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Wotan and Prospero – The Price of Power

Sat, 02/25/2023 - 9:00 am - 11:00 am

What is it about power? It fascinates, it terrifies. Tyrants cling to it. Inevitably they fall, and often their world collapses around them. That is the stuff of theater and of opera. In my presentation I consider Wotan’s loss of power and stirring farewell to Brünnhilde in Die Walküre. And I will ask, was this moving and powerful scene influenced by Shakespeare or even by the example of Beethoven under the spell of Shakespeare? Shakespeare and Beethoven often were cited by Wagner as deeply important, affecting his life and work. I will explore briefly what works of Shakespeare, e.g., King Lear, and what representations by Beethoven of characters or situations in Shakespeare plays, Wagner likely knew and might have referenced. Lear, in his tragic parting with Cordelia, has been proposed by the critic Michael Halliwell as a model for Wotan in the farewell scene. But might the actual inspiration have been Prospero (in The Tempest)? The parallels between Prospero and Wotan are too significant to be coincidental. Both gained and wielded their power by acquiring arcane knowledge, and both poignantly and memorably would relinquish their power. I will propose that the relationship between Prospero with his daughter Miranda was a possible, even likely, model for that between Wotan and Brünnhilde. Wotan’s transgression and abuse of power caused his downfall. But what about Shakespeare’s Prospero? Shakespeare leaves us guessing about Prospero’s “dark backward.” The unusual ending of the play, in which Prospero relinquishes power and asks to be set free by prayer, suggests that, like Wotan, he was plagued by guilt. Focusing on the musical and dramatic representation of power, its seductions, its use and abuse, I will conclude with a preview of the new opera Prospero’s Island, by Allen Shearer on my libretto, which premieres at Herbst Theatre on March 25. In our provocative adaptation, Prospero is an all-too-real man with complex motivations– a despotic and manipulative character with a dark past, rather than Shakespeare’s more enigmatic benign wizard whose motivations are veiled. Our Prospero, more closely resembling Wagner’s Wotan, yields insights into the seductions of power, the relationship between father and daughter, master and servant, that not only are psychologically potent: they are the stuff of opera. The talk will be illustrated with readings and musical excerpts, several performed “live.”

Our speaker is Professor Claudia Stevens, who presented the talk “But of course, the real villain is Wagner! – or, Wagner in the novels of E.M. Forster” for the Society in 2019. Claudia Stevens is a summa cum laude graduate of Vassar College and holds graduate degrees from UC, Berkeley and Boston University. Eight chamber operas she created with Allen Shearer have been produced to date.

JCC-SF 2nd Floor
3200 California Street
San Francisco, CA


Sat, 02/25/2023
9:00 am - 11:00 am


The Wagner Society of Northern California

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