On 20 January 1914 Joyce attends the opening of Wagner’s Parsifal.
Joyce saw a lot of opera while living in Trieste. Trieste was en route between the Hofopernhaus in Vienna and the major opera houses of Milan, Venice and Monte Carlo, so Trieste’s Teatro Comunale and Teatro Politeama Rosetti often got the best of opera on tour. In 1907, Trieste saw Mahler conduct Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, and productions of Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung followed, culminating in Parsifal in 1914. Joyce’s friend Ettore Schmitz (Italo Svevo) was an ardent Wagnerite; his voice teacher, Giuseppe Sinico, was manager at the Teatro Comunale; and Alessandro Francini Bruni shared with him free tickets he got as a theatre reviewer.
Wagner’s final opera, Parsifal, was first performed at Wagner’s own theatre in Bayreuth in 1882. Indeed, thanks to copyright restrictions, Wagnerites had to make the pilgrimage to Bayreuth to see Parsifal as it could not legally be staged elsewhere until the copyright expired on 31 December 1913. Nonetheless, there had been a few productions before that – including an illegal production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1903, and a legal production in Zurich where the Swiss copyright had expired.
The first post-copyright production outside Bayreuth was in Barcelona, commencing at midnight on 31 December 1913. The Trieste performances, coming just three weeks later, would certainly have been a much-talked about cultural highlight, and Joyce himself went not just to the first performance but to three or four more performances after that as well.
The influence of Wagner extends back to Joyce’s youth in Dublin where he was steeped in literary Wagnerism. Many of Joyce’s ideas about the ‘artist as hero’ were Wagnerian, filtered through his early reading of Ibsen, D’Annunzio, Symons, Moore, Yeats, Shaw and Nietzsche. However, despite the fact that there were at least half a dozen performances each of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin in Dublin between 1898 and 1904, Timothy Martin thinks that Joyce’s first opportunity to see Wagner on stage didn’t come until he was in Paris in 1903.
Also in Paris in 1903, Joyce picked up a book called Les Lauriers sont coupés by Édouard Dujardin at a railway station kiosk. Dujardin had been editor of the Revue wagnérienne and Joyce knew him to be a friend of George Moore, another Wagnerite. Dujardin claimed his book was an attempt to recreate in writing the ‘continuous melody’ of Wagner’s mature operas, and Joyce later pointed to it as the inspiration for his interior monologue. Moore’s works too were conscious efforts to reproduce in writing Wagnerian techniques (particularly the use of leitmotiven) and themes.
Joyce’s Trieste library contained scores and libretti for several of Wagner’s operas, as well as volumes of Wagner’s letters and prose (including his anti-semitic ‘Judaism and Music’). There are mentions of Wagner in Joyce’s works as early as his paper on Ibsen, ‘Drama & Life,’ in 1900. Timothy Martin’s book on Joyce and Wagner has more than 35 pages of allusions to Wagner’s operas in Joyce’s works. With Parsifal, Act II seems to have been particularly influential: Martin says that the ‘Circe’ episode of Ulysses “may owe a good deal to act 2 of Parsifal,” and there are repeated allusions in Finnegans Wake to the Flowermaidens of Act II of Parsifal. Wandering and exile are themes in both Wagner’s and Joyce’s life and works.
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Hodgart, Matthew JC, and Ruth Bauerle: Joyce’s Grand Operoar – Opera in Finnegans Wake, Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.
McCourt, John: The Years of Bloom – James Joyce in Trieste 1904-1920,
Martin, Timothy: Joyce and Wagner – A Study of Influence, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Osborne, Charles: The World Theatre of Wagner: A Celebration of 150 Years of Wagner Productions, Preface by Colin Davis, Oxford: Phaidon, 1982.