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5 Things You Should Know Before Seeing the Ring Cycle

June 10, 2018
Wagner's Ring cycle is famous as an epic undertaking for opera companies -- and for the brave audiences who watch it. It lasts seventeen hours spread out across four operas, with a grand storyline full of passion, betrayal, and fire. San Francisco Opera will present the full cycle three times in June 2018. If you have your tickets or you're thinking about going, here are five things to know before you go...

Corey Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

1. The Ring is based on many of the same myths as Lord of the Rings

If you're a big fan of Lord of the Rings, this opera is perfect for you! Like Tolkien's series, the Ring follows the creation, struggle and ultimate destruction of a golden ring that has the power to rule the world. And yes, a broken sword must be reforged along the way. Sound familiar?

Although the Ring cycle and The Lord of the Rings have similar storylines, they differ a lot in the details. For instance,

  • In these operas, there's a second magic artifact besides the ring: a helmet. When worn, it can make the wearer invisible, transform them into an animal, or transport them long distances

  • The Ring has no hot blond elves. It's the story of a struggle for power waged by dwarves, men, and gods

  • The Ring's hero Siegfried has to climb a mountain and cross a ring of fire to rescue a sleeping maiden

  • A Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movie marathon would cost you twenty hours, so you're really saving time by taking in Wagner's version instead. ?

Photo by Melanie Spector via Ms. Opera Geek

2. Pretty much everyone is related

There are a lot of family connections and incest in this operas because the god Wotan slept around a lot... and so did his family. All of the Valkyries are his daughters (with Erda), and so are the Volsungs, Siegmund and Sieglinde (with someone else). In the cycle's second opera, Die Walkure, Siegmund and Sieglinde get together to the strains of a rapturous love duet. Reminder: they're brother and sister! They even end up having a kid named Siegfried. (Yes, this family is very into names that start with "Sieg," which is German for "victory.") Siegfried later ends up pairing off with Brunnhilde, one of the Valkyries -- and therefore his aunt. It goes on and on which leads to a pretty big mess...

Why does this matter? Wotan loves his family, however, he wants to recover the ring and it requires a "free hero," uninfluenced by his commitments (AKA: his crazy family). Will he sacrifice his family or will he save them from an unfortunate fate? You'll have to see it for yourself to find out! This handy chart by Melanie Spector (above) will help you keep track of all the characters' relationships.

3. Characters, feelings, and even props have their own theme songs

Music is a key storytelling element throughout the opera. Just like our favorite superheroes, Wagner's heroic characters have their own theme songs (AKA: leitmotifs). If Siegfried is around, or even just being discussed, listen for a swelling horn call. If the Valkyries are on the way, the music of their famous ride will signal their coming. If you know the leitmotifs, you can have a sense of what's going on without paying attention to the words. You might even guess what's about to happen!

This also applies to important props and moods. Wotan's spear gets an ominous string of descending notes that you'll hear several times. The heroes' sword (named Nothung) sounds triumphant, a rising challenge. The smooth, melodic theme for Valhalla (the heaven for Norse warriors) evokes peace.

Some of Wagner's leitmotifs have even been used and modified by later composers. For instance, fans of West Side Story might notice a familiar melody in the second and fourth operas of the Ring cycle. That's a motif commonly called "redemption through love" -- which Bernstein borrowed to great dramatic effect for "A Boy Like That / I Have a Love." Want to find out more? Watch the video above!

Photo by Corey Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

4. Producing a Ring cycle is really difficult and very expensive

The Ring took Wagner 28 years to compose which consists of over 2,000 pages of music! And with this grand composition came a list of massive staging demands. Some of the special effects include a 1,200 lb. gigantic dragon, 920 liters of liquid nitrogen for fog effects, 20 makeup artists, over 250 handmade costumes, 88 musicians in the pit, 35 principal roles and tons of fire.

This is no small feat, and no cheap feat, either! The Los Angeles Opera's 2010 cycle cost $30 million to produce! San Francisco Opera's cycle in 2011 (the same production being revived this year) was a comparative price, coming in at an estimated $23 million. (Cha-ching!)

5. There are MAJOR superfans of the Ring

You might think you're dedicated to your hobbies or Harry fans. Maybe you've waited in line all night for a shiny new gadget, or coordinated all your friends' efforts to secure tickets to Hamilton or the newest Star Wars film. I guarantee you, you've got nothing on 'Wagnerites'.

The outfits

Opera-going these days is a pretty casual affair: you'll see audience members in everything from black tie to jeans. Ring cycles seem to inspire an additional category of audience attire: costumes. Some are subtle: jewelry featuring ravens (ravens are Wotan "spies") or golden apples (that preserve the gods' eternal youth). Some are jokes: "Fasolt & Fafner General Contractors" or "Gotterdammitslong" T-shirts (both available from Seattle Opera's shop). And then, of course, there are blond braids and horned helmets -- no longer a frequent sight on stage, but still in evidence among attendees.

I asked opera fans on Twitter to send me pictures of their best Ring-themed costumes. These submissions (clockwise from the top left) are from @Aspasia_1, @operatattler, @operarocksme, @CVFry, and @wagners_ring.

The Bayreuth Festival

The Bayreuth Festival in Germany is a place of pilgrimage for Wagner fans. There, they can see the great composer's operas in the venue he originally designed to premiere the Ring. However, if you apply directly to the festival for tickets, the waiting list can be anywhere from eight to thirteen years long! Superfans resort to the secondary black market, or to donate to "Friends of Wagner" societies that get annual ticket allocations. In recent years, things have gotten better -- the festival now holds some tickets for online purchase, which means that Wagnerites who swoop in fast enough can get same-year tickets.

World-traveling Ring chasers

The New York Times published a story on "Ring nuts" back in 2009. Some impressive fans include...

  • "'I've been to Australia, Vienna, Budapest, Cologne, Berlin, Zurich, Copenhagen, Helsinki, New York, Toronto, Chicago, Seattle, Arizona, Costa Mesa and Bayreuth five times,' said Becky Hunt, a San Diego retiree who said she had stopped counting how many Rings she'd seen at No. 25."

  • "Sherwin Sloan, 72, a retired ophthalmologist from Los Angeles, has seen the Ring cycle 90 times, some 25 of them in Bayreuth. He recounted how one of his seatmates for Siegfried passed out from the heat at Bayreuth several years ago, falling onto the floor"

  • "At 41, Patrick Nolan, a New York City publishing executive, is on the young side of most Wagner fans. He and his friend Peter Janssen, 46, have a pledge to see one Ring a year until they die"

Bonus: It's Great Comedy Material

Aficionados might consider the Ring serious business, but comedian Anna Russell proves it's also a laughing matter with her brilliantly funny "analysis" of Wagner's cycle. In half an hour, she provides a plot summary complete with musical examples and tons of deadpan humor. It's a MUST-SEE if you have the time!

If you don't, click below to watch a funny two-minute version of the storyline. Warning! It contains plot spoilers. (obviously...)

We hope these facts have gotten you excited to see the Ring! It's an incredible work of music and drama. Because it is so difficult and expensive to produce, chances to see the whole cycle are relatively rare. So when the Ring is near you, it's worth taking advantage of the opportunity!


Contributor: Ilana Walder-Biesanz

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