Wagner’s Misfortune: one hilarious anecdote

March 13, 2013

One could never guess what genuinely amusing event devoid of any anticipation turned Wagner’s  Tannhäuser  première in a complete fiasco. It is the prerogative of the haughty19th century Parisian aristocracy to surprise both poor Richard, the contemporary and modern auditory with a reaction that changed the faith of an opera now considered one of Wagner’s best.

Facts are comically of an elementary character.

On this very day, 13 March 1861, the Salle Le Peletier was meant to host the first representation of Tannhäuser in France after exhausting months spent with a consuming number of over 160 thorough  rehearsals  which Wagner never failed to attend given that he was exceedingly keen to impress the public. A public composed from such characters as Emperor Napoleon III and Pauline von Metternich one cannot simply afford to disappoint.

And with the dozens of preparations undertaken, it shouldn’t have been the case . In fact, everything was arranged  for Wagner to repute a success.

But what actually happened?

Here’s the account almighty Wikipedia gives:

Wagner had originally hoped the Parisian première would take place at the Théâtre Lyrique. However, the première was at the Paris Opéra, so the composer had to insert a ballet into the score, according to the traditions of the house. Wagner agreed to this condition since he believed that a success at the Opéra represented his most significant opportunity to re-establish himself following his exile from Germany. Yet rather than put the ballet in its usual place in Act II, he chose to place it in Act I, where it could at least make some dramatic sense by representing the sensual world of Venus’s realm.

This midget alteration of the custom gave way to a veritable disaster.

There was a serious planned assault on the opera’s reception by members of the wealthy and aristocratic Jockey Club. Their habit was to arrive at the Opéra only in time for the Act II ballet, after previously dining, and, as often as not, to leave when the ballet was over. They objected to the ballet coming in Act I, since this meant they would have to be present from the beginning of the opera. Furthermore, they disliked Princess von Metternich, who had arranged the performance, and her native country of Austria.’ [any recall of the French revolution, anybody? any analogy to the way they treated Marie Antoinette? or perhaps your mind  goes back to the Vienna Congress in 1815?]

Club members led barracking from the audience with whistles and cat-calls. At the third performance on 24 March, this uproar caused several interruptions of up to fifteen minutes at a time. As a consequence, Wagner withdrew the opera after the third performance.This marked the end to Wagner’s hopes of establishing himself in Paris, at that time the center of the operatic world.

In a nutshell, this is the story of how a genius was ruined by frivolous manners.

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5 Responses to “Wagner’s Misfortune: one hilarious anecdote”


  1. If I were Vagner, I would have withdrawn my opera too! How rude!

  2. aubrey Says:

    In any other time the aristocracy would have been mocked for such behavior; it proves the chokehold they had on society. Probably fun to have dinner with, but so very, very foolish.


    • Let us not forget its behavior in France has of yore been recorded as such…Aristocracy there is an institution of blatant extremes: the highly cultivated epitomized by, say, the Duke d’Aumale, and the terribly eccentric, represented by… oh, too many to mention.

  3. Flowers Says:

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say great blog!


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