Richard Wagner’s The Breakfast Club

While the influence of Wagner’s oeuvre is heard today even in such folksy phrases as “It ain’t over ’til the prom queen sings,” what endures most from Wagner’s one true masterpiece is its totally bitchin use of character motifs. JAIME J. WEINMAN explains.

Richard Wagner’s The Breakfast Club, or Der Frühstückverein in the original German, is considered one of the Master’s most accessible, yet socially critical, operas, and was performed 19 times in Bayreuth last year. What follows is a brief summary of the opera and some of the leitmotifs (also known as “leitmotiven” or “lightmotives”) contained therein.

The prelude opens with a statement of the motto theme of the whole opera, the chromatic “Library Theme,” and the ominous motif of the unforgiving principal (“Das Hardassmotif”). The curtain rises on the school library, where the janitor is singing a plaintive song, “Wo ist mein Besen gewesen?” (“Where has my broom been?”)

The five detention-ridden students enter, each introduced by a characteristic motif, brilliantly orchestrated to draw out his or her personality. Note that Allison’s motif (first heard at figure 68, bar 23, note 45) is an exact inversion of the “sanity motif” from Wagner’s The Dream Team, and is played by the bassoon, the craziest of all musical instruments.

After the principal’s arietta, “Sie sind Hippien, ich bin Gott,” there follows a two-hour sequence where each character delivers a musical monologue explaining his or her backstory. Particularly memorable is Claire’s “Prom Queen Monologue,” aka “Abschlußballköniginmonolog,” 23 minutes of the sort of intricate singing that only Kirsten Flagstad could handle. (Flagstad was not only the supreme Claire of the operatic stage but also a memorable Josie McClellan in Richard Strauss’s Career Opportunities.) Take particular note of bars 843-912, during which the muted trombones play variation 73a of the Ferris Bueller motif, suggesting Claire’s longing to be free and destroy priceless antique cars. There is no greater example of Wagner’s musical psychology.

In the following scene, Wagner once again shows himself to be a virtuoso of complex action. In a fiendishly difficult ensemble, a sort of musical montage, he combines the romp through the school—a passage based on the C major/C minor opposition that always characterizes the opposition of jocks and geeks in opera—with the flowering of love between John Bender and Claire. The modulation at the end of this passage is so complex that generations of Breakfast Club scholars have been driven to near-madness trying to figure out what key it winds up in.

We are next treated to the climax of the whole work, Bender’s aria, “Wir haben alle shrecklichen Parenten,” in which he passionately points out that they have all been destroyed by insensitive parenting and insufficient weed. At the end of the piece, Bender sustains a high C for a full minute while the Wagner tubas introduce the noble theme of Redemption Through Cannabis, “Der Marihuana Abzahlung-motif.” Upon hearing this, Principal Vernon lets forth a ghastly cry and throws himself into the broom closet.

A great hubbub now develops, and the books overflow their shelves, pouring out 1930s copies of The Book of Knowledge, crushing the students beneath their combined weight. The Redemption motif is heard again, all is peaceful, and the students’ parents will never bother them again. An offstage cembalon mournfully recalls the Lisa motif from Wagner’s previous masterpiece, Weird Science, reminding us of the sage-nerd Brian’s prophecy that a magical computer woman will rise from the ashes to set the school free.

Curtain. Wagner triumphs again.