Ken Nielsen writes from Australia, eager to get a discussion going about the problems of Wagner. I'll let him speak for himself:
"We went to the Adelaide production of The Ring in November and I have been thinking since about The Ring phenomenon.
First of all, I have to admit that Liz and I enjoyed the production mightily. That was a bit surprising, as we are a long way from being Wagnerians. Our tastes start in the baroque (Bach was the greatest ever) then jump pretty much to the 20th Century with light hops through the classical quartet repertoire. (I sometimes think I might spend the rest of my life with LvB's
Quartets). So, for most purposes, Wagner isn't on my list.
"What we enjoyed was the theatre. When I want to annoy Wagnerians I suggest that his music is really like a film score -great at accompanying the action but not of much value on its own. That is an exaggeration of what I think, but it's fun to see the reaction. I think the key to The Ring phenomenon is that it is a fairy story for grown-ups. If you allow yourself to be drawn into the myth you can follow with great enjoyment the broad brush of the story. It is fairly simple, it isn't very subtle though by overlaying Freud and other myth makers some manage to manufacture complexity.
"The amazing thing is to realize you have sat through 16 hours of music theatre without any boredom or loss of attention. I can't think of anyone else who can make me do that. I know people who booked for all 3 cycles. I can't imagine doing that. (Though at the end of each of the 3 Beethoven Quartet cycles I have seen, I would have willingly turned up the following week to do it all again). But, having said that, I don't fully understand why the show works the way it does.
"The other aspect that needs study is why any city with pretensions to artistic taste wants to do a Ring Cycle. A quick look at operabase.com shows that they are breeding at alarming rate. It is alarming because the Ring is so expensive it takes up a huge amount of the financial resources available for music and opera. So that is not available for anything else.
"The Adelaide Ring began about 8 years ago when the city lost the Formula 1 Grand Prix to Melbourne. The City looked for another major event to bring the tourists. Someone thought of Wagner. In 1998 they borrowed a production of the Ring from the Chatelet in Paris which went over so well they immediately announced that in 2004 there would be a new production presented straight through in 3 cycles. And so it was.
"The cost ended up at $A19 million (about 7.6 million pounds). On my arithmetic that is $4000 a seat for each cycle. The highest ticket price was about $1000. The balance came largely from government with smaller contributions from corporate sponsors and individual donations. Is any opera worth $4000 a seat, no matter who is paying? The government justified the expenditure on an increase in economic activity from tourism, which (pardon me) is nonsense. I am sure more tourists could have been attracted at much less cost: imagine offering to give tourists $1000 in cash as they got off the plane. But then similar nonsense is used to justify the Olympics and the Grand Prix.
"Please don't misunderstand, I am not objecting (here and now, anyway) to government funding of the arts. I just think there are better ways of doing it. I would rather subsidise artists with something to say than audience members.
"Some of this explains why we started our own opera company (www.pinchgutopera.com.au ), but that is another story..."
Off we go, then! Here's my contribution: Wagner is so demanding to stage, even at its simplest, that the cost without public subsidy would be prohibitive in any country that does not have the same levels of private money as America. That would mean that most countries would never hear any Wagner live. And I believe Wagner has to continue to be heard live; if such things are rendered eternally impossible, it will mean the end of real, educated, creative culture (as opposed to dumb&dumber TV-centric 'culture') in the western world.
So costs do have to be trimmed. What pushed up the cost in Australia? Generally, do conductors and big-name singers really need to be paid the kind of extortionate fees that they demand (orchestral musicians suffer freezes on their already low pay because of these greedy windbags). Time, I think, to re-read Norman Lebrecht. It may not have 'killed classical music' yet, but there's an evident risk that it could, at least at the pricier end. I do wonder why orchestras/managers/promoters didn't just say NO WAY ON EARTH when agents demanded ever-more astronomical sums?!?