2019 journal article

“Art and Climate” and the Atmospheric Politics of Wagnerian Theater

The Opera Quarterly, 35(3), 147–178.

By: K. Paige*

UN Sustainable Development Goal Categories
13. Climate Action (OpenAlex)
Source: Crossref
Added: January 21, 2022

“An atmospheric ring of Nature and Art”; “atmospheric units” (Atmosphäre); “acridities” of aloe, sandal, honeysuckle, vervain, opopanax, and frangipane; “the aroma of pitch, Sulphur, and asafetida.”1 Each of these vaporous, even odiferous descriptors were assigned to some aspect of Richard Wagner’s music dramas between 1850 and 1905 by the composer, engineers at his Bayreuth Festspiele, or his impassioned followers. This language seems to have encircled Wagner’s music dramas during his lifetime and beyond: he employed atmospheric rhetoric in describing his “artwork of the future” in his prose writings and demanded extensive aerial effects for the stage as he pursued his vision of theatricality at his Festspielhaus in Bayreuth. As Gundula Kreuzer has shown, for many years following the premiere of Der Ring des Nibelungen at Bayreuth in 1876, steam became so inseparable from that work that audiences came to expect its presence.2 But responses to early performances of Wagner’s Ring and other works at Bayreuth suggest that some spectators were convinced that steam and other stimulating effects were not confined to the stage and its worlds. They report smelling, tasting, and feeling the music and theatrical effects, sensing them along with other elements of the environmental and climatic spaces that characters traversed on stage before them. The “world” of Parsifal was “in the air all around,” one critic remarked, another claiming its sonic and dramaturgical effects made the “air [in the theater] heavy with so much sweetness” that the spectator had no choice but to “submit, a slave to his enchanted senses.”3 Other spectators suggested they were experiencing not just physical reactions to Wagnerian spectacle, but affective responses, too. Eduard Hanslick attested to the composer’s scenic inventions and ethereal, atmospheric music “cooperating in the strengthening of certain emotions” during performances at Bayreuth.4