Dear D_____,

As we’ve discussed, I’m planning to go to Budapest next June to see Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. You’re not normally an opera-goer, but I think you should come with me. I’m now going to explain why.

Why a Ring Cycle? Why, indeed, go to opera at all?

Quite simply, opera is the most intensive, most visceral, most comprehensive emotional experience that the performing arts can bring to you, combining as it does music, poetry, movement, theatre, the visual arts and, above all, the raw power of the unamplified human voice. When it’s done right, opera mounts a simultaneous assault on your senses that nothing else can match – not even the best that Hollywood has to offer.

Das Rheingold, with giant heads of Fasolt and Fafner
© Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest

What Wagner does in the Ring is to put all that artistic power into the service of a rollicking good story. The Judeo-Christian God made man in his own image, but the Old Norse made their gods in theirs: they cheat, they fornicate, they steal, they are violent, they are a larger-than-life version of characters that we know only too well from centuries of literature and from our own lives. When the Rhinemaidens mercilessly tease the hapless dwarf Alberich with such a level of cruelty that his only recourse is to turn himself into a criminal monster, we’re playing out the story of psychopaths through the ages. As Wotan searches desperately for a way to avoid paying the construction bill for Valhalla, we’re seeing the behaviour of every feckless Mr Micawber, with the difference that this is a divine being who really should know better. The ebb and flow of the debate between Wotan and Fricka in Die Walküre – marital bickering with the future of the world in the balance – is riveting.

The virtuosity with which Wagner makes his music support the storytelling is unmatched, and as a lover of cinema, you will recognise it easily: John Williams is Wagner’s spiritual heir. When you hear that repeated low string motif in Jaws, you know exactly what’s coming. When Darth Vader enters a room, you know who it’s going to be because that famous march has started up a few seconds before. So it is in the Ring, a defining example being when the battered wife Sieglinde describes the grey-haired man who arrives at her bridal feast with a broad hat which conceals one eye. Sieglinde doesn’t know that she’s singing about Wotan, but we do, because we’ve heard Wotan’s leitmotif in the background.

Die Walküre – Ride of the Valkyries
© János Posztós, Müpa Budapest

Many composers used motifs for their characters before Wagner. Where Wagner took things to a new height was in developing those motifs, interweaving and combining them, and fitting them all into an overall musical architecture that enhances the way those leitmotifs get under your skin. He allies this to a sensitivity to landscape and nature that is characteristic of high Romantic aesthetics, as well as an unerring feel for the great tragic arc of the story. That’s not an accident: Wagner was fascinated by the idea of reinventing Greek tragedy, as were Monteverdi and the other pioneers of opera.

As you can imagine, doing what I do for a living, I meet a lot of opera lovers. I can assure you that none of them approach the Ring fanatics for sheer, unadulterated commitment. It’s the genius of Wagner’s musical storytelling that makes it so.

But having made the case for the Ring, why this venue and this production?

The Béla Bartók Concert Hall, at Müpa Budapest (the name is an abbreviation of the Hungarian for “Palace of Arts”) is a hall where you will hear this music at its very best. Designed by the late great acoustician Russell Johnson, it’s one of a handful of halls in the world with the uncanny property that you can hear every detail of individual notes even when they’re in the middle of an orchestral wash. The decay of a plucked harp string, the breath of a flautist: you will hear everything. Conductor Ádám Fischer (who is also the Artistic Director) has been doing the Ring at Müpa for several years now, and he knows exactly how best to balance his instruments.

Müpa at night
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

But why go to these operas in a concert hall in the first place? Surely, after all, you’re not getting the whole Gesamtkunstwerk experience in a hall without a curtain? Well, yes and no: there are two issues here. Firstly, like modern directors of Shakespeare, most directors of fully staged Ring productions assume that you’ve seen it a dozen times and that it’s critically important to present a new take on the material. The last two full Ring Cycles I’ve seen were so laden with symbols and references that if I had taken you to one, you would have spent 90% of your time in a fruitless attempt to decode the director’s message – if, that is, you had got as far as figuring out which character was which.

Obviously, Müpa doesn’t have a “proper” opera stage, so their approach is an intermediate one (it’s been called “semi-staged” or “concert staging”, although Fischer doesn’t really like either term since there is scenery of a sort). Singers are in modern dress rather than dressed up as Norse gods and heroes, but they have props, they are acting and they’re singing from memory. There is lighting and video projection in place of sets. What there won’t be is a Regietheater directorial concept which overwhelms the Wagner.

Secondly, I don’t share Wagner’s view of himself as a man of the theatre first, a poet second and a composer third. Contemporary accounts tell of him capering about the stage and demonstrating great charisma, but if you read his stage directions with modern eyes, they feel hopelessly unsubtle. My German isn’t good enough to evaluate him as a poet, but he is certainly overblown, Germans squirm at the word “Roß” for horse (apparently, it’s the equivalent of using “destrier” in every second sentence) and at least one reviewer friend of mine, who knows German literature well, considers him far inferior to, say, Hugo Hofmannsthal, Richard Strauss’s librettist. Where Wagner is peerless is as a composer, a man capable of bypassing your intellect and whacking you straight in the stomach with the power of music and voice. A Müpa-type staging is focusing on what Wagner does best, and has enough theatrical effect to give you what you need to get a feel for the story.

Siegfried: Brünnhilde
© Gábor Kotschy, Müpa Budapest

Ring Cycles are generally staged either over four days or a week, the problem being that the part of Brünnhilde is so physically exhausting that the same soprano can’t sing it three nights running. If you do it over four days, therefore, that comes at the expense of a different Brünnhilde for Siegfried, the third of the four operas (she doesn't appear in the first, Das Rheingold). That’s Müpa’s approach, and if you’re going to a full cycle as a four day festival-type experience – as Wagner intended – I think it makes sense.

Of course, casting is key to any opera production, and Wagner is famously difficult to cast because of the sheer stamina required from the singers and the richness of the orchestral sound they have to compete with. The toughest role is Siegfried: only a handful of tenors sing him in major houses. Fischer has recruited Stefan Vinke, who many would argue is the best of them all. Stuart Skelton, who sings Siegmund, is another tenor who I would consider the top specialist in the world in his role – likewise Gerhard Siegel, who sings the put-upon Nibelung Mime. That’s not to mention Catherine Foster, one of the top Brünnhildes, and plenty of quality in the rest of the cast.

Götterdämmerung: Brünnhilde, Gunther and Hagen debate Siegfried's "treachery"
© Gábor Kotschy, Müpa Budapest

There are, of course, other objections. It’s well understood that Wagner was a pretty despicable human being, a racist, anti-semitic, self-important, cheating scrounger of a man (married to a wife, Cosima, who was even more racist than he was). But should that prevent us appreciating his music? Caravaggio was a serial brawler and murderer, and I don’t hear calls for his paintings to be torn down.

More practically, everyone knows that Wagner operas are terrifyingly long. And it’s true that at five hours plus of music, Götterdämmerung is the longest opera that’s commonly performed. All I can tell you is that it never *feels* long. I’ve been in plenty of shows lasting an hour where I’ve been shifting uneasily in my seat. In Götterdämmerung, the last couple of hours of music are so incredibly uplifting that as we approach the end, I’ve always been ready for more. After my last Ring, at Covent Garden, the first thing I wanted to do when I got home was to put the music on again to wallow in how great it had all been.

Do you need to spend hours of preparation? Probably not. It’s not a bad idea to read the story and know who the characters are – having the plot twists spoiled isn’t really a problem. You could listen to some choice selections of music, just to make sure that the leitmotifs really get under your skin. But there’s a lot of hot air written about Feuerbach this and Schopenhauer that: Wagner’s philosophical influencers are undoubtedly of interest to his biographers, but in my view, there is absolutely no need for you to understand them. Personally, I like reading the Nordic source materials such as the Eddas or The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún. I find it fascinating, for example, that the wedding massacre from which Siegmund is fleeing is probably based on a historical event involving the Burgundians. It’s interesting to consider the ways in which this whole literary landscape has influenced generations of fantasy writers: Tolkien may have cordially loathed Wagner, but he is writing from the same world. There are curiosities like the fact that Wotan refers to the Nibelungs not just as “dwarves” (Zwergen) but also as “dark-elves” (Schwarzalben). But none of this is indispensable for one to be able to appreciate the operas.

Müpa foyer
© Bachtrack Ltd | David Karlin

If you do want to engage in some preparation, and entertain yourself thoroughly along the way, I commend to you George Bernard Shaw’s The Perfect Wagnerite, written in 1898, just a couple of decades after the first ever performance. Whether or not you agree with Shaw, it’s outspoken, it’s told with his characteristic wit, it’s a great read and it puts Wagner very much in the context of his time.

You are a lover of the poetry and culture of the nineteenth century, and it’s only fair and proper that such a defining work as Der Ring des Nibelungen should be on your bucket list. I hope I’ve done enough to persuade you that Budapest in June is the right place and time for you to try it out.

Yours ever


You can see reviews of past performances here.
This article was sponsored by Müpa Budapest.