While many believe that Der Ring des Nibelungen (a.k.a. the Ring cycle) is the greatest operatic achievement the world has ever known, Richard Wagner's music isn't to everyone's taste. Italian composer Gioachino Rossini once said, "Wagner has some good moments, but some horrible quarters of an hour." And French poet Charles Baudelaire wrote: "I love Wagner… but even more, I love the sound a cat makes when it's hung outside a window by the tail, and it tries to stick to the glass with its claws."
Yet no matter what one may think of Wagner, it's impossible to dispute the enormous influence that both he and The Ring have had upon our culture. This four-opera, 18-hour masterwork has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and misinterpreted by Freudians, Jungians, feminists, capitalists, socialists, and environmentalists, not to mention a fascist dictator or two. It inspired the cliché of the "fat lady" wearing blond braids, Viking helmet, and breastplate, and introduced the "leitmotif"‹a musical theme associated with a particular character, which composer John Williams popularized 100 years later in the Star Wars saga.
Even the "cycle" itself has been recycled. The story of the Ring, which has its roots in the Norse mythological Nibelung legend, has found its way into popular culture through science fiction and adventure epics. The Star Wars series, for instance, shares several narrative themes with the Ring, especially in the tale of its young hero. Not only are both the Ring's Siegfried and Star Wars' Luke Skywalker orphans, and both tutored by dwarfs‹Siegfried by Mime, and Luke by Yoda‹but both also unknowingly engage in battles with relatives: Siegfried fights his grandfather, Wotan, and Luke fights his father, Darth Vader. In addition, both stories feature a twin brother and sister who are separated at an early age and meet as strangers later in life, with some obvious attraction between them. But while Luke and Leia share only a kiss, Siegmund and Sieglinde share quite a bit more, with the child, Siegfried, as the result.
J.R.R. Tolkien's three-volume classic, The Lord of the Rings, which was recently made into a major film trilogy, also has much in common with Wagner's Ring‹though the author was quick to deny any similarity. ("Both rings are round," was Tolkien's terse commentary on the subject.) Yet the parallels between the two works are admittedly extensive, and go well beyond the Norse mythology from which both are derived. Along with an immortal woman who renounces immortality for the love of a human, a hero who inherits, and reforges, a shattered sword, and a character who kills for greed and harbors a precious treasure in a cave, both works center around a cursed Ring of Power‹which is actually Wagner's invention.
But Tolkien's treatment, which was created in the aftermath of World War II, drastically shifts philosophical perspective from Wagner's controversial myth, suggesting that power in the hands of men leads to corruption and destruction, rather than to godhead and glory. In this way, Tolkien's story is an "anti-Ring"‹a strong statement, be it intentional or otherwise, against Wagner and his radical political ideology.
While the Ring's resounding, timeless themes of good versus evil and love versus power have inspired modern adaptations on both page and screen, its passionate and compelling music has been equally inspirational. The propulsive "The Ride of the Valkyries" from Act III of Die Walküre, for example, has been featured in a wide variety of films, including Excalibur, Apocalypse Now, 81/2, The Blues Brothers, King Solomon's Mines, Rebel Without a Cause, and Repo Man.
And who could forget What's Opera, Doc?, the hilarious Merrie Melodies spoof of the Ring cycle and Wagner's other operas, where Elmer Fudd sings "Kill the wabbit" to the Valkyries theme‹that is, until Bugs Bunny, a ravishing, drag-rabbit vision in the aforementioned blond braids, Viking helmet, and breastplate, comes galloping in on a winged white steed.
(Actually, in an unprecedented Merrie Melodies moment, Elmer does finally "kill the wabbit." But as Bugs astutely states at the cartoon's close, "Well, what did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?")
It's not merely the content of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, however, that has infiltrated the entertainment industry; the concept behind this monumental work has had a profound and lasting impact on modern art specifically and on Western culture in general. With The Ring, Wagner created the first true multimedia artwork, and became the world's first multimedia artist.
While previous operas married music and stage drama, Wagner sought, in his operas, to expand the parameters of the medium: to craft a stage work that would truly unify all of the arts, and appeal to all of the senses simultaneously. This idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or "Total Artwork", was first introduced by Wagner in 1849 in an essay called "The Artwork of the Future," and is one of the first attempts in modern culture to create a realistic, workable system for integrating the arts.
Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk was driven by a vision of an immersive music drama, in which the audience would lose itself in the theatrical experience. As he wrote in "The Artwork of the Future," "the spectator transplants himself upon the stage, by means of all his visual and aural faculties."
In the Ring cycle, Wagner gave equal weight to all aspects of the production‹music, song, drama, poetry, and stagecraft‹as well as renouncing standard operatic conventions such as formal arias and recitatives in favor of a more seamless, through-composed musical style. He also opened a new theater, the Festspielhaus Theater in Bayreuth, Germany, for the Ring's 1876 premiere. In it, Wagner reinvented the conventions of the opera house to maximize the suspension of disbelief, employing Greek amphitheater-style seating and surround-sound acoustics, moving the orchestra from the stage to a pit, and, for the first time, dropping the house lights during the performance. The multimedia artwork was born.
Following in Wagner's footsteps, generations of artists have experimented with creating interdisciplinary works, including performance and installation art, and the "happenings" of the 1960s. But these were mostly considered "fringe" formats; for decades, only movies, which are shown in darkened theaters and use music sound tracks to enhance the on-screen drama, succeeded in communicating Wagner's vision to the general public.
As cultural interest in video and computer technology grew, however, so did the possibilities for integrating traditionally separate disciplines into a single work. In the early 1980s, MTV made "watching" pop music as important as listening to it; and video games like Myst, from 1993, combined music and 3-D rendered computer graphics to create immersive, virtual environments for their players.
By the early 1990s, multimedia had gone mainstream. Now, a decade later, it has emerged as the defining medium of the 21st century. From music videos to interactive art installations, from virtual reality arcade games to CD-ROMs and the World Wide Web, multimedia has become the cultural norm.
Now, 150 years after Wagner's vision, the artwork of the future has finally arrived.