An Explanation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle – For Beginners

An Explanation of Wagner’s Ring Cycle

I’ve been attending the Ring Cycle at LA Opera for the past week and my friends keep asking me “What are you doing?!” “What is this cycle?” “Is it like Lord of the Rings?” “Why is it so exciting?” Sadly, my response is usually a blank (or slightly annoyed) stare, because there is so much running through my head about the joy of the Wagner’s Ring that I can’t just boil it down into a quick sentence. Thus, came the idea for this blog. After every cultural event I go to (and tweet about) I’m asked “what was it about?” “What makes it so exciting?” So, I will attempt to explain the cultural events I go to here!

What is The Ring Cycle?
Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a cycle of 4 epic operas written by Richard Wagner. They were written from 1848 to 1874. The Nibelung is a race of dwarfs under the earth. The four operas are:

Das Rheingold(The Rhine Gold);
Die Walkure(The Valkyrie);
Siegfried (That’s that’s the character’s name);
and Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods)

Have you ever seen the picture that’s commonly used when referring to opera singers? A big woman with a horned helmet? That’s from this cycle. The famous Valkyrie tune was used when Elmer Fudd sang “Kill the Wabbit.”

What’s the point?
Very, very simply – Love versus Power. You can’t have both in Wagner’s opinion.

And the concept that “[the] world will never find release from it’s struggles, for endless, meaningless struggling is inherent in the very nature of that world”1 This based off principles in a book Wagner constantly read called “The World as Will and Representation” by Arthur Schopenahuer.

What’s the Story
Okay, here we go – if you get confused, call, text or email me. I purchased a Ring Family Tree and I’d be happy to show you. And I will give my comments on the Ring’s production some other day, today, I’m getting my friends up to speed. If you’d like to read some reviews, try Jon Caves blog, or these posts from KUSC. Also check out LA Opera for clips from the production!

Wotan is the head god because he made a pact with someone and gave up one of his eyes for knowledge. He also has a spear where contracts are made – if he goes against his own contract and promises (which he continually tries to do), he’ll ruin everything…

For all you Ring Lovers out there, YES, I am leaving things out. This is designed for my (and your) non-opera going friends. Once they have an overview (aka once they’re hooked), then we can personally add in little details later.

Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold)
Alberich is a Nibelung Dwarf and the opera begins with him trying to get one of the 3 Rheinmaidens to like him. They tease him and finally tell him he’s too ugly. He agrees and denounces love. The Rheinmaidens are guarding a whole lotta gold in the Rhine River and if anyone were to get the gold and form a ring out of it they could rule the world. The only way to know how to form the ring is by denouncing love. Remember, you can’t have love and power!

So Alberich denounces love, steals the gold and makes a ring out of it and a magic hat that lets him change shapes. He also enslaves his brother, Mime, and the rest of the dwarfs.
Meanwhile, Wotan, the head of the Gods, is trying to calm his wife Fricka and get out of a jam. Fricka got her husband to have 2 Giants, Fasolt and Fafner, build a giant castle(later known as Valhalla..kind of a heaven). Basically Fricka was tired of him running around on her and thought if he had a really cool house he’d stay put. (yeah right, EPIC FAIL #1) Wotan promised the Giants Fricka’s sister, Freia, for payment. We enter the scene in the middle of an argument. Fricka is mad Wotan promised her sister away and reminds him that they need Freia because only she can tend to the apples the gods eat everyday to stay young.

Loge, demi-god of fire and trickery, tells Wotan that Alberich stole the gold and made a ring. Wotan decides to rob Peter to pay Paul – steal the gold from Alberich to pay the Giants. The Giants reluctantly agree. Wotan and Loge trick Alberich – the scene goes something like this: Loge says “bet your fancy hat can’t turn you into a toad” “Oh yes it can!” “Gotcha!” The giants get the gold but demand the ring as well. Wotan wants to keep the ring, and finally gives it up. Alberich curses the ring and whoever wears it. Fafner kills Fasolt over the ring and then Fafner becomes a dragon. (Don’t ask, don’t tell) Wotan decides he’s going to go after the ring, but mother earth, Erde, pops up to tell Wotan to stay away. He’s intrigued by her and between the end of this opera and the next, he’s fathered 12 kids with her – 9 Walkure or Valkyries and 3 Norns. Donner, Fricka’s brother produces a rainbow bridge and the gods, including Froh, another brother, go across into Valhalla.

Die Walkure(The Valkyrie)
FYI, The Valkyries defend heroes in battle and also bring slain heroes up to Valhalla. Brunnhilde seems to be his favorite – she’s the woman with the horned helmet. Okay, so… this is many, many years later. Wotan has also had a set of twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde, from a mortal woman on earth. Seigmund has lost his weapon is running from attackers and asks to stay the night at Sieglinde’s house. Her husband, Hunding, is not too cool with the situation – Seigmund is the enemy of his family, but according to custom, he will let him spend the night and then fight him in the morning. During the night Seigmund and Sieglinde talk and discover they are brother and sister, and discover they are in love and consummate that love. (Yes, I know, yuck) Sieglinde was forced into the marriage with Hunding and on their sordid wedding day a powerful god stuck a sword in the ash tree to be used by some noble man in time of need. (Sounds like the Sword in the Stone huh?) Siegmund goes to the tree and magically the sword comes out for him. He names the sword ‘Notung’, which means need.

Meanwhile Fricka is just not having it. Fricka is the goddess of home and hearth and tells Wotan to let Seigmund die in battle because Sieglinde is married and marriage is sacred, plus he’d be going against the contract of home and hearth that’s written on his spear. I also don’t think she cared for the half-human kids he fathered either. Wotan agrees and calls Brunnhilde to tell her to let Seigmund die. Brunnhilde knows her father loves Seigmund and doesn’t want that to happen, but she goes to warn Seigmund anyway. She tells him he will die in battle and will go to the beautiful Valhalla. He asks if Sieglinde will be there. Brunnhilde says no and so Siegmund refuses to go. Brunnhilde is moved by his love and decides to disobey and defend him in battle. She does, but Wotan comes down and smashes Notung, the sword into pieces. Seigmund is killed and Brunnhilde and Sieglinde flee.

Now comes the famous ride of the Valkyries. Wotan calls his daughters. They all come and sing a very famous piece of music as they travel on their horses. Imagine 8 very intense soprano voices over a huge orchestra. It’s pretty powerful! 8 arrive first and then Brunnhilde comes racing in with the newly pregnant Sieglinde. She tells her sisters she disobeyed Daddy and they all start asking her why she would be so dumb. Daddy comes, says he’s going to punish her and any of her sisters that try to protect her. They get lost, but they sneak Sieglinde with them. Wotan punishes Brunnhilde to be mortal and puts her in a deep sleep. She will belong to the first man who awakes her with a kiss. (Sleeping Beauty anyone?) Because she was doing what he really wanted in his heart(but not what he told her to do) he surrounds her with flames so only a man who knows no fear (one that is worthy of her) will wake her.

Siegfried (That’s that’s the character’s name)
Guess who Siegfried is? That’s right, he’s the son of Seigmund and Sieglinde. Sieglinde died in childbirth so Mime, Alberich’s brother raises Siegfried. (I know, everyone’s related in this story!) Siegfried hates Mime (even though he raised him) and wants to leave home as soon as he has a sword he can’t break. Mime keeps making swords and Siegfried keeps breaking them. Mime wants to rebuild the sword, Notung to go steal the gold from Fafner, but can’t. A wanderer comes(Wotan) and he and Mime exchange riddles – the loser will lose his head. Mime loses (This was Wagner’s way of explaining the story so far) Mime learns only a man who knows no fear can reforge the sword. Siegfried finds out and realizing he knows no fear reforges it. Mime encourages him to go to the dragon to “learn fear.” Siegfried encounters the dragon and kills him with Notung. A tree bird comes along and tells him to be careful of the person who sent him here and to get the ring from the dragon. Mime comes along with a poisoned drink to give Siegfried so he can steal the ring for himself. Because of the power of the ring, Siegfried sees right through Mime and it’s off with his head! Siegfried tells the tree bird he wants a wife and she tells him there’s a woman named Brunnhilde surrounded by fire. He goes to find her and runs into the Wanderer (Wotan) who for some reason can’t just keep out of it! The Wanderer says he has to pass him to get to Brunnhilde so Siegfried breaks Wotan’s spear. This stops Wotan’s power. Then he gets through the fire and after discovering fear (Brunnhilde scares him) he kisses her to wake her up. (Yes, she is his Aunt) They sing a love duet – the end.

Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods.)
We open with the three Norns telling the story of how Wotan got his power and about his spear and all that. Because the spear has been broken Wotan is going to thrust his spear into Loge and the fire will consume the world. Siegfried and Brunnhilde exchange gifts – she gets the ring, he gets her horse and Siegfried goes off on an adventure. Then Hagen, Alberich’s son, tells Gunther (they are related somehow…) he should marry Brunnhilde and Gutrune, Gunther’s sister, should marry Siegfried. They poison Siegfried when he arrives at their castle, which makes him forget about Brunnhilde. Siegfried is persuaded to go win Brunnhilde’s love, disguised as Gunther. Hagen’s aim is to get the ring. (the one ring..of wait, that LOTR)

Meanwhile one of Brunnhilde’s sisters asks her to give the ring back to the Rhinemaidens, otherwise the world will come to an end. She refuses because it was Siegfried’s token of love. Sissy leaves, Siegfried dressed as Gunther arrives and takes the ring. Siegfried sleeps next to Brunnhilde, but puts Notung in the middle of them. He wakes and arrives back at the castle before Gunther and Brunnhilde. When Brunnhilde sees Siegfried there and wearing the ring, she tells everyone they know each other – in the Biblical sense. Siegfried can’t remember squat and leaves to go marry Gutrune. Gunther thinks Siegfried slept with Brunnhilde, and she tells Gunthur about Siegfried’s weak spot – his back.

In the next act 3 water nymphs try to get Siegfried to “come play” with them, but he stays faithful to Gutrune, who is now his wife. They warn him about the ring, but he keeps it. Hagen gives him an cure to the poison and Siegfried starts to remember…when he finally remembers Brunnhilde he is stabbed in the back. Craziness ensues, Hagen kills Guther to get the ring and then Siegfried’s dead arm threatens him. Brunnhilde has somehow found out about the poison and is mad, she takes the ring. She tells Wotan the apocalypse is upon them. She torches Sigfried’s body honorable and then goes into the flames to die with him. The Rhinemaidens take the ring from Brunnhilde, and the world is flooded with water and then set on fire. Valhalla is set on fire too. Everyone dies, but perhaps a new world will begin.



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