Richard Wagner -- the 19th century composer whose epic operas are considered to be among the greatest ever written and whose anti-Semitic views still cause controversy -- was born 200 years ago Wednesday in Leipzig, Germany.
The composer's bicentennial birthday is being marked around the world with special performances and broadcasts. In Los Angeles, radio station KUSC (91.5 FM) is devoting its morning show, running 6 to 9 a.m., to the composer's life and music.
New York radio station WQXR will broadcast an hourlong program devoted to Wagner starting at 4 p.m. PDT on its website. The BBC is also offering a slate of Wagner-themed programming this week that can be heard online.
Wagner's opus includes 13 completed operas, including his four-part "The Ring of the Nibelung" cycle. Known for their lush, romantic sounds as well as their epic lengths, his operas are often demanding on performers as well as audiences.
(Wagner's longest opera is "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg," which has a running time of approximately five hours and 15 minutes, giving it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest most commonly performed opera.)
The composer's conception of opera was as a total work of art that encompasses theater, music and the visual arts -- "Gesamtkunstwerk," as he described it in his writings. Wagner penned his own librettos and developed the concept for the Bayreuth Festival -- an annual celebration of his operas.
In his essays, Wagner expressed to the fullest extent his anti-Semitic views, writing that "Judaism is the evil conscience of our modern civilization" in his tract "Judaism in Music." His music became a favorite of Adolf Hitler and was played during official events of the Third Reich.
In recent weeks, members of the Wagner family have indicated they will release historic archives to the German government that would clarify the family's past links to the Nazi party.
Despite the lingering controversy over Wagner's beliefs -- his music is still taboo in Israel -- his operas are a mainstay of companies around the world. This season, Los Angeles Opera produced "The Flying Dutchman" and presented its first complete staging of the "Ring" cycle in 2010.
For the non-opera-going public, exposure to Wagner has come mostly through the movies. From the helicopter attack sequence in "Apocalypse Now" to last year's "Django Unchained," countless films have incorporated Wagner's music or themes into their storylines.
Wagner died in 1883 at the age of 69. Some of his descendants have managed Bayreuth, though the family is notorious for its in-fighting.
Wagner's 200th birthday this year coincides with Verdi's bicentennial in October and the centennial birth of Benjamin Britten in November.
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