April 22, 2019
10 Totally "Looney" Facts about Wagner and the Ring cycle
1. The four operas that make up Wagner’s Ring cycle were written from 1848-1874 – about 26 years. As mere numbers, that might not mean a lot. Some context: 26 years ago, Billy Ray Cyrus had the best-selling album of 1992.
2. Extended over four nights, the full cycle consists of almost 16 hours of music. Again, for contemporary reference, the full catalog of published music from The Beatles comes in at just over 19 hours.
3. “Ride of the Valkyries” is still used very often to emphasize dramatic scenes in popular film, television, and commercials. It was notably used in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now during an air cavalry assault in North Vietnam.
4. “Ride of the Valkyries” and several other opera melodies were also used in the Looney Tunes classic “What’s Opera, Doc?” where Bugs Bunny played a leporine Brünnhilde and Elmer Fudd played an aggressive Siegfried. This episode introduced a new generation to opera, and many still sing along with the lyrics “Kill da wabbit.” Interesting note: it was also selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.”
5. Wagner revolutionized opera by disposing of existing operatic rules and structures. He also created the “Leitmotif”—a musical theme that is associated with a main character. For example, in Star Wars, there is a different musical theme associated with Princess Leia, with Luke Skywalker, with Yoda, and with Darth Vader’s “Imperial March.”
6. It’s well known that Wagner was painfully meticulous in realizing the premiere production of the Ring in 1876, with fascinating-detailed blocking and performance direction. That said, his historical references were not so well-researched. The horned helmets that have become so closely-identified with this opera were meant to specifically-replicate those worn by Norse Vikings. However, there is actually no record of Vikings having ever worn horns, wings, antlers, or any other adornment on their helmets. I guess he could have used a dramaturg!
7. Although Wagner often looks like a stern, moralistic, and curmudgeonly man in photos, this is probably more representative of a “normal” man in his time than Wagner’s own personality. In practice, he was a compulsive flirt who fairly openly cheated on his wives. Documents also suggest that he dressed like late-1980s Prince, favoring heavy perfume, silk underwear, ruffled shirts, and women’s jackets.
8. Specifically for the Ring cycle, Wagner created a new form of Tuba to enrich the harmonies of the piece. The instrument is a cross between a French Horn and a Saxophone.
9. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra helped summarize the expansive plot of the Ring in just 2.5 minutes! It is amazing and hilarious (and actually very helpful!). Watch it now by clicking into the video below!
10. And finally, Wagner and his partner, Minna Planer, had a large Newfoundland named Robber.