Steve Jobs of the Opera

Journalist Ville Blåfield examines what modern-day change managers can learn from the controversial operatic genius Richard Wagner.

Ville Blåfield, 13.07.2016

Long Forms

Visionaries of transition periods have had to get an upper hand over financial straits and change-opposing conservatives – just like Richard Wagner, who transformed the opera in the 19th century. Journalist Ville Blåfield examines what modern-day change managers can learn from the controversial operatic genius.

First call.

The audience is still flocking in the foyers of the Komische Oper, built in 1892 and situated in the heart of Berlin’s city center, Berlin Mitte.

Second call.

The foyers become deserted, as the crowds stream towards the auditorium. The curved seating rows soon fill up, and the doors begin to close.

Third call.

Those arriving at the knick of time dart to their seats. “Excuse me, excuse me” - some rise, while others shuffle their knees to make room. The doors are closed and the lights in the audience are turned out.

A faint light from the orchestra pit glows in the otherwise dark auditorium. May the night’s performance begin.

There’s something incredibly ritualistic and familiar about the situation. The audience steps into its role and hushes down, as the orchestra tunes in preparation for the overture. Eyes are transfixed on the conductor’s hands that soar from the pit, until the stage lights turn on and people lift their gaze. For the rest of the evening, the audience is quiet and captivated by the performers, spellbound by the plot and destinies played out on the stage.

Although it’s February 2016, everything is exactly as envisioned by a certain 19th century figure.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) wasn’t only a distinguished composer, but he also revived the form and rituals of the opera.

His ideas and reforms continue to impact opera performances around the world, including his home country Germany, and Mitte in Berlin.

Social classes mixing in the audience – Wagner’s idea.

Closed doors during the performance – Wagner’s idea.

Orchestra pit between the stage and the audience – Wagner’s idea.

Audience lights turned off to ensure full attention on the stage – Wagner’s idea.

Wagner didn’t merely rethink lighting and performance; he reformed the way we think about the works themselves.”

And we’ve only come as far as the overture. Tonight, Komische Oper Berlin will be interpreting Eugene Onegin, which was composed by Wagner’s contemporary, Russian Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Premiering in 1879, the opera wasn’t a modern work like one of Wagner’s; quite the contrary, it was considered classical bordering on clichéd. Nevertheless, Wagner’s influence is clearly evident even on today’s interpretation, which is pretty telling of the visionary’s far-reaching impact.

“Wagner’s reforms were so powerful, so palpable,” comments Simon Berger, dramaturge at Oper Berlin.

He’s sitting in the staff canteen at the opera house just before the night’s performance. Having analyzed and reinterpreted Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin for months, he readily admits that Wagner’s reforms continue to be be clearly visible.

“The waves of shock can still be felt. Wagner’s output completely transformed the way we think about opera in Western Europe, the rest of Europe, even on a global scale. The way we think about music, drama, acting – the way we think in general.”

Wagner didn’t merely rethink lighting and performance; he reformed the way we think about the works themselves.

Wagner viewed opera as a universal artwork – gesamtkunstwerk – where music, poetry, and the visual side are all aspects of a single work of art.

He abandoned the ballet, which had a separate function from the plot, and was usually a traditional element of the choir and operatic evenings, as well as other parts of the program the audience was used to. Instead, he drew up a new map to follow: a leitmotif, which is a short, recurring phrase associated with a particular person or idea.

Wagner focused on the three main elements of Greek drama: music, poetry, and dance. He believed these lacked in expression as separate entities, while their synthesis would have an unprecedented effect on the viewer.

Yet Wagner’s reform was exceptional, which didn’t stop at a new composition or story. The reform was about changing the way stories were told.”

Wagner set out his ideals of a new type of opera in his essay “The Art-Work of the Future” (1849): “Traditional stage buildings cannot adequately serve the interests of art due to the pursuit of financial gain and luxurious ostentation; the auditioria of our time are stratified and fenced-off to categorize class and civil station. But the architect of the future will be solely dictated by conformity with the law of beauty and a pursuit to bring dramatic action intelligibly to the eyes and ears of the audience.”

Wagner’s criticism of classical opera of his time as “ostentatious luxury” may now seem ironic, but the composer was a true revolutionary among his peers.

So revolutionary, in fact, that sometimes he is hard to understand. Wagner himself was the one to blame: his writings, such as “The Art-Work of the Future” (1849), “Art and Revolution” (1849), “Opera and Drama” (1851), and the offensively anti-Semitic “Judaism in Music” (1850), have been considered clumsy, inconsistent, and utopian.

“Wagner elaborated on his theories in a repetitive and winding prose style, which resulted in their ambiguous reputation,” assesses Wagner biographer Barry Millington. “On certain pages, his prose hovers on the fringes of comprehension, often drifting beyond reach.”

Yet there’s something in Wagner’s awkward writings that hit the mark, making his vision dynamic, and gaining the trust of his audience.

In the 19th century, German music circles were divided into two camps: radical progressives represented by Richard Wagner, and the conservative circle centering on Johannes Brahms. As in all major transitions, the representatives of new thinking gained the upper hand in the end, or at least progressive ideas gained adequate support from the critical masses. And so the world changed.

But how did Wagner manage to transform such a traditional bastion as the opera? Naturally, the grand Italian opera heritage had been on a continuous lookout for something new: people were always after new program, composers wrote new opera, there was a yearning for new stars.

Yet Wagner’s reform was exceptional, which didn’t stop at a new composition or story. The reform was about changing the way stories were told.

A number of other composers disgruntled with the conventions of the opera tried to change the art form. Take Dmitri Shostakovich, who deliberately chose to base his opera in the 1920s on Gogol’s story The Nose in an attempt to ditch the opera world’s never-ending preoccupation with heroes and love triangles. Despite The Nose becoming the punk rock of its time, Shostakovich’s reform failed to leave a deeper mark on operatic traditions.

But Wagner’s reforms were fundamental, their impact spreading afar and over centuries.

What can today’s change manager learn from Richard Wagner?

Dramaturge Berg begins to fidget.

The last remaining people in the staff canteen head towards the large auditorium. The performance is about to begin, and our discussion on Wagner’s influences needs to draw to an end.

Berger emphasizes that there has been some progression also post-Wagner.

“The opera has transformed every 50 or so years. There seems to be an underlying logic of half a century. The opera is linked with each generation. Each generation inherits the opera and all the material that goes with it from parents and grandparents, and each generation interprets it in its own way.”

Berger has the patience to sit at the table for a moment longer. He looks intently in the eye – we are now talking about something that matters.

“The theatre is a living art form. Change is part of its nature. Performance art is always a contemporary art form. It has to be.”

If you want your reform to live on, design it so that the next revolutionary idea doesn’t wipe it out.”

This is another area where the contemporary dramaturge is very Wagnerian. Wagner himself participated closely in the premiers and directing of his operas, even getting to design and commission the construction of a new type of opera house for his Ring Cycle. The composer having a locked, unchanging view of the way works should be performed is a misconception.

However, in his brilliant study The Master Musicians: Wagner (1984), Barry Millington writes that memos containing Wagner’s requirements and instructions only apply to the interpretation of their time. “(…) observations and instructions offer valuable insight into understanding the composer’s endeavors at the time. However, these cannot be deemed as the recipe for a perfect production, as there is every indication that Wagner relied on momentary inspiration and improvisation – to invent new and alternative scenarios.”

Dramaturge Berger adds: “No piece, libretto, or composition comes with a manual on how it should be interpreted.”

Perhaps that’s partly why Wagner’s visions are so dynamic. His vision and works have stood the test of time, because they are also molded by time. Changing performance traditions also apply to very modern works, and with their mythical stories, Wagner’s compositions can be easily transported into any era and interpretation.

There’s a lesson here for change managers across the board.

If you want your reform to live on, design it so that the next revolutionary idea doesn’t wipe it out. 

The brilliance of Wagner’s ideas is perhaps another reason why they have stood the test of time. Excellent ideas, kindling visions.

At least Wagner would agree with this interpretation – he did, after all, see himself as a genius. He began to write his autobiography at 29 (after jotting down notes for it already seven years before), which is pretty revealing. He knew his thoughts were unique, and wanted to ensure future generations could put them into full use.

On a side note, his three-part autobiography My Life is in line with Wagner’s theoretical production: rambling and unreliable.

It does, however, provide intriguing perspectives on how it all began - the childhood of the genius; the conditions that bred a unique thinker, character, and ego.

There is some controversy regarding Richard Wagner’s father.

Friedrich Wagner, who is generally believed to be his biological father, died when Richard was just six months old.

Richard was the seventh child in the family. He experienced a childhood of neglect and was misunderstood at school, thus labelled as a problem child.

But his troubles at school weren’t down to a lack of talent or intellect. On the contrary, already as a child, Wagner was an independent thinker, up to the point of it becoming a problem. In his autobiography, he describes his schooldays as follows:

“When our class was asked to write a poem, I would write a choral in Greek on the topical Greek war of independence. I believe this Greek poem bore the same relation to the Greek language and poetry as my sonatas and overtures did to highly restrained music. My endeavor was considered an abomination, and was defied scornfully. I have no subsequent recollections of school: going to school was merely a sacrifice I made for my family.”

“I did not care what was taught in the lessons; during lessons I would secretly read anything of interest. As I mentioned earlier, even the music teaching bore no fruit, so I continued my self-studies by copying the scores of beloved masters, while gaining beautiful handwriting at the same time, which later received much admiration.”

In a similar predicament, some other child would have grown into a distant and lonely adult, but Wagner was saved by another trait: social intelligence.

Perhaps that’s exactly why pages upon pages have been devoted to Wagner. He left behind these enigmas.” 

Wagner’s autobiography indicates that he was self-sustained, impertinent, and egotistical in his relationships, but also someone who knew how to spread joy. In the right crowd, Wagner could be charismatic, fun, and great company.

This plays an important part in Wagner’s history. A reformer needs followers, even admirers.

But reformers need more than followers – they need support.

In Wagner’s story, the two elements interweave. On many occasions, Wagner lived beyond his means and was saved by private patrons, who either admired his character, works, or both.

At the start of his career, Wagner received long-term financial support from two female admirers. He went on to snatch the wife of his friend and benefactor, composer Hans von Bülow, which was by no means a one-of-a-kind incident in Wagner’s colorful history.

Wagner’s charisma got him through financial difficulties, messy affairs, and controversial political opinions. And artistic legacy has a remarkable way of burying almost anything questionable in its wake.

“Perhaps that’s exactly why pages upon pages have been devoted to Wagner. He left behind these enigmas,” says Juhani Koivisto, another opera dramaturge interviewed for this article, in the staff canteen of yet another opera house.

The canteen of the Opera House of the Finnish National Opera, which was built in the 1990s and situated close to the center of Helsinki, is brimming with life at lunch time.

Renowned choreographer Jorma Uotinen is holding his lecture at a window table, while a group of ballet dancers dressed in their workout gear are having a bite to eat.

Head dramaturge Juhani Koivisto is sitting in a quieter spot and reflecting on the enigma that is Richard Wagner.

“He could take his benefactor’s money and wife without losing the patron’s undying support,” Koivisto remarks, referring to conductor Hans von Bülow, whose wife Wagner pinched.

Cosima moved in with Richard in 1864, and her divorce form von Bülow wasn’t final until six years later.

Major reforms aren’t created through committee work, but changes need to be personified. Just like Wagner in his time, Jobs was able to make investors believe in ideas that hadn’t even come into fruition.”

“Subsequently deemed highly controversial and exploited by Hitler, even Wagner’s political views didn’t make him a persona non grata in the opera world. That’s how powerful his artistic legacy was.”

Wagner was indeed a strong political figure, and some of his writings are blatantly anti-Semitist. However, he wasn’t connected to the Nazi ideology until posthumously; Wagner had died six years before the birth of his devout admirer Adolf Hitler.

“Wagner must have had an innate ability to manipulate and make his peers rely on his views. It could be argued that Wagner’s works were simply so brilliant that they gained the support of benefactors and others involved, but of course no-one could tell how brilliant they would be beforehand.”

Koivisto draws a parallel to our times. Perhaps charismatic visionaries really do share something in common throughout the ages.

“I just read the biography of Steve Jobs, which made me think that the two men shared a lot in common. Major reforms aren’t created through committee work, but changes need to be personified. Just like Wagner in his time, Jobs was able to make investors believe in ideas that hadn’t even come into fruition.”

Wagner’s idea of an artwork of the future, which in time attained its final form in his late masterpieces Tristan and Isolde (1857-1859), The Ring of the Nibelung (which he worked on for two decades between 1852-1874), and Parsifal (1877-1882), was something completely different during his time.

The works transformed the pattern and compositional method of the opera.

Performing the works required new types of singers (with voices that could endure a performance of four or five hours), and new types of orchestras.

They required a conductor with new thinking; not only directing the tempo, but truly interpreting the composition.

And the works simply could not be performed in traditional opera houses.

“They were supposed to surpass previous operas in three aspects: magnitude, strength, and structure,” writes Michael White.

To fulfil his vision, Wagner first had to find an open-minded audience and performers, as well as an open-minded patron, who would be ready to fund the construction of a completely new type of opera house. All this, so the world can see whether the idea of a quirky thinker has what it takes.

Wagner was lucky enough to find an influential and wealthy devotee; Ludwig II of Bavaria summoned the strapped conductor to his court in 1864. In modern terms, Ludwig II became Wagner’s business angel, venture capitalist.

The two men shared a great deal in common. Ludwig II was self-aware, colorful, and cited as a “shy dreamer”. He was a great romantic, renowned for spending fortunes on fairy-tale castles erected on the mountains of Bavaria, which subsequently became the inspiration for Walt Disney’s fantasy worlds.

The encounter was love at first sight – quite literally, as many historians believe.

“The copious correspondence between Wagner and Ludwig contains overflowing romantic language, enough to raise one’s eyebrows: “Oh my King! You are divine!”, “Exceptional”, “My only beloved friend!”, “My love for you shall endure forever!”.

Considering Ludwig’s homosexual tendencies, it was inevitable that the relationship between the two men became an object of scorn. Yet sexuality isn’t the main point; Ludwig became infatuated by someone with the ability to fulfil the romantic, fairy-tale visions of his daydreams. It seems that Wagner’s stance wasn’t quite as passionate,” writes Barry Millington in The Master Musicians: Wagner.

“Even if Wagner was merely seen as trying to please the king, his attitude wasn’t necessarily cynical. At times, Wagner could take advantage of the king’s childlike trust, but it being solely a question of exploitation to advance Wagner’s ambitious ventures isn’t what his letters to friends, self-reflection, and (wife) Cosima’s journals suggest.”

Whatever the case, the collaboration between the king and the composer was beneficial for both.

After various stages (and multiple funding cycles by the king), Wagner’s new opera house was erected in the small Bavarian town of Bayreuth.

The auditorium was an equal amphitheater, with the orchestra hidden in a recessed pit.

“How could Wagner know that the orchestra playing deep under the stage would actually work,” ponders dramaturge Koivisto. “It couldn’t have been based on factual expertise, but on an astonishing vision – on an assurance that it’s the way it should be.”

When describing the works and influence of Wagner, people often opt for unique figures of speech.”

Over the years, Wagner’s operas have been performed in “old-fashioned” opera houses, and Wagner himself was often dissatisfied with the final outcome. In the end, the entire Ring of Nibelung and the premier of Wagner’s last opera Parsifal were performed according to Wagner’s design at the Bayreuth Festival Theatre.

At the premiere of Parsifal in 1882, Wagner turned out the auditorium lights for the first time.

Until then, the auditorium had served as a high society gathering. In a number of classical opera houses, the royal box in fact offered the worst possible views to the stage; royals came to be seen, and not to watch the performance. Wagner wanted the audience to watch the performance instead of each other. The initial idea was for the lights to be dimmed, but as this was difficult with gas lamps, Wagner decided to turn them out completely.

Parsifal demonstrated another new trend on top of all the others,” states dramaturge Koivisto. “Having already reformed everything else, Parsifal went on to renew the concept of time. The opera lasted for five hours, but didn’t feel like it. In some strange way, Wagner was able to manipulate the audience to experience time differently.”

In some strange way.

When describing the works and influence of Wagner, people often opt for unique figures of speech.

“Wagner invented a hypnotic key,” said conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen once.

“A five-hour-long continuous sexual intercourse,” described director Ingmar Bergman Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

“Wagner’s music hits the head like a velvet-covered log,” illustrates writer and Wagner fanatic Joel Haahtela.

“Perhaps the greatest genius of all time,” stated poet W.H. Auden.

Maybe it’s sheer happenstance that the path of the greatest genius that ever lived and inventor of the hypnotic key happened to cross with a megalomaniac investor - the two romantics meeting in a time that was ripe for something new.

Just as things sometimes get lucky in business: an idea finding the right resources.

Read this article in Finnish. »

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