Bel Canto Bookshelf: The Blog

Wagner without Fear

William Berger. Wagner without Fear: Learning to Love – and Even Enjoy – Opera’s Most Demanding Genius. Vintage Books, 1998.

Inspired by last Sunday’s Audiophile Society discussion of Wagnerian singing, I thought that I would recommend a book on Wagner. This is no easy task as there are thousands to choose from. If you don’t believe me, check the music section of any college library. There will be at least 2-3 shelves of books on Wagner, his musical works, his prose works, his life, his wife’s diaries and so on. The problem, as singer/comedian Anna Russell says about analyses of the Ring Cycle, “Analyses of the Ring are frequently given by a great expert for the edification of other great experts, but these are usually so esoteric as to leave the average person as befogged as before. And I think this is inclined to discourage him to go altogether. And this is a shame as the Ring is a great work provided you can make any sense out of it!”

Many of these volumes are excellent, but few are a place to start for the newcomer. Fortunately, there is one excellent introduction that happened to be published about the time I started working on Wagnerian roles. William Berger’s Wagner without Fear. Berger knows the subject matter well but presents what you need to know without the pretentiousness of so many writers on this subject. Best of all, it’s a practical guide with recommendations for planning your attendance at a performance (including advice on where the long stretches are, the exceptionally long acts for which one will want to prepare appropriately with a visit to the facilities beforehand!

This is a readable and enjoyable book that covers all aspects of the composer, his works and the controversies that surround him. There are also recommendations for recordings and videos. For anyone who wants to know more about Wagner and his operas, I can think of no better place to start. Fortunately, Penguin still has this book in print. Also recommended are his books on Verdi and Puccini. 

For an even lighter approach to Wagner, here are two of my favorites: Anna Russell’s introduction to the Ring Cycle and the Loony Tunes classic What’s Opera, Doc?