The Ring of the Nibelungs (An Analysis)
by Anna Russell

Now that the opera season is with us again, I feel it would be appropriate for me to give a talk on Wagner’s “Ring der Nibelungen.” Now I know that analyses of “the Ring” are frequently given over the radio by some great expert for the edification of other great experts, but these are usually so esoteric as to leave the average person as befogged as before…and in fact I think tends to discourage him from going altogether. So I would like to tell you about it as from the point of view of one average opera-goer to another.

Now, the first thing is that every person and event in the Ring cycle has what is grandly called a “leitmotif.” Now you don’t need to worry about that, it merely means a “signature tune.”

The scene opens in the River Rhine. IN it. If it were in New York, it would be like the Hudson. And swimming around there are the three Rhinemaidens…a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters. Or sometimes they’re called “nixies.” Mairsie-nix and doesie-nix and little nixie-divie. And they sing their signature tune, which is as follows. [Plays and sings] “Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle, walle zur Wiege! wagala weia! wallala, weiala weia!” I won’t translate it, because it doesn’t mean anything.

The Rhine maidens are looking after a lump of magic gold. And the magic of this gold consists of the fact that anybody who will renounce love and make a ring out of this gold will become Master of the Universe. This is the gimmick.

Now, up from underneath the river, as it might be, let’s say, the Holland Tunnel, comes a little dwarf called Alberich. [Piano swoop.] And here he is. [Plays and sings] “Garstig glatter glitsch’riger Glimmer! wie gleit’ ich aus! Mit Händen un Füssen nicht fasse noch halt’ ich das schlecke Geschlüpfer! Feuchtes Nass füllt mir die Nase…” Well you can see he’s excessively unattractive. He makes a pass at the Rhine maidens, who think he’s perfectly dreadful, and so they’re not very nice to him, they tell him [Plays and sings] “Pfui! du haariger, höckriger Geck! Schwarzes, schweiliges Schwefelgezwerg!” So he thinks “Well, I’m not going to get any love anyhow, I can see that, so I may as well renounce it, and take this lump of gold, make the Ring, and become Master of the Universe. So he takes it back to the Holland Tunnel with him [Piano glissando]. And here he is making the Ring. [Plays] No steel strikes here! Well, that’s him.

Well, now, up here, as it might be on top of the Empire State Building, you find Wotan, the head god. And he’s a crashing bore, too. Well he and his wife, Mrs Fricka Wotan, have had a castle built for them called Valhalla [Plays piano theme] by a couple of giants called Fasolt and Fafner. Well of course the giants want to be paid for building this castle, and part of the giants builders union scale consists of this magic ring that Alberich’s made. So Wotan goes all the way down from where he is to Alberich [Piano smacks] and takes the Ring away from him. Well of course Alberich is simply furious. So he puts a terrible curse on the Ring. [Plays classic Villain theme.] That’s the wrong curse, isn’t it! I’m sorry—here—[Plays Alberich’s curse music.]

But Wotan takes no notice, he takes the ring up [Piano smacks] and gives it to Fasolt. Well right away Fafner kills Fasolt [Piano SMACK] to get the Ring for himself. So Wotan knows that the curse is working. And this worries him, so he goes down to ground level [Piano black-key glissando] to consult an old fortune-teller friend of his called My Friend Erda; she is a green-faced torso that pops out of the ground—at least we think she’s a torso, that’s all anyone’s ever seen of her. And she says to Wotan, she says [Plays and sings] “Weiche, Wotan, weiche!” Which means “Be careful, Wotan, be careful.” She then bears him eight daughters.

These daughters are the Valkyries, headed by Brünnhilde…and they are the NOISIEST women! [Plays and sings] “Heiaha! Heiaha! Hojotoho! Hojotoho! Heiaha! Wo—” Well, that is the end of Part 1.

In Part 2 you find Wotan wandering about on the earth, and he has a couple of illegitimage children by a mortal—Siegmund and Sieglinde—whilst disguised under the singularly appropriate name of Wolf. These children become separated at birth, and Sieglinde marries a funny sort of a man called Hunding. He plays the Wagner tuba. [Plays Hunding’s leitmotif.] He plays it very well. He also has an ash tree with a sword stuck in it growing through his living room floor.

Well one day who should turn up but Siegmund, and he falls madly in love with Sieglinde, regardless of the fact that she’s married to Hunding, which is immoral, and she’s his own sister, which is illegal. But that’s the beauty of Grand Opera, you can do anything so long as you sing it. And after having given Hunding a Mickey Finn so that they won’t wake him up, they certainly do sing it! [Plays and sings] “Du bist der Lenz nach dem ich verlangte in frostigen Winters Frist.”

Well when they’ve got that off their chests, Siegmund pulls out the sword that’s stuck in the tree that grows in the house that Jack—that HUNDING—built, and they run away together. Well of course when Hunding comes to he’s very annoyed, and he chases after them, and there’s a tremendous battle that everybody gets mixed up in. [Plays battle music.] There’s Hunding dead. [Plays battle music.] There’s Siegmund dead. [Plays battle music.] Mr & Mrs Wotan have an argument. [Plays battle music.] And Wotan’s furious with Brünnhilde.

He’s mad at Brünnhilde because he told her she was NOT to side with Siegmund…and she DID. So as a punishment he puts her on a rock and he surrounds her with impenetrable fire. [Plays fire music.] And that’s the end of Part 2. [Plays piano fillip.]

Well Part 3 is devoted to the growing-up of Siegfried, the child of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and he’s very young, and he’s very handsome, and he’s very strong, and he’s very brave, and he’s very stupid…. He’s a regular Little Abner type. There’s not too much you need to know about this opera except that Wotan comes down and plays Twenty Questions with him…and Siegfried gets the Ring. …D’y’remember the Ring? Well he gets the Ring by killing Fafner, the giant…who’s turned into a dragon in this opera, don’t ask me why. Well then a little bird tells him, and he finds Brünnhilde on the fire-surrounded rock. Well now he’s never seen a woman before, so he doesn’t know what she is…but he soon finds out…and they go in for some very competitive singing—the type of thing “anything you can sing I can sing louder.” And… [Plays and sings] “Sie ist mir ewig ist mir immer Erb’ und Eigen, Ein;” “Er ist mir ewig, ist mir immer, Erb’ und—” Oh, it’s terrific. I think probably she wins.

Well then they fall in love, and he gives her the Ring. She’s his aunt, by the way. But nonetheless, they are in love, and everything’s very happy and you’d think that would be the end of it wouldn’t you. No fear.

Göttedammerung. That’s Part 4. Well now in the beginning of Part 4 you have the three Norns, or Fates, and they are also daughters of My Friend Erda the Green-Faced Torso, and therefore presumably they are also Siegfried’s aunts. But this bunch of aunts are just as droopy as the first lot were noisy. You remember the Valkyrie aunts, they go [Plays and sings] “Heiaha! Heiaha! Hojotoho—” well, that. Well this lot are just the opposite: [Plays and sings] “Dämmert der Tag schon auf? Hinab! Zur Mutter! Hinab!”

Well this dreary lot of aunts, if they don’t tell this whole story right over again from the beginning. So actually you can miss out Parts 1, 2, and 3, and come in at the beginning of Göttedammerung, and you’ll be just as far ahead.

Well meanwhile Siegfried’s tired of love on the rocks with Brünnhilde. And Brünnhilde’s gone completely to pieces. You remember her signature tune used to be [Plays and sings] “Hojotoho! Hojotoho! Heiaha! Heiaha!” Well NOW it’s changed to this: [Plays and sings] “La, la-la-la-la la la la la la la….” So love has certainly taken the ginger out of HER.

Well then Siegfried goes off on his travels and he meets three people: Gunther and Gutrune Gibich and their half-brother Hagen…whose mother was a Gibich…but whose father was Alberich the dwarf. D’y’remember Alberich? So Hagen greets Siegfried like this: [Plays and sings] “Heil, Seigfried! theurer Held!” Now, do you recognize that tune? That’s the SAME MUSIC as Alberich’s curse! [Plays Alberich’s Curse music.]

And sure enough there’s dirty work afoot. Because Hagen gives Siegfried a magic potion that makes him forget all about Brünnhilde and fall in love with Gutrune Gibich…who by the way is the only woman that Siegfried has ever come across who hasn’t been his aunt. …I’m not making this up, you know!

Well, so, when Brünnhilde finds out about this, of course naturally she’s frightfully annoyed and she plots with Hagen to kill Siegfried. And Hagen kills him. Well of course as soon as he’s dead she’s sorry…I know you men are going to say “so like a woman,” and…. And so she is sorry, and she builds a funeral pyre, and she puts Siegfried on it. And she gets on her horse, and she gallops on the funeral pyre too, and she lights it, and they burn up. [Plays Fire music.] Well that sets Valhalla alight, and IT burns up. [Plays Fire music.] Well then Wotan and all the gods burn up. [Plays Fire music.] And the whole works catches fire, and it ALL burns up. [Plays Fire music.] It’s all burnt.

Well then the River Rhine overflows its banks. D’y’remember the Rhine? And the waters come in over the ashes. And who d’you think turns up next? The Rhinemaidens. So they take their lump of gold, I mean the Ring, which is of course their lump of gold, and they put it back where it came from. And after sitting through this whole operation, what do you hear? You hear: [Plays and sings Rheinmaidens’ leitmotif]. YOU’RE EXACTLY WHERE YOU STARTED TWENTY HOURS AGO!