Last night I was wasting time on youtube because someone had told me the Salzburg DVD of Die Frau ohne Schatten (Solti/Studer, Marton, Lipovsek, Moser, Hale) from 1992 was on it in 25 bite-size segments. This is a hell of a way to see a major four-hour music drama, but I started Act III and was immediately hooked - the beauty of the score always sends me places - and the images (except dorky light sabers for Barak's sword and the torches) were sublime. I think I really must run out and purchase this.
Studer sang the music wonderfully well, holding notes cleanly and swelling them till they seemed to overwhelm the orchestra at that sublime moment when the shadow-less Empress enters the presence of her terrible, invisible father, Keikobad, king of the spirit world. There she is given the chance to save her husband from being turned into stone (he is a mortal who has dared to wed her, a crystalline spirit), but to do this she must drink from the Waters of Life, which will give her a shadow - the shadow belonging to the humble Dyer's Wife. True, the Dyer and his Wife will be destroyed, but they're just common, ordinary people - at the beginning of the opera, the Empress had never met such people and had no feeling for them but curiosity. Her husband is the man she loves, the only man she really knew three days ago, and his plight is her doing. She must save him. But as she steps forward to drink, she hears the anguished cries of the Dyer and his Wife, whose agony she has observed for three days while hiding in the shadows of their house. She can't do it. Even the sight of her husband's pleading eyes (the rest of him is stone) cannot break her new resolve. She feels the pain of the ordinary humans - speaking, not singing, she cries, "I will not!" and rejects the waters of life and the stolen shadow.
The music fades, a violin figure replaces the orgy of doom-laden sound, and - I've never seen it done better - the Empress stands bewildered in a sudden knife of white light coming from behind her, from the wings. At her feet and stretching across the stage is - a shadow. A shadow that moves with her movements. Not the haunted shadow of some other woman, but her own. Since she can feel what ordinary humans feel, empathize with them though they mean nothing to her, she is herself now fully human, no longer disembodied spirit - and so she has her own shadow - and her husband, too, now the human husband of a human wife, is restored to her. And the shadow of the Dyer's Wife is restored to her, and she is united with her husband as well, newly enlightened, able to appreciate and love her as more than just a sex object. And all four of them are worthy to produce more humans - and their unborn children sing and rejoice.
This is the message of the opera: we are not fully human unless we can feel for other humans. It is not, interestingly enough, the message of Strauss and von Hofmannsthal's model, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte - Pamina already feels empathy for other humans when the opera begins, for the moment she meets the unknown, idiotic, clownish Papageno, she wonders about him, his family, and sympathizes with his hope for love. But it is the message of Wagner's Ring (one of its messages), for (as GB Shaw pointed out in The Perfect Wagnerite), the point where the Ring is transformed and makes its meaning clear is the moment in Act II of Die Walküre when Brunnhilde, the thoughtless warrior-daughter of Wotan, a "shadowless" goddess who has been simply doing her father's bidding all her life and despises the mere humans, even her half-brother and half-sister Siegmund and Sieglinde, in duet with Siegmund suddenly feels his anguish at parting from his sister, the pain of human life and its quest for love and acceptance - emotions she can have no way of understanding - and resolves to take Siegmund's side against the express commands of her father. For this hopeless defiance (which does not rescue Siegmund), in Act III she must lose her goddesshood - she has chosen (instinctually, without considering the consequences) the part of the short-lived humans for whom all such decisions mean more than death can to an immortal god. If she understands them, and their eternal loss, she has become one herself. Wotan, who hoped to create a child independent of his will and thought Siegmund would be that child, realizes too late that Brunnhilde is the independent child he dreamed of - and at the very moment he realizes it, he must also renounce her forever - as close to a human loss as he will ever know. It is the emotional climax of the eighteen-hour cycle (and if Wagner had done nothing else, the fact that he has devised a musical setting appropriate to this issue would crown him a master despite all his human and inhuman flaws of character).
These two supreme operatic moments in two supreme operatic masterpieces come to mind the more just now because my friend Peter Bishop over at Quakerpagan blog has been reading the Old Testament [sic] in something as close to the original Hebrew as he can manage in order to get at its meaning, which as someone familiar with the Christian mythos he naturally reads differently from the Jews who wrote it, a fact that troubles him a little, so that he is eager to test his ideas with Jewish readers. (I'm little help here, having grown up in an atheist home and never having studied Hebrew.)
But I suggested to him that the Christian interpretation of the O.T. might be held to run thus: that God having created humans and told them how to live, was frankly puzzled by their manifest and constant inability to follow the rules with any sort of constancy. (This is, actually, an interpretation placed on the historical data by Jewish theologians after hundreds and hundreds of years of lousy luck implied to them that God was angry, ergo they must be doing something wrong. Which is not how I read the evidence, but is prophetically traditional.) So it seemed to me that the God of Israel (whether or not he was the one and only god, and I don't believe he was/is) was like the Empress and Wotan and Brunnhilde simply unable to conceive of human life, to feel empathy with it - that he just wasn't very bright, or he was very preoccupied. Therefore (switching to the Christian mythos here), he resolved to be born himself as a human, and thus experience life in a human body and a human society, thereby learning what the odds against obeying his rules really were. Only then (after about thirty years) did he get it, and decide on a new dispensation: you have to love others as you love yourself. (I would argue that his experience of being human can't have been very deep if he thought that was attainable. The ego is stronger than god, for most people.) Or anyway, have faith in him as god (that's a lot easier) and he'd pardon you for not being able to do all the rest of it. This got him crucified, but whether that was necessary or not (as Christians believe) is another problem I have with the whole theology.
In any case, what Wagner was doing (consciously? unconsciously?) and what Strauss and Hofmannsthal were doing to echo him was to create a female avatar of that god in a music-drama that would universalize the notion, or make it mystical enough to defy organized religion. (Unless art is just another organized religion.)
And you can enjoy both these operas without giving all this a thought. But if you're in tears at Brunnhilde's sacrifice, and at the Empress's redemption, that's probably why.