Cheat Sheet: Parsifal
A photograph of Richard Wagner taken in 1871 by Franz Hanfstaengl. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Copyright: public domain.
Wilhelm Richard Wagner, a 19th-century German composer who changed the face of opera forever.
Wagner was born in Leipzig in 1813. He showed little musical promise and was the only one of his siblings to miss out on piano lessons. So he taught himself, and after several years as a less-than-model student, finally found his flair under the tutorship of Theodor Weinlig.
Wagner was grossly arrogant, and not without cause: while his music has adoring fans and harsh critics, no one can deny his genius. He was a great visionary, and his ideas and inventiveness in music left a legacy unmatched by any of his peers.
He saw opera as Gesamtkunstwerk — a complete work of art. For Wagner, the orchestra should have as many colours and textures as the singing, the drama should be paramount, and the stagecraft, including scenery and costumes, should have equal weight to the music.
He had passionate opinions about how his music should be performed, providing comprehensive design and stage directions. He even built his ideal opera house in Bayreuth. In his lifetime, Wagner’s operas were always performed on his terms.
After music, Wagner’s greatest love was for women. He was a serial adulterer and regularly found himself in financial difficulty, often needing to make hasty getaways after a conquest or debt turned sour.
Luckily for Wagner, King Ludwig II of Bavaria was a fan, and arranged to both cancel the composer’s debts and provide patronage of his later works.
Wagner’s political writings have made the composer a controversial figure. A particularly abhorrent essay decrying 'Judaism in music' made him a favourite of Hitler and the Nazis, who used his music to further their cause.
He is most famous for his epic opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung, followed by the remarkable Tristan & Isolde. Parsifal was his final opera.
In 1883, 69-year-old Wagner had a heart attack while on holiday in Venice and died.
The knights of the Holy Grail are in despair as their leader Amfortas suffers from an incurable wound. When the young Parsifal wanders into their midst, they wonder if he could be the 'pure fool' of their prophecies, who will heal their community and restore glory to the knights of the grail.
But Parsifal knows almost nothing — not even his own name. In a magical garden filled with beautiful woman, he encounters the magician who bested Amfortas with a holy spear. As a beautiful woman attempts to seduce him, like she seduced Amfortas many years ago, Parsifal learns about pain and compassion.
Can he resist the woman and defeat the magician to save the knights? And if he does, can he find his way back to the knights?
Who are the main players?
Parsifal: a pure fool, destined to save the knights
Kundry: an ageless woman, cursed to wander for laughing at the foot of the cross as Jesus died
Gurnemanz: a knight of the Holy Grail
Amfortas: leader of the Grail Knights
Klingsor: a magician
Wagner stayed away from the tradition of arias and recitative (roughly, songs and conversation in music). So there’s no standout, showstopper concert piece. But there are many beautiful and impressive moments in the opera. Here is one of them, performed by Jonas Kaufmann in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Parsifal:
Something to listen out for
- From the first notes of the prelude, Wagner uses syncopation and murmuring melodies to create an unsettled feel — it’s like you can’t find the pulse. The effect is mesmerizing, like you’re outside of time and place.
- Wagner uses bells and offstage choruses to create a religious feel.
- In Act II, as Parsifal finds himself tempted and threatened at Klingsor’s magic castle, the music is uneasy, restless — like it is searching for something it cannot find. Wagner creates this feel with unstable harmonies, constantly shifting rhythms and melodic themes that are always evolving.
- Somehow, despite all this restless activity, Wagner creates a tranquil feel — a peace found in change.
Parsifal had a long gestation.
Wagner began his first sketch of the opera in 1857, and though he returned to it again and again, it was not until 1876, after The Ring Cycle and Tristan and Isolde that he began composing in earnest. He completed the score in January of 1882.
He based the story on an epic poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach, about the Arthurian knight Percival’s quest for the Holy Grail.
It premiered at the 2nd Bayreuth Festival on 26 July 1882, under the baton of Hermann Levi.
Wagner stipulated that Parsifal could only be staged at Bayreuth. This was part snobbery, part pragmatism. An exclusive stage gave the work a certain solemnity, but would also provide his family an ongoing income after his death.
While the Bayreuth authorities permitted some unstaged performances, the opera wasn’t staged outside Bayreuth until the Metropolitan Opera of New York defied the ban in 1903. Wagner’s widow Cosima was so outraged, she declared that none of the singers involved in the unauthorised production would ever work at Bayreuth again.
Bayreuth lifted the ban on 1 January 1914. The appetite for Parsifal was so great that some opera houses began performances at 12.01am that very evening. In the first six months after the ban lifted, more than 50 European opera houses staged performances.
- Wagner did not merely write operas. In his words, Parsifal was 'a festival play for the consecration of the stage'.
- The name Parsifal is a mis-translation of Parzival (Percival). Wagner believed it came from Persian words, meaning 'pure fool'.
- Wagner was not thrilled with the idea of a Jewish man conducting this 'most Christian of works'. He invited Levi to convert to Christianity. Levi declined.
- With Parsifal, Wagner aspired to breathe new life into tired religious symbols. "When religion becomes artificial, art has a duty to rescue it," he wrote.
- Wagner gave the world the leitmotif, a technical word for theme music. It is a musical signature for a character or a theme.
Running time: approximately 5 hours and 30 minutes, including two intervals.
|Act I||1 hour & 45 minutes|
|Act II||1 hour & 5 minutes|
|Act III||1 hour & 15 minutes|
All timings are approximate, and subject to change.
For evening performances, the first interval will be at approximately 7:45pm for 45 minutes. For the matinee, the first interval will be at approximately 3:45pm.
The composer: Richard Wagner, German, 19th century.
The music: Wagner uses unusual rhythms and harmonies to create a mesmerising, unsettling feel.
The setting: The events of Parsifal take place during the Middle Ages around the sanctuary of the Knights of the Holy Grail in Spain.
The history: Wagner had the idea for Parsifal nearly three decades before he finished composing the opera.
A quirky fact to impress your date: Wagner banned performances outside of his own opera house for decades, in order to provide a steady income for his family.