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Woodstock, meet Wagner

August 21, 2009 | 10:50 am


Woodstock, N.Y., is a short 17 miles from Bard College, where the second weekend of the college’s far-reaching Wagner festival begins today. So Thursday, as I drove down from Albany International Airport to Bard, the town seemed an appropriate stop for lunch, not the least because Garden Cafe, in the village green, is reputed to be the best vegan restaurant in the region, and Wagner was a vegetarian.

Not surprisingly, Woodstock is festooned with colorful reminders of the 40th anniversary of the famous “3 Days of Peace and Music” held about 70 miles away but known anyway as the Woodstock festival.

And sure enough, strolling around Woodstock, which is now a place of many festivals (Shakespeare, film, fringe), I couldn’t help but come up with Wagner-Woodstock parallels.

Not only was the Woodstock festival, in scale and influence, rock’s great Wagnerian moment, but

Wagner himself invented the whole idea of the festival pilgrimage -- at Bayreuth, Germany, where he created the ideal place to experience his sensation-filling works.

Now nothing could be further from elitist Bayreuth -- where audiences sit in formal silence -- than half a million frolicking, coupling hippies taking over Yasgur’s farm for a weekend. But the spirit of Wagner’s works is another matter. Flower maidens are flower children, after all.
It was in the late ‘60s that Wagner’s “Ring” gained a kind of populist status, with the first complete recording of the four operas. I remember when San Francisco Opera began a “Ring” with a new production of “Das Rheingold” in 1969, just a couple of months after Woodstock, the line for standing room was full of hippies passing out hash brownies. Wagner also gets credit for having been the first truly psychedelic composer.

I’ve been listening to the new six-CD set of the Woodstock festival, and I have been struck by the Wagnerian aspects of so much of the music. The folk singers on the first day remind me of the German folk style found in some of Wagner’s early work, to say nothing of his elevation of the German volk in “Die Meistersinger.” 

Ravi Shankar’s evening raga is another continent’s version of strung-out melody that was Wagner’s gift to the West. Late in life, Wagner leaned toward the East and considered writing an opera on the life of the Buddha. 

There was Woodstock’s anarchism, another of Wagner’s interests. Bert Sommer, a singer new to me, sounds like a pop heldentenor. And today’s Woodstock hustlers now promote Woodstock veterans as heroes, a subject Wagner knew plenty about.

Nothing is more Wagnerian than desire, ecstasy and early death, so wherever you are, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, please take a bow. The Grateful Dead’s “Dark Star”? You need to ask?
Finally, commercialism of Woodstock and Wagner are big subjects. Saturday night, the Bard Music Festival will explore the selling of the “Ring.” Meanwhile across the Hudson River at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which is on the site of the Woodstock festival, Arlo Guthrie will appear with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. “Can you dig it?” as Guthrie said there 40 years ago before singing “Wheel of Fortune.”

-- Mark Swed

Photo credit: Mark Swed / Los Angeles Times