Calgary Opera is better known for championing new works than for clinging to proven favourites. So when general director Bob McPhee decided to turn the entire current season into a bicentenary binge of operas by Verdi, he prepared for criticism, which never came. "There was no reaction from anyone like, 'Oh my God, a whole season of Verdi?' – even through telemarketing," McPhee says.
But he would never have considered a full season of works by another titan with a big round number to celebrate: Richard Wagner, also born 200 years ago. "I don't think that in our community, a season of Wagner would work at all," McPhee says. "I think I'd be looking for another job."
That's the way it is for these two operatic giants: Verdi brings people in, Wagner stirs them up. Wagner gets the headlines, not always for the happiest reasons, while Verdi goes on filling theatres with works that companies depend on year after year. They're both titans of the genre, able to command passionate responses, which is why McPhee hints that we can expect some Wagner from his company very soon.
But do Verdi, even in a wacky production, and you're taking care of business in a time-honoured way. Make a move on Wagner, and you expose yourself to the risks, extremes and general weirdness of hanging with the last bad boy in the 19th-century pantheon.
Yet Wagner's influence was much greater and longer-lasting, in music and across the arts, as well as in politics.
He was the one who turned the sociable theatres of his time into the hushed, darkened temples of aesthetic contemplation we know today. He insisted that art should be life-or-death work for everyone involved, and the lesson sank in.
"Before, music strove to delight people," Tchaikovsky complained after attending the first Ring performances, in 1876. "Now, they are tormented and exhausted."
The gruelling art-is-everything attitudes spouted by painter Mark Rothko in John Logan's play Red are basically updated Wagnerian dogma, displayed in another way by the stark factory-like spaces of many galleries. But among this country's large-scale opera producers, only the Canadian Opera Company (which opens its production of Tristan und Isolde on Tuesday) and l'Opéra de Montréal (which did The Flying Dutchman last fall) have any Wagner on their bills this season. All other Canadian companies except Vancouver Opera are doing Verdi, as they do most years. The COC has done eight different Verdi operas since its Four Seasons Centre opened in 2006, but only one (The Flying Dutchman) by the composer whose Ring cycle launched the building.
Wagner always imposes a high ante, in scale, expense and potential hazard. Not every company can afford a Tristan-sized orchestra, or even fit one into its pit. Casting the major works is notoriously tough, and if you can't get one of the handful of singers who can do the heaviest roles, you don't have a production. Even then, last-minute defections are a constant danger, as the COC discovered when its original Wotan left a huge gap in the Ring by dropping out during dress rehearsals.
In other ways, presenting Wagner is almost like entering a special boutique section of the opera business. Wagnerites tend to be extreme in their passion, and like the composer's Dutchman, they'll wander the Earth to get what they need. Every Wagner production of any stature is an international affair. Forty per cent of the tickets for the COC's Ring cycle went to people outside the company's usual market. It's safe to say most of them were after a different order of thrill than Verdi can offer.
"It depends so much on your background and what you're expecting from opera," says Stuart Hamilton, a veteran opera coach and sometime opera quizmaster on CBC Radio. "If you want a kind of out-of-body, transcendent experience, Wagner can give you that. If you want a work of great humanity and wonderful tunes, you're going to love Verdi."
The two composers were opposites in almost every way. Verdi presented himself as a peasant-born man of the people, who aspired to be a full-spectrum storyteller like Shakespeare. Wagner thought of himself an agent of destiny, put on Earth to convert a degraded art form into a mythic ritual that could change the world. Verdi's operas (including Rigoletto, which the Met is giving a racy new Vegas interpretation starting Monday) are high-level entertainments built to avoid boring anyone for a second. Wagner's mature works, filled with iterations of events past and often already seen (especially in Tristan and the Ring), set to endless interweavings of symbolic musical motifs, aim to overwhelm the audience and colonize its thoughts and feelings.
Characters such as Verdi's Aida know extremes of emotion and situation, but their fates are personal and their dilemmas are plain human problems writ large. Wagner's characters, especially in the Ring, move within a thick, confining web of myth, which he successfully laboured to give continuous sensual shape in music.
Wagner's mature style is "probably the most self-conscious, self-willed, and deliberately assumed style in the history of European music," writes musicologist Richard Taruskin, adding that that effort of will had a lasting effect on all who followed. "Unselfconscious style has not been an option for composers in the post-Wagnerian age."
Verdi accepted the formalized number opera he inherited, though he gradually wore down its divisions and in his final works, Otello and Falstaff, pulled Italian opera closer to his Shakespearean ideal of organic drama. He had many tussles with censors over political allusions in his works, yet his cause – liberal Italian nationalism – hardly resonates these days, even in Italy.
The human world wasn't big enough for Wagner's metaphysical dilemmas, yet part of his goal was to provide a mythic past for his own strident brand of German cultural politics.
His murky tribal enthusiasms are still potent, especially in economically traumatized Europe, and his apocalyptic visions have become more pressing as we find more ways to destroy the world.
Verdi admired Tristan, though he was suspicious of Wagner's artistic program, and his personal cult at the festival he built in Bayreuth. When Wagner wasn't writing music, he scribbled thousands of pages of essays, pamphlets, polemics and crankish tracts on all subjects, but seems never to have mentioned Verdi. The only sign of his opinion came from his devoted wife, Cosima, who in one diary entry writes, "In the evening, Verdi's Requiem, about which it would certainly be best not to say anything."
This being the bicentenary, there will certainly be plenty more to say about Verdi, and Wagner, too. Stay tuned for more tributes next season to both of them, as well as to the operatic birthday boy they have largely displaced this season: Benjamin Britten, born a century ago this year.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about the Canadian Opera Company's Wagner stagings at the Four Seasons Centre.