Tomer Zvulun’s Five Things about “Die Walküre”

Tomer Zvulun, Artistic & General Director of The Atlanta Opera chooses his FIVE THINGS you need to know about Die  Walküre by Richard Wagner.

NUMBER 1:  How does Die Walküre fit into the full Ring cycle of four music dramas?

Der Ring des Niebelungen (the Ring) is a tetralogy that includes four operas: Das Rheingold (“The Rhine Gold”), Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung  (“Twilight of the Gods”). Interestingly, Wagner called Das Rheingoldvoreabend” — a preview or prelude. He named Die Walküreerstabend”  — the first evening. Though Das Rheingold is a full-scale opera, Wagner thought of it as Vorspiel,  the introduction to the main attraction of Die Walküre and the operas that follow it. The question is “Why?”

Das Rheingold is a long-winded exposition that chronicles the origins of how the story begins: the gold is stolen from the river Rhine, the powerful ring is forged, and how the ring ends up in the hands of the giants.  By the time we get to Die Walküre, we are introduced to the central conflict of the story and the central characters. This opera introduces us to new characters who are pivotal to the rest of the drama; Brunnhilde, Siegmund, and Sieglinde. Their actions drive the overarching storyline forward. Die Walküre concludes the exposition started in Das Rheingold and the action really begins.

NUMBER 2:  Nature takes a profound symbolic role

The basic elements of nature: Water, Earth, Wind, and Fire, are important throughout the Ring. Both Das Rheingold and Die Walküre are bookended by scenes that feature primary elements of nature. Die Walküre opens with a spectacular storm sequence in a forest. A frightened man is running for his life chased by his mortal enemy. Through the music, you can feel the lightning flashes and the leaves rustling under his feet. The opera ends with a ring of fire surrounding Brunnhilde, the sleeping daughter of Wotan, the king of the gods. In contrast, Das Rheingold opens with water — a mesmerizing depiction of the depths of the river Rhine where the Rhein maidens guard the magical, precious gold. This serene, mystical setting embodies the purity of nature and the calming effect of water. At the end of Das Rheingold, Donner (the god of Thunder) summons a huge storm that results in a rainbow bridge on which the gods cross from the earth to their new heavenly abode: Valhalla. And so, Das Rheingold starts with water and ends with a storm, and Die Walküre starts with a storm and ends with fire.

NUMBER 3:  The Human Condition

The Ring is built on two foundations. First is the glorious, popular, and seductive storytelling that is filled with special effects and characters. There are dragons, dungeons, gods, monsters, heroes, and a battle for the one ring to rule them all. Second, the other foundation, the one I am truly drawn to, is the depth of truth relating to the human condition.

The work of Richard Wagner, who wrote the massive libretto of the Ring, is saturated with philosophy. The work of significant thought leaders of the era, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche are often mentioned in the same breath as the work of Wagner. The most powerful ideas in this aesthetic are the will to live and the will to power, expounding on the idea that the universal desire of every creature is to elevate their status, be it social, economic, or political. Everybody wants to control the magical ring of power. But Wagner tells us that there’s one rival to the love of power. Die Walküre tries to overcome the love of power with the power of love.

NUMBER 4: Love

“Love” is a problematic word in English because that one word tries to encapsulate so many meanings. Wagner, who was a great student of the Greeks, truly understood that “love” had many facets as the Greeks were aware. While the Greeks list eight types of love, I like to group them into five, with a couple of subsets.

  • Eros: love that’s driven by desire and sex. Subsets are Ludos (flirtation) and Mania (obsession).
  • Storge: love between family members and based on belonging. Subset is Pragma (long-lasting love that’s often based on convenience or partnership)
  • Philia: love between friends.
  • Agape is known as the love of god, of nature, of humanity
  • Philautia: love of self

Die Walküre is all about love and all its types.
Act 1 is all about Eros, as we meet Siegmund and Sieglinde who fall in love with a primal and fierce attraction. That erotic love is juxtaposed with the loveless, even abusive marriage between Sieglinde and Hunding.
Act 2 is a series of duets that explore a range of love types. Husband and wife (both Storge and Pragma); father and daughter (Storge); sister and brother (Storge); lovers who run away from society (Eros).
Act 3 is about a father who loves his daughter more than anything, but has the dawning realization that their closeness is coming to an end as she is becoming a woman with her own wishes and standards. His challenge is to let her go (Storge).

NUMBER 5: Is it possible to summarize the Ring?

The Ring is a complex story, arguably the largest and most complex saga in the history of music. It comprises four evenings, 15 hours of music featuring 58 leitmotifs, and dozens of roles. There’s no simple summary but there is merit to the exercise. There are two primary characters in the whole Ring: Wotan, king of the gods, and his arch-rival Alberich, chief of the Nibelungs. They represent the light and the dark. They come from different backgrounds and different caste systems, but they are after the same thing: ultimate power through the ring. From Das Rheingold, where these two are just starting their grasp for power, striving to get somewhere and willing to give up almost anything in the quest, we progress to Die Walküre — where Wotan starts to realize the magnitude of the curse that links the ring to the renunciation of all love. The desire for power is still strong enough to tempt him to pay the price — his own immortality and the destruction of his family.

Within the scope of the Ring, Die Walküre holds a special place because, at its core, it is a chamber opera (albeit with nearly 100 musicians in the pit!) made up of a bunch of intimate, LONG duets between characters who have strong loving relationships. The reason generations of people from around the world connect to this opera is that it reveals truth about the human condition. At the heart of the human condition is LOVE and the relationships that define us as humans. We must inherently connect to other people. This is the reason that I’m so fascinated with this story and I look forward to sharing it with you in Atlanta.