OPERA - WAGNER - OUR CONTEMPORARY
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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. Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel
(1893) presented the ideal type of Aryan children, who push an old lady
with a large nose into an oven.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 the
“Art of the Future”.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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?
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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 fathering “the 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.
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
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.
does all this naming signify? The potency of Der
Ring depends on there being no single answer.
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.
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.
The sources Wagner used relied on the repetition of names and titles …
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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
the changes to show how money will similarly cure lameness, dishonesty,
unscrupulousness and stupidity.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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..
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
beam of light bedazzles my gaze?
shining, shining, radiant sunlight’s
I bear their light?
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.
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”.
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!”
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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”.
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.
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!”
“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.
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.
Ring in Adelaide
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.