“Der Ring des Nibelungen,” literally, ‘The Ring of the Nibelungen’ in English, is the most famous cycle of operas by the legendary and controversial German composer Richard Wagner. It is split into four parts: “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walküre,” “Siegfried,” and “Götterdämmerung.” It has been performed countless times and early next month, it will be performed by the Seattle Opera. Seattle’s “Ring” is widely regarded as the premiere Wagnerian opera production in the United States.
Wagner’s compositions exude the Teutonic power of his homeland and it is undeniable that the story of “Der Ring” is highly influenced by the Nibelungenlied, the national epic of Germany. Gods and men alike clash and mingle and mighty warriors fall in love with fair, golden-haired Valkyries.
The story, told through song and exquisite choreography, deals with a cursed ring stolen by Wotan, greatest of the gods, and how it changes hands over several generations of mortals. Much of the plot will be familiar to anyone who knows the legend of Sigurd the Volsung, a Norse myth that Wagner also drew a great deal of inspiration from. Like in the old legend, a mortal man is destined to slay the dragon Fafnir and claim the ring for himself but is seduced by the beautiful daughter of Wotan, Valkyrie maiden Brünnhilde, a relationship that is doomed to end in tragedy.
Though many people in the present day have never seen any of the four operas in the cycle, it has had a profound impact on the 21st century despite the fact that it was written a 150 years ago. The most well-known orchestration from the cycle, “Flight of the Valkyries,” is used quite often in movies and television, most notably in the Vietnam War movie “Apocalypse Now,” to the point that it has almost become a cliché.
It is possible that Wagner’s epic of rings and magic influenced the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, who went on to write “The Lord of the Rings,” a fantasy epic based on Germanic folklore and tradition.
Yet despite his skills as a composer and a storyteller, Richard Wagner himself is an extremely divisive figure. He was a determined anti-Semite, and wrote a great deal on his beliefs that the Jewish population of the German Empire was actively undermining the Empire’s ambitions. Decades after Wagner’s death, the Nazi party extolled him as a national hero and used his music to foster a nationalistic fervor among the general population.
Despite the negative associations with the man himself, Wagner remains one of the greatest composers, along with the likes of Mozart and Beethoven and his work deserves the appreciation of modern audiences.