Jazz meets grand 19th century opera? Saxophonist Angelika Niescier makes it work in a piece commissioned by DW for Wagner's anniversary year in 2013. The genre-bending "Kundry" recently debuted in Washington.
Wagner and jazz - it's a combination that tickles the imagination, but also raises any number of questions. Is Richard Wagner's music open to other influences and capable of absorbing more recent musical styles? Or did Wagner not create a musical cosmos unto its own?
German saxophonist and composer Angelika Niescier, whom German-French television broadcaster Arte has called "one of the most exciting voices in German jazz," started asking just those sorts of questions. The Cologne-based musician was curious and courageous enough to take on the challenge of composing a work, commissioned by Deutsche Welle, that addresses such questions.
Delving into Wagner's music
The project called "Wagner in America," which DW initiated and funded, required a great deal of research at the outset, Niescier told DW in Washington. It involved delving into Wagner's dramas, his characters, the history of his works' performances, and his way of thinking. Then she discovered the character "Kundry" in Wagner's opera "Parsifal." Niescier found her complex character alluring: as a guardian of the Grail and as a seductress, Kundry embodies both good and evil, so she was the perfect character for studying more intensely. Niescier's eponymous work enters into a dialogue with Richard Wagner's music in a nearly 60-minute piece for solo soprano and jazz orchestra.
"Parsifal" goes jazz
"Kundry" debuted at the home of the German ambassador in Washington as a German-American co-production, with the young American Magdalena Wor singing soprano, and composer Angelika Niescier directing the German Women's Jazz Orchestra. While Wor felt completely at home in Wagner's world of opera, the 12 musicians in the German Women's Jazz Orchestra represented another musical approach entirely.
The premiere unfolded with Magdalena Wor's singing sections from the original "Parsifal" score, while the musicians played Niescier's jazzy take on Wagner.
The result was a powerful musical drama in its own league - a feisty, energy-driven composition that garnered standing ovations at its premiere. Even Wagner traditionalists of the Wagner Society in Washington appeared to be impressed with this unusual take on Wagner's work.
Of course, "Wagner in America" is far from the first project in the United States to address Richard Wagner's musical legacy. A rich history of performances of the composer's works - at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, for instance - and the many local Wagner societies in American cities attest to the adulation Wagner has long enjoyed across the pond.
However, "Kundry" marks the first time Wagner's music was united with jazz in the US. The piece will also be performed in Germany this fall: Angelika Niescier and the German Women's Jazz Orchestra will present "Kundry" at the Beethovenfest 2013 in Bonn.