Richard Wagner and the North

International Symposium, Sibelius Academy, Helsinki, November 8–9, 2013


ORGANIZERS: The University of the Arts (Sibelius Academy/DocMus and the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts), Opera on the Move project (the Academy of Finland), the Finnish Wagner Society, and the Birch and the Star Association.

Keynote speakers: Barry Millington (UK), Hannu Salmi (Finland) and Eero Tarasti (Finland).

During his lifetime, Richard Wagner’s (1813–1883) only visit to the Nordic countries was to Norway: in July of 1839 his ship Thetis was caught in a storm and sought refuge in Sandvika. There is also a legend that Wagner visited the Imatra rapids in eastern Finland during his stay in St. Petersburg in 1863.

Wagner’s music, however, not only visited the Nordic countries, but also became a permanent resident in the national opera houses there. Rienzi was first performed in Stockholm in 1865, followed by Der Fliegende Holländer (1872), Lohengrin (1874) and Tannhäuser (1878). The Royal Opera in Copenhagen began its Wagner performances with Lohengrin (1870), soon followed by Die Meistersinger (1872) and Tannhäuser (1875). In Kristiania and Helsinki regular Wagner performances started much later, as national opera institutions with regular programmes began only in the 20th century. However, touring or temporary companies performed Wagner for Nordic audiences, for instance, in Finland with Tannhäuser (Helsinki, 1857). The first Wagner opera performed in Riga was Der fliegende Holländer (1843) and in Tallinn, Tannhäuser (1853). Lohengrin reached St. Petersburg in 1868.

Several singers originating in the Nordic countries made unforgettable careers thanks to Wagner repertoire, including Olive Fremstad (1871–1951), Lauritz Melchior (1890–1973), Kirsten Flagstad (1895–1962), Birgit Nilsson (1918–2005) and Anita Välkki (1926–2011). In addition to singers, many conductors, such as Armas Järnefelt (1869–1958), and stage directors, including Stefan Herheim (b. 1970) and Kasper Holten (b. 1973), have developed a special attachment to Wagner’s operas.

Wagner in Performance

One of the main topics of the conference is to explore the arrival and settling of Wagner’s operas in the Nordic countries, as well as in the Baltic area and St. Petersburg, covering the long time span from the advent of Wagner performances until today. How were the performances adapted to particular local resources, e.g. the size of the orchestras? Did Wagner operas dislodge other types of repertoire? What consequences might Wagner’s operas have had for scenic conventions and vocal ideals?

Wagner and Politics

Throughout his lifetime, Richard Wagner was a politically-charged figure. Besides his very person, his numerous writings and even his operas have sometimes led to heated political debates. Even today the topic occasionally raises extreme responses. The Jewish question, albeit central, is only one issue relevant here; others include revolution and the relationship to power. With the topic of Wagner and the North we invite speakers to explore the reception and influence of Wagner’s manifold political messages in the North with or without relation to his operas.

Wagner and the Other Arts

Wagner’s operas and writings inspired the literature and visual arts and were a continuous reference point from the late Romantic and Symbolist movements on. The example of the Nibelungen lies in the background of illustrations for the Kalevala and other Nordic legends. An essay published by Sergei Diaghilev in 1898 by the journal Ateneum entitled ‘‘Invecklade Spörmål’ [Intricate Problems], the first and most extensive of several versions, suggested that the Wagner cult could become the basis for a new art. Based on Wagner’s ideas, the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk served the creation of artworks whereby talents from different fields merged, a heritage that persists today. How was Gesamtkunswerk understood and interpreted in the North of Europe? How was the Nordic iconography derived from Wagner received both in the Nordic and the Latin countries?

Free papers

Besides the topics presented above we are keen to receive papers that explore other aspects of Richard Wagner, his operas and his writings relevant to the themes of this conference.

The proposals

Proposals for individual papers (20 minutes + 10 minutes for discussion), lecture demonstrations (45 minutes) and panels 
(90 minutes) should be sent as abstracts (max 400 words) to along with full contact information
for the author(s). The language of the conference and for the abstracts is English. The deadline for the abstracts is May 31, 2013, and the authors will be contacted by June 15, 2013. The
 organizers plan to initiate a book project on the basis of selected
 conference papers. Besides scholarly proposals also ones representing practices-based research (‘artistic research’) are welcome.

Programme Commitee: Professor Anne Sivuoja-Kauppala, Dr. Martin Knust Professor, Veijo Murtomäki and Professor Riikka Stewen.

Coordinator: Dr. Markus Kuikka