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Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Myth of Opera

Richard Wagner based his opera Tannhauser und der Saengerkrieg auf Wartburg on the two sagas provided below. The opera takes a romantic look at the Middle Ages and features a lively cast of troubadours, saints and even the Goddess Venus. Venus and the Venusberg are first mentioned in German mythology in the 15th century. Before this time the goddess was referred to as Frau Holla and her escort was Getreue Eckart. They both resided in the Horselberg. In the German Saga the character Tannhauser is wracked by longing for his old pagan religion and belief system, the one that was vanishing along with Frau Holla and Eckart. Christianity proved to be too rigid and harsh for Tannhauser and so, he withdrew to the Venusberg to await his Last Judgement.

His pain and longing for a world quickly disappearing is reminiscent of another famous pagan fairy tale personage, Rumpelstiltzchen. See the link Reading Rumpelstiltzchen at the upper right for more.

It is interesting to see how Wagner mixes the two sagas to produce his musical masterpiece. In Wagner's version, Tannhauser and Heinrich von Ofterdingen become one and the same character. The language in these two sagas is particularly dense and difficult to decipher. The first line of the Wartburg Singing Contest announces six virtuous and reasonable men coming together in song to compose hymns. But nothing virtuous or reasonable follows and the story is full of curious plot twists and turns. Luckily for opera-goers, when the plot sags the music usually soars.

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