Lohengrin

Music by Richard Wagner

Libretto by the composer

PRODUCTION NEW TO SAN FRANCISCO OPERA

The prayers of a desperate woman are answered in the form of a noble warrior in Wagner's most accessible opera, which contrasts the lust for power with the search for faith. The title role is sung by Brandon Jovanovich, "a first-rate Wagner tenor" (San Francisco Chronicle) who was an electrifying Siegmund in Die Walküre (2011). As his doubt-plagued bride, soprano Camilla Nylund "evokes an affecting degree of dreamy distance in Elsa's account of her mysterious savior" (Gramophone). This production "offers a potent reminder of why Wagner's great Romantic score reigns supreme for many opera lovers" (San Jose Mercury News) and features veteran Wagnerians Kristinn Sigmundsson, Gerd Grochowski and Petra Lang. Nicola Luisotti conducts his first Wagner opera for San Francisco Opera.

Lohengrin tickets are priced $5–$45 lower when included as a part of a Full or Half Series.


Sung in German with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 4 hours, 20 minutes including two intermissions


Pre-Opera Talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the main theater in the Orchestra section, 55 minutes prior to curtain.

Co-production of Houston Grand Opera and Grand Théâtre de Genève

Production photos: Cory Weaver

Audio excerpts are from the October 9, 1996 performance of Lohengrin with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Donald Runnicles.


Cast

Lohengrin Brandon Jovanovich
Elsa von Brabant Camilla Nylund *
Ortrud Petra Lang
Friedrich von Telramund Gerd Grochowski
Heinrich der Vogler Kristinn Sigmundsson
King's Herald Brian Mulligan
Noble Nathaniel Peake
Noble Robert Watson *
Noble Joo Won Kang
Noble Ryan Kuster

Production Credits

Conductor Nicola Luisotti
Director Daniel Slater
Production Designer Robert Innes Hopkins *
Chorus Director Ian Robertson
Movement Director Leah Hausman

* San Francisco Opera Debut

Synopsis

ACT I
 
King Heinrich of Germany, in Antwerp to raise an army, calls on the Brabantian noble, Telramund, to explain why the country is wracked by strife. Telramund claims that his ward Elsa has murdered her brother, Gottfried, the heir of Brabant. Convinced of Elsa’s guilt, Telramund has given up his claim to her hand and married Ortrud, a sorceress. Elsa is summoned to defend herself and tells of a dream she has had of a knight who will be her champion and whom she will marry. Twice the herald calls on the knight to appear, but only after Elsa has added her prayer does Lohengrin arrive. He bids a sad farewell to the swan that has accompanied him and announces that he has come to vindicate Elsa and to be her husband—but that he will depart if ever Elsa should ask him his name or place of origin. Elsa agrees to these conditions. To establish her innocence, Lohengrin engages Telramund in single combat and emerges victorious.
 
ACT II
 
Scene 1 – Telramund broods on his defeat at the hands of Lohengrin and blames Ortrud for ensnaring him in her plot for the throne. Ortrud defends herself and convinces Telramund that Lohengrin won the battle through sorcery. When Elsa appears, Ortrud appeals to her pagan gods for help. As Elsa offers her friendship and forgiveness, Ortrud begins to sow the seeds of doubt in the mind of the bride.
 
Scene 2 – Joyful preparations are made for the wedding. As Elsa prepares to enter the cathedral with her bridal procession, Ortrud halts the festivities, claiming that the “nameless knight” is an imposter. Telramund accuses Lohengrin of sorcery. Elsa assures her champion of her faith, but the poison of doubt has begun its work. King Heinrich leads the couple into the cathedral.
 
ACT III
 
Scene 1 – In their bridal chamber, as Lohengrin and Elsa declare their love for each other, Elsa’s anxiety heightens. Seized by a growing need to know his identity, she begs him to reveal his name and origin. Suddenly Telramund and his henchmen invade the chamber, intending to kill Lohengrin. Telramund is slain by Lohengrin. Sadly leaving Elsa in the dare of her attendants, Lohengrin orders the nobles to bear Telramund’s body to the King and tells Elsa that he will meet her there to answer her questions.
 
Scene 2 – As King Heinrich gathers the armies to prepare for the coming battle, Telramund’s body is brought before him. When Elsa arrives, distraught and unable to speak, Lohengrin reveals Telramund’s treachery. He declares that he is Lohengrin, son of Parsifal. As one of the sinless warriors who guard the Holy Grail, it is his duty to go forth into the world to defend those who are beset by evil. He announces that he was sent to be Elsa’s champion and restore the rightful ruler of Brabant to his throne. Elsa’s promise having been broken, he must now return the guardianship of the Grail. Predicting victory for the King’s forces, Lohengrin bids Elsa a sorrowful farewell as the swan that brought him again nears the shore. Ortrud rushes in declaring that the swan is in actuality Elsa’s brother, Gottfried, on whom she has placed a spell. She rejoices over Elsa’s betrayal of Lohengrin, the one man who could have broken the spell. Lohengrin prays and the swan vanishes; in its place stands Gottfried.

The Dream of Lohengrin

William Berger

Lohengrin was the opera that, more than any other, introduced the art of Richard Wagner to international audiences. It was arguably his most popular opera for generations, and the composer’s first to be produced at several theaters, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera. In spite of its own challenges to ears accustomed to the conventions of traditional European music, Lohengrin appealed to audiences with its rich score (alternating ravishing passages with bracing martial eruptions in a marvelous mélange of colors and moods) and its romantic story.

It is a nineteenth-century telling of a widespread medieval myth about a knight who appears on, with, or in a boat drawn by a swan to save a falsely accused damsel in distress. (By the High Middle Ages, this myth accrued features of a dynastic legend, filling in some potentially embarrassing gaps in the noble lineage of the leader of the Crusades, Godfrey [Gottfried, in German] of Bouillon). And while there are militaristic and nationalistic elements in Wagner’s operatic treatment of Lohengrin that present problems for the modern audience, there is also an eternal question at its core that speaks to everyone: How well can we really know the people we love? How hard should we even try to know them?

Lohengrin was composed during Wagner’s final days in Dresden, before his sympathies for the revolutions of 1848 made him an exile for the subsequent decade and a half. The premiere was given in Weimar under the direction of Wagner’s then-acquaintance and future father-in-law Franz Liszt. The available resources for this premiere in 1850 were universally acknowledged to be inadequate: Lohengrin needed a large, well-trained orchestra, chorus, and group of soloists, as well as a certain monumentality in the production. Wagner, on the run, was not even present for the premiere and didn’t hear the opera until 1862. But even as early as 1850, Wagner was realizing that his works—those already written but especially those he was only conceiving—required a level of production entirely different from anything then available. He espoused his new ideas and aspirations in volumes of prose such as the tract “The Artwork of the Future” in 1853. In expressing these ideas, Wagner set a somewhat condescending if still affectionate tone for the operas he had already composed.  Those critics who came after and who were more Wagnerian than Wagner himself too often took this assessment at face value. It became typical to look at Lohengrin, the last of Wagner’s works to even be called an “opera” as opposed to the later “music dramas” (i.e. Tristan und Isolde, the Ring, et al.), as a sort of stepping stone necessary for the vulgar masses to approach the rarified later works.

This was exciting debate in 1870. It is of historical interest now, but no more than that. It doesn’t matter anymore whether an opera is through-composed in the manner of late Wagner or Verdi, or built of older forms such as arias and duets. All that matters is whether or not the opera is good. And those critics who still regard Lohengrin as merely a transition from Wagner’s romantic youth to his intellectually magnificent maturity are depriving themselves of one of opera’s greatest treasures. Lohengrin might well be Wagner’s dreamiest creation, in every sense of the superlative term. The heroine Elsa introduces herself by relating a dream; she wins the protagonist’s affection and the audience’s by this revelation. Moreover, the opera invites the listener into a dream state, and what we do with those dreams is up to us. But beware: the dreams engendered by Lohengrin are potent, and they can be toxic.

One of the first people to grasp the power of the dream nature in Lohengrin was King Ludwig II of Bavaria, and he held his love of the story and the opera throughout his life. Indeed, some have doubted Ludwig’s sophistication because of this: Did Ludwig appreciate the music, or the faux-medieval pageant? But Ludwig can never be dismissed—the traditional view of him as an archetypal victim, a sad and insane homosexual with a frenzied passion for Wagner, has given way to a more complex view of this remarkable man.  


King Ludwig II of Bavaria
Bridgeman Art Library

Ludwig grew up in a castle associated with the Lohengrin legend—Hohenschwangau, in Bavaria, sits on a lake supposedly visited by the Swan Knight. Frescoes on the walls of Hohenschwangau depict the legend, and Ludwig was fascinated with the tale from a young age. It was the first Wagner opera he saw, and it was the first Wagner opera he ordered produced—expense be damned—at the Court Theater when he attained the throne at the age of eighteen. Ludwig occasionally dressed as characters from Wagner’s operas, but his emphasis on Lohengrin was extraordinary:  He had a suit of armor made of silver to wear as this character. When Bavaria suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Prussia during a brief but important war in 1866, ministers had to wait in the antechamber with the necessary papers while the king dressed as Lohengrin to receive them. In the Throne Room of the Munich royal palace, (to which, despite its public-sounding title, very few were admitted), medallions of the French kings Henry IV and Louis XIV adorned the walls while the room contained one statue of Saint George, one of Lohengrin, and a bust of Wagner.
 
One detail of the tale, particularly as presented by Wagner, has not received enough attention. What seems to have interested Ludwig most was the swan. This appears in the names of Hohenschwangau (“High Swan County Palace”) and Ludwig’s most famous architectural fantasy, Neuschwanstein (“New Swan Castle”). The swan is represented in paintings and carvings throughout those two palaces. But it also makes notable appearances in Ludwig’s other residences as well. Swans clutter his desks and writing tables in several palaces, and are painted and carved on those walls as well. At Linderhof—a rococo jewel box whose exteriors recall Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon at Versailles and whose interiors are homage to the intimate royal life at the eighteenth century French court—Ludwig constructed a Venusberg grotto. The Venusberg is a reference to Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, but Ludwig floated about the grotto in a mechanical swan boat in the manner of Lohengrin. Ludwig’s most extravagant palace was Herrenchiemsee, a reproduction of the Château de Versailles itself—or as large a chunk of it as could be finished in Ludwig’s abbreviated lifetime. The swan had a central role even in this monument to Louis XIV. On the single occasion when Ludwig was known to entertain at Herrenchiemsee, guests were transported by mechanical swan boats to an island in the lake, where they smoked and took after-dinner coffee. 


Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria
Corbis

For years, it was assumed that Ludwig’s first obsession, Wagner, was replaced with his later idol, Louis XIV, but the evidence in the palaces and the figure of the swan oppose this idea of one obsession replacing another. But then what are we to make of Lohengrin’s swan at the grandiose monuments to the Bourbons at Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee? Was it really a case of Ludwig merely being insane, with no further rhyme or reason? Actually, Ludwig—“insane” though he may have been—seems to have had a more profound sense of symbolism than his chroniclers, and Wagner’s operas and the Bourbons were sensibly conflated in his mind. For starters, the swan is the means by which the hero is delivered. If Wagner was the hero who would revivify Germany through art, then Ludwig (in his role as the “absolute” monarch who willed the impossible) was the means by which the hero would be, and indeed was, delivered to the nation. Moreover, we must remember who the swan is in the opera: he is Gottfried, Elsa’s brother, the legitimate King of Brabant, transformed into a swan by the evil Ortrud, and transformed back into his true form by Lohengrin’s prayers at the end of the opera. He is the Past and the Future, and therefore the embodiment of the twin obsessions and insecurities of the dynastic monarch: legitimacy and continuity. This is why he appeared among signs and symbols of Bourbon absolutism.

Both legitimacy and continuity were core issues in Ludwig’s reign—the first because he had it in abundance and the second because he lacked it. Ludwig’s family was among the most ancient in Germany, and everyone agreed he had what many other German princes only aspired to—the right to reign. It was this ancient lineage that secured Ludwig a grudging role in the creation of the German Empire, the Second Reich (the First Reich, or realm, was the Holy Roman Empire, referred to in the libretto of Lohengrin and finally abolished in 1806; the Third Reich was yet to come and will also figure in the story of this opera).

The Iron Chancellor of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, convinced Ludwig to compose a letter “inviting” King Wilhelm of Prussia, to assume the title of Emperor, or “Kaiser.” Ludwig agonized over this chore, but he did write the letter, and the Empire was born, Ludwig providing its veneer of legitimacy. And shortly after this, Ludwig’s personal finances were augmented as miraculously as anything in the Grail stories, no doubt facilitating such pet projects as the construction of Neuschwanstein and the Bayreuth Festival House.

However, the question by the 1870s became whether legitimacy mattered anymore. Already a constitutional monarch, Ludwig’s role as a king became entirely symbolic after the declaration of the Second Reich: Thus his obsession with Louis XIV and Absolutism, which had become as distant a dream in its own way as the knights of the Grail were.

The mirror concept of legitimacy—dynastic continuity, was another story altogether. Ludwig never married—his one engagement called off without explanation. Historians have knowingly shrugged off Ludwig’s failure to produce an heir as an obvious by-product of his homosexuality, but that is not a sufficient explanation. Europe’s history is full of homosexual monarchs who rallied to the dynastic cause—or who at least made the arrangements necessary to appear as if they had done so. Even the most flagrant homosexual of Versailles, Louis XIV’s brother Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, (“Monsieur,” as he was known) produced heirs. This Orleanist line was, in fact, being seriously considered for a restoration of the French monarchy in the 1870s. It is unthinkable that Ludwig was unaware of this historical precedent. Nor is impregnating a princess such a unique accomplishment that Ludwig could not have managed it. It seems more likely that Ludwig failed to produce an heir, not because of his deficiencies, but rather because of that keen insight that he alone among his contemporaries seemed to possess at times. He knew that an heir simply didn’t matter anymore in this post-monarchic world. That knowledge would have made the subject of dynastic continuity more poignant. It would have increased his obsession with the symbol of the swan, Elsa’s brother Gottfried, the once and future king.

These are only some of the issues that Ludwig must have discerned in the myth of Lohengrin. But the story contains so many diverse elements, and of such bizarre natures, that one can only guess what it has meant to the subsequent historical characters who have responded to it. These include Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, whose curious relationship to the operas of Wagner included a keen interest in Lohengrin.  The suffragettes made a fetish out of Wagner at the turn of the last century, and the opera they would have seen and heard the most then was Lohengrin. A generation later, Adolf Hitler became a great admirer of this opera—whether primarily of the story or of the score, we do not know. There was no shortage of Nazi catnip in the libretto—warnings about invasions of the Fatherland by barbaric hordes from the East, appeals to the unity of that nebulous entity known as the German “Volk” (“Folk”), and so forth. Even the bizarre choice of the common German word “Führer” as a title for Hitler might well have had its origin in the opera’s libretto (when Lohengrin tells the assembled, unified Germans to accept Gottfried as their “leader,” “Führer”). It’s a wonder Hitler didn’t bust a gut during this opera. In fact, he almost did just that during a Bayreuth production of Lohengrin by Emil Preetorius in 1936, which stressed the pageantry and militarism in the opera with a gigantic chorus and legion of extras. Hitler was so impressed with this production that he offered to send it as a package to the English King Edward VIII as a coronation gift. (Edward declined the offer—not out of political or esthetic scruples but rather since opera in general bored him. In any case, the coronation never happened).

Perhaps the ultimate statement on the dream-power of this opera, and one that acknowledged Hitler’s connection to it, was made by Charlie Chaplin in his film The Great Dictator. Music from Lohengrin’s ethereal prelude appears in the movie’s most iconic scene, in which Chaplin, as a parody of Hitler, dances a fantasy ballet with a globe. It is a pas de deux between the lover and his beloved (the world), and the lover’s batting eyelids and delicate demeanor cannot belie the fact that the goal here is total conquest and domination. Less famous, inexplicably, is the second use of the Lohengrin prelude in the film’s climactic final scene.  The Hitler character’s look-alike, a humble and oppressed Jewish barber, is mistaken for the dictator just before a great party rally (looking very much like those held during that decade at a Wagner-redolent location, Nuremburg). The barber makes the speech the dictator should have made in a perfect world, denouncing the domination imperative and urging people to resist brutality while the exact same music plays as in the world-domination ballet.


Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, 1940
Corbis

The point is clear and important: Art (in this case, Lohengrin) is morally neutral in itself, but it is extremely powerful. It can—it will—have either a toxic or transcendent effect on you, the listener, and you are responsible for the results of that choice. Chaplin made a strong comment on the power and lack of power in art, one that should be borne in mind when there is any discussion of Wagner’s astounding art.
 
William Berger is a writer, radio producer, and commentator for the Metropolitan Opera. His books include Wagner Without Fear, Puccini Without Excuses, and Verdi With a Vengeance.
 

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Director Daniel Slater on Lohengrin

 


 

Can you talk a little about your concept of this production, specifically Lohengrin and his relationship with Elsa?

The most problematic character in this opera is Lohengrin himself. He can come across as a distant, self-contained character who never gets emotionally engaged. I started thinking about his existence in Monsalvat, living with his father, Parsifal. His father has a wife, because they produced Lohengrin and his brothers, the noble lineage of knights, but he and his brothers are not allowed to marry. They’re obliged to travel the world performing miracles, but they are denied the miracle of love. I thought of Lohengrin as a lonely wanderer, a suffering individual who sees himself as a slave to his father. Desperately seeking redemption, he finds it in Elsa. He wants to experience the miracle of human love with her, and he is prepared to sacrifice his immortality to do it.
 
Why do you think the myths that Wagner dealt with in this piece matter today?

In a world that’s full of grubby politics and contains little spirituality in day-to-day living, the notion of miracles is very appealing—something that disturbs, shocks, lifts us out of our sometimes humdrum lives. Someone once told me that every storyline is essentially the same: a stranger comes to town.  Based on this paradigm, Lohengrin is the archetypal story.  His arrival is the inciting incident that changes everything. On a fundamental level, Wagner is tapping into exactly what we look for in many of our cultural outlets today, whether we’re going to the opera or the movies.
 
How does the period you’ve chosen to set this production in relate to the time period that Wagner chose?

Lohengrin is a love story set against a background of impending war, with a clear political and military context. In the end, you either put the singers in abstract costumes or you put them in clothes—in which case you have to base yourself in some period. Of course, one is at liberty to remain in the tenth century of Wagner’s libretto, but the production then has to find ways of making a chorus of eighty move (or, worse, not move) in clanking medieval armor.
I felt that finding a relatively contemporary political and military context to place the story in which to place the story would be more exciting and relevant for the audience, and I was immediately drawn to studying the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Our Lohengrin is not set in Hungary in 1956, but it’s inspired by the events of that time.  There are helpful parallels between Wagner’s original tenth-century setting and our period: a power vacuum after the leader has died/resigned, with rival factions battling to fill that vacuum. In Hungary, you had the rebellious group wanting to cut ties to Russia, fighting those who had previously been supported by Stalin and Khrushchev. In our version, that is expressed by the battle between the group of Elsa’s rebels against the pro-Soviet group supporting Friedrich von Telramund. The essential military and political contexts of the Hungarian conflict and Lohengrin are invitingly similar.
The difficulty in updating Lohengrin is that people may think the period equals the concept, even if it’s actually of secondary importance to the story we are telling. The idea of Lohengrin renouncing his god-like status to experience human love was the emotional core of the piece for me. I believe that the period that we’ve chosen to frame the story in gives it even more emotional resonance.


Our current production of Lohengrin
Photo by Cory Weaver
 
How do you deal with the swan in the period you’ve chosen?

There’s no doubt that when Wagner conceived of a swan pulling a boat down the river, it would have been an extraordinary effect—just as boys flown in on clouds must have been incredible in the time Mozart wrote The Magic Flute. But looking at that today feels like something we’ve seen before. Aesthetically we’re used to it, and our tastes have changed.

The point of the swan is that he’s Gottfried, the heir to the Brabantian throne. Since Gottfried’s murder at Ortrud’s hands, Lohengrin has preserved his life—containing his soul in the body of a swan until Gottfried can again assume human form at the end of the opera. In the Prelude, we present the swan as a young boy (with magical wings) in an upstage outer world beyond Brabant. He and Lohengrin complete a long journey to the edge of Brabant, where he remains until the moment when Lohengrin summons him back into human form.
 
How are American audiences different from those you’ve encountered in Europe regarding their sense of adventure in experiencing new settings for operas?

The early pieces that I’ve done for American audiences [Wozzeck with the Santa Fe Opera and The Cunning Little Vixen here in San Francisco] were not widely known; many people were experiencing them for the first time. They came in with an open and curious mindset, and their response was wonderfully visceral.

The challenges lie with pieces like La Traviata, which I recently staged in Houston, where the audience is much more familiar with it. There are certain expectations that are probably a little more conservative than in Europe, where there is a longer operatic tradition and where (in Germany, for instance!) one is likely to get booed for not being different or unexpected. In the Traviata that I just did for Houston, which was set in the original 19th century, I did make some subtle changes, and I tried to share those thoughts through forums and interviews so that the audience understood I was trying to make the piece as effective as possible.

Having already done Lohengrin in Houston, my sense was that some were expecting it to be set in the tenth century and were quite surprised when it wasn’t. But I feel that most of those people were won over by the story that we told. What I hope they came away with was the sense of something I believe to be fundamental to how we experience opera: you can certainly set Lohengrin in the tenth century, but it’s extremely unlikely that such a far-away period—when coupled with the physical distance at which we usually experience opera productions, as opposed to film or television—will allow for the kind of emotional engagement and clarity of character presentation that was our aim, and which I hope we achieve in our production of Lohengrin in San Francisco.


 
 

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Past San Francisco Opera Lohengrin Casts

A look at some of the legends that have performed Lohengrin with San Francisco Opera


Our first Lohengrin cast in 1931 featured (left to right) Friedrich Schorr (Telramund), Maria Mueller (Elsa), Gotthelf Pistor (Lohengrin), Louis D’Angelo (Henrich), and Arnold Gabor (Herald)
Photo by Morton


The 1937 cast takes a bow: (L to R) Julius Huehn (Telramund), Kathryn Meisle (Ortrud), Kirsten Flagstad (Elsa), and Lauritz Melchior (Lohengrin)
Photo by Morton


Astrid Varnay (center in white) was our Elsa in 1946
Photo by Morton


The 1955 cast featured Inge Borkh (left) as Elsa and Brian Sullivan as Lohengrin
Photo by Robert Lackenbach

    
(left to right): Sandor Konya (Lohengrin), Irene Dalis (Ortrud), and Ingrid Bjoner (Elsa) in her U.S. debut
Photo by Maria Jeanette


Jess Thomas (Lohengrin) defeats Chester Ludgin (Telramund) in 1965
Photo by Pete Peters


Janis Martin (Ortrud, right) and Raimund Herincx (Telramund) in 1978
Photo by Ron Scherl


Pilar Lorengar (left) as Elsa and Leonie Rysanek as Ortrud  in 1982
Photo by Ron Scherl


Our Elsa and Lohengrin of 1996 were Karita Mattila and Ben Heppner
Photo by Ron Scherl


For complete information on all Lohengrin casts at San Francisco Opera, visit archive.sfopera.com

 

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Woman of the Future, or Silly Goose?

Andrew Porter

If the title strikes you as odd, let me put it another way: “Was Elsa right, or wrong, to pop the fatal question?” That’s a question that exercised Wagner himself and has exercised generations of prima donnas who have sung Elsa. The first Elsa at the Metropolitan Opera—in their inaugural season, in 1883—was the Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson. She sang the opera in Italian. So did Emma Albani, the Canadian soprano who was Covent Garden’s first Elsa, in 1875.

The first Bayreuth Elsa, in 1894, was the Maine-born soprano Lillian Nordica. Cosima Wagner had engaged her on the recommendation of Hans Richter, who had heard her at Covent Garden. There was some preliminary German grumbling at the engagement of an American for this most Nordic of heroines, but-helped perhaps by her name—Nordica had a great success. (The Lohengrin, incidentally, was Belgian, Ernest van Dyck, and the Ortrud was English, Marie Brema.) At a Wahnfried reception given by Cosima Wagner, the young American prima donna shyly approached the great Lilli Lehmann, in admiration, and said “May I come to see you, Mme. Lehmann?” Lehmann turned and in tones that chilled the room said, “Tm not taking any pupils this season!”
 
Emma Albani and Lillian Nordica, by all accounts, sang the role with great beauty and lyricism, attentive to the utterance of the words—in the spirit and with the vocal accomplishment that George Bernard Shaw praised when, after hearing Adelina Patti sing Elisabeth’s Prayer in the Albert Hall, in 1894, he wrote that she “attacks the air with the single aim of making it sound as beautiful as possible, and, this being precisely what Wagner’s own musical aim was, she goes straight to the right phrasing, the right vocal touch, and the right turn of every musical figure, thus making her German rivals not only appear in comparison clumsy as singers, but actually obtuse as to Wagner’s meaning.” He went on to observe that if a Wagner phrase is sung as beautifully as possible, “it simply cannot take the wrong expression”; and that if Patti were to choose to undertake Isolde, then, though she might introduce “Home, Sweet Home” into the first act, and “The Last Rose of Summer” into the second, “the public might yet learn a good deal about Isolde from her that they would never learn from the illustrious band of German Wagner heroines who are queens at Bayreuth, but who cannot sing a gruppetto for all that.”
 
Later that year, Shaw was one of those who heard Nordica’s Elsa at Bayreuth. And in his review he wrote: “The moment she began, the sound of real singing so enchanted the Germans that it set them all singing too; we all shouted for joy.” I want to stay with Shaw a moment longer. His remark that if Wagner is sung as beautifully as possible “it simply cannot take the wrong expression” invites us to stop fretting and let the music speak for itself. But, reviewing that first Bayreuth Lohengrin, with Nordica,
he also wrote:
 
It must never be forgotten, in judging the Lohengrin drama, that Wagner himself was perplexed about the ending, tried more than one version of it, and finally, after the work was out of his hands for good, saw that the real flaw in the story is that Elsa is perfectly right in refusing to keep the monstrous condition imposed on her by Lohengrin, and that the drama, in representing her as a weak woman who breaks her word and fails in her duty, is perfectly wrong.
 
The opera Lohengrin has a historical background: King Henry the Fowler’s visit to Antwerp in 932 AD to enlist Brabantine allies in his forthcoming war with Hungary, since the nine-year truce with that country was coming to an end. Wagner took trouble over the historical details of costumes, of settings, of behavior, of which armies would have horses and which wouldn’t. That’s the background; and it’s not an unimportant, merely picturesque and Meyerbeerian historical background, since one subject of the opera is the arrival of a supernatural force into a solidly and realistically portrayed real world. (For that reason, wholly fairytale presentations of the opera, such as the Rhapsody in Blue that Wieland Wagner so memorably presented in Bayreuth, can’t do full justice to the work, though they can be marvelously, memorably revealing of important aspects.)
 
In the foreground there are two or three linked dramas. One is of human relations, about a woman’s unquestioning faith in her husband, and the undermining of that faith by another woman who has established an unnatural dominance over her husband. Another is the legend of the knight who comes to the rescue of a damsel in distress: Perseus and Andromeda; St. George and the dragon-threatened princess. And the third is the tragedy of the supernatural being and the human being who fall in love—a tragedy sometimes averted, though not in Lohengrin, even if for a while Wagner considered a possible happy ending.
 
The last theme, of course, is recurrent in Wagner. His first opera, Die Feen (The Fairies)—an influence on Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten—tellsof the supernatural Ada who agrees to marry the mortal king Arindal… on condition that he never ask about her identity. He does ask ... but after various tribulations love is triumphant, and Arindal leaves with Ada to reign in the fairy world. Similarly, Wagner did consider—but not for long—allowing Elsa and Lohengrin to leave together at the end in the magic boat, sublimated as crown prince and crown princess of Montsalvat. In The Flying Dutchman, the lovers are a supernatural male and a mortal woman, and the close is not a tragedy butif the stage director follows the composer’s directions-an apotheosis with Senta and the redeemed Dutchman ascending together into a radiant sky. Tannhäuser opens with a mortal poet in the arms of an immortal goddess, recalling Ulysses in the cave of Calypso.
 
Lohengrin might be called the definitive treatment of the theme, but we mustn’t forget, later, the doomed love between the god-fathered heroine Brünnhilde and the human hero Siegfried. (Admittedly, Siegfried is semi-divine by ancestry; his grandfather—he had only one—is a god; his grandmother—again, only one, a mortal woman. But the dramatic point is that he’s a human hero achieving what gods are forbidden to do.) Finally, there’s the encounter of the human Parsifal with the enchantress Kundry and with the supernatural kingdom of the Grail, into which at last he is drawn… to become in time Lohengrin’s father!
 
Into this nexus of incompatible loves across barriers of birth and caste, we can draw the story of “The Little Mermaid,” of Dvorak’s Rusalka, of Swan Lake, of Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss. And, by extension, they can be regarded as mythical paradigms of the real-life Prince and the Showgirl stories, Princess and the Swineherd stories; and the stories of the patrician and the prostitute: Verdi’s La Traviata, Massenet’s Sapho, Puccini’s La Rondine. In another way, they can also be linked with the myths about the creative artist (or anyone, for that matter) striving for some unattainable ideal ... But now I’m falling into the danger of generalizing, of lumping too many things together into the same box—a danger that Wagner, with specific reference to Lohengrin, warned against.
 
Myths can mean many things, we know, and symbols can signify many things, but they do have some limits of applicability. Lohengrin is more than an allegory of Wagner the genius married to Minna Planer, tied to a wife who doesn’t understand him, and from whom he expects unquestioning devotion. (Cosima was still well in the future.) And it’s still more than an allegory of Wagner the artist immensely superior to, and of a different nature from, all those around him, yet yearning in some way to become part of the world of common men. (Though I wouldn’t deny that some elements along those lines played a part in its making.) Lohengrin, however, is more specifically linked to those versions of the basic myth in which happiness, despite differences of origin and nature, can be possible ... provided some condition is fulfilled. Trouble is, it’s nearly always an impossible condition. It’s the story of Die Feen, as I remarked. It’s the story of Cupid and Psyche, of Jupiter and Semele, of Die Schöne Melusine. The Semele story has its second woman, the Ortrud figure, instilling doubt in the heroine’s mind. The motivations are different, of course: Juno is jealous of her husband’s new mistress, young and pretty, and contrives her downfall, whereas Ortrud isn’t hot for Lohengrin but merely jealous of Elsa’s happiness and political success, and ambitious to place her own husband and herself upon the throne of Brabant. But as instigators of action leading to the denouement, they play similarly dynamic roles—[Ortrud being] the jealous mezzo-soprano who, like Princess Eboli or Amneris, precipitates the tragedy.
 
Here I throw in two little asides. First, Wagner considered Ortrud a dramatic-soprano role—like Fricka, like Venus in Tannhäuser, like Kundry—and it’s only in fairly modern times that it’s become a mezzo near-monopoly. (The greatest Ortrud I’ve heard was Astrid Varnay, a great Brünnhilde and Isolde.) Second, a reminder that most decisions are made for more than one reason. Wagner claimed that Ortrud was all his own invention, and so—if we look at the traditional Lohengrin material in the old poems—she was. But she does have that precedent in the Semele legend; and from a practical and musical point of view she rounds out the traditional cast of five in a romantic grand opera: soprano, mezzo (or, if you like, darker and deeper soprano), tenor, baritone, and bass—as in Tannhäuser, in Weber’s Euryanthe, in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Don Carlos, and Aida. I’m not suggesting that this is the main reason for the addition of Ortrud to the story. Wagner composed The Flying Dutchman without a second leading woman; and Verdi composed La Traviata and Otello without one. But, once the idea of adding Ortrud had occurred to him, he must have realized on some level that, besides being an enrichment of the myth, she was a most useful theatrical and dramatic element that would contribute to the opera’s success. Wagner broke happily with the conventions when the work demanded it; like Verdi, he was happy to employ them when they also served his higher artistic purpose.
 
Die Meistersinger and Lohengrin were almost simultaneously conceived, one summer at Marienbad, though their births were separated by many years. In 1845 Wagner, music director at the Dresden Opera, had finished Tannhäuser, and preparations were in hand for its performance. He went to Marienbad for a holiday, and as holiday reading he took along Wolfram von Eschenbach’s epic poem Parzival (Wolfram von Eschenbach, you remember, is an actual character in Tannhäuser). In the closing pages of Parzival he found, briefly told, the story of Parzival’ s son Lohengrin. Years earlier, in Paris, he had come across the subject, and, he said, “a whole new world opened out before me, though I could not yet see the form in which to cast this Lohengrin.”His doctor had ordered him to rest while he took the spa cure. Instead, at Marienbad “there suddenly sprang up before my eyes a Lohengrin complete in every detail of dramatic form, in particular the saga of the swan, which forms so significant a feature of a whole complex of myths.” He’d been told to rest. Well, he thought, maybe thinking about a comic opera will help me to keep my mind off Lohengrin; and so he planned Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and sketched out its libretto. No sooner was that done than Lohengrin came back at full strength. He went off to the baths one day, and then, in the words of his autobiography:
 
The moment I got into my bath at noon, I felt an overwhelming desire to write out Lohengrin; and this longing so overcame me that I couldn’t wait the prescribed hour for the bath, but when only a few minutes had elapsed, jumped out and, barely giving myself time to dress, ran home to write out what I had in mind. I repeated this for several days until the complete sketch of Lohengrin was on paper.
 
Assertions in Wagner’s autobiography tend nowadays to be taken with a grain of salt unless there is confirmatory evidence. Wagner, like Verdi, was a born dramatist who had an imaginative way of tidying and ordering and heightening his memories, remembering things as they ought to have been rather than as they actually were. They should not be dismissed on that account, however, for in matters of art a creator’s what-we-might-call “poetic truths” may tell us as much about a work as strict historical accuracy can. Wagner’s doctor gave him up as a bad case. Back in Dresden, the composer brought Tannhäuser to performance and then versified his Lohengrin prose sketch, and read it to a group of friends, among them Robert Schumann. Then he began composition. The full score was completed in April of 1848; later that year, in the Dresden theater, Wagner conducted the first-act finale in concert form. In 1849, he was exiled for political activity during the Dresden Revolution, and he settled in Switzerland, where he began to think about and then compose The Ring. Lohengrin was given its first performance in Weimar, under Liszt, in 1850. (It was hardly a grand performance; the orchestra numbered only 34!) Wagner, still banned from Germany, couldn’t attend but, in correspondence with Liszt and with friends who attended the performance and wrote to him about it, he began to formulate some ideas about the opera and, particularly, about Elsa and her fatal curiosity to which, while composing the work, he had given perhaps unconscious expression.
 
The question of the ending had come up before. Hermann Franck, one of those present at the 1845 reading of the libretto, had that this ending, the abandonment of Elsa, was too cruel; he wanted Lohengrin to die. Wagner countered with another suggestion: “I sought a means by which Elsa could go off with Lohengrin, paying some sort of penance that would mean her withdrawal from the world.” He rejected that idea, but he did try to throw some of the blame on Lohengrin, by returning to a notion sketched in the first prose draft. There it says: “Whoever is dedicated to the service of the Grail must forswear the love of woman: the King alone is permitted to take a wife.” So Wagner added to his poem:
 
When first I saw you on that river bank,
I felt my heart at once ablaze with love,
Deflected from the chaste service of the Grail;
So now I must for ever make atonement,
Because I turned from God, and longed for you.
 
In other words, although Lohengrin should indeed have come to Elsa’s defense, having done so he shouldn’t have married her! But then Wagner omitted those lines, and dropped that idea when he came to compose the opera. His written thoughts about Lohengrin found their fullest expression in 1851, after the Weimar premiere, in that long, important document A Communication to My Friends. The Flying Dutchman and Tannhauser, he wrote, had each felt yearning for union with a woman who loves and admires and understands him. (Wagner himself, as I remarked earlier, was still married to the less than satisfactory Minna; she was with him on that Marienbad holiday.) Elsa now crowned a line of earlier heroines. There’s been Senta, “the woman for whom the Flying Dutchman yearned, from out the ocean of his misery,” and then Elisabeth, “the woman who, star-like, showed to Tannhauser the way that led from the hot passions of the Venusberg up to Heaven”; and now there was Elsa, “the woman who drew Lohengrin from sunny heights to the depths of Earth’s warm breast.” And Wagner devotes a page of rhapsody to Elsa:
 
She is the Unconscious, the Undeliberate,the antithesis of Lohengrin’s conscious, deliberate manhood. The nature of Woman came to ever clearer understanding in my inner mind. I succeeded in so completely transferring myself to this female principle that I came to an entire agreement with its utterance by my loving Elsa. I grew to find her so justified in the final outburst of her jealousy that from this very outburst I learned first to understand the purely human element of love; and I suffered deep and actual grief—often welling over into tears—as I saw the tragic necessity of the parting. This woman who with clear foreknowledge rushes on to her doom, at Love’s imperative behest, this woman who wakes from the thrill of worship into the full reality of Love, and by her destruction reveals its essence to him who had not yet fathomed it, this glorious woman before whom Lohengrin must vanish, because his nature was not able to understand her ... I had found her now: Elsa the woman, previously misunderstood by me, and understood at last ... She made me a Revolutionary at one blow. She was the Spirit of the People, for whose redeeming hand I too, as man and as artist, had been yearning.
 
I think that answers our question, sort of; but perhaps a little more should be added. When I put these notions to a friend, she said, “All very well, but Elsa must have been something of a silly goose in the first place to agree to the monstrous condition Lohengrin imposes.” Well, I replied, certain things in opera happen because they happen, because without them there’d be no opera. If Elsa had answered, “You must be joking, I could never agree to that,” the opera would end at Act I. More seriously: she is hardly behaving in a rational way at this point. Dreamy at the best of times, she’s now seen her most important dream come true: the savior knight in shining armor, imagined in a vision, has materialized before her; in a daze, she’s ready to agree to just about anything. One might even say that in such circumstances Lohengrin takes unfair advantage of her; and that in Act II Ortrud helps to bring her to her senses.
 
I mentioned some famous Elsas of the past. Another most relevant is Olive Fremstad, a great Isolde and Brünnhilde (also a famous Fricka, Brangäne, and Venus), who first sang Elsa at the Met in 1909 and made her Met farewell in that role in 1915. She sang the role 27 times, but, in the words of her amanuensis, companion, and adorer Mary Watkins Cushing (whose The Rainbow Bridge is a classic of prima-donna life intimately observed), she was “rather out of sympathy with the weak and insipid character of the Duchess of Brabant.” And so:
 
She battled tirelessly against the popular conception of the part that was so foreign to her own nature, and through an alchemy of mind and imagination actually succeeded in transmuting the weakness into a kind of strength. She created thereby an entirely new Elsa, poetically symbolic and enormously fascinating, especially to the women in the audience. Conscience-stricken housewives saw their own misdeeds reflected in the tragic implications of Elsa’s curiosity, and doubtless made secret vows never again to look through their husbands’ pockets or ask whiningly why their men had stayed so late at the office. Fremstad’s Elsa received something at her hands which Wagner himself neglected to give this most colorless of his heroines. She became imbued with a kind of fiery tenderness and dignity which ennobled and made poignant the sufferings she seemed to have brought upon herself.
 
There we have, mingled, a fiery artist’s instinctively Wagnerian, transcendent approach to the role, together with an assessment of that approach made by one who evidently subscribed to the silly-goose view widely held at the time.
 
Finally: Wagner’s own insistence, not only in regard to Lohengrin, that the only way to judge a work of music-drama is to experience it in the theater. Its meaning—its manifold meanings—cannot be discovered in the abstract. Composer and poet—in his case composer-poet—do their best. The consequent work of the conductor, the stage director, the scenic designer, the orchestra is very important. But in the last resort everything depends on the singers on what, by their singing and their acting, they convey to an audience’s understanding. On that note, I leave it to the performers to answer the difficult questions about Elsa.

Andrew Porter was the music critic for The New Yorker from 1972 to 1992. He has translated 37 operas for English performance, including the Ring of the Nibelung, Tristan and Isolde, and Parsifal; eight of Verdi's operas; and nine of Mozart's. His discovery of excised portions of Verdi's Don Carlos in the library of the Paris Opera led to the restoration of the original version of the work. This article appeared in a previous issue of San Francisco Opera Magazine.

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“Musically and vocally, it was as thrilling as opera can be!”

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
“Dazzling performances!”

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Luisotti triumphs in his first Wagner for San Francisco Opera!"

  –Examiner.com
"Brandon Jovanovich makes a magnificent role debut...his sensational performance immediately and decisively places him among the leading Wagner tenors of our day."

  –The Classical Review
"Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund, in her San Francisco Opera debut, sang with pure, fresh tone, making Elsa's dream a lustrous episode."

  –San Jose Mercury News
Mezzo-soprano Petra Lang offered "a dynamic and theatrically vivid appearance as Ortrud."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Gerd Grochowski's Telramund was convincingly evil and vocally resplendent."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Bass Kristinn Sigmundsson was an authoritative presence as King Heinrich, and baritone Brian Mulligan brought smoothness and power to the role of the Herald."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Wagner's great Romantic score reigns supreme for many opera lovers...the music is intoxicating."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"This is the fall season's highlight. Prima la Musica, and bravi!"

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
"Music Director Nicola Luisotti presided over an expansive, thrilling opening night performance."

  –San Jose Mercury News
Brandon Jovanovich "luxuriated in the title role" and gave a performance of "shimmery beauty."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Ian Robertson's San Francisco Opera Chorus outdid itself, sounding massive and powerful in every scene."

  –San Jose Mercury News
"Soloists, orchestra, and chorus filled the space in glorious stereo, with brass fanfares coming at you from everywhere, and music that was deep, broad, surrounding, and permeating the entire body."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice

BRANDON JOVANOVICH

San Francisco audiences remember Brandon Jovanovich for his performance as Siegmund in Die Walküre (2011) and opposite Patricia Racette (starring in this season's Tosca) in Il Trittico (2010).







CAMILLA NYLUND

Listen to renowned Wagnerian Camilla Nylund sing Elsa's "Einsam in trüben Tagen":




PETRA LANG

Watch this video of Petra Lang as Ortrud from the 2011 Bayreuth Festival:




LOOK BACK: LOHENGRIN AT THE 1976 BAYREUTH FESTIVAL

Enjoy this look back at a 1976 performance of Lohengrin starring Peter Hofmann at the Bayreuth Festival:





Performances

  • Wed 10/24/12 7:00pm *

  • Sun 10/28/12 1:00pm *

  • Wed 10/31/12 7:00pm *

  • Sat 11/3/12 7:00pm

  • Tue 11/6/12 7:00pm

  • Fri 11/9/12 7:00pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite.

Sponsors

This production is made possible, in part, by The Bernard Osher Endowment Fund. Nicola Luisotti's appearance made possible by Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem, Chairs, Amici di Nicola of Camerata.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.