The Ring Cycle: Richard Wagner’s 18-Hour Music Drama

You wouldn’t drive from Melbourne to Brisbane without doing some preparation.  Are you well fed?  Do you have sweet and salty snacks?  Are you hydrated, alert?  Did you go to the bathroom?  Maybe go once more just in case.  The same considerations should be taken into account when faced with eighteen hours of opera.

The Ring Cycle consists of four operas held over four nights and tell the story of the Old Norse myths.  Wagnerheads (the name for fans of the Ring) say that you don’t passively watch The Ring, it’s an experience where the performance changes the audience, which was Richard Wagner’s intention.  How can watching Old Norse Myths about dwarves, dragons, giants, a magical ring and a talking bird change you?  The Ring Cycle is a journey through the entire spectrum of human experience and thankfully Opera Australia are doing three cycles of the work over the period of a month.

I nervously space out the four operas to allow lengthy periods for physical and possibly emotional recuperation as each opera feels like an event.  The atmosphere in the lobby is consistently collegial.  It’s not unlike a stopover at an airport, with people bleary eyed and blinking at the bright lights, some contorting themselves with stretches to shake off lumbago while others tear into packets of chips.  Though unlike a long haul flight people aren’t wearing trackie-dacks and thongs, rather most people are wearing tuxedos and polished shoes.

As I linger in the foyer, doing a few last minute stretches, I people watch and am disappointed by the lack of cosplay as I’ve read about The Ring taking over people’s lives.  I slosh my glass of wine when I excitedly spy one gentleman dressed in a pair of slacks and suit jacket, wearing a large golden ring on a chain around his neck.  He shuffles off before I can confirm if it a costume or a sage sartorial choice.  I explore the gift shop.  It is a trove of the wonders of bizarre merchandising—plastic Viking helmets with long horns, a travel sized wooden chopping board, a knife stand, pyramids of mugs, piles of fridge magnets and souvenir t-shirts.  The theatre bells ring and I make my way to my seat without a helmet.

The cycle is the operatic equivalent of the decathlon—the singers need vocal strength, agility and endurance—not everyone can take on Wagner’s characters.  The voices of these singers I will describe as ‘meaty’.  Plus, the singers need to have the emotional depth of a chasm, for Wagner looks at love in all its forms.  There is run-of-the-mill variations of love—love for money, revenge, power and for pleasure—then there are a few permutations that are mind-boggling, namely the incestuous and adulterous love shared by a set of long-lost twins.  Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe said when defending her character Fricka whom she played for the MET in 2011—‘Like all of Wagner’s people, she is so beautifully delineated.’

Fields of study have emerged from this fecund terrain, pondering Wagner’s representation of love, with books like ‘Wagner and the Erotic Impulse’. People have dedicated their lives to attempting to decode and distill Wagner’s work.  There is no denying that sitting through the cycle is no easy task, in fact William Berger’s book ‘Wagner Without Fear: Learning to Love—and Even Enjoy—Opera’s Most Demanding Genius’ is considered a must read by some Wagner aficionados.  Opera Australia appreciate that Wagner can be daunting and have provided a resource page on their website.  They have even organised a series of lectures to explain The Ring.

The staging of the Ring Cycle in Melbourne is modern and crisp.  The minimalist approach allows for the characters to take to the fore and somehow there is not a horned helmet in sight, besides the ones being sold on the merchandise stand.  The giants present in the first opera, Das Rheingold, are played by two tall actors decked out in sharp suits who stand atop cherry pickers; they thereby represent the giants of industry.  The Rainbow Bridge—by which the gods travel to their sacred home, Valhalla—is lavishly represented by a chorus of high-heeled showgirls.  Their synchronised dance using burlesque feather fans is one of the highlights of The Ring Cycle.

However, not everything is explained.  In act two of the second opera, Die Walküre, the stage is dominated by a 15 m tall helix which is the equivalent of three stories high.  Coming in at 100 m in length this set piece has a wickedly steep gradient which the singers race up and down while singing.  Suspended inside the helix are several taxidermy animals.  I don’t have the foggiest idea of why the animals are there, yet this is part of the joy of The Ring; it is beautifully bizarre and over-the-top.  Keep in mind this act follows the very literal staging of the woodcutter’s log cabin complete with snow softly falling onto the stage.  The final act of this opera ends with an empty stage erupting with a ring of fire.  This is not the end of the fiery elements with the entire set in the finale of The Ring, Götterdämmerung, burning down.  It is truly spectacular and must be an OH&S nightmare.  The dragon in the third opera, Siegfried, was created by projecting the face of the singer onto a screen over four stories high.

The spectacle of The Ring is worth the risk of contracting Deep Vein Thrombosis.  It’s no wonder people see it time and time again as each opera company tries to stage what was considered to be impossible.  In fact, a new opera house had to be built for the premiere of The Ring.  The cycle has never been shown in Sydney as they don’t have a stage large enough to hold all the performers.  The cast of 170 are a combination of international stars—including American bass-baritone James Johnson and soprano Lise Lindstrom—alongside locals’ mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Dark and tenor Bradley Daley.  The number of schedules that had to be accommodated meant that Opera Australia only had five weeks for the entire cast to rehearse all four operas.

The story line is as complex as it is long, so it is best to be comfortable with confusion.  Characters are not who they appear to be, and the plot twists and turns as characters make unexpected revelations about themselves.  In classic Wagner style, his characters are preoccupied with love, sex and death and with a great deal of bed hopping, the power dynamic is constantly in flux.  Reassuringly, there is a rustling of paper in the theatre as people peer at the synopsis in the dark trying to figure out who is who.  It is like a HBO TV show, the storyline gallops along with information slowly coming to light.

It doesn’t matter if you get confused or if you feel you have interpreted the action incorrectly, there are countless readings of The Ring.  The Cycle has prompted varied interpretations from George Bernard Shaw’s Marxist reading of the work as a metaphor for the fight against industrialists, to the grim interpretation of the work being neo-Nazi propaganda.  The Ring has also been likened to the creation of the cosmos, with musicologists explaining this as the building of the opera around E Flat in the first opera Das Rheingold.  It sounds cross-wise currents of sound, swirling in tidal pool motion.  Lapping about in the River Rhine are three Rhinemaidens guarding the Rhinegold.  The running waters of the Rhine have been created by wavy lighting running over the supine bodies of the chorus who are decked out in board shorts and bikinis—a fantastically Australian take on the waterway.  One of the maidens, Wellgunde, reveals that whoever can forge the gold into a ring will gain mastery over the world.

A ring forged from sacred gold that goes on to dement and destroy whoever is in possession of it—sounds familiar?  While Tolkien hotly denied that he was inspired by Wagner’s Ring cycle.  “Both rings were round, and there the resemblance ceased” claimed Tolkien, nevertheless, both men created their work from Old Norse Myths.  Others have written reams relating the two works of art, suggesting that we would not have the Lord of Rings if Wagner did not write the Ring Cycle.

Philosopher Roger Scruton suggests that the Ring Cycle is ‘a story of the gods for people who have no gods to believe in.’  Scruton goes on to argue that ‘Wagner’s Ring Cycle, in its finished version, is an attempt to convey why we suffer.’  Not the physical afflictions from prolonged sitting such as saddle sores, rather the psychological suffering of the human condition.  Scruton sums up Wagner with the message ‘stop expecting from love anything more than it demands: which is sacrifice.’

The music is so beguiling it is hard not to be drawn into tangential thoughts beyond what is happening on the stage.  After all, you are literally sitting in the dark which incidentally was another idea of Wagner’s, previously houselights were kept lit during theatrical performances.

How does Wagner sustain the audience’s attention?  Wagner is the master of conjuring up harmonic dread; he plays with our expectations and yet doesn’t fulfil them immediately.  Notes hang in an endless, incomplete melody, which means you can’t help but sit completely ill at ease.  Again and again this occurs and your mind won’t rest until the chords are resolved.  He has created this by splicing up familiar coupling of chords, combinations of sounds that are considered ‘natural’ and complete.  He allows less traditional chords to sit together creating intriguing combinations.  You don’t need to know the conventions of musical grammar and the names of the minor chords—the effect is tangible.  The music teeters on the edge of symphonic climax, seats creep as the audience leans in.  It is this teasing, which sometimes is borderline taunting, that sustains your attention through the 18 hours.  The music literally elicits gasps of shock and pleasure in the theatre.

This music was created to pull at your psyche as the score shepherds you along.  Wagner completely revolutionised how music and drama were presented.  Previously, musical scores did not help propel the story along, but Wagner’s scores are imbued with leitmotifs—he harnessed harmonics to express emotions and foreshadow plot points.  Wagner didn’t consider his work to be opera rather he called them ‘music dramas’.  This approach is something that we now take for granted in cinematic scores, from the gut sickening dread in Jaws to the heart-quickening screech of violins in Psycho, but for the 1800s this was revolutionary.  Which is incredible considering Wagner only formally studied music for six months.  He was essentially self-taught and literally rewrote the rules of composition.

Led Zeppelin: Norse AF

Besides influencing cinema, comparisons have been drawn between Wagner and modern music.  Musicologist William Berger believes that Wagner has become a part of the communal unconscious with all modern music influenced by the composer.  This includes Led Zeppelin, in particular the construction of chords in their song ‘Whole Lotta Love’.  Then there are the Norse references in their songs ‘Ramble on’ and ‘The Battle of Evermore’.  Besides psychedelic rock, Wagner is considered the Father of Heavy Metal with metal bands like Manowar and Hammerfall citing him as an influence.

After the final opera I leave the theatre, darkness has fallen over Melbourne some hours prior.  I am disorientated, emotionally spent and yet I want to immediately sit through all four operas again.  There is no way I can hold it all in my head.  The work has cumulative power and resonance.

Take comfort in The New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross words: ‘There are, of course, no final answers in the “Ring,” a behemoth that whispers a different secret into every listener’s ear.’ This cycle has whispered many things to me, I wonder what it will whisper to you.




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