This is the second part of the research on Wagner’s Ring cycle. While in the first part I focused on the plot and themes within the story, this post will be centered on its musical elements and the production I’ve watched by Opera North.
Interestingly, the Ring cycle emerged from five years of silence, during which Wagner focused more on theoretical writings, such as the famous Opera and Drama, where his radical break with the opera of the time was formulated. Instead of following the bel canto traditions in the style Bellini and Donizetti, or the romantic spectacles in the style of Meyerbeer and Halevy, Wagner introduced his idea of Gesamtkunstwerk – the total art work. (Bassett, 2003: ix-x) With the four operas of the Ring cycle, Wagner entered the uncharted area of a new kind of musical drama, where instead of relying on the old aria and ensemble singing, he pioneered the technique of leitmotif.
In my previous musical education, the leitmotifs were mentioned in a very trivialized manner, as a kind of static musical labels given to the characters, objects and situations in Wagner’s operas. However, listening and watching the cycle changed my previous notion. First of all, what really surprised me is the fact that Wagner didn’t introduce the term himself, but it was Wolzogen who interpreted Wagner’s music. Second, more than being separate associative and referential musical themes, in the Ring cycle, leitmotifs establish a larger semantic network – they are a structural unification between text, music and drama.
As Grey (2008: 88) explains, in “constructing essentially the entire musical fabric of the score,” Wagner added the symphonic layer to the ring cycle operas, with orchestra receiving a new role, detached from its old position as the ‘harmonic-rhythmic carpet’ for the virtuosity of the singers, instead becoming the bearer of the drama. Furthermore, leitmotifs allow the orchestra to obtain mastery over the dramatic time, being free to comment on the events in three temporal dimensions – through anticipation, realization and reminiscence – the ‘musical-dramatic tenses’ for the future, present and past. Finally, what also surprised me about the leitmotifs is how dynamic they are, constantly changing context throughout story, shifting and transforming through the variations of different qualities. Within this novel structural matrix, the singing also transformed, being distanced from the popular lyrical style, and instead returning to the recitative or scene styles of earlier operas, which gave it a new type of realism, partly because the text doesn’t rely on the usual verse, but on the prose-like, non-rhyming lines that are imitating the medieval Stabreim poetry. (Grey, 2008: 86-87)
Finally, regarding the musical elements, much like Harold en Italie (click here to read my post), the ring cycle also relies on the physical spacing in the portrayal of the narrative, represented through the acoustics of the new theatrical environment requested by Wagner, in which the orchestra is concealed from the audience in the pit in order to create, in his words, the ‘mystic abyss’, so that the ‘spectral-sounding music’ could emanate from ‘the womb of the Earth’ as ‘the truest simulacrum of life itself’. (Millington, 2008: 80) In creating the immersive experience for the audience, while watching the ring, I have also noticed many instances when Wagner, just like Berlioz in Herold, would utilize the contrast between the offstage and onstage dramatic space, and it’s interesting how this topic hasn’t really been discussed in the academic and scholarly circles regarding the cycle.
In any case, the orchestra pit is the perfect subject that leads me to the production by Opera North from 2016 that I’ve watched, which against Wagner’s ideals, liberated the orchestra from the mystic abyss. Not only are the orchestral members and the conductor visible and take up a large portion of the stage, but every other element, such as scenery and costumes, has been stripped to a bare minimum. For example, instead of the stage being physically transformed into elaborate, landscape-like mythical sceneries, this production utilizes three square screens that seem like a triptych painting in video format, showing the different settings of the story, such as water, fire, rainbow bridge, forest and similar. In the streaming, these were displayed as split screens, often superimposed over the performers, providing the characters with a unique filmic dimension. (Fig. 1)
Fig. 1. The orchestra on stage and the triptych projection design in Opera North’s production of the Ring cycle (Opera North, 2016)
Along these lines, as a full-time film student, what I found extremely interesting is how cinematic everything seemed. In fact, many scenes were tailored for the screen in their staging, especially those where it is obvious that in the live performance, the performers are simply standing next to each other, but with the superimposed triptych, it looks as if the characters are facing each other from different points of view of the camera, opposite one another. (Fig. 2)
Fig. 2. With the projected imagery, the performers standing next to one another on stage seem to face each other. (Opera North, 2016)
Beside the scenery, the props and costumes were almost non-existent, rather with the performers wearing the concert attire, relying more on the lighting design and miming to symbolically bring the objects and characters alive. In this sense, I was quite surprised how only a small addition to the concert attire or a gesture could help the audience perceive certain things in the story, such as the pulling out of the red handkerchief as Fasolt’s death (Fig. 3), or the gloves as a representation of Valkyries. (Fig. 4) But more than that, what truly transforms all the minimalist elements into the fantastical world of the narrative is the superb acting of the cast.
Fig. 3. The bloodshed and Fasolt’s death symbolized in the red handkerchief (Opera North, 2016)
Fig. 4. The glove as the representation of Valkyrie Brunnhilde (Opera North, 2016)
Here I should mention that besides film, I also study drama as a part of my full-time joint honors degree. This summer, in order to brush up my drama skills, I have attended the Guildhall Summer School for Acting in Musical Theatre. In the course of intensive three weeks, they have completely transformed me as a performer, teaching me how to become present on stage, to believe in the text I am sharing to the audience, to paint possibilities and not present empty words. And in the case of Opera North’s production, what really affected me as a viewer was how present the cast was in their performance, staying with each thought they were sharing through singing, often as if ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ what their characters do, absolutely believing in the world and story they were creating. In several cases, the same cast member would play several characters, and it’s even more exciting how the quality of their interpretation remains with the same strength. In truth, I never thought that acting could be integrated so strongly into operas, and before watching this production, I would probably only single out singing as the strongest part of opera performances. In this regard, this production is definitely the one I will carry with me for years to come and I would recommend this production for anyone who is keen to see the Ring cycle.
In conclusion, despite the fact that I thought the Ring cycle would be too long and tiresome, I was surprisingly astonished by its troublesome origination, gripping storytelling, novel musical elements and the production that largely challenges the old performing styles with its minimalism and exceptional acting. All of these things confronted my previous understanding of operas, their music and staging, proving how powerful this theatrical genre can still be. Lastly, there are so many things that have opened up to me with the cycle, both as a musician, film and drama student and a performer, which I hope to utilize in my future work in any of these artistic fields.
Bassett, P. (2003) The Nibelung’s Ring: A Guide to Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen. Kent Town: Wakefield Press.
Der Ring des Nibelungen. (2016) [Online streaming] Opera North, UK. Directed by Mumford, P. At: https://www.operanorth.co.uk/the-ring-cycle/ (Accessed on 12th July 2018)
Grey, T. S. (2008) ‘Leitmotif, temporality, and musical design in the Ring’ In: Cambridge Companion to Wagner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 85-114
Millington, B. (2008) ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen: conception and interpretation’ In: Grey, T. S. (ed.) Cambridge Companion to Wagner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 74-84