Alex Ross: Wagner for a Song

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[Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, is the author of “Listen to This.”]

ON Monday night, “Das Rheingold,” the first part of a mammoth new production of Richard Wagner’s opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” will thunder down on the Metropolitan Opera. A 45-ton set will test the theater’s foundations; a reported $16 million budget will test the company’s finances. In the midst of economic troubles, is it seemly to spend such a vast amount on a spectacle that will be seen by a relatively small, elite audience?

Such questions inevitably arise whenever an opera company forges the “Ring” anew. Last season, the Los Angeles Opera completed its presentation of the cycle, spending $31 million. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors became embroiled in arguments over Wagner’s anti-Semitism, and the singer David Byrne asked on his blog whether the money might have been better spent on arts education. “There is a greater value for humanity,” Mr. Byrne wrote, “in empowering folks to make and create than there is in teaching them the canon.”

As someone who makes a living writing about what Mr. Byrne calls “those dead guys,” I don’t accept his critique. But it’s a thoughtful statement, demanding a more thoughtful answer than the bromides that classical-music advocates have dispensed in the past. It’s not enough to murmur that opera is “high culture” or “serious music.” For one thing, opera has a right to be silly, and often is....

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