Both were born exactly 200 years ago, and so in this year of their bicentennials, the Bavarian State Opera decided to settle the question once and for all. Sort of.
Even though the two men never met in real life, they came face to face on Friday night in the form of giant puppets wearing boxing gloves, cheered on by a crowd estimated by police at nearly 10,000 spectators in Max Joseph Platz next to the National Theater.
The puppets Verdi in top hat and Wagner wearing a beret were the centerpieces of an extravaganza featuring more than three dozen aerial acrobats, fireworks, a chorus line and two wind orchestras and two brass bands totaling about 240 musicians.
The show was one of a series of free events being organized in the square as part of the annual Munich Opera Festival, which runs to the end of July. It was staged by La Fura dels Baus, a maverick theatrical troupe from Barcelona that has also created opera productions for the company.
After introductory music by local composer Moritz Eggert, the puppets, who had marched through town followed by crowds of admirers, launched into a heated debate over who was superior. Wagner claimed the intellectual advantage, while Verdi insisted that people responded more to the emotion in his melodies.
The hour-long performance then became a back-and-forth contest of greatest hits, the puppets all the while changing colors from purple to red to green to yellow. At one point, the "Entrance of the Guests" from Wagner's "Tannhaeuser" was rudely interrupted by the "Triumphal March" from "Aida." And Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" was similarly obliterated by the "Dies Irae" from Verdi's "Requiem."
During the "Wedding March" from "Lohengrin," Wagner sprouted a bridal veil and a bouquet of flowers. When the band played "Va Pensiero," the famous chorus of Hebrew slaves from Verdi's "Nabucco," many in the crowd sang along to words flashed on a giant screen.
At the end, the voice of Euterpe, muse of musical art and poetry, announced that the contest was a tie and proposed transplanting Verdi's heart into Wagner and Wagner's brain into Verdi. Perhaps disappointingly, the two puppets never came to actual blows.