This Weekend: HGO Takes on Rarely Staged — and Oft Controversial — Wagner Opera
TO BE BLUNT, there’s opera, and then there’s Wagner. By the time Richard Wagner had completed Parsifal in 1882, he was using the word bühnenweihfestspiel (“festival play for the consecration of a stage”) instead of “opera” to describe this four-and-a-half-hour epic, where music, drama, lighting, architecture, and quasi-religious ritual come together to create what the Germans called “gesamtkunstwerk,” or a total work of art. In the past decade, only two U.S. opera houses have had the guts to take on Parsifal, which makes the upcoming Houston Grand Opera production even more of a must-see, given how rarely this complex and controversial opera is staged.
Running on the HGO’s Brown Theater stage from Jan. 19 to Feb. 4, the elaborate production (there will be aerialists!) features tenor Russell Thomas as Parsifal, a wannabe knight who stumbles into a heroic quest to save a dying king and a dying land. With a voice Opera News describes as a “heroically shining tone of exceptional clarity and precision,” Thomas has brought leading roles of Verdi, Puccini, and Mozart to life at major, international venues, but this is the first time singing Parsifal.
The stellar cast includes bass Kwangchul Youn, making his HGO debut as the wise but stern knight Gurnemanz, soprano Elena Pankratova as the shapeshifting seductress Kundry, Butler Studio alumnus and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as the Grail King Amfortas, and bass Andrea Silvestrelli as the malevolent magician Klingsor. John Caird directs, and HGO Principal Guest Conductor Eun Sun Kim will steer the ship for all five performances.
With a libretto inspired by the Grail myth, which first emerged in the 12th century, Parsifal tells the story of how its titular character — an innocent, perhaps even amoral youth — is transformed into a heroic knight and saves the world. (Not unlike Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Neo in The Matrix.) Archetypes abound in Parsifal, but Thomas prefers to describe his role in down-to-earth terms.
“I don’t think he’s necessarily a bumbling idiot or fool,” says Thomas. “He was purposefully kept from experiencing things by his mother. She wanted to protect him, so she made sure he didn’t know he came from noble blood and didn’t know the world was a bad place.” In Act One, fate brings Parsifal to a sacred realm, where a brotherhood of knights mourns the suffering of the Grail King Amfortas, who is unable to heal from a ghastly wound inflicted upon him by the vengeful Klingsor. Drama ensues when Gernemanz sings of a prophecy that foretold Amfortas would one day be healed by “the innocent fool, made wise by compassion.” This is Parsifal’s cue, and at first, he can’t comprehend it. But in Act Three, 15 years after a frightening encounter with Klingsor and his flower maidens and the manipulative Kundry, the young fool reappears as a full-fledged knight, who can pluck a soaring spear out of the air and use it to heal Amfortas. How to convey such a transformation with the voice is the challenge Thomas is wrestling with. “Something has to change in the way the vocal color is presented to show a level of maturity,” says Thomas, who is 47. “So, I’m trying to figure that out in rehearsals. I don’t know if it will be successful, but we’ll see how it comes about.”
Alex Ross writes in his book, Wagnerism, that at the turn of the 20th century, Wagner inspired not only composers, but also “anarchists, occultists, feminists, and gay-rights pioneers” who saw him as “a kindred spirit.” Adolf Hitler was also an ardent admirer of Wagner and used the composer’s music to introduce his speeches, and soundtrack Nazi party rallies. Like many of his contemporaries, Wagner was an unrepentant anti-Semite and racist, and over time, some critics have interpreted Parsifal as a glorification of so-called racial purity. But for Thomas, who may be the first openly gay, Black man to sing the role of Parsifal with a major opera company, Wagner’s music has a life of its own and will resonate in unpredictable ways with new listeners, despite the composer’s seemingly unforgivable personal flaws.
“We can’t deny it,” says Thomas of Wagner’s views on race. “But we can make music mean whatever we want. We can make it a positive thing, or we can make it negative.” It’s also relevant to note that in Parsifal, compassion and empathy— sentiments completely at odds with Hitler and Nazi culture — are key to the healing of a suffering king and returning life to a barren land.
The fact that classical music and opera audiences respond positively (i.e. buy tickets and subscriptions) when a commitment to inclusivity is visible in concert halls and on opera stages is not lost on Thomas. As Artist in Residence at LA Opera, Thomas has commissioned new works by young Black composers and initiated programming to train high school students in LA county in voice, music theory, and movement, the goal being to prepare them to audition successfully for a conservatory if that is what they choose to do. He is also a founding member of the Black Leadership Arts Collective (B.L.A.C.), which is dedicated to empowering Black vocal artists through mentorship, training and financial support.
Thomas is also the proud father of a now nine-year-old adopted son. “He loves music,” says Thomas. “His first opera was The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera, and he cried when it was over. He didn’t want it to end!” And at a performance of Turandot at the Bard Festival, seeing Thomas onstage for the first time prompted his son to scream out “Papa!” to the delight of the crowd. “The entire audience started laughing,” says Thomas.
Russell Thomas (photo by Fay Fox)