Those Crazy Germans
In my last lesson, I mentioned opera plots and how they are reminiscent of lurid cable TV channels that specialize in re-enacted crimes. As an example, I gave the plot of Verdi’s Rigoletto, which is a blood and guts Italian opera, complete with love, sex, murder and show-stopping high notes at the end of melodious arias.
Well, the Italians aren’t the only ones who like to set a steamy story to music. The Germans got into the act, too, in a huge way. As everyone from Roman times on has known, it takes a lot to stop the Germans once they set their minds to something, whether it’s composing operas or invading their neighbors.
The Germans went the Italians one better. They didn’t just have revolting characters and dastardly deeds, they threw in occasional mysticism, mythology and folklore just to make things interesting. Mozart’s The Magic Flute is full of Masonic symbolism.* Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is the familiar fairy tale with the cannibal witch who ends up being barbecued in her own oven. Weber’s Der Freischutz is about trafficking with evil spirits and making magic bullets. If it was weird, some German would set it to music.
The most famous of German opera composers is Richard Wagner. Wagner could have written an opera about his own life. He was a first-class narcissist, besides being an anti-semite and an adulterer.** He owed money to everybody, he got in trouble because of his political views, he moved around a lot and he finally settled down in the town of Bayreuth in Bavaria.*** There he built a theater to produce his operas and nobody else’s, because he didn’t think any other composer was as important as he was.
Wagner wrote his own librettos, too. He liked the sound of his own words. He would never say something in two words if he could use fifty. As a result, his operas are l-o-n-g. Das Ring der Nibelungen is so long that he had to turn it into FOUR operas instead of just one. Verdi would never have done that. Instead, he would have driven his librettist to drink with constant demands that this, that or the other be changed, added or deleted to make a nice, concise show full of great theatrical timing and loads of emotion. Of course, Verdi was Italian, not German.
It would take too long to give you what goes on in the Ring cycle in detail, but here is a short list of crimes, misdemeanors and other happenings in the four-night event:
1. Alberich the Dwarf renounces love, steals a hunk of magic gold from three silly women who swim around inside the Rhine and forges himself a magic ring to make himself Master of the Universe. – GRAND LARCENY, MEGALOMANIA
2. Wotan, the chief of the gods, builds a huge mansion in the clouds and has trouble paying his contractors, the giants Fasolt and Fafner. – RENEGING ON A DEBT
3. Wotan steals Alberich’s magic ring and a magic helmet that goes with it. Alberich puts a curse on the ring. – GRAND LARCENY, CRIMINAL ENDANGERMENT
4. Wotan has to give up the magic ring to his two contractors to fulfill the debt and Fafner kills Fasolt for it. – MURDER
5. Wotan just has to get that ring back so that he, the Handsome Good Guy, can be Master of the Universe instead of those ugly, sleazy dwarfs and giants that nobody likes because they’re nasty, besides being ugly. He goes down to earth and takes up with a mortal woman. They have a couple of kids named Siegmund and Sieglinde. – ADULTERY AND BIGAMY (Wotan is already married.)
6. Siegmund and Sieglinde are separated in childhood, but when they meet again sparks fly, they have an intense affair and Sieglinde gets knocked up. – ADULTERY AND INCEST
7. Sieglinde’s husband kills Siegmund and Wotan gets mad and kills Sieglinde’s husband. – MURDER
8. Wotan puts his Valkyrie daughter Brunhilde to sleep on a big rock and surrounds it with fire because she disobeyed him (she tried to save Siegmund – don’t ask). – PARENTAL AB– USE
9. Siegmund and Sieglinde’s son, whose name is Siegfried, is raised alone in the woods by another repulsive dwarf named Mime, whose ulterior motive is to get Siegfried to fight Fafner, who is now a dragon, and get the Ring for him, Mime, after which he, Mime plans to poison Siegfried. – CHILD AB– USE, CONSPIRACY TO COMMIT ROBBERY AND MURDER
10. Siegfried, who is stupid, kills Fafner and gets the Ring and the magic helmet. He is too dumb to know what he has, so he’s not likely to become Master of the Universe. Fafner’s dragon blood gives him the ability to hear people’s thoughts, and he eavesdrops on Mime’s evil mind, then kills him. Siegfried goes to the big fire-surrounded rock and wakes up Brunhilde, who is the half-sister of his parents. They fall in love. – MURDER DURING THE COMMISSION OF A ROBBERY, MURDER OF STEPFATHER, INCEST AND BEING A STUPID JERK
11. There is more murder, deception and mayhem, after which the whole world is destroyed by fire, which is fed by Brunhilde throwing a torch over Siegfried’s funeral pyre, then walking into it leading her horse. – ARSON, SUICIDE, ANIMAL CRUELTY
You can’t make this stuff up, but apparently Wagner did.
*Yes, I know. Mozart wasn’t German. He was Austrian. Who cares? I’m trying to make a point here.
**Old German proverb: The sex is always better in the other man’s bedroom.
***Not to be confused with Beirut. Please don’t go to Beirut looking for Wagner operas. You will only find a lot of Lebanese people who will think you have babaganoush for brains.