Thursday, 9 January 2014

Getting it Straight About the Wagners

Unfortunately its very difficult to get it straight about Richard Wagner’s sexuality. Even lgbt historians and music lovers disagree. Among the main music Establishment the question of whether Wagner was gay/bisexual is also hotly debated. Last February the Italian newspaper “Corriere della Sera” and the manager of Las Scala opera house in Milan became locked in a battle of words, not over Wagner’s sexuality specifically but at the manner in which the orchestra was being conducted during a production of Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde”!

The production was being conducted by British conductor Daniel Harding. The opera critic of “Corriere della Sera”, Paolo Isotta, gave a scathing review of Harding’s performance, saying “it was so soft it made you think he wanted to back the unfounded theory that Wagner was homosexual”. Las Scala’s general manager accused Isotta of always using his reviews as “instruments of power, weapons against someone or something”, and banned him from reviewing any further La Scala production. The newspaper’s editor jumped into the fight by admitting that Isotta tended to be outspoken and unpredictable but refused to sanction him. It became apparent that there was some underlying animosity between La Scala and Isotta.

What the whole affair brings to light, apart from the fact that some people don’t believe Wagner was gay, is that a critic uses his own unfounded perception of homosexuality as being “soft” as a valid means of criticism. I bet he wouldn’t have been allowed to get away with his comments if it was racial.

I don’t believe Wagner was gay. That’s not to say that love wasn’t involved in his relationship with his young patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria. There are over 600 letters written between them that shows obvious deep affection and love between them. The well-known lgbt historian Rictor Norton believes their relationship was physical though not actually sexual. Wagner’s own descendants often deny there was any sexual connection between the two. Bearing in mind that same-sex affection was expressed differently in the 19th century, often written in terms and phrases that today would be taken as gay, I tend to agree with the Wagners.

My mind is also certain about Richard Wagener’s son Siegfried (1869-1930). Siegfried, named after one of the great German heroes featured in his father’s operas, was also a composer. He wrote 18 operas, mainly based on German folk tales, though his father’s reputation always overshadowed him. Siegfried became a leading family figure and guardian of his father’s legacy, taking over the artistic directorship of the Bayreuth Festival, founded by Wagner, between 1908 and 1930.

Siegfried was openly bisexual to his family. He had a string of male lovers and companions throughout his teenage years and into his 40s. There were no similar strong of female lovers. Just like his father’s patron King Ludwig Siegfried enjoyed all-male gatherings. These, and similar gatherings all across Germany, were seen with suspicion after the Eulenberg Affair of 1907-9 when the Kaiser was accused of surrounding himself with “sodomites”. The Wagner family had managed to hush up rumours of Siegfried’s involvement in any “sodomite” gathering but decided to take further action when hints and insinuations about his sexuality began to appear in the German press.

Siegfried was married at his mother’s insistence to quell the rumours. It worked. Siegfried fathered 4 children. The question of his relationships with men were either expunged or queried by his future biographers. The Wagner dynasty seemed eager to keep it quiet. Even in the 1980s Siegfried’s descendants were denying it.

Richard Wagner’s sexuality will probably always be a subject of debate and controversy, but that of his son Siegfried is emerging from the shadows and is becoming more widely accepted, more so than it was in his own lifetime.

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