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Music

Wagner goes hip hop - maybe

To rap fans, it will probably sound like a bad joke: the Berlin-based Fair Play foundation is hosting a competition in which young people are supposed to rap works by Wagner. As the deadline nears, there are no entries.

Wagner's dramatic masterpieces like "Lohengrin" or "Twilight of the Gods" as rap songs? Surely Wagner wouldn't have been pleased. In fact, for today's Wagner fans, the idea probably sounds a bit like intellectual torture. But not so for the composer's great-granddaughter Katharina Wagner, co-head of the Bayreuth Festival in which Wagner's works are performed each year.

Katharina Wagner is helping put on a Wagner rap battle with Berlin-based Fair Play, a foundation that describes its mission as promoting values like cooperation and international understanding. Together, they've decided to try to open up the world of Richard Wagner to young people aged 11 to 20, who are invited to re-conceive a work by Wagner in the form of a Jay-Z or Kanye West-style rap song. Their CD and video submissions will then be judged by a small jury.

PR stunt?

Katharina Wagner (c) Fair Play Stiftung

'Building bridges' is the goal of the project, says Katharina Wagner

"The whole thing builds a bridge between musicality, a sense of rhythm and Richard Wagner's work," stressed Katharina Wagner, seen by some as heir apparent of the Wagner clan and her great-grandfather's work.

The project may sound like a misguided PR gag, but music teacher Friederike Fischer believes it is, in fact, an ideal way to introduce the German Romantic composer's complex works to a new generation.

Fischer, who teaches Wagner and other classical composers at Berlin's Birger Forell School, says presenting Wagner in a contemporary form lets kids trust themselves to actively take up his music. They may, she says, even end up at the opera to learn more about the original works after their interest has been piqued.

Rap and Wagner - a perfect match?

The competition organizers say they agree - and even go a step further, calling rap the perfect art form for letting young people get involved with Wagner's texts in a creative and playful way. The project head is Michael Sens, who studied violin and singing at the Hanns Eisler Music Academy in eastern Berlin. He claims everyone can rap to some extent.

Michael Sens of the Fair Play project (c) Fair Play Stiftung

Michael Sens is heading the rap project

"If you want to learn violin, then you need to start at age six, and - to put it strongly - you're still not finished at 60," Sens says, adding that putting together a catchy rap song doesn't take nearly as much preparation. That helps explain its popularity among youth, he concludes.

The project is largely about showing people what Wagner created - and that mission goes beyond the young people from whom the organizers are seeking submissions.

It's also good, adds Sens, that the project can reach the parents of the students who participate. Many of them know as little about works like "Tannenhäuser" or Wagner's "Ring" cycle as their children.

Zero entries

In the end, there's little question that rap and other contemporary forms can be helpful tools in classical music education. One might think of Leonard Bernstein, a pioneer when it came to promoting classical music to broader audiences. In the 1970s and 80s, he turned dress rehearsals into little parties in which audiences could get closer to difficult works in a fun way.

Of course, the winner of the Wagner rap battle will come away with more than just knowledge about the German composer. He or she will be able to take part in a workshop with Hamburg-based German rapper Das Bo, who will help the rising rapper professionally record and produce the song.

Hamburg-based rapper Das Bo (c) Fair Play Stiftung

Hamburg-based rapper Das Bo will help the winner record a track

There's just one catch, though. In order to name a winner, someone has to enter the contest. So far, there are zero submissions with the contest deadline looming on February 15. There could be a number of explanations, but one is that the project initiators didn't give much guidance as to what kind of rap tracks they're looking for. Michael Sens, who is joined on the jury by Katharina Wagner and the FDP politician Wolfgang Kubicki, says everything is allowed and that the judges want to see creativity. Just stringing Wagner's words over some beats isn't enough, Sens says. It's about new ideas, not technical prowess with making videos or tracks.

A small step

The judges also say music is intended to be at the fore and not an examination of the political controversies that surround the figure of Wagner to this day. Renowned opera director and Bertolt Brecht protege Achim Freyer is disappointed with the lack of a critical approach. Freyer, who is currently staging the "Ring" cycle in Mannheim, also doubts that the entertainment program supported by Richard Wagner's great-granddaughter will really appeal to young people.

"I don't think any great composer needs someone to present a potpourri of his work. Just pure quality and artistry. Nothing else," the director says.

It's becoming a familiar - but strange - story these days. When people want to reach Germany's youth, they organize a rap contest, and the results often border on embarrassing. Maybe it will be different this time, especially if one keeps an eye on the broader goal of introducing people to Wagner's work. But it's clear that the contest can only be a small step in that direction.

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