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Wagner’s “Ring” cycle for beginners

February 8, 2012

Wagner in 1871, from the Wikipedia page on the composer, _Wagner

Although this blog is nominally about houses and books, this post steps out of line to address a different subject. Recently I fulfilled a New Year’s resolution from 2011: to watch the entire four-opera, 16-hour “Ring of the Niebelungs” cycle by the composer Richard Wagner. Nobody in my own family or my in-laws’ family had ever done so, regarding Wagner as a nasty and disagreeable anti-Semite who after his death became irreparably tainted by Hitler’s wild enthusiasm for the music. But a glowing article in the New Yorker magazine last year about the emotional resonance of certain passages in Wagner’s opera made me resolve to open my ears and listen.

Many people hate opera on principle, but I worked on the Indiana University opera costume crew during college and I quite enjoyed “opera lite”:  non-objectionable standards like “La Traviata” and “La Boheme,” and operettas like “The Merry Widow” or Gilbert & Sullivan. So without any musical training or real background, I launched myself into a deep lake of serious opera music after having barely wetted my toes first. I don’t know what I expected, but I did not expect to be entranced, enthralled, captivated, and deeply moved.

Brunhilde the Valkyrie is probably the greatest female operatic role in the history of opera. Image from Wikipedia, Ring22.jpg

Many people think that J.R.R. Tolkien originated the concept of a Ring of Power that corrupts its user, but the story is embedded deeply in Germanic folk tales, and Wagner mined the source six or seven decades before Tolkien began writing “The Lord of the Rings.” Wagner’s Ring Cycle is pure fantasy, with four operas featuring gods, heroes, evil gnomes and giants, even a singing dragon. Any fan of fantasy fiction or comic books would find much to enjoy in the storyline. Wagner’s music demands the utmost physical effort and stamina from singers and musicians alike, but it also creates deep emotional responses in the listener. Listening to Bach, you probably feel neutral, or relaxed; but when you listen to Wagner, you’re caught up by gales and crashing waves that carry you away to amazing places.

I checked the DVDs out from the library and watched the operas one act at a time so as not to fatigue myself. (Many single acts in the “Ring” cycle last an hour and a half, same as a movie.) From the very beginning, the overture to “Das Rhinegold” blew my mind. I had never heard anything like it: a single chord, held and sustained for more than four minutes. It begins with upright basses playing so softly they can barely be heard: just a far-off, barely-audible hum. That hum slowly grows, in a manner that’s not unlike watching the sun come up over the horizon. The basses are slowly joined by horns and woodwinds and then strings, until the music begins to shimmer all up and down that single chord. By the end of the four minutes the music has swelled to a crescendo that vibrates and glitters like the sun shining on the waves, because it represents the legendary waters of the Rhine. Without any pause between the overture and the action, the Rhine maidens burst into glorious song and the story begins. (You can hear audio only, at The second opera of the series, “Die Walkure” has another impressive overture, one that obviously depicts a chase, someone being hunted by his enemies. The music is swift and pounds like racing feet through a forest, with a thunderstorm halfway through for added pressure. Listening to it, my heart actually began to beat faster and my breath grew tight. (Audio only,

Wagner was the first modernist composer, exploring new musical territory in the 1860s when there was as yet no context for his music. You can’t whistle most of the bits from his operas, and yet his musical phrasings are profoundly lovely. He creates differing emotional moods in the listener through the means of music.  The action moves slowly, as if the characters are thinking and responding in real time; but this slowness and deliberation make the actions of the gods and heroes who are the main characters seem more weighty, more deliberate and mythic.

The traditional costuming and staging of Wagner's operas have been abandoned by most modern directors.

Because Wagner was in his time a modern composer, many modern directors have abandoned the traditional stagings, making the singers perform on empty stages, or wearing modern clothing. Today, helmeted shield-maidens in full song are considered hopelessly out of date when you have the option of incorporating mechanical cherry-pickers, a Segway, bondage gear and plastic breastplates, which are all contained in a YouTube clip of Brunhilde’s immolation scene from “Gotterdamerung” as performed by the Valencia opera company (certain comments below it were quite amusing). And yet, the virtue of the operas is such that they can usually withstand any postmodern staging that is inflicted upon them. After all, in what other artform do you get to see a noble Valkyrie throw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre, triggering the world’s burning down and flooding, followed by rebirth?

Watching the “Ring” cycle was one of the great art experiences of my life. The only other thing I can compare it to is the experience of reading Tolstoy. I would willingly watch the entire 16 hours again, preferably with different productions to see how the different staging affects my reactions as a viewer.

Hear rocker Patti Smith at the Metropolitan Opera talk about how she enjoys Wagner,

For a good summary of the operas, the different productions and their troubled history, see the various pages at


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