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Richard Wagner

Biography

Richard Wagner (1813–83) is one of the most significant figures in the history of opera. Through his music dramas he introduced extraordinary innovations that transformed the course of music. His works remains an exhilarating challenge for any opera house, none more so than his 15-hour four-opera epic Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Wagner was born in Leipzig and discovered his genius for music early on. He absconded from his first job when he fell in love with the actress Minna Planer, whom he married in 1836. The tempestuous couple were continually dogged by debt, and twice had to smuggle themselves past border guards to evade warrants for Wagner's arrest. In 1839 they escaped to Paris, where Wagner spent two dismal years failing to get his music performed and developed a profound contempt for the French – but his time in the home of grand opera had an immense influence on his music.

Success finally came for Wagner in 1842 with the Dresden premiere of Rienzi, followed soon after by Der fliegende Holländer and Tannhäuser. Wagner's involvement in a failed political coup meant he and Minna were on the run again in 1848, and Wagner missed the 1850 premiere of Lohengrin while exiled in Switzerland. The backing of the eccentric King Ludwig II gave Wagner, temporarily at least, a position in Munich from 1864. Although Wagner was forced to leave the city in 1865 when public opinion turned against him, the premieres of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg were all given in the Bavarian capital. Over several years Wagner scraped together enough funding to realize his great dream, for an opera festival dedicated exclusively to his music. The inaugural Bayreuth Festival was held in 1876 and opened with the first performance of the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen, staged in an opera house especially built for it. Wagner's final opera, Parsifal, was first performed at Bayreuth in 1882, a few months before his death.

Fiercely political and determinedly outspoken, Wagner was never far from controversy. His personal life was no less tumultuous, but in 1864 he won a kind of stability with Liszt's daughter Cosima von Bülow. The couple had three children, and eventually married in 1870.

Videos

News and features

Not-so-easy listening made easier: How to listen to the unfamiliar as well as the familiar

Not-so-easy listening made easier: How to listen to the unfamiliar as well as the familiar

22 July 2014

Schonberg's Moses und Aron may seem daunting, but dip a toe in the water and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Opera's Russian Dolls: the opera-within-an-opera

Opera's Russian Dolls: the opera-within-an-opera

27 June 2014

Composers from Purcell to Turnage bring the audience onstage by writing them into the music.

10 Operatic Prayers: Divine music in hope of divine intervention

10 Operatic Prayers: Divine music in hope of divine intervention

24 April 2014

Operatic characters often look to the heavens, in thanks or in anguished supplication.

How to Stage an Opera: Faust and the 19th Century

How to Stage an Opera: Faust and the 19th Century

22 April 2014

How the vernacular of Gounod’s era makes the work anything but trivial.

The A-Z of Richard Strauss: F is for Franz Strauss

The A-Z of Richard Strauss: F is for Franz Strauss

17 March 2014

Richard Strauss's father was a famed horn player who had a tempestuous relationship with Richard Wagner.

Watch: Insights into Parsifal

Watch: Insights into Parsifal

19 December 2013

A masterclass from legendary Wagnerian John Tomlinson, a musical introduction from Antonio Pappano, and the creative team on their production.

Photos

Richard Wagner, portrait by Caesar Willich c1862

Richard Wagner by Cäsar Willich, 1862

The Flowermaidens in Parsifal © ROH/Clive Barda 2007

John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz, Petra Lang as Kundry and Christopher Ventris as Parsifal in Parsifal © ROH/Clive Barda 2007

Willard W. White as Klingsor in Parsifal © ROH/Clive Barda 2007

Falk Struckmann as Amfortas in Parsifal © ROH/Clive Barda 2007

John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz in Parsifal © ROH/Clive Barda 2007

Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde and August Seider as Tristan in Tristan and Isolde © 1948 Royal Opera House / Roger Wood

Antonio Pappano and Stephen Langridge in rehearsals for Parsifal ©ROH/Clive Barda, 2013

Gerald Finley and the cast in rehearsals for Parsifal ©ROH/Clive Barda, 2013

Simon O'Neill and the cast in rehearsals for Parsifal ©ROH/Clive Barda, 2013

The cast in rehearsals for Parsifal ©ROH/Clive Barda, 2013

Angela Denoke and Simon O'Neill in rehearsals for Parsifal ©ROH/Clive Barda, 2013

Simon O'Neill and René Pape in rehearsals for Parsifal ©ROH/Clive Barda, 2013

Angela Denoke in rehearsals for Parsifal ©ROH/Clive Barda, 2013

Angela Denoke and René Pape in rehearsals for Parsifal ©ROH/Clive Barda, 2013

Gerald Finley and Simon O'Neill in rehearsals for Parsifal ©ROH/Clive Barda, 2013

René Pape in rehearsals for Parsifal ©ROH/Clive Barda, 2013

Gerald Finley in rehearsals for Parsifal ©ROH/Clive Barda, 2013

The cast in rehearsals for Parsifal ©ROH/Clive Barda, 2013

The Royal Opera in Lohengrin © ROH/Clive Barda 2009

Edith Haller as Elsa von Brabant and Petra Lang as Ortrud in Lohengrin © ROH/Clive Barda 2009

The Royal Opera in Lohengrin © ROH/Clive Barda 2009

Boaz Daniel as Herald in Lohengrin © ROH/Clive Barda 2009

Falk Struckmann as Friedrich von Telramund and Petra Lang as Ortrud in Lohengrin © ROH/Clive Barda 2009

Falk Struckmann as Friedrich von Telramund in Lohengrin © ROH/Clive Barda 2009