If someone were to tell you they were taking you on a 17 hour adventure into a world of giants, dwarves, a magic ring, dragons, heroes, the reforging of an ancient sword, and an old man with a magic staff, you’d be forgiven for thinking you might be meeting Gandalf, or Daenerys, or that your friend was finally asking you to join their Dungeons and Dragons game.
What if they then told you that all of this was going to happen live, in front of your very eyes, accompanied by a live orchestra, and performed in special venues around the world? Well, if you’re an opera fan you might have an inkling that they were talking about Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
However, if you didn’t get that from clues, or if you’ve never heard of ‘Wagner’s Ring’, here’s your very quick to this four-part fantasy epic: Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Number of complete operas: 4
Running time total: approx 900 minutes, not including intervals
Number of characters: 34 + chorus
Mythical races encountered: Nibelungs (dwarves), Gods, Dragons, Giants, Norns, Rhinemaidens, Valkyries.
Epic battle scenes: Several
Number of dangerously powerful magic rings: One. Of course.
TL:DR Plot Summaries
Das Rheingold: The dwarf Alberich makes a Ring of Power, and the Tarnhelm, from stolen magic river gold, and with it threatens to control the world. Wotan (Odin, the king of the gods) tricks him and takes the Ring and Tarnhelm, but then has to use it as payment for the giants who built Valhalla for him, otherwise they’ll take his wife’s sister instead and all the gods will die. Oh, and Erda warns everyone that the Ring is really bad news.
Die Walkure: Fate, very much manipulated by Wotan, brings twins Siegmund and Sieglinde together They fall in love and Sieglinde gets pregnant. Wotan’s wife, Fricka, can’t believe that Wotan has agreed to such incest, and demands that Siegmund is killed. Wotan gives the order, but his daughter Brünnhilde will not see a pregnant lady die, and rescues Sieglinde. Wotan punishes Brünnhilde by leaving her on a mountainside for any man brave enough to take. Meanwhile, the Ring is safely guarded by the giant Fafner, who is now a dragon.
Siegfried: Siegfried, Sieglinde and Siegmund’s child, is now a man, and has been raised by the dwarf Mime, who intends to use his strength to get the Ring from the dragon Fafner. Siegmund kills the dragon, and the deceitful Mime, takes the Ring and Tarnhelm and goes out in search of love. A bird leads him to Brünnhilde’s mountain, and the two of them fall in love. Meanwhile, Wotan has been wandering the Earth searching for truth, and has come to the realisation that the things he started will bring an end to the Gods.
Götterdämmerung: Now that people know Siegfried has the Ring, they are after him. Alberich manipulates his son Hagen to try and get the Ring back, and Hagen literally stabs Siegfried in the back. The Ring goes to Brünnhilde, and in her despair at losing Siegfried, she jumps onto his funeral pyre with it. The river surges and the Rhinemaidens take the Ring back to the depths, where it belongs. Meanwhile, Wotan sets fire to Valhalla, taking all the gods and heroes with him.
There are so many characters in this story that it’s difficult to remember who is related and how people are connected. Here’s a super simple breakdown:
Wotan is the king of the gods. Wotan is married to Fricka. They have no children. Fricka has several brothers and sisters including: Froh, Donner, Freia. Loge, the god of fire, is a demi-god, not related to the other gods.
Giants Fasolt and Fafner are brothers. Fasolt loves Freia.
Erda is the primeval mother of the earth. Erda has 3 daughters: the Norns. Then Wotan and Erda have 9 daughters: the Valkyries, Brünnhilde, Waltraute, Helmwige, Grimgerde, Rossweisse, Schwertleite, Gerhilde, Ortlinde, and Siegrune.
Wotan has two children with a mortal of the Wälsung race: estranged twins Sieglinde, and Siegmund. Sieglinde is married to Hunding. Sieglinde and Siegmund fall in love, and have Siegfried.
Nibelungs Alberich and Mime are brothers. Mime adopts and raises Siegfried.
Gunther and Gutrune are brother and sister of the Gibichung race. Hagen is their half-brother. Alberich is Hagen’s father. Gunther loves Brünnhilde. Gutrune loves Siegfried.
The Rhinemaiden sisters, Wellgunde, Woglinde, and Flosshilde, are the guardians of the Rhinegold and aren’t related to anyone else.
Tip for Opera Newbies
If you’ve never seen a Wagner opera before, and aren’t sure whether to invest in the whole Ring Cycle, you could start with just Das Rheingold. It works perfectly as a stand alone story, you get treated to many of Wagner’s wonderful melodies, which set up the musical world to come. Of the four stories, Das Rheingold is the most lighthearted, with only one death.
Conversations at the bar
Here are a few quick talking points to help you look knowledgeable during those many intervals:
- “Of course, it is no surprise that these legends hold many similarities with The Lord of the Rings, as Tolkien and Wagner were working from the same source material, the Norse Poetic Edda, which is the oldest known written collection of Norse mythology.”
- “Did you know that Wagner actually named his own son Siegfried, like the hero of this story? He also built the Bayreuth (pronounced ‘Bahy – roit’) Festival as his son’s inheritance.”
- “Wagner actually composed Siegfried’s Funeral March before much of the rest of the operas. He then felt he had to tell the story of how Siegfried got to that point.”
- “Every word and every note was written by Wagner himself. Above anything else, he wanted the words and the music to find a complete unity, so they had to come from the same artistic source.”
- “The cycle was first performed in its entirety in 1876 at the Bayreuth Festival.”
Hopefully, all of that has tempted you to find out more. Check out our guides to explore each opera in more details:
Then test out your knowledge in our Epic Ring Cycle Quiz!