the expense of attending Bayreuth in person, and the difficulty of getting tickets in any case, excludes many folks who would otherwise be interested from attending live performances within the theater. Ernst highlighted how Bayreuth is now opening up such performances to wider audiences by showing them simultaneously on a screen for much larger, more informal audiences in town squares. But Ernst still suggested that somehow Wagner's sacrosanct performances are separated from real life.

[PH] But, while totally agreeing with Ernst that Wagner's originally democratic attempts to make tickets to his performances available to all (I wonder if that fund he set up for students to attend is still in existence) have been blunted by economic reality, I would suggest that, in a very real sense, Wagner's operas and music-dramas, presented with reasonable attention to his original demands, are actually a distillation of life, its nectar, its ultimate refinement. There is actually more real life (in a certain sense, of course) in a great Wagner music-drama, persuasively performed, than in much that purports to be life outside the theater.

Ernst noted the apparent irony that Wagner's legacy is dependent upon the very global marketing which he himself found distasteful, in order to be able to afford to preserve the Bayreuth Festpielhaus's sacrosanct atmosphere. Ernst, like Katharina Wagner (as I understand what I've heard so far of her policies), wants Bayreuth to be brought back into cultural circulation, to be part of the network.

[PH] However, in our well-intentioned quest to make Wagner available to all, we find ourselves touting such dime-store conveniences as some new productions of Wagner's "Ring" and his other artworks which have trimmed both the libretto and music to make Wagner easier to digest. This is pernicious, as what folks are getting is not Wagner but some moron's idea of how much Wagner an audience can stand. It's not that I'm dead set against such things as orchestral reductions of the "Ring" to an hour so an audience can wallow in Wagnerian music, so long as we always continue to perform Wagner's complete works, in the theater (or even in film), uncut. But I fear the day may come when audiences in general will go for the easy reduction rather than the complete work as Wagner intended it. We shouldn't encourage this.

Ernst seemed to encourage the view that all ways of experiencing Wagner are of equal value, that there are different ways of making use of an operatic performance. He gave what I thought was an obscene amount of attention to a social phenomenon described as "Occupy Opera" in Munich, in which a flash mob, organized over the net, decided to make a sort of political statement which asks the question, who owns the opera?, by trespassing onto an opera house's grounds during a performance and interrupting it, in which the participants in some sense become performers. The city becomes the stage, the operatic stage becomes the city. Participants were even asked to boo one of the singers onstage, but according to Ernst they (luckily) refrained. In another such event (but not disruptive of an audience in the way the Occupy Opera event was), a flash mob danced out of doors to Beethoven's fifth symphony. Ernst suggested this was a "win-win" situation when viewed close up. Both sides of the debate gained publicity.

Ernst confesses that the mob (at least the first one mentioned, the Occupy Opera mob) hardly had any aesthetic interest in the specific operatic event they interrupted, but were making a commentary on opera as an institution, that it is exclusive. Ernst called this a democratic noise. With a sort of faux metaphysical pomposity he told us that these spontaneous events show how the audience's agency has changed from passive to active. This new audience's performance becomes more important than the performance on the stage; it has no interest in the aesthetic form on stage. He then goes on to describe how these events offer a choice: are we to have a party, and be in a party mood, or are the opera singers and performance on stage to be privileged?

[PH] It is absolutely startling to me that this sort of drivel is granted an audience at a symposium allegedly dedicated to discussing Wagner's legacy. Ernst's argument that, thanks to these spontaneous events, organized by new audiences for artworks for which they evidently have contempt, we must reconsider the meaning of art performance and the definition of what it means to be an audience, is a bit like saying that the fact that a house is burglarized means we must reconsider our very notion of what it means to own a house, and to be its happy possessor. It's a bit like saying that the evolving meaning and significance of a statue in a public place is somehow enlarged by a dog pissing on the pedestal. The point I am making is: critique the difficulty of obtaining tickets for Bayreuth, or opera as a business or institution if you will, through the spoken word and writing in the proper context, but don't demolish the very capacity of a revolutionary artist like Wagner to have his own voice heard in the process. The true revolution is taking place on the stage, if one truly attends to it.

Ernst seemed to be troubled by strong authorship, i.e., that a given artist, Richard Wagner, insisted on not only staking a claim to be the author of his own artworks, but that he wished to present them under conditions which would grant them the best chance of being transmitted properly, and without distraction, to those most interested to experience his artworks.

Ernst asks: Where is this going? What happens to traditional opera, when there are new ways of perceiving opera in general and Wagner in particular?

[PH] No, there are not new ways of perceiving Wagner. To read a book, one has to read it. To experience an opera, one has to experience it, all of it, libretto, music, staged performance. Is there any other way to experience it than to experience it as it is?

In answer to a question from Nicholas Vazsonyi concerning Ernst's distinction of audience experience (of a work of art) from audience agency (the audience's active rather than passive expression of self), Ernst admitted that the actual aesthetic experience (of, say, a Wagner opera or music-drama) is outside the concept of networking. Agency, i.e., the experiencing agent, rather than the producing agent (the artist), is active.

[PH] So what, I ask, does this lecture have to do with Wagner, specifically?

Another questioner asked: if the flash mob or smart (as in smart-phone) mob isn't interested in the actual event it's interrupting, is this just a trend? Ernst responded that different people attend opera for different reasons.

[PH] But wasn't that the very point of Wagner's own critique of the opera world of his time? He hadn't the slightest interest in the sociology of those folks who attend the opera only to enhance their status, or to gossip, or to see and be seen. He was only interested in attracting an audience who were interested in what he had to present. They would surely bring to their experience their own unique natures and interests and prejudices, etc., but they, each of them, would grant Wagner the opportunity to present what he wanted to present to them. What on earth has this to do with the alleged needs of a spontaneous band of morons who have any and every other interest in a given artistic event than the actual event in question!

Another questioner asked (and can you believe an audience at a symposium dedicated to Wagner's legacy is even reduced to asking such a question!) So what is the place of the opera as such in your network theory?

Ernst answered that we must ask ourselves about the nature of the audience. Again, he reiterated there is no interest in aesthetic questions in network theory.


And then, in the coup de grace, Ernst confessed that Wagner's temple of art is too direct, too obvious, too demanding for him.

[PH] So what the hell are you doing lecturing on the topic in the first place, and why were you invited to speak on it?

[PH] I got the impression from Ernst's lecture that he is irritated by Wagner's attempts to insure his audience would not be distracted from absorbing all that he desired to present to it, like turning down the lights in the auditorium, recessing the orchestra under the stage, etc.

Ernst, in answer to a final question, stated that the needs of audiences are changing.

And Vazsonyi had the last word, stating that Wagner originated the feedback loop.

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