Big Bad Wagner - Foreplay

Quick note: Wagner did not actually call his theatrical creations ‘operas’ but rather, music-dramas. Mainly because he was a bit of a pompous jackass. Apparently, there is a musician out there with a bigger ego than Kanye. 

In 1848 Wagner began to write a brand new libretto (an opera’s text, which he called ‘the poem’.) The Death of Siegfried is very consciously based on existing mythology, which the audience would have instantly recognized and related to. (There is an amazing scene in Quentin Tarantino’s recent film Django Unchained where the cultured European bounty-hunter, played by Christoph Waltz, tells Django the synopsis of exactly this story. He says every child in Germany knows it.)  

This ‘music-drama’ recounts the final chapter in the tale of the famous dragon slayer, Siegfried, who rescued the demi-goddess Brünnhilde from eternal sleep. In this part of the legend, Siegfried has gone off to rack up Heroic Deeds (cause apparently that’s what heroes do.) On his journey, Siegfried is bewitched with a magic potion and inadvertently betrays his new bride. Brünnhilde, now scorned, conspires with Siegfried’s enemies to plot his death. After Siegfried dies, Brünnhilde realizes what has happened. Filled with remorse, she erects a massive funeral pyre for the great hero, ascends it with her horse, and the whole world goes up in purifying flames. The End.

Wagner really wanted this to powerfully resonate with his audience – after all, it draws on their ancestral lore – and so he decides to provide some context and back-story. He therefore starts the libretto with an extended scene in which three Norns (clairvoyants) tell the pre-history that has led to this moment.


Wagner is quite enamoured with this back-story. He says to himself, ‘Dick – you really should tell them about Siegfried’s youth, you know with the dragon and finding the girl and whatnot. That way, the audience will have a whole lot of emotional baggage when it all falls apart in this chapter and it will be really super dramatic.’ (Obviously, I’m quoting directly.) So that’s just what he does.

ARNIE AS CONAN - could easily be Siegfried

Wagner now writes a prequel, and calls it The Young Siegfried. Here, the arrogant adolescent Hero is enslaved to a cruel master, whom Siegfried eventually has to kill in order to escape. He slays the dragon, gets the girl (Brünnhilde) and they all live happily ever after – until the next bit I just told you about happens.

But then Wagner says to himself (again, I am quoting,) ‘You know what, Dick. So that the audience really understands the significance of who Siegfried is, and for that matter who Brünnhilde is, we really should go back and tell that story too.’ So that’s just what he does.  



XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS - same basic character as Brünnhilde

Wagner now writes The Valkyrie, which is about Brünnhilde. It opens with a man being chased through the woods during a howling storm. Exhausted, he collapses outside a house where a woman, Sieglinde, finds him and nurses him back to health. Sieglinde’s abusive husband, Hunding, comes home and is none too impressed to find a strange man there. Hunding begrudgingly allows the man to eat with them because Hunding is a ‘moral man’, but then he declares that tomorrow they will have to duel to the death. Unarmed, the young man feels helpless, but Sieglinde fancies him, so she slips Hunding a ruffie and tells the young guy, ‘Hey, look there’s a sword stuck in that huge tree.’ (The tree, by the way, is growing through the middle of the living room floor.) The two sing rapturously about how they recognize something in each other that they instinctively love, the guy heroically pulls the sword out of the tree (where many others had tried and failed) and with this he renames himself Siegmund, meaning ‘victory-able’. 

Siegmund and Sieglinde are basically like He-Man and She-Ra, and as in the cartoon, these two have worked out that they are long-lost brother and sister twins. The difference is, in Wagner, they get sexy with it! Anyway, they escape together but are pursued by Hunding and his kinsmen. This has all been to set the scene for Brünnhilde’s grand entry. Stay with me!

HE-MAN & SHE-RA - same basic origin story as SIEGMUND & SIEGLINDE

Brünnhilde is a Valkyrie and the daughter of the head of the gods, Wotan. A Valkyrie is a mythical being endowed with certain godly powers, like basic magic and being able to move between the spirit world and the human world. Valkyries ride winged horses and collect the spirits of fallen heroes, taking them to live in Valhalla, the great celestial palace of the gods.

Brünnhilde has been instructed by Wotan to protect Siegmund, clearly a great hero (by the way, Siegmund is also Wotan’s offspring from a mortal woman.) But Wotan’s wife, Fricka – the goddess of marriage and fidelity – says it was unlawful for Siegmund to elope with Sieglinde because she is already married, and so Siegmund must be sacrificed. Wotan is greatly conflicted about this, and after originally telling Brünnhilde to protect Siegmund, he now despairingly tells her to let him die.  

Brünnhilde defies Wotan, and attempts to save Siegmund. Wotan intercedes at the last minute and Siegmund is mortally wounded. Sieglinde wants to kill herself out of sorrow for her beloved’s death, but Brünnhilde – blessed with clairvoyance – tells Sieglinde she is pregnant with Siegmund’s son (that was fast, they only met last night!)

Wotan is enraged by Brünnhilde’s disobedience. As punishment, she is banished upon a mountaintop in a magical slumber and is encircled by impenetrable fire. Impenetrable, that is, except by a truly fearless hero. The End. Until the next bit I told you about before.

Brünnhilde being rescued by Siegfried

But then Wagner says to himself, ‘Bugger it. This thing is already going to last more than 13 hours, what’s a few more?! As it stands, no one has any bloody idea who Wotan is. So I’ll tell his backstory real quick.’ Thus, Wagner writes the prequel to the prequel’s prequel, which is all about the gods, and what a huge mess they make of everything.






WOTAN in The Ring is exactly the same mythological character as Odin in Thor

Wagner does all of this – writes four lengthy librettos – BEFORE he even composes a single note of music.

Next time we'll talk about the notes! Stay tuned. 

Kirsten Hicks