National Post - Toronto, Canada
Ring Cycle inspired Hitler, but not Tolkein
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Scott Stinson, National Post
The Ring Cycle is an extraordinarily complex piece of work. Scott Stinson attempts to break it down.
So, just what is Wagner's The Ring, anyway?
Is The Ring the same thing as Lord of the Rings?
Although Wagner and J.R.R. Tolkein were contemporaries, the author shrugged off any attempts to compare the two works. "Both rings are round," is apparently all he would allow in the way of similarities. But despite Tolkein's dismissiveness, there are all kinds of parallels between the four Ring operas and the three Ring books. Tolkein buffs are having none of it, likely because they wouldn't want the novels to be considered derivative.
But The Ring has influenced many works of art, hasn't it?
Absolutely. Opera, most obviously, for which it created a whole new standard. But the powerful orchestral sounds of The Ring Cycle have also influenced all kinds of musicians over the years. The John Williams score for the Star Wars films, for example, owes much if its style to The Ring. And even the entire genre of heavy metal, with its many layers of soaring guitar sounds, has been called Wagnerian. Then there's Elmer Fudd, whose signature Kill the Wabbitt was famously set to the strains of Ride of the Valkyries, the most famous of Wagner's compositions. It appears in the second of The Ring operas, Die Walkure.
What else has it influenced?
Well, there's Hitler, for one. He was, to put it mildly, a big Wagner fan. (It helped that the German composer was quite openly anti-Semitic.) Wagner's orchestral sounds became clearly associated with the Third Reich, as they were played as part of most Nazi functions. Many of Wagner's original works were said to be kept in Hitler's Berlin bunker, and were lost during the siege of the German capital. Among those who drew inspiration from Wagner (and weren't fascist dictators) were Friedrich Nietzsche, James Joyce and W.H. Auden. And the key character Brunnhilde sounds a lot like that comic strip Broom Hilda. But we're just guessing on that one.
Ah. What's the story in The Ring Cycle, then?
How long do you have? Seriously, space issues make it a little tricky to distill an 18-hour production into a few paragraphs. But here's a stab at it:
A dwarf (nibelung) lives at the bottom of the Rhine. He makes an all-powerful ring out of gold. Over the course of the four operas, various people, both human and immortal, attempt to acquire it. The ring is cursed, though (the dwarf was a bit of a jerk, really) so woe betide anyone who gets ahold of it. And woe really does betide them: our rough count figures about 10 characters who end up dead or powerless after grabbing the ring.
Along the way the audience is entertained by several double-crosses, a couple of epic battles, multiple bouts of treachery (often involving magic potions) and more than a couple instances of star-crossed love between both humans and immortals (and in one case -- yikes -- siblings.)
I think it's fair to say this was pretty heady stuff for 1874. Because it's still considered cutting-edge today.
© National Post 2006