What moves me

Wagner’s heroic figures

Save our souls (first)! Wagner’s operas depict the quest for redemption. Jörg Königsdorf, Head Dramaturg at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, on one of the maestro’s pet themes

Perhaps Richard Wagner should have followed the example of his father-in-law Franz Liszt. At the age of 54 Liszt had taken minor orders in Rome after a tempestuous career as a cult composer, becoming a peaceable abbé with an untroubled conscience and evolving beyond his authorial brilliance to compose spiritual works and even an oratorio based on the life of Christ.

If Wagner had likewise sought the embrace of the one true church, his career would doubtless have taken a different course. In place of the RING we might now be savouring a tetralogy devoted to the biography of Jesus. This is not as fantastic as it might seem: in PARSIFAL Wagner indulged his distinctly Catholic penchant for splendour and ceremony, and in his final days he was contemplating a project with Christ as its subject. If he had sought and been granted absolution, however, his abiding central theme, that of the desperate quest for redemption, would have evaporated. His operas are inconceivable without this motif: from the Flying Dutchman to Parsifal, it drives the action of all his heroes and heroines. They will even die to attain that spiritual release.

There is always redemption with Wagner. Sometimes a woman releases a man from his torment (TANNHÄUSER, THE FLYING DUTCHMAN), sometimes a man a woman from hers (PARSIFAL), sometimes death redeems everyone (TRISTAN) and sometimes it’s the world as a whole that’s in need of renewal (THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG). It’s hardly surprising that the last words ever set to music by Wagner were »Redemption for the Redeemer« in PARSIFAL’s closing chorus.

The Knights of the Grail hope for redemption through the blood of Jesus: Scene from Philipp Stölzl’s production of PARSIFAL at the Deutsche Oper Berlin © Bettina Stöß

Sorrow and guilt must weigh heavily if redemption is so keenly sought. And sure enough, it is the relatively harmless faux pas - causing characters like the Dutchman (in an unguarded remark) and Kundry (in a careless laugh at the wrong time) to wreck their lives in self-castigation - which reveal that the actual reasons for the suffering of a person or the world are much more profound. Wagner is more inclined to worry away at the raw wound that has been occupying society since the loss of a deep-seated trust in the Christian religion: If God is indeed dead, as Friedrich Nietzsche was soon to declare, then responsibility for the state of the world (and our own state of governance) devolves to us. This responsibility is at least as weighty today as it was 150 years ago: since then, environmental exploitation and the oppression of entire nations and social classes have reached globally perilous proportions. And as faith in the shrift of the confessional is declining, we are left to our own devices.

Characters who have lost faith in the world are no fewer in number now than they were in Wagner’s era. And the collective eleventh-hour mood gripping the people of Brabant in LOHENGRIN and the knights of the Grail in Act 3 of PARSIFAL, finds its equivalent in present-day calls for governments to reverse negative social trends by pressing a grand reset button, just as the Rhine floods at the close of TWILIGHT OF THE GODS, sweeping over and cleansing the violated natural world.

Wagner’s works, then, are an analysis and distillation of 19th-century developments. Indeed, they were and continue to be prophecies that have lost none of their relevance in the 20th and 21st centuries. Final outcome uncertain.

Nothing points up their topicality more clearly than the fact that any Wagner opera can be applied to the latest urgent social dilemmas. Hence the gold in the RING stands in perfectly for capital, nuclear energy, a genome or – as depicted in Stefan Herheim’s production at the Deutsche Oper Berlin – the identitarian power of play per se. But redemptive characters such as Lohengrin and Parsifal, too, are subject to differing opinions on how – according to issues of the day - their ideals should be depicted and what price must be paid for doing so. Doubtless it will not be long before we see Tannhäuser’s excesses inside the Venusberg presented as a backstage orgy at a Rammstein concert. Let’s wait and see.


News about the schedule
and the start of advance booking
Personal recommendations
Special offers ...
Stay well informed!

Subscribe to our newsletter

Subscribe to our Newsletter and receive 25% off your next ticket purchase.

* Mandatory field



Advents-Verlosung: Das 2. Fensterchen

In today's Advent calendar window, we are giving away 3 DVDs of "Der Schatzgräber" - an opera in a prelude, four acts and a postlude by Franz Schreker. If you would like to win one of the three DVDs, please send an e-mail today with the subject "The 2nd window" to advent@deutscheoperberlin.de.

DER SCHATZGRÄBER (THE TREASURE HUNTER) by Franz Schreker was a triumph at its world premiere in Frankfurt in 1920 and went on to play 44 times at assorted venues over the next five years. It then fell victim to a shifting zeitgeist and slipped from opera-house programmes, with a National Socialist ban on performances sealing its demise. Even after 1945 the Schreker revival was a long time coming – and THE TREASURE HUNTER has not featured prominently in the renaissance.

As with the vast majority of Schreker’s libretti, the story of Els and Elis explores the relationship between fantasy and reality, between art and life. Soulmates in the sense that they are both at the mercy of the king’s disposition, Els and Elis set off in search of different treasures. Elis, the minstrel, uses his magic lute to locate a stash of jewels and do humanity a good turn. Els, an innkeeper’s daughter who has grown up motherless in a tough, male-chauvinist world, becomes a liar, cheat and murderess in pursuit of her goal, tasking her suitors to steal the queen’s jewels and then having them killed once they have returned with the haul of treasure. Yet even with the gold in their possession, the pair are not content, and so, true to form, Schreker turns his attention to the theme of yearning per se, which is the actual “treasure” that the composer is interested in, “a dream of happiness and redemption”. Elis and Els are caught up in a swirl of dreams, memories, premonitions, songs and music. Their stories take on a dreamlike quality in a world beset by greed, murder and emotional inconstancy. For Franz Schreker the path to redemption could only be via art. Composed during the turmoil of the First World War, the TREASURE HUNTER score amounts to Schreker’s personal confession of artistic faith, executed in florid strokes of late-Romantic musical colour.

Conductor Marc Albrecht; Staging Christof Loy; Set design Johannes Leiacker; Costume design Barbara Drosihn; With Tuomas Pursio, Doke Pauwels, Clemens Bieber, Michael Adams, Joel Allison, Michael Laurenz, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Seth Carico, Daniel Johansson, Gideon Poppe, Stephen Bronk, Elisabet Strid, Patrick Cook, Tyler Zimmerman a. o.; Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Closing date: 2 December 2023, the winners will be informed by email on 4 December 2023. The DVDs will then be sent by post. Legal recourse is excluded.