Richard Wagner was born 200 years ago this week: on May 22, 1813. In most cases, two centuries is enough to establish a safe distance, a historical world of Empire-waisted gowns and early Romantic piano sonatas. Wagner, however, is neither safe nor distant. We’re still arguing, passionately, about his work. We’re still dealing with the members of his family, who remain in charge of the BayreuthFestival, which still performs only Wagner operas. We’re still debating how to think about a bad person who made good art. Giuseppe Verdi, the year’s other bicentenarian and the 19th-century’s other greatest opera composer, transformed the opera of his time. Wagner is still demonstrating his place in ours.
Of course, we say, personality is separate from music; plenty of great artists have had unsavory opinions. But Wagner’s operas are particularly permeated with his personality. He wrote his own librettos, clunkily lyrical, alliterative to the point of caricature and oh so repetitive (Wotan, the father-god figure in the four-opera “Ring” cycle, keeps summarizing the plot throughout his appearances in the first three operas). And he wrote intoxicating, heavy, perfumed, intense music that bores into the ear and the psyche. Both music and text give aesthetic form to various facets of human obsession — obsession being something of a Wagner specialty.