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Annapolis man devotes life to study of composer Richard Wagner

Paul Heise's life is Richard Wagner.

The Annapolis resident has immersed himself in the 19th-century German composer's Ring Cycle for over 35 years, dropping out of graduate school and giving up jobs to study the set of four epic operas.

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Heise has a website devoted to his analysis of Der Ring des Nibelungen,

(heim is home in German), which features more than 1,500 pages of information.

"I've never met anyone quite so single-minded," said Elliott Zuckerman, a retired St. John's College tutor who once had Heise in a class about another Wagner work, "Tristan and Isolde." "He really has had one thing in his life."

Zuckerman said Heise's conclusions about the Ring are as "good as any others" and was impressed with the breadth of what Heise posted online. "The website is remarkable and incredibly complete and very apt these days with renewed interest in the Ring," Zuckerman said.

Heise's love affair with the music began when he was 18 and heard a sampling of the work for the first time on the radio. "It was a goose bump moment," he said.

The Annapolis native immediately went to a store to find a recording. He took it home and listened - nonstop - to all 19 records. "I dropped the needle and I was instantly hooked," he said. "I stayed up 24 hours. You know, when you read a piece of literature, or hear a piece of music that gets inside you? This thing got inside of me. It was as if I'd woken up in some way. That was it. It rendered me permanently unemployable."

That's a bit of hyperbole, but not that far from the truth. Heise has held a series of jobs over the years, including a stint as a juvenile probation officer, but he's also taken long breaks to focus on his research. He's currently a part-time gate attendant at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis.

Religious experience

After his marathon listening session, Heise set out to read everything he could on the massive work. The Ring Cycle's story is steeped in Norse mythology and ancient German literature and centers on a magic ring that can be used to rule the world.

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Thomas Stanley, an assistant professor in the School of Art at George Mason University, met Heise while both were working at the Cecil County courthouse many years ago. When Heise spoke about Wagner, Stanley paid attention.

"He absolutely put people to sleep with his monologues about Wagner," Stanley said. "I was the only person interested."

Stanley said calling Heise passionate about Wagner is "the understatement of the century."

"We're talking about a single-focused individual who's only comfortable talking about his research. That's what makes Paul, Paul."

But his friend's devotion to Wagner and his meticulous research methods made Stanley rethink his own life and go back to school for a graduate degree in ethnomusicology. "Basically, Paul lit a fire in me," Stanley said.

Heise's fire is still unabated and he hopes to condense the contents of his website into a book soon. He has no regrets about devoting so much of his life to the Ring.

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His major conclusion about the work is that it concerns the death of religious faith and assaults on religion by science. Religious feeling, Heise said, lives on in art.

"Wagner felt he was the heir to the religious seers in the sense that in his art he carries on the quest for religious meaning," he said. "I'm the tip of a sphere built by other scholars and thinkers."

Josè-Luis Novo, music director of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, has reviewed some of Heise's writings. One of the ASO's violists passed along 500 or so pages of the material from the website.

"I haven't gone through enough... to give an authoritative opinion about it, but I think it is fascinating that someone like Paul is dedicating so much energy and time to the cause of Wagner!" Novo said in an email. "It is always great for us performers to be able to resort to the work of scholars such as Paul, because it provides us with more and better information about composers, their lives and their work."

In particular, Novo said he read an excerpt from one of Wagner's letters included in Heise's writing in preparation for the symphony's May concert. One of the pieces the ASO will perform with guest mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves is Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder."

Heise was overjoyed to hear Novo looked at his work. He's happy if anyone lends an ear to himself and Wagner. He realizes the composer's stance on certain social issues, as well as his antisemitic views, have tarnished his reputation.

But Heise is much more interested in the music than the man.

"Wagner doesn't spoil you for other art," he said. "He enhances you for it."

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