How to get started in listening to Wagner?

When I was in high school, I used to read the audiophile magazines and they always debated about what Wagner recordings to listen to. Of course, they carried a very high price tag, so outside from a few PBS opera shows, I’m not very familiar with Wagner. I’ve heard some of the instrumental music from his operas, but I’m not very familiar with the Ring Cycle or any other of Wagner’s operas.

Should I buy some recordings first? I remember a lot of reviews talking about how great the Solti recordings were and comparing them with various other recordings.

Should I start with DVDs? I’ve often heard that you really need to experience Wagner rather than listen to him.

Definitely find some DVDs (or Blu Rays). Your local library may have some you can check out. I’d suggest the Ring Cycle as a perfectly good place to start. Any of the available sets should serve you well.

Other very approachable Wagner operas include Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Der Fliegende Holländer. Don’t worry about “best production” or “best recording,” yet. Just enjoy.

Best of all is to see one live, of course. My first Wagner was Tristan und Isolde, and I was mesmerized.

It’s funny - we were just talking about live vs. broadcast or recorded opera today…

The best way to experience Wagner is as a live opera. Here is a link to the OperaBase interactive maps. It may mean catching one on a trip somewhere, or taking a special trip.

It’s like sports - you can follow a team through radio broadcasts or TV, but there’s nothing like seeing the game live. On TV, it looks like anybody could skate from one net to the other, but at the hockey arena, you see how fast those guys are moving and how hard they have to work to do it.
Distant second bests -

I actually prefer audio recordings to DVDs - I can stage the opera in my head cast with whomsoever I choose. Sadly, with recordings you lose the goosebumps of hearing a real singer live on stage with no amplification.

With DVDs, you see an opera production as someone else envisioned it, shot for television. It’s amusing to see that Renee Fleming has nose hairs like everyone else, but I don’t care much for it. The same is true, I find, of the Met HD broadcasts to theatres. It’s convenient and it’s very nice, but it doesn’t have the same effect as a live performance.

As to works and performances, well, Rheingold and Tristan and Isolde were the two works I started with. I loved picturing the show in my head. Specifically, I listened to the Solti recording of Rheingold and the Furtwängler recording of Tristan. The sound quality of the Furtwängler is not up to modern standards - the performance is beyond ever being excelled, in my opinion.

The obvious starting point

I found a greatest hits tape and went right away to the Furtwangler Ring. I later could afford the Solti Ring through Time-Life. :slight_smile:
The Ring appealed to me from the fantasy standpoint-Dragons, magic swords, fair maidens in distress and kicking ass.

The Flying Dutchman has a wonderful scene where the local sailors are getting drunk and taunt the Dutchman’s ghostly crew. They respond how their sails are filled by Satan’s winds and scare the hell out of the other guys.

Tristan is good, and Lohengrin has a great fight scene.

Anyway, if you like dragons and magic swords, I’d start with Das Rheingold. I weep at the end, when the Rheinmaidens lament the loss of their gold.

I avoid DVDs because of the strange stage settings and costume. I prefer it the way Wagner intended.

Andhere is what they will play at my funeral. :slight_smile:

Any decent CD store will have a classic music section which will have a “Highlights of the Ring” and other Wagner selections. Check them out. Then you can decide what to invest serious money in.

I think this is more in the spirit of the Valkyries.

Or this.

The overtures and preludesare a nice starting point, I think. I can’t vouch for other recordings, but the one in the link, conducted by Sir Adrian Boult is wonderful.

For what it’s worth, I got into Wagner from watching Excalibur. Several pieces are used, but especially Siegfried’s Funeral march. I thought the music was just so, so beautiful. So if you haven’t seen Excalibur, I recommend that route - the pieces I heard there are still some of my favourites.

ETA: Ack, sorry - you mentioned you already had the orchestral bit down, I missed that. Ah well, go watch Excalibur anyway :slight_smile:

I looooove the Ring Cycle (though I’ve yet to do any more Wagner – I’m paying attention to the recs in this thread!), especially Die Walkure – I second the idea that seeing DVDs is good, because you get more of the idea of the whole experience, story and all. I just got whatever Netflix had the entire cycle of, I believe it was the Pierre Boulez version – I liked some of his choices and didn’t like others (casting and directing of Siegfried, for example, I thought was really awful), but my point is that I responded to it.

I also always recommend getting operas in English unless you understand German; I find my opera experience is enriched when I can think of it in my head as dialogue as well as music. Here’s a link to Chandos Opera’s Rhinegold (you can get the rest of the Ring, as well as Parsifal it looks like – maybe I’ll do that next! – from links from that page).

Do you have an audio setup? Wagner generally tends to be fairly demanding and if you don’t have a decent setup fully appreciating what’s going on sans visual cues might be challenging.

The Solti recordings are fantastic. It’s widely thought, however, that Solti’s best work was earlier with the 1971 Mahler 8.

Just remember, Mark Twain summarized Wagner’s music perfectly when he famously remarked, “Wagner has sublime minutes, and horrible quarter hours.”

Ooops. The Mahler work I was referring to was after…not that it matters :slight_smile:

Sounds like a great recommendation to me. :slight_smile:

There is, of course, Anna Russell.

Warning: the Solti Das Rheingold was sped up to fit on three LPs; the CD version I have retains the altered pitch. The famous one-chord prelude is an E instead of an E-flat!

Netflix carries a fine Bayreuth production of Die Meistersinger, one of Wagner’s lighter operas, conducted by Horst Stein–I recommend it.

I found that this Radiolabpiece served as a nice entry point to the Ring Cycle for me. The Ring Cycle might not be the best place to start in a vacuum, but there is a lot of material out there to help you sink your teeth into it.

I think this one is actually by Rossini. Mark Twain is said to have stated that “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”, but according to snopes that’s not by him either.

One way or the other, I agree with the feeling. I find Wagner’s music both beautiful and impossible to listen.

To me, Wagner is the culmination of musical theater. You just can’t beat the moments where the music physically hits you over the head or in the middle of the stomach, they’re well worth sitting through some of the more challenging stretches.

The transition in the middle of the third act of Lohengrin regularly brings tears to my eyes, as does the third act of Tannhäuser - the best hour of music ever written, IMHO. That’s also why I would recommend Tannhäuser as a good starting point for Wagner - it’s still fairly traditional in its layout (you still have very distinct arias, for instance, although there are no breaks in the music), very accessible, but it definitely hints at the greatness that’s about to come in later works. I’m very fortunate to live in a city with three operas, two of which perform Wagner on a regular basis. There really is nothing like seeing it live, although I will second that listening to Solti comes pretty close.

Yes, I can only listen to Wagner in excerpts. The unabridged operas are boring as hell, unless you’re a real aficionato . . . or masochist. I’ve attended a few live performances, and even have some CDs, but I find myself impatiently waiting for the “good parts.”

The only live performance I loved was back in the mid-80s, when Hildegarde Behrens was called in, to pinch-hit for an obviously ailing Brunhilde. It was a privilege to attend this performance.