First published on 11 Nov 2012. Updated on 19 Nov 2012.
Each man changed the nature of his country's opera profoundly, and in highly personal ways, diffusing his own character into national perceptions. Both died in Italy: Wagner in Venice in 1883; Verdi in 1901 in Milan, attracting over 200,000 mourners.
The popular Verdi was drawn into political struggles by nationalist friends, and by censors and meddling producers; the controversial Wagner created far more ideological and financial problems than he solved, such as the funding for his huge purpose-built Festival Opera House in Bayreuth, activities during the Revolutions of 1848 that forced him to flee to Switzerland, his abhorrent 1850 essay "Jewishness in Music", and his rapacious bleeding of "Mad" Ludwig II, who plunged the Kingdom of Bavaria into debt by building himself castles, most famously the Disney-like Neuschwanstein, designed to better the one that inspired Wagner's Tannhäuser. One bicentennial biographer, Peter Conrad, illustrates his subject's ego with the occasion of the 1871 unification of Germany, when Wagner "complacently announced that 'the whole German empire is only created to aid me in attaining my object'."
Wagner wrote his own libretti, and considered them literary masterpieces, which they are not. His mature plots are all much the same: a man (e.g. Tannhäuser, a supremely talented but insufficiently rewarded artistic type – now where could he have found that character?) achieves redemption through a woman's love. Verdi collaborated with about a dozen librettists on a very wide variety of dramatic situations: to use Opera Australia's 2013 offerings as examples, the Ethiopian princess Aida is taken into Egypt as a slave, whereas A Masked Ball is loosely based on the historical assassination King Gustav III at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm in 1792.
Yet Wagner fans adore his music immoderately. Tickets for Opera Australia's first production of Wagner's Ring Cycle sold out a year in advance despite minimum prices of $1,000, but other events requiring a commitment of less than 18 hours over four nights are available elsewhere. In July the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performs a condensed version of his love-and-death story of Tristan and Isolde, with the costumes, stage and singers removed; it lasts barely over an hour. Richard Mills, who will conduct the Melbourne Ring, takes up the post of Artistic Director at Victorian Opera in 2013; VO's Gala Concert will also celebrate Verdi's 200th and the centenary of the birth of Benjamin Britten. Also in February, Orchestra Victoria performs Wagner's most famous instrumental composition, Siegfried Idyll – it's just 20 minutes long.
Neither man believed in God, but Verdi wrote a magnificent Requiem Mass for Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), author of the classic nationalist novel The Betrothed. The MSO will perform what is now called the Verdi Requiem in September, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, who in January begins the role of Chief Conductor. For those who share Woody Allen's syndrome of not being able to listen to Wagner without getting the urge to conquer Poland, Verdi may be the ideal therapy.