When Mark Twain spent a week attending performances of Richard Wagner’s operas in Bavaria, he complained that “seven hours at five dollars a ticket is almost too much for the money.” But by the end of his ordeal, he conceded it to be “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.” That was in 1891. This year, the Metropolitan Opera is rolling out a new production of Wagner’s famed four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, and I’m here to tell you that whether or not you like opera, this is an experience that is not to be missed. On Friday, I saw Die Walküre, the second of the four operas, and was reminded that the Ring is not only one of the most magnificent achievements of human creativity but also, contrary to reputation, one of the most accessible.
I don’t fully understand why the Ring came to be considered impenetrable. It is long, I’ll grant that. In 1853, having completed the libretto for the Ring, Wagner wrote to his friend, Franz Liszt, “Mark my poem well, it holds the world’s beginning and its destruction.” This isn’t just Wagner’s notorious megalomania speaking. The cycle does tell the story of the origin of human conflict, the destruction of the human world, and everything else in between. Perhaps it’s these enormous themes that are responsible for the Ring’s reputation. But still, they’re nothing you don’t find in your standard myth. Perhaps it’s the dead seriousness with which Wagner approaches his ambitious enterprise that makes him a little perplexing, even suspicious, in these times—he hasn’t a trace of cool irony to protect him against mockery. Thank God.
Whatever the reason, the Ring appears on the horizon like a monumental citadel, but venture just a little closer and you’ll see that the points of entry are as plentiful as the structure is immense. Indeed, because the Ring contains multitudes, you can use it to think through whatever’s on your mind: the environmental consequences of greed, your ugly competitive streak, why Gadhafi won’t just throw in the towel, your latest breakup—it’s all there.
Herewith the half-dozen reasons I’ve been using on my friends to lure them to the Ring …
THE MUSIC, OH, THE MUSIC
The Ring teems with some of the most beautiful music ever written. Wagner has a reputation for bombast—shrieking sopranos, blaring horns—and there’s just enough of that sort of thing in the Ring to keep you on your toes. But on the whole, the music is lush and sensual. In his rousingly vitriolic essay, The Case of Wagner (1888), Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Wagner’s most impassioned champions turned detractors, proclaimed Wagner the great mouthpiece of modernity’s prevailing illness: decadence. He had a point. The Ring is an extravagant indulgence that leaves you weak in the knees. It’s a consciousness-obliterating night out dancing on ecstasy, a body-melting vinyasa yoga class, a sequence of crescendos, climaxes, and decrescendos that outlasts even the most epic sexual encounters. Below, a video of the new production.
Even at his most disillusioned, Nietzsche admitted that Wagner was “a master of the first rank, as our greatest miniaturist in music who crowds into the smallest space an infinity of sense and sweetness.” In their abundance of precise detail, Wagner’s operas are like Tolstoy’s novels rendered in music. You’ll find no interpretation more finely tuned than that of the Met’s own James Levine, universally recognized as one of the foremost living conductors of Wagner. His slow, voluptuous rendition is sublime. He also has great hair. When he stands at the podium, the outer rim of his puffy curls catches the light off his score and becomes the halo that his conducting merits. Here are some snippets from the 1989 production (including a shot of Levine’s great hair). Listen to minutes 3:40-5:40 for one of the opera’s sexiest climaxes.
YOU DON’T NEED TO BE INTO MUSIC TO BE INTO THE RING
If you’re more inclined toward the literary and philosophical than you are toward the musical, the Ring will keep your brain abuzz for the seventeen-plus hours it takes to make your way through the full cycle. Unlike most nineteenth-century opera composers, Wagner was as attentive to his text as he was to his music. Not only did he write his own librettos, which was highly unusual, but in the case of the Ring, he wrote the libretto before the music. The care Wagner took with his libretto shows. If you only read a condensed plot summary or the abbreviated translations provided on the seat back in front of you during performance, the Ring might well appear over-stuffed and chaotic. But if you sit down and read the libretto first, I think you’ll find it compelling and not at all ridiculous. I wouldn’t call it perfectly coherent—Wagner’s thinking shifted during the twenty-eight years he spent writing and revising the Ring—but it’s all the more exciting and provocative for its wild breadth. I liked the translation I read by Andrew Porter; it didn’t retain too many traces of what an opera-director friend of mine tells me is a pseudo-archaic German that Wagner invented for his “poem.”
WAGNER THE RED
The Ring is Wagner’s protest against organized society. He began working on it in the aftermath of the 1848 European revolutions. Wagner participated in the republican uprising of that year in Dresden and, when it was crushed, fled to Zurich where he remained in exile for eleven years. When he conceived of his four-part opera, he was a young revolutionary, deeply immersed in his moment’s ideological protests against the direction in which an industrializing Europe was headed. Heavily influenced by the writings of French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and by his friendship with anarchist and socialist Mikhail Bakunin, himself a friend of Karl Marx, Wagner considered economic, legal, and political power—in other words the very foundations of organized society—to be the primary causes of social ills. Wagner’s conviction that power is an evil bound to self-destruct in the end, is fundamental to everything that occurs in the Ring.
That most entertaining of socialists, George Bernard Shaw, made the convincing case, in his 1898 commentary on the cycle, The Perfect Wagnerite, that the social system described in Das Rheingold that meets its inevitable downfall in Götterdämmerung is none other than good old Capitalism. Alberich, who sets the cycle cycling by sacrificing love in exchange for the gold that, when forged into a ring, confers absolute power, is, in Shaw’s reading, a captain of industry who exploits the earth’s resources and his fellow men all for the sake of profit. Wotan, head god, who dreams of “manhood’s honor, unending power,” and “endless renown,” is for Shaw an exemplar of the educated ruling classes, one who naively believes he can wield power benignly. That Shaw hailed Wagner, who would later be embraced by the Nazis, as a prophet of the Left, is testament to the malleability of Wagner’s work. Nietzsche thought this openness to interpretation morally perilous. I find it invigorating.
WAGNER AND PSYCHOANALYSIS
When writing the Ring, Wagner was deeply influenced by Schopenhauer’s account of the “inward-facing side of consciousness” and his conviction that the unconscious will to life—akin to what Freud would later call the sex-drive—underlies all human behavior. In The Artwork of the Future (1849), Wagner argued that Schopenhauer’s “second world,” that which can only be “brought to our cognizance by an inward function of the brain” such as the dream, can also be accessed by music. That’s precisely what Wagner set out to do—to speak to the unconscious through music.
Robert Donington was the first to put forth a comprehensive psychoanalytic reading of the Ring, in his 1963 book, Wagner’s ‘Ring’ and Its Symbols. For Donington the Ring tells the drama of an individual’s psychic development; where Shaw sees the inevitable fall of capitalism, Donington sees the integration of consciousness. In Donington’s reading, each of the Ring’s characters symbolizes some aspect of the psyche. Alberich is Wotan’s shadow self, and so when Alberich seizes the gold, which is pure libido, he brings that power into consciousness; when Wotan, the ego, steals the gold from Alberich, he does so in order to put the libido to active use. In Rheingold, both the shadow self and the ego give up love for power. But the love they renounce is seductive beauty, in other words, superficial love, making way for the kind of intersubjective love based on compassion that Siegmund and Sieglinde introduce into the psychic landscape in Walküre. The appearance of this powerful outlaw, love, kick starts the superego, Fricka, who appears to stop the madness … You get the gist.
Walküre makes a seriously convincing case for incest. In the first act, Siegmund and Sieglinde sing one of the most beautiful love duets in all of opera. “The stream has shown my reflected face—and now I find it before me,” Sieglinde sings. “Yours is the face I knew in my heart,” Siegmund answers. They recognize in one another all that they have lost—their father, their mother, their childhood, themselves. Literally. They are twins who were separated in their youth by a forest tribe that murdered their mother and kidnapped the young Sieglinde. “Bride and sister,” Siegmund sings of Sieglinde. Isn’t that what we are wishing for—a spouse and a sibling in one—when we say we want someone we are both drawn to sexually and feel utterly at ease with? Wagner shows incest to be the most pure expression of what we are all looking for in love, and the incest taboo doesn’t have a fighting chance against his persuasive music.
A majority of operatic heroines fall in love, suffer, and then die of consumption, madness, or a broken heart. Brünnhilde is different. At least the Brünnhilde of Walküre is. It’s not that she’s a warrior goddess who flies through the clouds on her horse to collect dead heroes for her father’s army—although in that respect as well she’s pretty special. Brünnhilde is by far the most interesting character in the Ring because she is the only character in all four operas to transform herself. She begins as an exuberant but obedient daughter who thoughtlessly carries out her father’s will. But, through her encounter with the unassailable love of the twins, she learns to make her own moral determinations, and in so doing she ceases to be a goddess and makes herself a person instead. Simone de Beauvoir would approve.
Sadly, after Brünnhilde is stripped of her godhead and becomes a woman at the end of Walküre, her story comes to resemble that of the typical operatic heroine. Except that when she commits suicide, she takes the entire world with her. As the opera’s only wise, strong, and free character, Brünnhilde could, I think, have been put to better use. If one doesn’t agree with Wagner that total destruction by flood and fire is an ideal solution to humanity’s problems, then Brünnhilde proves, at least as well as Nick Kristof, that letting the world’s women go to waste does nobody any good.
Catherine Steindler is a writer living in New York.
Die Walküre is on now and runs in repertory until May 14, 2011. The new Siegfried begins on October 27, 2011; the new Götterdämmerung on January 27, 2012. Performances of the cycle—all four operas in one week—start on April 7, 2012.