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WAGNER'S DAS LIEBESVERBOT: Youthful Confidence and Muscularity
Written by Brent McMunn April 2010

Who would expect a Wagner opera to begin with eight counts of castanets, tambourine, and triangle?  For the name Wagner carries with it a murky and weighty aura of someone who set out to change Western culture, and indeed succeeded, in complex ways, through his music, through the ideas in his stage works, and through his written polemics – ways complex enough to fill a two month festival about him in our city.  But these castanets signal that Thornton Opera’s contribution to the event will show a side of the young Wagner hardly known and rarely heard.

 In May of 1834, the 21 year old Wagner was on a holiday with a friend throughout Bohemia, when he took a break from their various drunken escapades, to sketch a draft of the libretto of “The Ban on Love.”  Though he later described himself in this period as artistically “sowing his wild oats,” he was nonetheless then, as always, driven by ideas, and was much under the influence of the “Young German” movement, which advocated freedom of expression in both personal life and politics - thus, the understandable choice of “Measure for Measure” as the basis of the story. 

Intellectually voracious from a young age, Wagner was raised in a theatrical milieu, and at some point, probably seeing the potential power of music in the theater, added a serious self-study of music to his many pursuits.  With relatively brief periods of formal musical training, he pored over scores of Beethoven, Mozart, and Hayden, and imbibed whatever music he was exposed to.  With one full opera (Die Feen), excerpts of another (Die Hochzeit), and several instrumental works already completed, Das Liebesverbot, while not a mature ‘masterpiece,’ gives lie to the myth that he was a musical dilettante. 

Richard Wagner in 1871

Richard Wagner in 1871
Franz Hanfstaengl, photographer
(source - Wikipedia)

His first hand experience of operatic repertoire came in his appointments as chorus-master/coach in Wurzburg in 1833, then in his conducting position at Magdeburg in 1834, where Das Liebesverbot received its astoundingly under-rehearsed and disastrous premiere in May, 1836.  Our contemporary ears tend to hear in this piece only the music we’re currently familiar with, so the melodic writing sounds to us like a cross between Weber and Bellini, the overture and the comedic pieces like Rossini on steroids, with a number of passages foreshadowing the melody and style of Parsifal, Tannhäuser, and even Tristan.  But it turns out that the overture is closer to Hérold’s Zampa, the comedy numbers and the Carnival finale more like Auber, the scene music like a better structured Marschner, and the grand opera design competes with Meyerbeer. 

At age 21 and 22, Wagner hadn’t yet defined his later, loftier goals and grand ideas, the ideas that kept him from seeking later performances of this work, and from performing his first three operas at Bayreuth.  But he was clearly seeking to synthesize and exceed the music he knew, and even to please.  The structure is strong, in the long builds of symmetrical 4 and 8 bar phrases, and in the overall architecture and placement of discreet and contrasting numbers, leaving room for applause after each… One main “leitmotiv” recurs throughout, beginning in the overture – a theme associated with the stern Friedrich and usually requiring trombones. His confidence and muscularity show up in the thick and endurance-testing orchestration, in the ambitious scope of the finales, and in the, well, less-than-practical vocal demands.  We’ve chosen to make relatively few cuts, in order to “show what the man wrote,” and all based on mainly practical considerations.

The fact that Thornton Opera has been able to take on this demanding opera has made Ken Cazan and myself enormously proud of the talent and virtuosity of our singers and orchestra, and grateful for the support we receive at USC.  We trust that the audience will experience the same sense of surprise and revelation that we have in preparing this grand comic operatic adventure. 

--Brent McMunn

Brent McMunn is Conductor and Music Director of the USC Thornton Opera Program.

Magdeburg Operhaus

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Joseph Lim and Yujoong Kim in Rehearsal for Wagner's Das Liebesverbot.

Joseph Lim and YuJoong Kim in rehearsal for the USC Thornton Opera Production of Wagner's Das Liebesverbot.