One image of Richard Wagner is of a Nazi who composed bombast to accompany helicopters straffing Vietnamese villagers. The only valid element in that take-out from Apocalypse Now is that Wagner can become our contemporary. No other composer provokes so much disagreement among both lovers of Classical music and those with no acquaintance beyond soundtracks. A fondness for Puccini might be frowned on as middle-brow. A passion for Wagner, by contrast, can lose you a friendship.

Even devotees are divided between those who are seduced by the music – the Tristanites – against those who are fixated on the ideas – the Wagnerites. Most are drawn back because of the music. Nonetheless, Wagner’s polemics hold more than a scholarly interest. We all remain caught in the problems with which he grappled in his music-dramas.

Aspects of Wagner’s personality, like the themes in his poems, hold their attractions because they traverse the contraries within the mix of individualism, society and nature that capitalism brought to a fever pitch. The best and the worst in Wagner and his works retain their fascination because they engage with so many of the dynamics that still puzzle us about our place in the world. 

Wagner’s concerns were at the heart of the conflicts that made the nineteenth-century into a business civilisation. As heirs to that legacy, we can clarify our current dilemmas a little by unravelling the impulses and insights of those who were present at the creation of modernity. We cannot return to the innocence, the prejudices, or the ferment of 1848. The excitement in tracing Wagner’s contrary inspirations comes from immersing ourselves in how one genius tossed and turned through the maelstrom of revolutions in every aspect of society and science.

Four often intersecting points of contention in and about Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen are being still being played out: anti-Semitism; destruction of the environment; feminism; and anarchism-cum-socialism. This quartet of controversies keeps Wagner as our contemporary.

Hitler made Wagner central to the Nazis’ aestheticising of politics as one element in his treatment of Germany as a stage-set for rallies. By contrast, Wagner had contributed next-to-nothing towards making Hitler and the Nazis central to inter-war Germany. Many times more potent were military defeat, a bourgeoisie distraught from inflation and propertied classes terrified by Bolshevism, which Hitler identified with Hebraic Marxism. Weighed against those three onslaughts, any influence of Wagner on the creation of willing executioners was minimal.

An effort has been made to read Wagner’s poems for Der Ring backwards from the Holocaust to forge a chain of causes for Nazism from within the German psyche. The U.S. Occupation was on firmer ground in 1945-46 when it banned Grimm’s fairy tales because they were so violent. Humperdincks Hänsel und Gretel (1893) presented the ideal type of Aryan children, who push an old lady with a large nose into an oven.

Wagner’s anti-Semitism is no longer denied or welcomed, at least not publicly. Rather, efforts are made to contain its significance. Equally misguided is a determination to extract “the Jew” from every crevice of Wagner’s creativity, as Loge does Alberich as toad.

In particular, no one has identified anti-Semitism in the score of Der Ring. No Jewish melodies are parodied. How was it then that Wagner’s swelling obsession did not break through his greatest creation? It did, but as an affirmation, not an accusation. The vocal line affirmed what Wagner believed the Jew could not do.

The exact setting of Wagner’s mother tongue is central to his music of the future. The rightness of speech was at the heart of his 1850 protest about “Judaism in Music”. Australian critic Neil Levi has examined Wagner’s fear that the assimilated Jew inflected, and thus infected, German speech and song with an alien mimicry.

The Jew could distract the Germans more than the French because Germany’s national culture was as weak as the German state was fragmented. Berlioz, by contrast, could create in a French language established by the Academy as part of a centralised state. Germany remained a patchwork of principalities, with the start of a customs union but no unified Reich until the drive from Prussia after 1860. Wagner was caught up in the making of this Germany, concluding Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg with a chorus in praise of the German Masters. His ambition for “Our sacred German Art!”, as Hans Sachs proclaims, was for a German bel canto to rival Bellini’s.

The interest now is on the causes of Wagner’s prejudice. How did his attitudes arise, and develop over forty years? His anti-Semitism voiced a new alarm. He did not proclaim a blood-debt to be exacted from the Jews as Christ killers. That prejudice is not significant, even in Parsifal. Rather, Wagner reacted against “rich urbanised Jews as the advance agents of Modernity”, as Fritz Stern observed in The Politics of Cultural Despair (1961). The enemy had become the assimilated Jew, not the Ghetto. The links between Jewish bankers and German industrialists fed another fear that makes Wagner our contemporary through the rape of the natural world. As he worked on Der Ring, industry was destroying the forests and polluting the streams, severing the connections between blood and soil.

Today’s anti-Semitism in the Muslim world owes nothing to Western high culture in the nineteenth century, instead drawing almost everything from recent Middle Eastern politics. There, the alarm at modernity is once again focused on the Jew as its bearer, albeit in alliance with the US as protector of Israel. Meanwhile in the de-industrialising West, anti-Semitism has revived as one more superstition in reaction to the latest round of modernisation, known as globalisation.

Among the assaults that Wagner made on bourgeois conventions none was more shocking than representations of women who were not only capable of sexual pleasure, but yearned for it. Sehnsucht is as powerful in Senta as for the Dutchman, and more so for Eva than Lohengrin. Der Ring offers a feminist revelation.

When Wotan lauds promiscuity, we can sense the poet’s self-justification for his own infidelities. Yet Wagner’s treatment of the women in his life was not a mirror for his treatment of them on stage. Of course, he put some of his own first wife, Minna, into Fricka as the domestic scold: “The same old storm, the same old strife!”  In the same vein, Fricka attributes Wotan’s promiscuity to his forever “seeking out ways of indulging your fondness for change”. Fricka’s views on sibling incest are more in tune with today’s child-protection lobby than is Wotan’s defence: “Learn thus that a thing/ Might befall of itself/ Though it never happened before”. More than that, his defence of incest as something new is in keeping with Wagner’s vision of himself as the bearer of theArt of the Future”.

Throughout The Ring, women are the custodians of wisdom. Siegfried is slow to learn this element in the poem’s moral gravity, unlike his grandfather, Wotan, who consults Erda, submits to Fricka and even gives way to Brunnhilde regarding her punishment. Fricka might well be a trial to live with, but she is right to tell Wotan that one does not prostitute one’s sister-in-law to pay off the mortgage.

The women in Der Ring are never ciphers, but present a multiplicity of types. Brunnhilde is incomparable. Where the principals share traits they are delineated: Freia from Sieglinde and both from Gutrune. The appeal of Der Ring depends on these complexities. Nor are Wagner’s women characters fixed as victims of fate, but like Brunnhilde, are capable of transformation.

Gutrune may be the least colourful of the female characters, nonetheless she is the only fully human one. No matter how she suffers as the victim of Hagen’s manipulations, she retains a will of her own. As a character, she is as weak and as noble as her brother, Gunther.

Brunnhilde is the key to any feminist appreciation of Der Ring. Her good sense is more consistent than that of any of the other principals. Her instincts are right when she tries to protect Siegmund and when she rescues Sieglinde. She bargains with Wotan for protection of her amour propre rather than her virtue. Had he not bound her to the rock, she would never have abandoned Siegfried to the mercies of Mime. In Götterdämerung, she becomes all too human in her anger at Siegfried’s deceits. Yet she never loses her ability to learn and to grow. She has been betrayed so:

that in grief I might grow wise!
Now I know what must be.
All things, all things 
all I know now;
all to me is revealed.

She forgives her beloved before riding her horse into the funeral pyre. Not even in death is she a victim. She advances into the flames to cleanse the curse from the ring, while bringing destruction to ValhalThe significance of Brunnhilde in the structure of Der Ring is more apparent in German than English because Die Walküre is  singular and does not refer to all nine sisters. The popularity of their ride has drawn attention towards the plural. The moral drama of the entire cycle would be sharper had Wagner called the second part Brünnhilde, as a match for Siegfried.

Another strand in feminism stresses its links to the realms of nature, with planet Earth being pictured as a living female, Gaia. The Rhinedaughters embody a rudimentary form of this connection. The Valkyries overturn the ideal of nurturing as they collect dead heroes for the battle to defend Valhalla. The standard connection is strongest in Fricka as a domestic deity. Similarly, her sister Freia supplies the Golden Apples that sustain the Gods in their vigour. By contrast with this physical nourishment, Erda, the Great Mother, is the fount of wisdom from nature.

The break-through of the Greens into German parliaments from the 1970s was accompanied by productions of Der Ring which returned to Wagner’s concerns for nature. Peter Hall’s 1983 production at Bayreuth relied on the forces of nature to bring the mythic and magical into the contemporary world.

Wagner honoured Beethoven and Weber as his predecessors in German Art, drawing from the Romanticising of nature in the Pastoral Symphony and the Wolf’s Glen. Hence, the presence of “nature” as the key motif across Der Ring is no more than one would expect. Indeed, any marginalisation of nature would strike us as remarkable. That said, Wagner presents nature in a distinctive way. The story derives from a rape of the natural order after Alberich fails to entice even one of the Rhinedaughters

Alberich has his way with the Rhinegold. The entire work takes its title from what he does with his prize: Der Ring des Nibelungen, not the ring of the Rhine, but of the thief who curses it. He uses its power to enslave his fellows, even his brother Mime, to accumulate a store of gold.

Wotan is responsible for deforestation. His alter ego, Night-Alberich. becomes a mining magnate, an industry which devours more trees. Before the cycle begins, Wotan had wounded the Sacred Ash-tree to make his spear. The tree’s withering then dried up the spring. Wotan next ordered that the dead trunk and branches be cut up and piled around Valhalla. The Norns are thus forced to tie the rope of life to a barren rock which cuts through it.

Tomes detail what Wagner did with Northern myths and legends to end up with his version. A question less often asked is where did Wagner get the idea of having Alberich foul the pure waters of the Rhine, and then use the power from its gold to dominate his own kind, plunder the resources of nature, and pile up the great horde?

The answer is from the world around him, the world of industrial capitalism. His generation had been alerted to the capitalists’ plundering of nature by the greatest German scientist of his time, Justus von Liebig (1803-73) who, in 1840, published Chemistry and its Application to Agriculture and Physiology. Translated at once into English and French, the volume established von Leibig on a par with Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin. von Liebig drummed in his message: capitalist farmers were “robbing” nature by felling forests and tilling virgin fields. He argued that we must replenish the soil with the fertilisers that he trained his students to manufacture.

More immediate to Wagner’s poem was the industrialisation of the Rhine itself, which underwent the fate that Goethe had represented in Faust Part Two. From early in the nineteenth century, the channel of the Rhine was narrowed and straightened. These improvements accelerated its flow. One consequence was the disappearance of alluvial gold. The rulers of Baden had collected 13 kilos of Rhine gold in 1830. Forty years, later, they could garner but 100 grammes.

The 2004 Adelaide production used children to play the enslaved Nibelungs. This casting recalled the children who had toiled down the mines in the nineteenth century and of the millions who today work as slaves throughout the world.

Just as the Green Party and the Social Democrats formed coalitions in Germany, so did its opera houses mount Rot-Gr¨n (Red-Green) productions in which the championing of the environment came with a denunciation of corporate despoilers. George Bernard Shaw had pointed to these connections much earlier in The Perfect Wagnerite, an insight which the Chereau centenary production realised at Bayreuth in 1976.

Wagner dreamed of a community in which Der Ring could be a Festival Play in the Attic sense of reuniting the arts, before re-connecting life with work. The Festival Play would heal the rifts that Feuerbach and the Young Marx attacked as alienation.

The Russian Anarchist Mikeal Bakunin turned up in Dresden during the 1849 uprising to provide Wagner with a model for his Siegfried, the hero who knew no fear. Unlike Wagner, Bakunin never made his peace with the authorities. He championed anarchism from its bomb-throwing wing, not the mutual-aid section led by his countryman Peter Kropotkin. When Bakunin flashed across Wagner’s life, Wagner too was with the physical-force party.

Anarchism had more strands than were represented by that pair of Russians. Max Raphael argued that the revolutionary politics that Gustav Courbet displayed during the Paris Commune of 1871 were those of a petit-bourgeois craftsman. In taking up arms against the French government, Courbet was upholding the individualism of the artist to be free from outside direction. The same could be said of Wagner in Dresden, twenty-two years earlier when he too had hoped to herald a community of creative workers through his art. His loss of that faith in the 1850s did not reconcile him to authority.

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) is much talked about for leading Wagner towards a renunciation of “the Will”. It is truer to say that Wagner used Buddhism to suppress everyone’s desires but his own, making others serve him as the Enlightened One, Der Meister. Wagner was a megalomaniac and a solipsist, if never a bore. In his practices, he was far closer to the egoism advocated by another anti-Hegelian, Max Stirner (1806-56), who valued anarchism for its promise of selfishness.

To portray Wagner as our contemporary is to risk erasing the elements through which his creativity captured his contemporaries and continues to hold the attention of so many of the world’s finest intellects. Der Ring fascinates because of the qualities of imagery and psychology. They are the woof around which Wagner weaves his grand ideas. The significance of Der Ring must be approached through an analysis of its textures. As ever with masterpieces, the forms and the content illuminate each other. The essay confirms that truth by noting the power of naming in the cycle; this consideration opens onto the anti-mechanistic thinking common to Darwin, Marx and Wagner. The investigation turns next to the predominant trope in Der Ring, the war between light and dark as represented by the two Alberichs before being transfigured in Brunnhilde’s love for Siegfried. In conclusion, the aptness of the critical stance is confirmed through a synopsis of the cycle’s themes rather than of the stage action.

At the close of Das Rheingold, Wotan names the castle “Walhall”. Fricka asks him to repeat the word, having never heard it. He replies: “When all that I’ve dreamed and planned comes to pass, when victory is mine, you’ll understand that name!” That triumph is denied him. His auditors are still wondering what Richard Wagner “dreamed and planned”.

Naming as a form of deceit is among the charges that Fricka brings against Wotan: “But now you have become/ Enamoured of new names. Under the disguises of “Walse, wolflike”, she alleges, he has lowered himself to level of beasts by fatheringthe wild race of Volsungs”.

Die Walküre is shot through with the game of naming. Siegmund begins by listing names that he is not. “Wehwalt was what I named myself” he repeats, until he explains: “For sorrow alone I commanded.” Shortly after he has told Sieglinde about his mother’s death, he declares: “Now you know, questioning woman, Why I am not called Friedmund!” With Hunding drugged, Sieglinde insists on naming her lover: “May you not call yourself Friedmund?” After a digression into whether their father’s name is either Wolfe or Walse, she announces “as I love you/ Siegmund – So do I name you”. He adopts Siegmund as a match for his beloved’s Sieglinde. He then names his new found sword “Nothung” (needful). “As a bridal gift/ He brings this sword”, as an emblem of the penis to kill Hunding’s honour while looking forward to using the actual weapon to slay the man.

The naming process culminates when Brunnhilde acts like the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation by letting Sieglinde know that her one night of love has left her pregnant and hence she must live for the sake of Siegmund’s child. Brunnhilde then takes over the parental prerogative by declaring that he “shall take his name from me – may ‘Siegfried’ rejoice in victory!”

Act I of Siegfried revives the naming game. Wotan, in disguise, will answer any three questions that Mime puts to him. He tells Mime what he already knows about the inhabitants of the three layers of their universe: Nibelungs, giants and gods. In return, Wotan quizzes Mime who names the Volsungs as the tribe dearest to Wotan. Mime also knows that the sword to be wielded by Siegfried is called “Nothung” (Needful). Mime, however, is doomed because he does not know the one fact that would be most “needful” to him, namely, who will forge that weapon.

What does all this naming signify? The potency of Der Ring depends on there being no single answer.

At a personal level, the naming of Siegmund confronted Wagner with anxieties about his own paternity. Into his teenage years, he called himself Geyer, after his step-father, the actor whom he later worried might have been Jewish and whom he thought had been his biological father. Actors by profession assume different names for each new part, today the noble Lohengrin, tomorrow the lustful Tannhauser.

As a man of the theatre himself, Wagner used interrogation about names as one way of supplying tension as each protagonist delved for meaning in events to which the audience is privy. Wagner had sculpted his poem from legends preserved by bards reliant on the repetition of names and titles to supply mental breathing spaces during their recitations and to jog the memories of their listeners.

Suggest: The sources Wagner used relied on the repetition of names and titles …

Beyond these dramatic concerns, Wagner knew that the power to name is part of creation, starting with God, who passes the task on to Adam in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis, naming is associated with the defining of boundaries. God divides the light from the darkness and then names one day and the other night. Wagner’s naming is an affirmation of his afflatus, and one more instance of his subverting the statis.

Jacques Barzun in Darwin, Marx, Wagner (1942) protested that the twentieth century belonged to that trio of revolutionary thinkers. Barzun took the coincidence of the appearance in 1859 of The Origin of Species, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and Tristan und Isolde as a device for reacting to the “mechanistic materialism” that he alleged was common to their authors. Barzun missed the element that, in truth, brought such disparate masterworks together. Their shared contribution was to disprove or dissolve eternal categories. Their different kinds of materialism were all refutations of the “mechanistic”.

Darwin took up prevailing notions of evolution and deep time to explain the differentiation of species through sexual selection. The anti-theism in his account of evolution was not that human beings had evolved from monkeys. Darwin’s radicalism lay in his proposing that there were no fixed or eternal categories of being. A century later, genetics confirmed the generation of variety as the matrix of life.

Throughout the eighteenth century, Carl Linneaus had established his system of nomenclature for plants and animals to accord with his passion for order, which he read as the hand of the Deity. Linneaus accepted that new species could emerge but only through hybridisation; he further held that, in the beginning, each genus had contained only one species. Ever since Darwin, as Stephen Jay Gould explained, the universe can be seen as perpetual recreation. Darwin punctured the supposedly impassable walls between species. Contra “nature”, the platypus was an egg-laying mammal.

Wotan resists being bound to a priori categories, whereas Fricka upholds the drawing of boundaries in speech in order to defend her domestic virtues. Their argument over the incestuous twins is an expression of Wotan-Wagner’s revolutionary treatment of the world: “All who live love renewal and change: that pleasure I cannot forgo!” This attitude is more an imperative than a gratification: “Wherever forces are boldly stirring, I openly counsel war.” In Wotan’s “dreams and plans”, his “thoughts seek to encompass/ What’s never yet come to pass.” This way of thinking was itself novel.

The violation of the incest taboo becomes necessary to bring forth the new race of Volsungs. Their appearance ruptures the order of existence many times more than could any transgression of sexual mores.

Here, Wagner’s imagining intersects again with the materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) who proclaimed in The Essence of Christianity (1841) that human beings had created gods in their own image. In Die Walküre, Wagner initiates the replacement of the gods by the offspring of the illicit liaison of Sieglinde and Siegmund. Wotan still hopes that the fearless hero will preserve the immortals. The death of the gods is six Acts away.

Marx’s critique of capital also recognised change as the only constant. Capital is capital only when it is motion in an effort to expand. To do so, capital must move through ceaseless and accelerating circuits. Capital goes from being money, into a production phase, and out as commodities to be sold in order to return to its owner as an expanded quantity of money. This divesting and assuming of forms depends on a prior metamorphosis of human capacities. In the exchange of that labour power for wages, labour had to become a commodity. That sale transforms labour into its antithesis as another manifestation of capital.

Furthermore, Marx demonstrated that, just as capitalism had been the product of history, it remained liable to extinction or replacement. Fixity was no more part of social life than in any other part of nature.

These economic processes have parallels in Wagner’s treatment of the Rhinegold. The golden helmet, the Tarnhelm, allows Alberich to change from a dragon to a toad. This prestidigitation mimics the circuits through which capital must proceed. The trickster spirit of light, Loge, expresses capital as movement. To survive capital needs not only to expand, but must do so at an ever faster rates. Time must conquer space. Then, business can be done at the speed of light, as Marx said 150 years before Bill Gates.

Other moments in Der Ring represent aspects of Marx’s picture of capital as money in motion. Once Alberich snatches the gold from the Rhine, he turns it into money-capital which enslaves his fellow Nibelungen. They must work for him, expanding his horde, while he makes them plunder the rest of nature.

Fafner, by contrast, is the denial of capital. He is the miser who squats astride his gold. The gold no longer becomes money and so undergoes no changes and cannot expand. Siegfried also denies capital its need to expand. When he gains the horde from Fafner, he also gets the power to make the Nibelungs produce more gold. He forgets about both and treats the Tarnhelm and the Ring as ornaments.

Alberich captures yet another aspect of capital as a social relationship. He uses the gold to buy Kremhild in order to father Hagen. In Capital, Marx made one of his personifications of capital declare:

I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money.

Marx rings the changes to show how money will similarly cure lameness, dishonesty, unscrupulousness and stupidity.

Wagner, as the third member of Barzun’s trio, carried forward from Liszt and others the dissolution of a given key signature, notoriously in the Tristan chord. Structured harmony had been of a piece with Bach’s god-structured universe. The subversion that Wagner achieved in his scores, he repeated in his poem for Der Ring.

As Wagner’s composition of Der Ring advanced, his leitmotifs became less and less like heralds announcing the arrival of this or that character or mood. He interlaced the motifs until listeners found the identification of any musical phrase almost as difficult as nominating the key signature. This loss of certainty is one of the pleasures of the score, which depend on accepting its intricacies, not unstitching the raiment.

Light and Dark
To say that Wagner is our contemporary more than 120 years his death is not to claim that his art is “timeless”. Indeed, the opposite applies. Universals can exist only through particulars. Carl Jung could compile his tomes documenting how a symbol recurred across centuries and cultures only because human beings had recreated his so-called “archetypes” in a myriad of ways. Yggdrasil is a mythic tree: not all mythic trees are Yggdrasil.

To read Jung’s epigones on the meaning of symbols is to enter a desert where every imagined experience is in danger of standing for something else, or being boiled down to a clutch of stereotypes. Yet the diversity of Jung’s evidence should carry our understanding of symbolic experiences in the opposite direction. They have no existence outside the contours of a human life lived forward. To be told that Der Ring plays out a struggle between archetypes is not even the beginning of wisdom.

For instance, a Manichean opposition of “Light” against “Darkness” is one of the skeins with which Wagner, Norn-like, wove his poem for Der Ring. Light, or its absence, saturates its moral stance, the characters, the narrative and the stage directions.

A contrast between light and darkness is also in the first nineteen verses of Genesis; the term Manichean derived from the Persian prophet Mani who lived seventeen centuries before the present; Sarastro defeats the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute. These expressions engage our attention only because of the ways in which their authors have represented the opposition of light and dark in relation to given circumstances. Those peculiarities include the stylistics specific to poetry or music at particular times and places.

During Der Ring, Wagner allows the trope of light-vs-dark a variety of shapes. Thus, we encounter their struggle throughout the stage directions; in the passions aroused in Siegfried and Brunnhilde; and, above all, in the war between the two Alberichs..

Schwartz-Alberich is much misunderstood. As a name, Alberich is related to the Italian “Alberico” and the French “Auberon/Oberon”. Wagner called him “ein Alp”, which the Grimm brothers defined in their 1854 dictionary as “daemon, incubus”. Hence, he is not necessarily a dwarf, but more a spectre. His brother Mime is called a Zwerg, a dwarf, but his son, Hagen, is represented as no different in physical appearance from Gunther. As a spectre, Black-Alberich becomes a worthy rival for Wotan as Licht-Alberich. He is also less amenable to being interpreted as an anti-Jewish stereotype.

Wagner’s text does not licence the representation of Alberich as in any way bodily repulsive. If he is ugly, it is in his malignity. When the Rhinedaughters call him “der Garstige”, they are saying he personifies horror, not that he is physically horrible. After they have led him on with praise for his beauty and heroism, they then erase that mockery with antonyms to portray a hairy, humpbacked toad (harriger, höckriger and Kröte). Even in the middle of this invective, they revert to the irony of calling him a dandy, or fop (Geck).

The recognition that Alberich can appear repellent without looking deformed supports the way that John Wegner portrayed him in Adelaide, as a cross between Mephistopheles and Don Juan.

To reduce the plenitude of ways in which light and dark are played out in Der Ring to no more than an archetype is to abandon cultural criticism for Trivial Pursuits. In addition, these conflicts are never static. The light, whether physical or metaphysical, that bathes the final scene in Götterdämerung is of richer hues than that which illuminated the opening minutes of Das Rheingold. The transformations are endless as will now be demonstrated by a thematic synopsis of Wagner’s psychodrama.

“Light” wins out in Das Rheingold. The comic patches in this satyr play illuminate the victory of Wotan, as Light Alberich, over Night Alberich. Wotan’s victory is Pyrrhic because his doppelganger has snatched the “light” from the Rhine.

In the opening scene, the three Rhinedaughters play in the river as the “wakening sun” smiles on “the gleaming light” until “its glittering ray” brings the gold to life. The trio sings “Rhinegold! Rhinegold! Light-bringing joy”.

The flibbertigibbets babble away the secret of the Rhinegold – he who forsakes love can have power. Then they let Alberich run off with it. They are agile enough to slip out of his grasp but not sensible enough to follow the advice that Anita Loos gave to Dorothy in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: “No lady should let herself have such a good time that she forgets to hold on to her diamonds.”  If one of them had read Ludwig Feuerbach on free love, or had shut her eyes and thought of Valhalla, her father, Wotan, would have been spared a deal of woe.

Alberich grasps their challenge, condemning them to “whore in the dark … Your light I’ll put out.” The stage direction reads: “Impenetrable darkness suddenly descends on all sides.” Night-Alberich is at one with this blackness.

In the shadow of Valhalla, the brother giants, Fafner and Fasolt, whose labour has built the castellated palace, are demanding as payment the “radiant and light” goddess, Freia, promised them by Wotan, the “Son of light”. His one eye is the equivalent of the sun in its power to penetrate the minds of others. Loge, the spirit of light and fire, tells Wotan about the golden horde that Alberich has piled up by using the power of the ring. Fafner is happier than Fasolt, to exchange “the glittering gold” for Freia, whom they meanwhile hold to ransom.

Loge leads Wotan through a black cloud into the mines where Alberich is trying on the magic helmet, Tarnhelm, which allows him to be a shape-changer. Loge reminds Alberich that he had earned his friendship by giving him “light”. This memory wins back enough of Alberich’s trust to trick him out of his power – the ring and helmet, as well as the store of gold. Loge exposes that one of the properties of “light” is its capacity to deceive.

 In the absence of Freia, the gods are waning for want of her golden apples. As Wotan exchanges her for the gold, Wagner instructs the theatre director that “the light restores the gods’ former youthful appearance”. The Nibelungs pile up the gold. The giants can bear to surrender “the radiant child” only if the gold can block all sight of her. Wotan refuses to give up the ring to close the last chink through which light can penetrate the pile. The stage darkens again as the Earth goddess Erda emerges, urging him to keep his word, threatening: “A day of darkness dawns for the gods”.

Alberich extends the price he paid for power by cursing anyone who possesses the Ring that he has forged from the Rhinegold. No sooner do the giants possess the ring than its curse is felt. Fafner slays Fasolt. Wotan fears the future but hopes that Erda will again guide him.

Wagner now turns on a coruscation. Lightning flashes. A rainbow bridge of “blinding radiance” appears. Wotan leads the “glittering race” of gods across into Valhalla as he sings of a glinting light. Loge contemplates conflagration. Off stage, the Rhinedaughters lament: “How clear and bright you shone ... Would that your glittering toy still shone in the depths!”

Act One of Die Walküre begins as a domestic melodrama with the unhappy wife (Sieglinde), the brute of a husband (Hunding) and the attractive stranger (Siegmund). The predictable course of their encounter is constrained by the lore of hospitality. Hunding must delay vengeance on behalf of his clan, whom Siegmund has just attacked. This respite gives Siegmund and Sieglinde time to discover that they are twins before consummating their love. The yearning (Sehnsucht) that the couple exhibit is like that between Tristan and Isolde, and hence perturbing because, as with so much of Wagner’s philosophising, the path of their love leads to death.

Act II switches to a different triangle, that of Wotan, Fricka and Brunnhilde, one of the daughters he has sired with Erda. Fricka again rails against her husband’s philandering. She got him to build Valhalla as a prison, yet still he roams. As if his scheme to prostitute her sister to pay for the palace was not bad enough, now he is conniving at incest. Wotan remains defiant, but yields to the claims of order because he accepts that his authority depends on his treaties, engraved on his spear.

Nothing in Wagner’s telling has prepared us for the intensities of the second scene. A tale of adultery is elevated into an analysis of the most profound of ethical questions: how can we get someone to do what we want them to do of their own free will?

The boys’ own clashes in Das Rheingold were not ethically complex. Although love and power were counterpoised, the drama remained at the level of a dispute over the will to possess power. The struggle dif not proceed beyond an either/or treatment of values.

Die Walküre moves to the moral centre of the cycle. Juxtapositions of right and wrong, tradition and creativity, fidelity and betrayal, hospitality and dishonour, retain their places. Beyond that set of dichotomies, Wagner now develops choices into dilemmas. No longer is good set against evil. Henceforth, the bad will be posed over the worse.

The transition is present in Siegmund’s character. He is poorly socialised, killing without thinking through the causes and consequences. As one rung down from the godhead of Wotan, he has taken a step towards humanness, half-way between his father and his son-to-be Siegfried. Wotan will pass on his mixture of light and darkness through the children of adultery and incest.

The music-drama is no longer concerned with a clear-cut choice between love and power. Right answers bring unanticipated wrongs. This intractable aspect of life is approached by unravelling the perplexities of love in everyday life. How to get someone to love us in the way we want to be loved? How can we convince our children to wish for themselves what we hope for them, students to thrill with their teachers’ enthusiasms, anti-Wagnerians to share our obsessions about The Ring?

In Die Walküre, Wagner manifests the near impossibility of such efforts through Wotan’s attempt to make Brunnhilde want to allow Siegmund to be killed, when she remains convinced that that outcome is not what he wants in the core of his being. The strain that this quest for free will imposes on Wotan appears in his resort to “must” as the verb of choice.

Brunnhilde faces the same task in reverse. How can she convince Wotan to let her fulfil her role as his Wish-daughter by protecting his other favourite child, Siegmund? Wagner both accepts and challenges the value of love through the ethics of ambiguity. A truth concealed in Das Rheingold is dredged into the light: there will be no gains without losses.

Brunnhilde defies her War-father who must then act himself. He disarms Siegmund before killing Hunding as an expression of the punishment he intends for his defiant yet devoted wish-daughter.

Act III opens with The Ride of the Valkyries, which is misunderstood whenever its divided nature is ignored. The first half is a can-can in which the eight sisters whoop and holler as they collect the heroes to join Wotan’s legions for the defence of Valhalla. “Hoyotoho!” and “Heiaha!” are to be accompanied by what the stage directions call for “noisy laughter”. This section of “The Ride” is all high jinks, not a battle cry. The Wunder Bar of the Adelaide production emphasised this element.

The mood switches after Brunnhilde enters with a woman, Sieglinde. Once the sisters realise that Brunnhilde has also defied Wotan, their joy turns to fear, the Bacchic to Panic.

When the other Valkyries beseech Wotan to take pity on Brunnhilde they describe her in “fear and trembling with hesitation”. The Danish anti-theologian, Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55), had used “fear and trembling” [Frygt og Baeven], in 1843 as the title for the short work in which he examined a dilemma similar to that which Wotan confronts in Die Walkure, namely the killing of a favourite child. Kierkegaard treated the story of Jehovah’s telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. When the Father of his People prepares to obey, God intervenes by substituting a Ram. Wotan is faced with the prospect of killing his two favourite children, Siegmund and Brunnhilde. If he does, he risks losing the hero who can wield “Nothung” and save the gods. Fury, not fear, is the emotion that Wotan must overcome if he is realise his grand strategy. Siegmund can be born only if Brunnhilde defies him by rescuing Sieglinde. Wotan gets this lesson in wisdom from experience, not Erda.

Few crimes exact more terrible punishments in myth than the murder of one’s immediate family. Australian academic, Michael Ewans, has linked Wagner’s reading of the Oresteia by Aeschylus with the reshaping of the Northern legends into Der Ring. At the start of the Trojan wars, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia. On his return, his wife Klytaimestra slays him. Years later, their son, Orestes, kills her. The jury that narrowly votes to spare Orestes cannot erase his guilt.

Wotan sacrifices Siegmund but cannot destroy Brunnhilde without maiming himself and his hopes. When Siegfried later declares “I am Brunnhilde’s arm alone!”, he does not realise that he is enacting Wotan’s dreams and plans. Brunnhilde is her father’s wish-daughter. Equally, her punishment cannot degrade her without soiling Wotan’s own divinity. The retribution he exacts is as ambivalent as her guilt. She will be defended by fire until a hero dares to wake her. That incarceration is protective custody for his ambitions.

Each of the three scenes in the First Act of Siegfried is lively because Wagner needs to bring us down from the emotional pitch of the love-struggle between Wotan and Brunnhilde. There is no end to hammering and smashing. Mime is good for a laugh. One distraction relies on that most memorable of stage directions, from Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale: “Exit, pursued by a bear”.

Difficulties arise for the audience if the psychological crux of the Act is lost under the fun and games. The Scene 3 should inscribe the pivotal fact that allows the rest of the music-drama to proceed. Siegfried discovers that Mime is not his father. His relief parallels the anxiety that Wagner held about his own paternity. The clamour allowed Wagner to deal with a concern which drives as deeply into his private affairs as any other incident in the Festival Play. Once Siegfried is freed from the “fear” that he and Mime are connected in the same way as the animals and their offspring, Siegfried stops throwing tantrums, and takes his “father’s” place at the forge. He can grow up to some extent because this false “father” is dead. “Nothung” becomes his. He can slay the dragon, Fafner.

Act II opens with a confrontation between the two Alberichs. Black-Alberich lurks at the mouth of the cave, dreading the daylight and all luminosity except the gilt from the horde of gold upon which the dragon-shaped Fafner squats. Black-Alberich relies on Siegfried as much as does Light-Alberich, Wotan. Only the fearless lout can dispose of the dragon, which he does, before killing “father” Mime, this time in fact. 

Free to roam, Siegfried takes his cue from the woodbird and bounds off stage in pursuit of a creature who can become his bride and, he rather hopes, his mother. The days of sword and stone, dungeons and dragons, are at an end. Siegfried has to venture inwards as well as down the Rhine.

A jump in musical moods between Acts II and III presages the transformation of Brunnhilde into a mortal. Act III has three settings. The first establishes the change in Wotan’s outlook as he assures Erda that he accepts the death of the gods who will be displaced by a race of heroes, springing from Siegfried. Nietzsche’s Ubermensch was to be “super” by dint of moral superiority, like Goethe. Siegfried is defined far more by physical prowess.

Wotan has almost accepted the passing of his kind when his grandson behaves so insolently that the defeated Wanderer cannot suppress his own nature as War-father. In the moment of confrontation. Siegfried splinters Wotan’s engraved spear. Nothing now stands in Siegfried’s way to happiness, except his ignorance, his arrogance and his possession of the ring.

The third day of the drama ends with a paean to light as Siegfried encounters Brunnhilde and together they discover their “light-bringing love”. The final scene contains almost as many references to light as the rest of the tetralogy. Siegfried arrives at the “sunny summit” where Brunnhilde is guarded by fire which he penetrates:

What beam of light bedazzles my gaze?

Glittering, shining, shining, radiant sunlight’s

Could I bear their light?

He wakes her with a kiss. She stirs, hailing the sun, the light and light-bringing day. Then, in a repeated adoration, Siegfried becomes “all-conquering light!” The first note of his response is to praise “the light of your eye”, which loops back to Wotan’s eye as the sun.

While Brunnhilde is losing her divine gifts, her senses become clouded. Siegfried comforts her with the thought that new knowledge comes from “the shining light” of their love. Not convinced, she agonises because the “grieving darkness clouds my sight: my eyes dim, their light fades: night falls on me”.

Once Brunnhilde becomes wholly human, she pushes him away: “Bright as the sun shines the day of my shame!” She calls on her “light-bringing youth!” to preserve his rapture by giving her up before he is repelled by her fears. He convinces her to accept “the chastest of light”. Unafraid at last, she defies the gods and their “darkness” with its “night of destruction”. She is secure because “Siegfried’s star now shines upon me”, as hers does on him. They revel in the “light” and the “sun”, exulting their “light-bringing love”. Instead of “light” bringing love to them, their love has become the source of light. This rainbow bridge of passion is punctured by their next, final, fatal phrase – “and laughing death!”

At the start of Götterdämmerung, the ecstasy in the coupling of Brunnhilde with Siegfried is disrupted by a Prelude during which the three Norns recapitulate the broken treaties that spell the end of the gods. Their first words ask “What light shines down there?” As the sisters warn that they can no longer spin the rope of life, it severs.

The final evening of the Festival Play now returns to the morning after Brunnhilde’s awakening. The stage is flooded with light as Siegfried greets her as “glittering star! Lightening love!”, and she replies “conquering light! Lightening life!” 

Not content with his discovery of love, Siegfried rides off in search of adventures, leaving Brunnhilde with the ring. At the court of the Gibichungs, Siegfried is greeted by his name because his valour is so obvious. Hagen, whose father is Night-Alberich, has convinced his half-brother Gunther and half-sister Gutrune that they can marry Brunnhilde and Siegfried, if they drug Siegfried into forgetfulness.

This philtre is far from that in Tristan. There, the protagonists were already in love, and so the drug unleashed pre-existing emotions. Here, Gutrune’s brew must erase Siegfried’s memory of the woman who has taught him to love. Under its spell, he transfers that passion to the first woman he sees, Gutrune. Siegfried promises to capture Brunnhilde for Gunther. That pair now swear blood brotherhood, a connection which seals their fate.

As Brunnhilde waits for Siegfried, one of her sisters, Waltraute, implores her to save the gods by returning the ring to the Rhine. Brunnhilde identifies that token with her love, which she will “never relinquish”.

Siegfried dons the Tarnhelm so that he can, as he assured Gunther, “change my shape with yours”. By deceit and force, Siegfried tears the ring from Brunnhilde. Alberich’s curse of renouncing love for power is played out in reverse. In another recapitulation, Siegfried places Nothung between Brunnhilde and himself, inverting his father’s use of the sword to violate Hunding’s hospitality and honour.

Act II begins with Night-Alberich returning to infect Hagen’s mind as he sleeps. Now, Wagner transforms Alberich into the goblin (Alp) who induces nightmares (Alpträume) by pressing on the chest of the sleeper. The poem again lurches back towards the fantasy world popularised in German opera by the Gothic Romances of Hoffnung, Weber and Marshner.

Before the light of dawn wakens Hagen, he has committed himself to murdering “The radiant hero!” in life, and not just in his nightmares – “Those whom we fight in nightly feud”, as his father declaims. Like Othello, he will “put out the light, and then put out the light”. The difference is that Hagen acts through hate, Iago-like.

Siegfried returns with news of his handing the mastery of Brunnhilde over to Gunther. Hagen summons the vassals for the only choral scene in work. Elsewhere the orchestra does the work of several choirs. The servants hail their new queen who is astonished and then outraged to find Siegfried about to wed Gutrune. Her accusations of his treachery towards her are taken up as charges of treason against Gunther. Her lust for vengeance gives Hagen the knowledge he needs to kill Siegfried by stabbing him in the back.

The closing Act opens with the three Rhinedaughters contrasting the light of the sun with the darkness that has dominated the Rhine since Night-Alberich stole the ring: “Rhinegold, Radiant gold!/ How brightly you used to shine”. The opening scene of Das Rheingold is parodied when the Rhinedaughters tempt Siegfried, now recast in the role of Night-Alberich, as he jests, “if you grant me your favours.”  The marital jokes about Wotan and Fricka return to mock Siegfried’s relations with Gutrune when Wellgunde quips: “I expect she beats you.”

Siegfried offers to give the ring back to the Rhine until the Rhinedaughters threaten him with the physical dangers of holding on to it. He still refuses to know physical fear. They also tell him of the curse, which echoes the final line from Siegfried when the lovers embraced “laughing death”.

Siegfried rejoins the hunting party and regales them with his life-story. The remembrance of that distant past revives memories of his discovery of love in the arms of Brunnhilde. When Gunther interjects “What’s that I hear?”, we already know the answer. The psycho-drama demands that Gunther be made to face Hagen’s distortion of the truth. Hagen can twist that shock into vengeance because a broken oath violates the blood brotherhood.  After stabbing Siegfried in the back, Hagen dismisses him as “The bloodless hero”, before killing Gunther. Gutrune is immobilised with grief and shame.

Siegfried’s dying words are of the joy that Brunnhilde felt when he woke her. Then night falls. When Brunnhilde looks into Siegfried’s dead face she sees that “Purer than sunlight/ Streams the light from his eyes”. She retrieves the ethics of ambiguity as she cherishes Siegfried as “the purest hero/ though he was false”. She spins out these affirmations and accusations before reaching a rhetorical question to the gods: “Know you why that was!”

The “laughing death” from the end of Siegfried now appears as “the laughing fire” into which Brunnhilde rides. The flames spread to Valhalla while the Rhine floods the stage. Hagen drowns trying to grasp the ring from its keepers. Peace is secure on earth. The gods no longer have a heaven.

The riches to be refined from Der Ring cannot be as brilliant or as multitudinous as those associated with the Rhinegold. Yet, like the Rhinegold, the treasures in Wagner’s creation cannot be secured without loss, primarily, the abandonment of complacency. Der Ring remains disturbing because its subject is the overturning of convention. This essay has been an invitation to appreciate the cycle’s subversion as a challenge to our place in the world, social and natural. To deny these drives in Wagner’s score, poem and stagecraft is to deprive him of his genius.

Der Ring in Adelaide
Visiting Adelaide in November 1898, the English municipal socialist, Mrs Sidney Webb, thought that the capital of Britain’s South Australian colony resembled:

a German ‘Residenzstadt’ – the capital of a little principality, with its park and gardens, its little court society, its absence of industrialism, and its general air of laying itself out to enjoy quietly a comfortable life. It lacks the charm of the German ‘Residenzstadt’ in history, art (especially music and the theatre) and scholarship … It is to be hoped that it will gradually add some of the charms of the German city – music, for instance, by a municipal band, if not by a municipal opera house, might easily come … Adelaide has, in fact, more chance than any other Australian City of becoming the Weimar, or, more precisely, the Stuttgart of the Southern hemisphere.

Instead, Adelaide became known as “the city of churches”, the capital of what its academic historian called “A Paradise of Dissent” for its Protestants, including an influx of Lutherans.

During the Second World War, the State’s economy shifted gear with the transfer there of manufacturing plants which laid the foundation for mass producing automobiles and white goods in the 1950s. The city’s population had grown to 730,000 by 1966, up from 170,000 when Mrs Webb called by.

Into this “genteel, sedate and unadventurous” society, the Professor of Music at the Elder Conservatorium in the University, John Bishop, inserted a Festival of the Arts in 1960 as part community fair and part miniature Edinburgh. By 1970, the Festival had expanded into the premier cultural event in the country. The joke still was that Adelaideans could get their culture over with in a fortnight once every two years.

During the 1970s, the State picked up a reputation for innovation and small-l liberalism under the Premiership of Labor’s Don Dunstan. Dunstan recognised the need to add value by intellectual capital. His breed of dissenters – sexual, social, political and cultural – told Adelaideans that they had to build “the Athens of the South”. His government commissioned a Festival Centre with a concert hall rigged for main-stage productions, and home to Der Ring cycles.

From 1957, opera companies in South Australia earned a reputation for adventurous programming. The Pro-Am Intimate Opera Group devoted itself to smaller scale modern pieces. By 1973, the Group had expanded into New Opera before being reborn as the State Opera of South Australia (SOSA) in 1976. Twentieth-century operas also provided the centrepieces at Festivals, with a garland from Janacek, Britten and Prokofiev.

Against the economic malaise of the 1990s, the State Opera of South Australia did better than survive. It became more adventurous, mounting recent works by Louis Andriessen and John Adams, while commissioning radical productions of warhorses such as Il Trovatore.

Then, the general manager, Stephen Phillips, with a full-time staff of five, got it into his head that SOSA could import a production of  Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. The Châtelet sets were simple and its English conductor, Jeffrey Tate, available for 1998. The project initiated a major refit of the Festival Theatre, including a start on acoustic enhancement.

In 1877, Lohengrin had been the first Wagner staged in Australia, followed, during the next forty years, by all the major works, except Parsifal. Sydney and Melbourne saw a Ring cycle from a touring company around 1913. In the 1980s, concert versions sold out. No one doubted that there would be an Australian audience for Der Ring, if only someone could bring it off.

Adelaide’s 1998 success with the Châtelet import encouraged SOSA to mount the Australian premiere of Parsifal in 2001 under the direction of Elke Neidhardt. That triumph led to a commission for Der Ring in 2004. If Adelaide’s importing a Ring cycle had seemed improbable, the mounting of a local production teetered on the preposterous.

Attempts to create the cycle had stalled in Sydney by the mid-1980s, and never got underway in Melbourne during the early 1990s. How could Adelaide, with a quarter of the population, succeed? The answer proved to be the same as for Wagner between 1848 and 1876, to wit, bold leaps and shameless determination.

Seemingly giddy with success, SOSA would present all four parts in one go. The usual method is to develop one part each year for three years and then stage the cycle in the fourth year. The impossible was within reach because of the experience that the SOSA orchestra and chorus had gained from the 1998 Ring and Parsifal. In addition, Neidhardt brought the core of a production team with which she had been working for several years.

The cost was $A15m ($US11m.), or half the taxes outlaid to win one gold medal at the Athens Olympics. If Gold Medals had been awarded for opera, the Adelaide project would have taken more Gold than the Australian contingent brought home in all categories. The 2004 Ring distinguished Adelaide nationally and internationally by melding three of its traditions – dissent, innovative spurts and the charms of a Residenzstadt.