Wagner, on the other hand, by using completely different dramatic and musical techniques, is able to show human emotion in a more natural and complex way. Essentially, he uses a musical stream of consciousness, via ever forward, developing melody. (The literary stream of consciousness movement came directly from Wagner, but that will be a much later post.) Through both the voice and the orchestra, he is able to really pierce the emotional mind of his characters, and so the listener experiences their thoughts in a way that feels extraordinarily true to life. To create the most compelling and moving effects, he put his characters repeatedly in highly charged emotional situations, often on one of the most pivotal days of that person's life—often a wretched day, sometimes a peak moment, occasionally both. At its best, it can feel like a veritable mind-meld, a kind of super empathy. (This effect is particularly accentuated and strengthen by hallucinogens, as the ego is weakened in this state so the boundaries of me/other are much more fluid.) To me, this aspect of Wagner is just as important, maybe even more so, than the leitmotif technique.
Here is a concrete example from Tristan and Isolde of “King Marke's lament.” (Please ignore the set and costumes; that is what is known as "eurotrash.") Or, for another version but with Spanish subtitles, King Marke is sung by the great Rene Papé: part 1 and part 2.
To set the scene of this example: Tristan has brought Isolde—at Tristan's insistence—from Ireland to marry his mentor and closest friend, King Marke of Cornwall. But soon after the voyage, Marke, through the machinations of Tristan's "friend," Melot, finds Tristan and Isolde in delicto flagrante. These alternate clips takes up at that point.
Marke is devastated by this betrayal and sings through his torment, expressing why it is so inexplicable to him. The orchestra underpins and emphasizes the emotional truth behind his lyrics, showing the changing tumult of feelings. He begins with utter shock and sadness and a hint of anger. Music of great tenderness plays underneath his words as he questions how this could possibly come about given what he and Tristan have meant to each other. When addressing the issue of the arranged marriage to Isolde, music of yearning and frustration along with woe develops. Eventually, his anguish turns to anger and bitterness and self-pity, even a touch of madness, but soon pulls back to incredulity and sadness. The tender music reemerges, showing the depth of his love for Tristan and, finally, a return to just utter disconsolation.
King Marke has feelings he simply does not know what to do with. Most people have had such feelings of agonized grief. It's that feeling that you just want to die; life feels unbearable at that moment in time. Wagner brings you to a place—for those who give him a chance—where you can actually feel Marke's pain as your own. True empathy.
I picked this example not because it is considered a celebrated excerpt; it is not. Rather, even some Wagnerians consider it fairly dull (particularly compared with the fireworks of most of Tristan and Isolde). I, however, cannot listen to this “boring” piece without crying, as it brings me emotionally back to moments of tormented grief when I was likewise hurt, seemingly inexplicably, by someone I loved.
This piece is Marke's first entry on the stage and it is very easy to understand his emotions but, also, to take the measure of the man. You understand that he is at the darkest moment of his life, and—though he has the power to exact revenge and is encouraged to do so by Melot—the only thing he truly seeks is understanding. Though he is angry, and for a few moments close to crazy, what really comes through is that he is a kind and compassionate man who is simply tormented by trying to make sense of “the deep reason” for Tristan's betrayal.
In those 15 minutes, I learn far more about King Marke than I ever learn about, say, Rodolfo in La Boheme or countless other opera characters. And so it goes for most Wagner characters—his techniques lead to much more complex character development, and much more empathy, than is possible in most of opera.
So why do I like this feeling of super-empathy? I believe the feeling of empathy is the bedrock of morality. An empathic connection to one individual leads directly to both understanding and compassion for all people in similar situations. It isn't quite, to quote Madame de Stael, savoir tout c'est tout pardonner ( to know all is to forgive all), but empathy opens one's heart and that leads to compassion, and often, forgiveness. In King Marke's case, if he could have understood what was in Tristan's heart, the empathy would have been healing to him. Instead, he is in torment.
Okay, so King Marke had a very bad day. What about somebody who has had an extremely good day? That's the subject of the next blog: Wagner and ecstasy.