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Wagner in Brisbane

Queensland Symphony Orchestra Chief Conductor Umberto Clerici, and a statue of the Flying Dutchman by Caspar von Zumbusch in Haus Wahnfried, Bayreuth. Photography Jay Patel, Dreamstime/Britvich, and Peter Bassett.

Die Walküre Act I. Photograph Opera Australia

Opera Australia’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in Brisbane – 1 to 21 December 2023. Symposia and Pre-Performance Talks.

WSQ President Rosemary Cater-Smith and Founding President Hal Davis at the First Ring Symposium. Other WSQ Members in the background.

Symposia/Talks host and WSQ Past-President Peter Bassett, Ring Conductor Philippe Auguin, and WSQ Committee Member & Presenter Stephen Emmerson at the First Ring Symposium.

WSQ Vice-President & Presenter Colin Mackerras, Conductor Philippe Auguin, Director Chen Shi-Zheng, and Costume Designer Anita Yavich at the First Ring Symposium.

One of the Second Cycle Pre-Performance Talks. 

Photography by Cathie Duffy. For other photos and information see:


The text of Peter Bassett’s talk in the First Ring Symposium on 2nd December 2023. For the texts of talks in the Second and Third Symposia, see the Essays and Reviews page of this website.

A Ring without boundaries seems an appropriate way to describe Opera Australia’s Brisbane production, which is a Ring for the modern world. The whole idea of an absence of boundaries comes from Wagner himself, who wrote: “Whereas the Greek work of art expressed the spirit of a splendid nation, the work of art of the future is intended to express the spirit of free people irrespective of all national boundaries. The national element in it must be no more than an ornament, an added individual charm, and not a confining boundary.”

Most people are drawn to Wagner’s works through his music, and rightly so. Ironically though, the music is so complete in itself, so vivid and expressive in conveying the drama, that this must present the ultimate challenge for a stage director. What to show? How much to add? As director Chen Shi-Zheng has put it: “Wagner should be allowed to speak for himself”.

And what did Wagner say for himself? In 1871, when he was working on the score of Götterdämmerung, he delivered a lecture to the Royal Academy of Arts in Berlin entitled The Destiny of Opera. It was a final attempt to persuade his contemporaries to his view of opera’s future. He admitted that it had been hard going, and he likened the experience to being a lonely wanderer soliloquising to a chorus of croaking frogs in the theatre critics’ swamp!

At the core of his argument was the conviction, already put into practice, that an operatic score should be liberated from the tyranny of arbitrary musical patterns, that it should derive its coherence from its relationship to the drama, and that it should observe only such formal requirements as evolved spontaneously from within itself. If these principles strike us today as not especially revolutionary it’s because we are heirs to Wagner’s legacy. He had made himself the master of everything to do with the creation of an opera, and in this, as in so many things, he was a phenomenon. How many composers today write their own libretti? Hardly any. And yet, his mature operas exhibit a unique degree of integration because every aspect of them is a product of the same creative impulse and the same creative mind. As Nietzsche observed, it is only “the rarest of powers” that can exercise control over two worlds as disparate as poetry and music. Wagner argued for a new type of poetic text that took account of the particular attributes and constraints of the German language – so different from the Italian. From such a text, he said, would emerge a dramatic, declamatory vocal line, often un-lyrical and un-vocal to the point where the human voice was treated almost as an instrument of the orchestra.

Wagner’s insistence that formal musical structures should evolve spontaneously from within a work, and not be imposed upon it, was exemplified by The Mastersingers of Nuremberg when the Ring was still far from finished. This allowed him to demonstrate to post-Tristan sceptics, like Hanslick, his mastery of musical forms such as the chorale, the fugally-inspired toccata, and the quintet. He was making the point that his new music was far from formless – it just followed a course that was unfamiliar. Die Meistersinger is a ‘masterwork’ in which the composer demonstrates the rules that guide his art. It even follows the structure of a traditional ‘master-song’ as explained by Hans Sachs to Walther von Stolzing in Act III.

The conductor Philippe Auguin has said: “Wagner’s 11 major works are 11 different worlds. There are 11 different Wagners”. Although the composer didn’t complete the score of Die Meistersinger until 1867, he had drafted its earliest scenario in 1845, just a few months after Tannhäuser. And how different was the Wagner of 1845 from the composer of 1867! In 1845, his aim had been solely to balance the aristocratic world of the Minnesingers of the 12th and 13th centuries with the down-to-earth bourgeois Mastersingers of the 15th and 16th centuries. Tannhäuser, which he labelled a ‘grand romantic opera in three acts’, was undeniably operatic, and it demonstrates exactly what Wagner was distancing himself from in his later works, including the Ring. A good example of the ‘operatic’ Tannhäuser is the rapturous duet between Elisabeth and Tannhäuser after the latter has returned to the stately Wartburg from the indulgent realm of the Venusberg. They sing a rhyming text which translates as:

We praise the hour of greeting, we praise the power of love, that looks upon our meeting with blessings from above. At last the spell is broken, new life is given to me. To love I have awoken, and love has set me free! 

This is romantic opera, pure and simple. It is not music drama.

While it is true that Wagner didn’t coin the term ‘Music Drama’, he did distinguish between his later works and what he considered to be the ‘debased’ category of ‘opera’. Indeed, in his 1851 A Communication To My Friends he wrote: “I shall write no more operas, but as I don’t care to invent any arbitrary name for these works, I’ll simply call them dramas, since that at least indicates the standpoint from which they’re to be understood.” Elsewhere he used the term “musical drama”. So, we can say that the Ring is truly without the boundaries of old-fashioned romantic opera. In respect of the technicalities of singing, Wagner coached his performers in declamation, intonation, phrasing, and dynamics, and urged the greatest clarity in presenting a character’s emotions.

A good example of the dramatic eloquence and flexibility of the Ring is to be found in the Nibelheim scene of Das Rheingold. Determined to obtain the ring and the golden hoard and wriggle out of his commitment to give Freia to the giants, Wotan decides to go with Loge down through a fissure in the rock to the subterranean caverns where Alberich has enslaved the rest of his people. There is a physical descent with a downward rush and sulphurous chromaticism, and also a psychological journey. The motives driving the orchestral sound are those of Alberich forswearing the love of woman, the gold, and the ring, the spurning of Alberich by the Rhinemaidens (the latter theme transforming itself into the hellish and unforgettable hammering of anvils) and, pervading everything, the sinister harmonies of the ring. Into a world of bountiful nature has come the lust for power, with which love can never coexist. We are plunged into moral darkness as Alberich sets about enslaving his people – even his own brother.

This is a striking manifestation of Wagner’s theories of Gesamtkunstwerk, the fusion of text, music, scene, and action in the service of the drama. All of the considerable dramatic detail: the contest of wits between Loge and Alberich, Alberich’s plan to rule the world, Loge’s taunting of Alberich, the latter’s use of the Tarnhelm to transform himself into a serpent and a toad, and then his capture, are ingeniously arranged as a nine-part rondo in which a recurrent musical refrain – a rondo theme if you like – alternates with four contrasting episodes. As elsewhere in the Ring, the apparently free form of the work belies its carefully organised structure. Listen, for example, to Wotan’s angry response to Alberich’s threat to conquer the gods. “Get lost, mischievous fool!”, says Wotan. “What did he say?” asks Alberich. Loge urges Wotan to keep his cool, and then he continues to flatter the Nibelung, until the latter is tricked and captured. How remarkable the Ring is, and how different it is from anything that went before.

Music was never an end in itself for the mature Wagner. In his treatise Opera and Drama, he argued that the error into which opera had fallen was that music, the means of expression, had been made the end, while the true end, which is drama, had become merely the means. This was undoubtedly so for many other opera composers who cannibalised their own works in order to meet deadlines and to make the most of tunes that had been well-received. Speed was of the essence, as Rossini learned at a young age. As an 18-year-old, he was summoned to Venice to finish an opera abandoned by another composer. It was called ‘The Marriage Contract’, and Rossini completed it in just a few days. The contract of the title was between someone called Tobia Mill and a Canadian called Mr Slook. Slook had been promised the hand in marriage of Mill’s daughter, Fanny. Not surprisingly, Fanny Mill was reluctant to become Fanny Slook, and so she married somebody else. The end!

Rossini became notorious for recycling. For instance, he used the same aria for a Spanish nobleman in one opera, the King of Persia in another and the Emperor of Rome in a third. The famous overture to The Barber of Seville was written for an opera set in the Syrian desert – Aurelian in Palmyra – and then re-used for another one set in Elizabethan England, before ending up in 18th century Spain. Donizetti did it too, recycling his music in half a dozen operas including Lucrezia Borgia and Anna Bolena. He was the “fast food” man of music, composing more than seventy operas in thirty-years, finishing one of his finest in eleven days, and a second in six weeks. And then there was Offenbach, a native of Cologne who rose to fame in the Second French Empire of Napoleon III. Offenbach’s opera Die Rheinnixen – ‘The Rhine Nixies’ or, if you like, ‘The Rhinemaidens’ – featured music that came from his ballet Le Papillon, and music used later as the Barcarolle in The Tales of Hoffmann.

The re-hashing of music from one opera to another was not something that interested Wagner. He insisted that music had to be true to dramatic situations and characters, and when, in Die Meistersinger, Eva sympathises with Hans Sachs for letting her choose Walther von Stolzing instead of him, Sachs replies: “My child, I know a sad tale of Tristan and Isolde. Hans Sachs was wise and wanted none of King Marke’s type of happiness.” And suddenly the music shifts to another planet – that of Tristan und Isolde – before returning to the sunny world of Die Meistersinger. There is no way that these two worlds could ever be confused.

Artistic integrity was what Wagner was about, and this meant that the composer was god, which didn’t go down well with some singers. Gone were the days when headstrong singers would count the bars of music allocated to them and either demand extra ones or just insert additional music themselves, sometimes from entirely different operas. Rossini remarked that he didn’t mind some changes, “but to leave not a note of what I composed, even in the recitatives – well, that is unendurable.”

In Wagner’s works there were no opportunities for applause or encores, and no curtain calls until the end. The cast members of the first Ring were almost in revolt because Wagner wouldn’t let them step out of character and take curtain calls. Some were seething so much, they refused to attend the post-performance party, and Franz Betz, who had sung Wotan, threatened never to return to Bayreuth.

Wagner was ahead of his time and in advance of Freud in describing the psychological importance of raising the unconscious to consciousness. We find this over and over in the Ring, and especially in the treatment of the character of Wotan. In the crucial scene with Brünnhilde in act two of Die Walküre, Wotan puts himself on the psychoanalyst’s couch in a way that hardly seemed possible in Das Rheingold, even in those moments of self-doubt. At first, he hesitates, not wanting to lower his guard, too frightened to confront his inner self. Only when Brünnhilde convinces him that she really is his ‘will’ – his alter ego – does he let go, and everything comes pouring out. “With loathing, I can find only myself in all that I have created”, he says. “I must forsake and murder the son whom I love and who trusts me. Away then with lordly splendour, divine pomp, and shameful boasting. Let everything that I’ve built fall apart. I desire only one thing: the end, the end!” Remarkably, the spirit of this amazing scene flows not from mythological sources but from the composer’s intuitive understanding. The musical expression of Wotan’s inner torment is truly gripping.

Given the dramatic richness of Wagner’s music, what more could a staged production contribute? Some say that it’s all about the social role of the theatre – bringing people of different backgrounds together and drawing attention to contemporary issues. How very different opera was when it began in the ducal courts of northern Italy in the 16th century and then spread throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. For decades – indeed centuries – opera was entertainment for the ruling classes, and even in Wagner’s time, the Kings of Saxony, Bavaria and Prussia, the Habsburg and Napoleonic emperors, the Tsars of Russia, and various rulers of the Italian states, either built their own theatres or oversaw the management of existing ones. When he was Second Kapellmeister at the Saxon court in the 1840s, Wagner developed a Plan for a National German Theatre for the Kingdom of Saxony in which he advocated the removal of the theatre from the control of the court, the creation of a democratic association of dramatists and composers to elect the director and determine artistic policy, and the foundation of a theatre workshop to train young artists, producers and technicians. His proposals were treated with disdain, which only fed his revolutionary instincts. Later, he tried much the same thing at the Bavarian court of Ludwig II, but the committee that was charged with giving effect to his report met once or twice, scratched its collective head, and decided that his proposals were too expensive. So that was that. One of his motivations for building a festival theatre in Bayreuth (and not in Munich which the King wanted) was to establish a school for the training of singers and actors, and the development of other theatrical skills. Courses were to be spread over six years and students would be given opportunities to perform in his productions. He was determined to prepare up-and-coming singers, repetiteurs and conductors in a music school environment rather than rely on the ad hoc engagements in the traditional way. Alas, it didn’t happen because the first Bayreuth Festival left an enormous deficit and there was no way he could mount a new Festival until 1882 when Parsifal had its premiere.

Using opera to dramatise contemporary issues sounds like a modern idea but, in fact, Wagner had done it 190 years ago when he embarked on Das Liebesverbot (‘The Ban on Love’) at the age of twenty-one. Motivating him a that time was his membership of the Young Germany Movement which rejected reactionary political systems and bourgeois morality in favour of political and sensual freedom. Artists were expected to portray contemporary realities rather than romantic fairy realms or classical fantasies.

Eventually though, Wagner moved away from the idea of the theatre as a vehicle for social and political change, and his new approach was truly revolutionary for its time. His operas acquired philosophical dimensions, auditoriums were darkened, orchestras concealed, patrons obliged to focus on the stage, and optical tricks played to wrap the spectator in a dream. A thousand people could be watching the same performance, but each did so from within a very personal sensory world. Opera was no longer about society but about the individual.

In our modern digital world, we now function as individuals in a way that earlier generations might find hard to understand. Digital science has become a sort of latter-day Tarnhelm. Not only does it transport ideas with unprecedented speed and freedom, but it also creates new human forms – ‘cyber-communities’. These communities don’t exist in any physical sense, but only in cyber-space. A parallel world now exists, in which people who have never seen each other and are dispersed around the globe, pursue daily relationships, conduct business and create works of art. These are simply communities of minds.

Wagner’s dramatic vision and highly expressive music seems to have been waiting for modern technology. His imagination wasn’t of the ordinary kind. As a boy, he had had nightmares about inanimate objects such as pieces of furniture coming to life, and he had no difficulty animating the ancient and mythological worlds that he read about. He learnt some Greek, not for scholarly purposes but in order to imagine the heroic figures of antiquity speaking to him in their own voices. He imagined that he actually met and spoke with Shakespeare! He was thirty before he began seriously to study Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie and the Scandinavian myths and sagas but, again, he felt that the inhabitants of those legendary landscapes were speaking to him with familiar voices. This sense of ‘virtual reality’ stayed with him throughout his creative life.

Far from being simply a folk tale or a fairy tale set to music, Der Ring des Nibelungen is an allegory or, if you like, a parable. And as with all parables, there are deeper meanings beneath the surface. Take, for instance, the all-powerful ring made by Alberich when he steals the Rhinegold and renounces love. That’s what the myth says, but, in reality, the golden ring is nothing but – well – a golden ring! It symbolises the power of self-delusion, prejudices, superstitions, and beliefs. Those who possess it are powerless to do anything with it. Alberich has it taken from him by Wotan; Wotan loses it to the giants, and the giant-turned-dragon Fafner can’t even use it to protect himself. Brunnhilde loses it to Siegfried-in-the form-of-Gunther, and Siegfried doesn’t attempt to use it at all. In fact, he just wants to give it to the Rhinemaidens, until they ridicule him. So, it is a band of gold – nothing more. But what matters is what the characters think it represents. A good example is the musical expression of the golden ring as Hagen imagines it. In just four bars this tells us a lot – not about the ring itself but about Hagen as a personification of evil.

Nothing remotely like the Ring had existed before in the European operatic tradition, although parts of the story had been used in earlier dramas. In the 16th century, the historical Hans Sachs had written a seven-act tragedy on the legend of Siegfried, and in 1854 Heinrich Dorn (Wagner’s rival at Riga and Dresden) composed Die Nibelungen, based on the medieval Nibelungenlied and featuring Wagner’s niece Johanna in the role of Brünnhilde. Even Mendelssohn and Schumann contemplated operas on the subject (although they didn’t pursue them) and, in the 1860s, the French composer Ernest Reyer wrote Sigurd, based on the Nibelunenlied and the Icelandic Eddas.

Paradoxically, Wagner’s ground-breaking drama drew on some of the deepest wellsprings of European culture, and one the first influences on the Ring (well beyond the boundaries of Norse and Germanic legends) came from ancient Greek drama, performed outdoors. His original plan was to complete the entire work within three years and then give three performances in a temporary wooden theatre in a meadow near Zürich. The audience would be seated in the open field and, afterwards, the wooden theatre would be pulled down, and that would be that! Needless to say, things didn’t work out quite this way! Not three but twenty–six years elapsed between the first sketches and the final notes of the Ring.

When Wagner drew on a legend or poem, such as the Nibelungenlied or Gottfried’s Tristan or Wolfram’s Parzival for his dramatic framework, he then clothed it with metaphysical and philosophical ideas that belonged to quite another age or culture – say, from Feuerbach or Schopenhauer, or Buddhism, or the revolutionary movements of industrial Europe. In this way, he gave the old stories new potency and created wonderfully rich vehicles for musical expression. So, it’s a mistake to see the Ring as simply northern mythology or a folk tale, or Parsifal as simply a romance of the grail. Each has been transformed into something quite new. This is no longer opera as entertainment; this is opera as revelation!

There were biblical influences at work too on the Ring. Wagner’s views on Christianity were far from orthodox, as can be seen in his embryonic Jesus of Nazareth of 1849. But he was capable of using orthodox biblical references when this suited him. He’d been raised in a conventional protestant household and certainly knew his way around the scriptures, leaving copious notes on a copy of the bible that was recovered from his Dresden library. Not surprisingly, these influences also went into the melting pot of ideas when he came to work on the Ring.

In Brünnhilde’s announcement to Sieglinde that she will bear a son and shall call him Siegfried, we find echoes of the annunciation in Luke’s Gospel, in which the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear a son and will call him Jesus. The Gospel announcement is followed by the Magnificat, in which Mary praises God for exalting her. In Die Walküre, Sieglinde exults: O hehrstes Wunder! (“O sublime miracle!”) And proceeds with her own Magnificat, praising Brünnhilde for being the bearer of such news. In this instance, Siegfried, like Christ, symbolises hope and life amidst hopelessness and decay, and just as Mary fled into Egypt to protect the infant Jesus from the wrath of Herod, so Sieglinde will flee into the forest to protect the unborn Siegfried from the wrath of Wotan. The Christ/Siegfried parallel was certainly in Wagner’s mind. He referred to it in his essay Die Wibelungen of 1849, and noted the compatibility of the old Frankish religions with Christianity. His exact words in 1849 were: “The abstract highest god of the Germans, Wotan, did not really need to yield place to the God of the Christians; rather he could be completely identified with him”.

So, Wagner was already predisposed to the notion that Christianity shared common ground with other, earlier beliefs when, in 1854, he encountered the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer maintained that “Christianity had Indian blood in its veins”, and the more Wagner thought about this, the more he was convinced that it must be true. In 1855, he wrote to Liszt citing modern research as having established conclusively that Christianity “Is no more and no less than a branch of the venerable Buddhist religion which, following Alexander’s Indian campaign, found its way, among other places, to the shores of the Mediterranean”. Cosima later recalled her husband telling her: “By giving much attention to Buddhism one learns to understand Christianity, and people were now beginning to realize that the greatest heroic power lies in resignation.”

Whether or not Buddhism did, in fact, have any influence on Christianity, all that matters for our purposes is that Wagner believed that it did, and this belief shaped his works. This was a turning point for him, and the results can be seen not only in the Ring but also in Tristan und Isolde and Parsifal. We can say that Sieglinde’s response to Brünnhilde in Act Two of Die Walküre is not just an expression of joy, but an outburst of religious ecstasy!

Many of the details in act one of Die Walküre can be traced to the Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs, dating from the 13th century. But, again, Wagner introduced notions that sprang from a different cultural milieu and were beyond the boundaries of legend. Not the least of these is the mutual compassion that ignites the relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde and blossoms into full-blown love. The overwhelming force of this love reflects the influence of the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, whose ideas led Wagner in 1852 to draft an ending to the Ring (not the final one) in which Brünnhilde specifically rejects possessions, wealth, and divine splendour in favour of the redeeming power of love. Although Wagner’s philosophical allegiances changed in the mid-1850s, he didn’t reject Feuerbach altogether, and it is compassionate love that leads to Brünnhilde’s defiance of Wotan, Sieglinde’s escape, Siegfried’s birth, Brünnhilde’s mortality and, ultimately, the downfall of the gods. Love is a prime catalyst for change in the Ring, and it flickers into life on a stormy night in front of Hunding’s hearth. It marks not only the onset of spring and the relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde, but also the essential transformation of old myths into new.

Schopenhauer believed that willing, wanting, longing, craving are not just things that we do: they are things that we are. They are the source of our unhappiness and all the evil and strife in the world. We can only avoid this destructive element in our nature by achieving a state of detachment, akin to the Buddhist notion of Nirvana, the extinction of desire and illusion and the attainment of absolute peace of mind. The arts – and music in particular – can help, in a temporary way, in achieving this state of detachment.

During the last three decades of his life, Wagner became more concerned with metaphysical issues than with political ones. In his greatest works – those written after the mid-1850s – he looked inwards at human nature, rather than outwards at human society. And this is the idea that is ultimately expressed in the dramatic closing pages of the Ring.

The waters of musical appreciation have been muddied (at least in the popular mind) by a phenomenal amount of, often trivial, material on Wagner’s personal life and opinions. His comments in voluminous correspondence and other writings flew like chips of marble from the sculptor’s block. But ultimately, he was a creative artist of great ability and originality, and it’s in this light that he should be judged. As he himself put it in his essay A Communication To My Friends: “The artist addresses himself to feeling and not to understanding. If he is answered in terms of understanding, then it is quite clear that he has not been understood.”

So, what does all this mean for the stage director who would like to approach the Ring in his or her own way? While the Scandinavian and Germanic myths provided the primary sources and motivation for the Ring, by the time it was finished they shared the limelight with Greek mythology, nineteenth century social and political ideas, the philosophies of Feuerbach and Schopenhauer, pre-Freudian psychology, and aspects of Christianity and Buddhism. Truly, this Ring had no boundaries. I suppose a director could take a cue from any of these strands and create a production that would have dramatic validity.

But, with the Ring, it is probably best not to try and spell things out in detail; it is better to leave them for the imagination of the audience. This is certainly the view expressed by director Chen Shi-Zheng who has compared his task to that of a Chinese painter; knowing where to provide detail, and what to leave to the imagination. Wagner put it this way: “I believe”, he wrote, “that a true instinct has kept me from too great definiteness; for it has been borne in on me that an absolute disclosing of intention disturbs true insight. What you want in drama – indeed in all works of art – is to achieve your end, not by a statement of the artist’s intentions, but by presenting life as the result, not of arbitrary forces, but of eternal laws.”

That makes sense to me, and I believe it is what we are discovering in the Brisbane production. We are dealing with events that take place over a considerable period of time and in widely divergent settings. How much time elapses between Rheingold and Walküre? Who can say? Decades? Centuries? Millennia? Time means nothing in Walhall. If time doesn’t mean anything, then perhaps space doesn’t mean anything either. The Ring can be set anywhere, for its themes belong nowhere and everywhere. The richness and diversity of its sources make it one of the most adaptable and resilient of operatic works.

By the time we get to Götterdämmerung, the orchestra has become the dominant medium of expression, and nowhere is this more so than in the closing moments of this miraculous work, when the physical world dissolves and music alone transports us to quite another plane of awareness.

Peter Bassett