Last Sunday concluded the series of events that anyone who has talked to me in the past half-month has undoubtedly heard me speak about: Richard Wagner’s The Ring Cycle. To help inform people about what I’ve been so excited about, here goes:
The Ring Cycle is a series of 4 operas written by Wagner that he wrote over the course of 26 years, from 1848 to 1874. What makes this set of operas stand out from every other opera? Everything. For starters, the story has numerous parallels to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The story of Wagner’s Ring Cycle follows the origins of a ring that has the power to conquer even the Gods, that corrupts its bearer, and that everyone else yearns to possess. Furthermore, the first bearer of the ring uses it to build a helmet that allows him to turn invisible. Sounding familiar? To go even further, Albericht (one of the main characters in the first of the four operas, Das Rheingold) is the first to obtain the ring and has several resemblances to Gollum. Tolkien was once asked in an interview how much he had been inspired by Wagner’s work. However, Tolkien’s response was, “Both rings were round, and there the resemblances end.” I don’t know if I buy it.
This is the basic premise of the Ring Cycle, although the story is almost unbearably complex. This complexity, however, makes the Ring Cycle so much more interesting than any other opera that exists, in my opinion. The plot moves SO much more quickly than normal operas. What’s important to understand is that most composers of Wagner’s era were writing operas about, for simplicity’s sake, love affairs between men and women. (Cue stereotypical operatic plot where man and woman sing about how much they love each other for a few hours) And then, almost out of nowhere, Wagner releases an 18 hour fantasy opera of epic proportions. In terms of plot, no other opera compares. Hands down. Due to its complexity, I won’t go further into the story but for those who are more interested, here’s a link to the synopsis. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Der_Ring_des_Nibelungen
The four operas last a total of approximately 18 hours, and when you add in the amount of time I waited in line for standing room prior to each opera (sitting tickets for the Ring Cycle sold out in April, and in order to obtain a good standing position you needed to arrive 4-5 hours prior to the opera), it adds up to…close to 35 hours. That’s a lot of standing. But totally worth every second.
The story, however, is only one side of the coin that makes The Ring Cycle so damn epic. For brass players especially, Richard Wagner’s music is the epitome of operatic music. To give an example, the second opera in the Ring, Die Walkure, is where the famous Ride of the Valkyries piece comes from. Youtube it if it doesn’t ring a bell. When you hear it, you’ll recognize it. Wagner’s orchestra also features the greatest assembly of low brass seen in any opera pit- a full trombone section, contrasbass trombone, wagner tubas, and bass trumpet section.
Perhaps the most incredible part of the Ring Cycle, however, are the innovations of Wagner’s music for its time. Wagner is quite famous for his use of leitmotifs in his music. For non-musicians who are reading this, think themes from Star Wars, like the Imperial March. Leitmotifs are the basis for many film scores today, and John Williams is an example of one who features them in his movie scores very often. Wagner’s score for The Ring Cycle features HUNDREDS of leitmotifs, which may seem a bit overwhelming at first. However, you can imagine that by the end of 18 hours of opera, these leitmotifs very much resemble old friends- ones that you’ve spent a lot of time seeing/hearing develop over time and that you will miss after the conclusion of the opera. At least, that’s been my experience. Wagner’s themes themselves are also exceptionally solid, and Wagner was a master of developing his themes so that the audience doesn’t grow bored of hearing them. For these reason, I strongly feel that if Wagner was alive today, he would be writing music for films. Coming up with themes and developments is film score writing 101.
Because hearing the music itself is worth a thousand words, here’s an example of one scene from The Ring. This scene comes from the end of Act 3 of Die Walkure, perhaps my favorite act of the entire cycle. In this scene, Wotan (the ruler of the Gods) is punishing his Valkyrie daughter Brunnhilde by putting her to sleep for disobeying him, and surrounding her with a magic fire. This act was my favorite musically, because it’s where many of Wagner’s greatest leitmotifs come together. Also, just listen to the brass. Those trombones are THE SHIT.
As a final note, for my non-musician friends who are reading this, some of you may be surprised that I’m dedicating an entire blog entry to an opera. I understand the stereotypes that some people have about opera, but here’s my challenge to all of you: go and give it a chance before dismissing it. In fact, give it a few chances. Wagner, among many other musicians and philosophers, have often described opera as the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk, which translates to, “total work of art.” Opera combines the art forms of drama, music, and visual art in one complete package. There’s something there for everyone. I’m proud to say that I’ve gained an appreciation for opera this semester- it’s hard not to when they only cost 4 euro for a world-class performance, and a different one shows every night. Most definitely, completing Wagner’s Ring Cycle will remain one of my proudest accomplishments and fondest set of memories from my time in Vienna this semester.