What Does Your Magnum Opus Look Like? A Few Operatic Thoughts

Nov. 24, 2018
Composer Richard Wagner spent a quarter of a century developing a unique, four-work opera cycle that redefined opera forever. What have you been working on lately?

I was given the privilege and pleasure recently of presenting, for the second year in a row, a lecture on Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, as the leading opera company in my city, a world-class opera house, has been putting on, in yearly succession, the four operas of the “Ring of the Nibelung” cycle by German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Last year, the second opera in the tetratology, “Die Walküre,” was performed; this year, the third opera, “Siegfried.” After the concluding opera, “Götterdämmerung,” is performed, the entire cycle will be presented in festival format, always a major cultural event. I spoke on “Siegfried.”

I’ve been fortunate to have seen six complete “Ring” cycles in live opera houses in different cities, and I can tell you, it’s a life-changing experience, as this four-opera work (16 hours of music altogether), sits at the absolute summit of western art. Richard Wagner was a hideous human being himself, but spent numerous years working on something that changed the course of classical music and redefined opera.

What’s more, from the summer of 1848, when Wagner wrote a first sketch of the libretti, or texts, of the operas, until their true compositional completion in 1871, more than 23 years were to pass; and it would be another five years before the tetralogy was fully presented, in a purpose-built new opera house in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. It was a herculean feat to create the entire text of these four long operas, and compose 16 hours of music that would completely redefine the concept of opera. Indeed, when the crowned heads of Europe, the great living composers, and the 19th-century European intelligentsia and glitterati, gathered at the new Festspielhaus in Bayreuth in 1876, many were so overwhelmed by what they saw and heard, that they were rendered speechless. Even now, 142 years later, first time Ring-goers are overwhelmed by the breadth and sweep, the musical and dramatic audacity, and uniqueness of the “Ring” operas, with their story of gods, giants, dwarves, flying Valkyries, Rhinemaidens, one huge dragon, humans, gold mined from a river, magic swords and spears, and of course, a gold ring whose possessor can control the world and its fate.

Even just looking at the third opera, “Siegfried,” Wagner struggled mightily. For one thing, being essentially a grifter and a cad, Wagner borrowed/took money from everyone who would lend/give it, and often had affairs with the wives of the patrons bankrolling his compositional work, leaving his life in constant chaos, as he fled from one city to the next. One such wife, Mathilde Wesendonck, inspired the opera “Tristan und Isolde,” groundbreaking operas that Wagner wrote during a 12-year hiatus in his composition of “Siegfried.” And “Tristan” itself changed the entirety of classical music, its tonality-challenging chromaticism.

Well, no one is expecting anyone to match the unique creativity of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. But the leaders of U.S. patient care organizations are doing a lot of important things these days, including using formal continuous improvement methodologies to rework core patient care delivery processes in order to transition into value-based healthcare. What’s more, as our Special Report on Leadership outlines, the entire role of the CIO is being rethought now, as the demands for leadership and strategic capabilities are catapulting that role forward; and patient care organizations are beginning to make real headway in advancing equality for women and people of color among the ranks of healthcare IT leaders and managers.

So while no one is expecting anyone to create an operatic tetralogy that will change the face of music, there are plenty of heroic endeavors open to anyone willing to envision the healthcare system of the future. The opportunities are as limitless as the imagination.

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