This week The Smithsonian Associate's begins a new music lecture series, “Verdi and Wagner at 200: A Double Celebration of Genius.” Music historian and a favorite Smithsonian speaker, Saul Lilienstein, leads the six-session series tracing the parallel development of two great 19th-century composers, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, who happened to have both been born in 1813.The new series begins on January 30th and continues once a month until June 19th.
Saul Lilienstein spoke with us to discuss the upcoming program, his love for opera, and his 14 years lecturing for the Smithsonian.
How did you come up with the idea and concept for the course?
It was given to me by a wonderful accident, the coincidence that Verdi and Wagner were born the same year and it happened to be 200 years ago. So we were at that point of looking at two great creators of opera in the 19th century whose careers are, one could almost say, continuously parallel and very very different. Each session takes the same moment in time for these two composers and how they dealt with it in their own maturing process.
For the first session, you will compare their first works; Verdi’s Oberto and Wagner’s Die Feen. How are Verdi and Wagner similar and different?
They were both dependent greatly on the traditions out of which they came. Verdi was inspired by Rossini and Bellini. As we expect for a first work with Oberto, he relies heavily on these models. Yet at the same time, there is a kind of energy, a propulsive, almost crude, energy that comes through.
For Wagner, the composers that he adored were Mozart, Beethoven and Weber. In fact he once wrote a short story, and he had a character on his deathbed say, “I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven.”
For Die Feen, it’s the beginning of a German romantic opera style; fantasy, love of the myth and an almost irrational fascination with nature. These factors, especially this interest in myth and nature, are as much a part of Wagner as the total opposite is true of Verdi.
Verdi hardly ever gives us portraits in nature. He is not at all interested in mythology. Verdi is interested in politics and the struggle between opposing forces of both political and erotic nature, but almost always in the sense of reality, rather than Wagner’s dream world.
What makes this course and opera so exciting?
Music with drama is more interesting to people today than music without drama. So aside from the fact that the two subjects of Verdi and Wagner are exciting, opera is exciting. The only people who don’t find opera exciting are the people who don’t know opera, and I hope a bunch of those people come also. I’ll fire them up! They’ll discover just how thrilling the experience is.
Should the audience have a base knowledge of opera or of these two composers?
When I present something, if somebody knows absolutely nothing about it, they’ll find out a great deal about it. And if somebody comes who knows everything about it, they’ll sit there and say, ‘I’ve never thought of it like this before.’ Whoever comes, whatever they bring to it in terms of their own experience, I hope to connect with them and make everything relevant to their love of art.
You have been teaching courses for the Smithsonian since you moved to the Washington area in 1998. How does this course compare to past courses you’ve taught for The Smithsonian Associates?
I’ve never repeated myself. I keep coming up with different themes. The Smithsonian has always given me leeway like this, which has always been wonderful. I’ve been asked ‘What would you like to do?’ and then I think about that, and then I do it. That’s kind of the definition of happiness, isn’t it?
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For more information on the upcoming Verdi and Wagner lecture series with Saul Lilienstein, please see the event posting.
Jan 30 – The First Operas (Die Feen and Oberto)
Feb 27 – Finding a Singular Voice (Nabucco and Der fliegende Hollander)
March 27 – Toward a Mature Style (Macbeth and Lohengrin)
April 24 – Lyrical Masterpieces (La Traviata and Die Walkure)
May 22 – Of Lovers and Kings (Un Ballo in Maschera and Tristan and Isolde)
June 19 – The Final Tragedies (Parsifal and Otello)