(A James Dean slideshow over) Thomas Stewart, “Wotan’s Farewell” from Die Walküre, Act 3 (von Karajan, 1967)

Richard Wagner is certainly a problematic character, historically, musically, and ethically. The short answer is that bad (or at least morally compromised) people can make great art. Wagner’s stated aim was to destroy the established order and to transform established social relationships. (That’s why Wagner’s personal behavior often involved sexual betrayals.) Wagner himself wrote:

I will destroy each phantom that has rule o’er men. I will destroy the dominion of one over many,
of the dead o’er the living, of matter over spirit; I will break the power of the mighty, of law, of property.

— (Richard Wagner: “The Revolution.” Printed in Volksblätter No. 14, Dresden, Sunday April 8, 1849.)

Ironically enough, Wagner’s stunning success as a composer of music dramas was quite dependent upon the generosity of the newly rich (who craved the social prestige that came from being associated with a celebrated composer), and later, the patronage of the nobility. So much for overthrowing the established order—at least in the real world.

Wagner’s series of music dramas based on the imagined prehistory of Germanic myth and legend is not only an enduring achievement; its shadow falls on veritable shelf-feet of books (starting with The Lord of the Rings–or perhaps even earlier), at least wherever books are still sold from retail stores (such as Barnes & Noble).

So here we have a highly unlikely but, I submit, ultimately worthwhile and emotionally engaging, slideshow of still pictures of James Dean over “Wotan’s Farewell” from Die Walküre. Wotan himself was a morally compromised individual, but there can be little doubt that banishing his favorite daughter to an enchanted sleep in a circle of magic fire caused him no small amount of grief.

About the slideshow: Um, yeah; some kind of trifling with viewers’ expectations is going on. Perhaps a gender-role reversal, even. Regardless, the performance is a truly exceptional job of singing, and the slideshow is an intriguing retrospective on an iconic American life. The opera box that is the source of the audio track is available here.

See you all next year!

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