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Uncovering Wagner’s Kundry

By Peter Bassett. First published in the November 2016 issue of Limelight Magazine.

Of the more unusual characters who inhabit the operatic stage, the strangest of all must be Kundry. In the first act of Wagner’s Parsifal we see her as almost a wild creature, sleeping in hedgerows and running errands for the Grail Knights; in the second she is a fabulously beautiful seductress who lures the knights to their doom, and in the third she becomes a Magdalen-like penitent, achieving at last the peace for which she has been searching through numerous incarnations.

Kundry is a creature of Wagner’s imagination but she resembles to a remarkable degree a woman he actually knew. That ‘Kundry’ in real life was Lola Montez. After a rebellious upbringing and disastrous marriage, Lola re-invented herself as a dancer of Spanish aristocratic descent, born in Seville in 1833. In reality she was Eliza Gilbert, born into modest circumstances in County Sligo, Ireland in 1821. Her masquerade led to affairs with some of the most prominent men in Europe, amongst them the composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt, and King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Liszt managed, eventually, to disentangle himself, but the king’s infatuation led to his abdication in 1848. Lola came to Australia in 1855 and created quite a stir in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide and on the goldfields of Ballarat and Bendigo.

Liszt had become enamoured of her in 1841. He soon tired of the affair but found her difficult to shake off. Richard Wagner met Montez in Dresden in 1844 when she accompanied Liszt to a performance of Rienzi. Liszt seems to have hoped that Wagner would take her off his hands, and told him that Lola fancied him because he was the only man not paying court to her. “I didn’t even notice her,” replied Wagner. But he had noticed her and later described her as a “heartless, demonic being”. Was this Kundry the demonic seductress in the making?

One oft-repeated account has it that Liszt quietly locked Lola in the hotel room they had been sharing and paid the manager for the entire furnishings of the room on condition that he not unlock the door for twelve hours, giving him time to get a safe distance away.

King Ludwig succumbed to her charms in 1846, and she began interfering in Bavarian politics and flaunting her relationship with the king, even being granted the title of Countess of Landsfeld. She became a target of threats and public demonstrations and fled to Switzerland.

After the king abdicated, he wrote to her: “Such were the feelings which animated me during that night of happiness when, thanks to you alone, everything was sheer joy.” He might well have been describing the plight of another ruler, the Grail King Amfortas ensnared by Kundry in her most seductive form. As the old knight Gurnemanz recounts in the opera: “Near the castle the hero was enticed away; a woman of great beauty bewitched him. He lay intoxicated in her arms and let the spear fall.”

When Lola came to Australia she caused a sensation with her show Lola Montez in Bavaria, and her ‘spider dance’ in which she pretended that spiders were caught in her skirt and she had to shake them free and stamp on them! Her scandalous stage acts (which were pretty tame by today’s standards) caused moral outrage amongst the upright citizens of 19th-century Australia. There were stories that she had taken a horsewhip to newspaper editors and critics, which only made crowds, especially men, flock to her performances.

But just like Kundry in Act III, Lola underwent a change of personality towards the end of her life. She took to the lecture circuit delivering sermons written for her by a clergyman. Was it Parsifalian rejection that brought about the transformation? The immediate cause seems to have been the loss at sea of her young lover and manager Noel Folland between Sydney and San Francisco in 1856. There were suggestions that the young man had jumped into the ocean after endless quarrels. Or perhaps he was drunk and fell overboard when the ship lurched.

There never was a proper inquiry. In any event, Folland’s loss had a profound effect on Lola and, apart from the sermonising she spent her last months engaged in rescuing women in New York’s Magdalen Society’s Refuge. Lola died in January 1861 just short of her 40th birthday. Parsifal was completed two decades later, but the first sketch for the work was written in 1857 when Lola was still very much alive.

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