Myths and Opera
This paper shows how opera is still relevant and being reinvented to this day, and can be related to popular modern myths like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, as well as the ancient Norse mythology that inspired Wagner's Ring saga.

Monika E. Lewis

Music 163

The World of Opera

November 27, 2006


“The Mythology of Our Time”: Myths Past and Present and Richard Wagner's

Der Ring des Nibelungen


Richard Wagner is the most influential dramatist and composer of the nineteenth century, and his works continue to be seen into the twenty-first century. Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen brought together stories from ancient Norse mythology and other legends and was informed by life in the 19th century. Wagner created an epic music drama that is popular to this day. The Ring sparked a renewed interest in myths which led to today's mainstream popularity of science fiction and fantasy films, television shows, and books. The Ring itself is continually being re-interpreted by innovative stagings that underscore the operas' continuing relevance, and remains debated and analyzed. Director Patrice Chéreau called technology, “the mythology of our time” (Schürmann 10), and science fiction shows how myths can remain relevant by relating them to more recent times. By re-inventing ancient myths for the 19th century, Wagner paved the way for future writers and composers to create fantastical allegories for contemporary life.


Wagner's main source for the Ring was the Volsunga Saga, an Icelandic epic which uses stories from both the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda (Sabor 83). It begins with the story that is told in Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung of Odin (Wotan) and his descendant Sigurd (Siegfried). As the editor of The Volsunga Saga, Rasmus B. Anderson, says, “In adapting the Nibelung Legend to operatic treatment Wagner has made use of the license that is legitimately granted to the dramatist, and therein he exhibits several departures from the story as told in the Volsunga Saga. But his discriminations are never disfigured with inconsistencies. Moreover, the famous composer ever manifests critical literary judgment throughout, and a just regard for proportions and congruities in the argument upon which his trilogy is based” (Anderson 161). An example of the resurgence of interest in this epic soon after the premiere of Wagner's Ring is the observation in its 1906 publication, which is “for the first time, strange to say, translated into English” (Anderson 25). This shows the increased accessibility to people in England and America of information about the origins of the Ring, and increasing critical recognition of the importance of Wagner's Ring by the beginning of the 20th century.


The Nibelungenlied, an ancient Austrian legend first written down in the 13th century, was the first source that Wagner came across, in 1843. Wagner subsequently wrote Die Nibelungensage (Mythus), “his first prose sketch for the poems of the future Ring cycle” (Sabor 212), in 1848. The German public had re-discovered the Nibelungenlied in the early 19th century, and “in the 1830s and 1840s, there were calls for a German national opera to be made from it” (Magee 29). This story tells about the life of the hero Sivrit, like Wagner's Siegfried, although Sivrit is a member of the royal family and his goal is to chivalrously win the hand of Kriemhild (Gutrune). Other sources that feature a Siegfried character are the Thidrek Saga, Das Lied vom hurnen Seyfrid, and Die deutsche Heldensage of Wilhelm Grimm. Other collections of fairy tales and myths by the Grimm brothers that Wagner referred to were the Märchen of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and the Deutsche Mythologie of Jacob Grimm. These stories showed how magic and legendary creatures such as dragons were portrayed throughout German folklore. Like Sleeping Beauty, Brünnhilde sleeps until a hero is brave enough to overcome the obstacles in his way and awaken her with a kiss. Siegfried is also reflected in the stories of “The Youth who Left Home to Learn Fear” and the Young Giant who “breaks all the iron rods given to him” (Sabor 86). The Grimm brothers wrote that these legends reflected “the spiritual aspects of life.” The Ring operas also show that immoral acts will ultimately result in downfall, and the balance of nature will restore itself. In Götterdämmerung, the Norns, similar to the Fates of Greek mythology (Birgersdotter), demonstrate how the progression of fate has been corrupted by the theft of the Rheingold. Like Norwegian settlers in Iceland who “hallowed (the land) by being encircled by fire” (Anderson 8), Siegfried's funeral pyre cleanses the ring of Alberich's curse, and restores the Rheingold to its rightful owners.


The first complete stagings of Der Ring des Nibelungen, in August of 1876 at Wagner's Bayreuth theater, reflected its mythic origins and portrayed the action in realistic settings designed by Josef Hoffman and Gotthold and Max Brückner. Designer Carl Döpler based his costumes on historical clothing from Germany and Denmark. These designs, “with their winged and horned helmets, drinking horns, bear skins, cross-garters and sandals for men and their flowing robes, blouses of mail and shields for women along with the other fabricated Teutonic fashions- were models for Wagnerian productions for decades to come” (Spotts 58). After Richard Wagner's death in 1883, his wife Cosima, son Siegfried and Siegfried's wife Winifred successively assumed the directorship of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, retaining similar stagings as the 1876 premiere.


In 1951, upon the reopening of Bayreuth following World War II, Wieland Wagner, Richard Wagner's grandson, envisioned “a radical break from the past” (Sabor 181), to distance the Ring from its associations with Nazism and reclaim its universal applicability (Parker 400). Wieland Wagner's production portrayed the action on a “clear, clean disc-shaped acting area... often dominated by just one item” (Sabor 181). The costumes, “simplified cloaks reminiscent of Greek dramas” (Holman 373), and acting were also minimalist. This staging re-focused the audience's attention on the music and its powers of painting the scene through leitmotifs and expressive melody.


During the 1950's and 1960's, science fiction and fantasy became an increasingly popular storytelling form in novels, film and television. J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954-1955, and in 1965 became a popular phenomenon with its reprinting in paperback (Carter 5). In writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien used some elements from the same texts as Richard Wagner, such as The Poetic Edda, The Prose Edda, and Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic (Carter 152-165). Wagner's Ring also informed The Lord of the Rings (Ross). Both stories are told in the form of a tetralogy or a trilogy with a shorter prelude. The Hobbit sets up the story of The Lord of the Rings, similar to Das Rheingold’s role in relation to the rest of Der Ring des Nibelungen. Some other parallels include Bilbo Baggins taking charge of the One Ring without knowing its true powers, like Siegfried. Bilbo and Siegfried voluntary surrender the ring to a trusted friend, Frodo and Brünnhilde, who ultimately returns it to its rightful place. In his article “The Ring and the Rings,” critic Alex Ross says, “the idea of the omnipotent ring must have come directly from Wagner; nothing quite like it appears in the old sagas.” With the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, new technologies could give destructive power to any person. After World War II, the emergence of the atomic bomb showed how the creations of science could destroy the world, if it fell into the wrong hands. John Adams' and Peter Sellars' 2005 opera Doctor Atomic portrayed the creator of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, as a tragic hero. His creation, like the ring of Wagner and Tolkien, is capable of ending civilization through the way it is used. Adams' music is “Wagnerian in texture” (Kosman), using Götterdämmerung as “a precedent for an operatic treatment of the end of the world.” As “America's greatest living composer” (Kosman), John Adams combines influences from throughout music history, including styles of 1950's era science fiction film music, 1940's big band music and today's electronic music to create a portrait of the atomic bomb project that also resonates with current events.


The Lord of the Rings has recently been revived with director Peter Jackson's film version of the trilogy (2001-2003). The third film, The Return of the King, is one of the most critically and commercially successful fantasy films ever made. It is the first film to both be nominated for and win eleven Academy Awards, as well as the first film to win both the Academy Award and Hugo Science Fiction Achievement Award for Best Picture. The Return of the King is also second on the list of “All-Time Worldwide Box Office” earnings (IMDB). The science fiction and fantasy genre is the most popular in films today; eight out of the top ten movies fall into this category.


These films often use orchestral scores with leitmotifs for each character or situation, inspired by Wagner's use of this musical system. Many operas since Wagner’s Ring also use recurring motives in their scores, such as Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, Richard Strauss’ Elektra, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes (Grove Music Online). The original Star Trek series in the 1960's has an extensive musical score with motives that reoccur in different episodes. Recent films with symphonic scores and motives include John Williams' scores for Star Wars, Superman, and Harry Potter, Jerry Goldsmith and John Horner for the Star Trek films, Danny Elfman for Spider-Man and Batman, and Howard Shore for The Lord of the Rings (“Film score”, Amazon.com).


Science fiction and fantasy movies also have similar themes for the hero's journey to Siegfried's in the Ring. Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, Peter Parker, Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne, Harry Potter, and Worf all are raised by persons other than their parents, and are destined for a great journey or heroic task. Frodo must return the One Ring to Mordor, Luke's goal is to defeat Darth Vader, Peter Parker, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne fight crime as superheroes, Harry Potter discovers he is a wizard and must confront Lord Voldemort, and Worf is the first Klingon to become a Starfleet officer and must save the Klingon Empire from collapse. Star Wars contains many elements similar to Der Ring des Nibelungen, such as twin brother and sister reunited after being separated as children, a son being given his father's sword, a battle between two family members, and a major source of power: Alberich's Ring and Darth Vader's Death Star (Evensen). By adapting character archetypes with different settings, whether past, present or future, modern filmmakers show that myths have a timeless quality that appeals to every generation.


Modern stagings of the Ring have often taken their cues from science fiction or post-nuclear war stories, as well as the real-life 19th and 20th century history that inspired them. Patrice Chéreau's 1976 centenary production at Bayreuth was a major turning point for future Ring cycles, continuing the direction of Wieland Wagner's reinvention. While critical reaction was initially mixed, a reaction that has repeated itself since the very first performance of the complete Ring cycle in 1876 (Finck 367), by the last performance in 1980 the production received a “ninety-minute ovation” (Spotts 285). Chéreau connected Wagner's story with the Industrial Revolution, beginning with the hydro-electric plant setting of the Das Rheingold opening scene and progressing through to the 1920's. Richard Peduzzi's sets and Jacques Schmidt's costumes combined “today's frock-coat and yesterday's spear” (Sabor 188). In Siegfried, the forging of Nothung is carried out on a spectacular mechanical forge that dominates the stage, billowing smoke and fire as it projects visually what the singing and the orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez, portrays musically.


This production was the first Ring cycle to be filmed in its entirety (“The Making of the Ring”). It was recorded in 1980, and premiered on PBS television in 1983. Called “the operatic event of the decade on television” (O'Flaherty 1/83), it is perhaps the most widely seen staging of the Ring, having been subsequently released on videocassette and DVD. It also “comes across as television” (O'Flaherty 4/83), due to director Brian Large's concentration on the stage without distracting the audience from the drama by showing the orchestra or the inside of the opera house. Like a television drama, the operas were filmed without an audience in the Festspielhaus. Chéreau emphasized acting as an important part of the Ring production, making it an entertaining theater piece as well as a musical experience. This helps to bring more viewers to the Ring, as a more accessible form of entertainment overall: a music drama that incorporates all forms of art. As Andrei Serban, the director of the San Francisco Opera's 1999 Ring, says, Chéreau “influenced all modern productions of the Ring from the '70's on” (Kaplan 18).


The mythological quality of technology and abuses of its power has been portrayed in stagings such as Harry Küpfer's 1988-92 Bayreuth Ring set in a world contaminated by nuclear war, Götz Friedrich's 1987 Deutsche Oper “Time Tunnel” production, with “both present and past” characters and situations (Sabor 202), and Nikolaus Lehnhoff's “Munich Space Station” (Sabor 204) at the Bayerische Staatsoper in 1987, using “science fiction sets” by Erich Wonder. More recent productions have attempted to find a middle ground between traditional and radical to appeal to modern audiences.


Since Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen was first performed, audiences have been amazed by the music drama's fusion of all types of art. From the oldest myth to the most recent science fiction story, the human imagination is captured by the fantastic. These stories also show us archetypes of our own natures, from heroes to villains, and the consequences of their actions on a grand scale show the way to redemption in everyday life.

Monika E. Lewis

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