Hearing Opera: Wagner and the human response

One of the research strands within Transforming Musicology concerns Richard Wagner’s

use of the ‘leitmotif’ in the four operas of his ‘Ring Cycle’: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre,

Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. While leitmotif was not Wagner’s own preferred term,

the use of short, clearly identifiable themes or motives to indicate a range of concrete

entities within the drama (such as people, objects such as swords, spears, or a dragon),

as well as emotional states (fear, longing, joy, etc.) and more complex concepts (a curse,

foreboding, jealousy, and so on), has become indissolubly linked with his name and was

hugely influential in his time and on subsequent music history. Our work has combined

‘conventional’, text- (and score-)based musicological approaches with a number of

psychological experiments aimed at discovering how, precisely, operatic audiences

respond to the music – or, more correctly, to the complete experience of the opera (the

Gesamtkunstwerk). A great, and entirely unexpected, opportunity arose for us in the

context of the 2014 Being Human festival, in which, thanks to some additional AHRC

funding, we were able to directly measure the bio-physical reponses of audience

members at a staged performance of the complete Ring Cycle at the Birmingham

Hippodrome. The mass of highly complex data this has produced demands a lot of post

hoc work, both to align it precisely with the musical score and details of the staging we

captured using our custom-built annotation system, and to analyse the response-
patterns that we observe both as they appear in general for all participants and as

manifested in the individuals concerned. This paper presents new results from analyses

done in recent months thanks to a further small grant from the AHRC.