A grumpy dragon.
An even grumpier dwarf.
A sleeping heroine who has to be awoken by a brave-but-dim hero.
The story of Siegfried, and indeed, Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle as a whole may not, on the surface, appear to the stuff of 21st-century headline news. Yet the four operas that make up the whole series are inspired by many of the same Norse myths and Icelandic poems that informed J.R.R. Tolkien’s immensely popular Lord of the Rings book series, and, clocking in at a whopping 18 hours in total, the operas are almost on a par with Peter Jackson’s films (I’m thinking of the Directors’ Edition DVDs, rather than the many Hobbit-movie offspring they subsequently spawned…)
Much is written about our diminishing attention spans in the age of triple-screening entertainment and smartphones, yet it’s clearly not the case that people are altogether shunning long nights at the theatre. Angels in America, The Ferryman, and screenings of Abel Gance’s Napoléon, are just a few recent examples from the world of the stage and screen, where keen audiences are bucking this cultural trend. Perhaps it even has something to do with our compulsion to keep endlessly scrolling…
Either way, until recently, I thought that Wagner’s operas had good bits (dum dum da-dum Daa Daa, AKA The Flight of the Valkyries), but for which the composer made you wait just slightly too long. So far, so Rossini… (the Italian opera composer famously quipped: ‘Wagner has some beautiful moments, but terrible quarters of an hour.’) So it was a revelation to me, when, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself surtitling the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Siegfried – the third instalment in the epic four-opera tetralogy – when something wholly unexpected happened. Reader, I have a confession to make: I’ve become a Wagner fan.
That confession is not an easy one. For all I loved delivering pre-performance talks at Welsh National Opera, as Dramaturg between 2013-16, the exchanges I had with Wagner audiences were some of the strangest of any breed of opera-lover. One gentleman came up to me after I had just completed a 30-minute talk about Lohengrin, and, without any of the pleasantries, opened with the heart-sinking line: “You neglected to mention that in 1876…” before proceeding to inform me of a niche biographical insight which would, I was informed, have redeemed my talk.
Another particularly ardent Wagner-lover asked me, in the tone of a military interrogation: “Have you been to Bayreuth?” When I replied, shame-faced, in the negative, having not yet prioritized my attendance at the composer’s purpose-built auditorium in Germany, I was thoroughly castigated and then informed that: “If you do go, you mustn’t take the bus up the hill to the theatre.” “I mustn’t?”, I asked. “No!” he exclaimed “You have to walk. Wagner would have wanted you to walk! It’s a pilgrimage.”
So what is it about this composer that inspires such passionate – and occasionally fanatical – devotion? And have I joined their ranks? Perhaps it was the escapism offered by a world of fantastical beasts, of spells, of betrayals and blossoming love duets, allowed to flourish in a rugged, natural setting of caves, forests, and mountaintops, that was what I needed. “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world”, says Philip Pullman. The story hooked me. I’m always fascinated by what happens when we try to imbue folkloric characters with three-dimensional psychology, and the plight of Siegfried and Brünnhilde was no exception. It also, of course, had a lot to do with the performances of the orchestra and soloists – an international army of musical heroes who conjured the story into being. Their presence, combining musical skill with international collaboration, was the other, secondary story that I needed to hear. It was the antidote to the political events unfolding beyond the concert hall.
Either way, I was transfixed and transported. And as Brünnhilde awoke to the surging radiance of the score, to sing the words ‘Hail, bright sun’, ‘Hail, glorious day’, it struck me that that is the way to wake up in the morning. Having said that, I’m a bit more like Fafner the Dragon, before I’ve had my coffee.
Here’s to Die Walküre at Longborough this summer (surtitled by yours truly), the Prequel to Siegfried, and, I suspect, a new fascination with the Ring Cycle in general. Perhaps a trip to Bayreuth beckons…