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Eurodämmerung

MUNICH – To understand the euro crisis, you obviously need to know about economics. But you also need to know about the deep cultural orientations of European societies.

With the summer holiday season in full swing, it is instructive to look at Europe’s leisure activities. When Europeans play and relax, they produce a counterpart of their financial and economic struggles. It is not just a question of what they do. How they do it – and, above all, who does it – helps to reveal the deep nature of Europe’s difficulties.

In June, the Euro 2012 football (soccer) championship readily lent itself as an analogy to the turmoil surrounding Europe’s single currency. Defeated teams were described as having “left the Euro.” Greeks were proud that their country survived the elimination round to reach the quarterfinals.

The semifinal between Italy and Germany presaged the apparent willingness of Chancellor Angela Merkel to give in to Italian demands for support of the government bond market. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti was rapidly dubbed “super Mario,” and a photomontage in the press depicted him with the idiosyncratic Mohawk hairstyle of Mario Balotelli, the player who scored the two Italian goals.

The euro analogies are not just to be found on the playing field. In its annual festival this year, Munich’s Bavarian State Opera put on a new production of the apocalyptic Götterdämmerung, the final work in Richard Wagner’s four-evening cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. The doomed characters held onto a rocking horse in the form of a large golden euro symbol. The backdrop was a modern glass façade that alternated between a bank headquarters (with the word “Profit” in flashing lights) and a temple of consumer fashion. The crash at the end of the opera was a financial collapse in which corrupt bankers were eliminated.

In Andreas Kriegenburg’s Munich production, the euro is presented as the counterpart of Wagner’s own use of the Ring as a symbol for power, reflecting a widespread European quest for some conspiracy theory about what is going wrong. The Ring and the euro become the center of a bid by Rhineland businessmen for supreme mastery in Europe.

It is all a sort of musical parody of the view of the euro crisis expounded by Martin Wolf, George Soros, and others: Europe and the world are doomed by Germany’s relentless quest for export surpluses. The way the tale is presented by Germany’s modern critics in the financial press, that bid for power is ultimately futile. On the stage, it all ends in a German way – in terror and destruction.

This kind of interpretation is not new. Even in the nineteenth century, the socialist writer and critic George Bernard Shaw produced a cogent interpretation that Wagner’s Ring was really a fable about the rise and fall of capitalism. Wagner himself wrote letters to the mad Bavarian King Ludwig about the corruption of finance (though bankers’ remuneration at the time was not comparable with the handouts that Wagner received from the King). He may have had the idea for the final cataclysmic conflagration while fighting in the 1848-1849 revolution in Dresden alongside the Russian anarchist leader Mikhail Bakunin.

Opera is not just about directorial intentions. Like soccer, it is worth asking how the show is put on. On the playing field, commentators have long pointed out how much the modern national teams depend on immigrant talent: North Africans for France, Poles and Turks for Germany, and so on. Balotelli comes from a Ghanaian family; and the German goal in that match was scored by a third-generation Turkish immigrant, Mesut Özil.

Similarly, opera holds up a mirror to Europe’s contemporary problems. As Europe indulges in summer music festivals, take a look at the musicians. Fewer and fewer of them are Europeans.

The two Siegfrieds – both magnificent singers – in the Munich Ring production were North Americans. Singing has become just another version of the globalization process, and Europeans seem to be losing ground here, too.

One generation ago, when the soccer World Cup was held in Italy, matches were inaugurated by Italy’s super-tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. Together with two Spaniards, José Carreras and Plácido Domingo, “The Three Tenors” made it clear that singing was the old continent’s forte.

But today’s leading tenors – Rolando Villazon, José Cura, and Juan Diego Florez – are Latin American. Many of the female operatic superstars – Anna Netrebko, Elena Garanca, Angela Ghiorghiu, Magdalena Kožená, Aleksandra Kurzak – come from former communist countries. Others are Asian. The new generation of singers is just the tip of a vast influx of global vocalization. (The most charismatic singer in the Munich Ring was the woodbird from Siegfried, the Russian-born Anna Virovlansky.)

The explanation does not lie in professional training at conservatories or in opportunities for experience on the stage. On both counts, Europe still rates highly. Small publicly funded theaters are an excellent way for young singers to begin a career, and young Americans and Russians flock to Germany and Italy.

Instead, the explanation of Europe’s vocal decline is more obvious, but also more alarming. It lies in the mixture of the globalization of talent and rising levels of education outside Europe. Young Europeans have become demoralized by the rigor and intensity of the global competition that they face. Drive and enterprise evaporate.

Outside Western Europe, generations of young singers have emerged who are willing to make the sacrifices needed to develop successfully. Europe’s young musicians, by contrast, are simply too comfortable and too complacent to work as hard as they must at developing their potential. That failure may be as relevant to the fate of the euro as it is to the future of European opera.