List of Drawings in Benjamin’s Ring
The Story of the Rhinegold
The Story of Walküre – and the Magic Sword
The Story of Siegfried
Götterdämmerung – The Death of the Gods
Characters in Benjamin’s Ring
Other Operas by Richard Wagner
If you Google “Richard Wagner’s Ring” on the day I am writing this, it takes 31 seconds to connect to 4,880,000 hits. That says as much about The Ring as it does for Google. If you search “Richard Wagner” in amazon.com, you will get 22,080 results.
These operas have been popular since 1876, when they were first performed in Bayreuth, Germany, in an opera house Wagner designed. It took him 22 years to write the words and music, and he wanted his operas performed in his idea of what an opera house should be and done his way! His design put the orchestra under the stage to hide it from the audience. The resulting sight lines and sound are still among the best in the world. He also was very specific with his stage directions, many of which I have incorporated in this book.
He was a remarkable man, a true genius, with a huge talent, yet despicable in many ways, making him controversial to this day. There are many people he hated, most notoriously the Jews. He manipulated kings and dukes to get his way, ran away with the wife of a good friend and society considered him an immoral person. Still, he composed some of the most beautiful music ever written in Western culture.
Now, all over the world, opera houses and symphonies regularly perform the operas and orchestral music of The Ring. While the operas can be performed individually, Wagner meant for the four operas to be played in order, over a period of one week. When that happens, it’s called a Ring Cycle and an opera company achieves fame if it can pull off such a complicated, difficult effort. Opera lovers will travel from all over the world to hear and see the Ring Cycle performed. In the United States, you can often see a Ring Cycle in Seattle; San Francisco; Los Angeles; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and New York.
This book had its beginning the night I was going to hear the Met’s new production of Das Rheingold and my 5-year-old granddaughter Emma was staying over. As a result, I told her the story of Das Rheingold while we ate our dinner. She loved it so much I wrote it down for her, making a little book that she helped illustrate. Benjamin’s Ring is the fruit of that night, and I hope many children of all ages will enjoy the wonder of these tales and want to listen to the music.
Writing any book is always tough, and I am grateful to the people who helped me along the way. My grandson Marc Weisglass gave me a 13-year-old’s perspective, which was always articulate, and his sister, Rachel, helped with her 10-year-old’s insight. My partner, Al Jaff, a would-be opera tenor, was always stretching me to focus on the beauty of the music and encouraged me from the beginning. Marion Moss’ advice was always clearly constructive. Thank you all.
The Story of the Rhinegold
Benjamin’s mother loved to go to the opera. She loved the wonderful music and the whole experience of being able to see the stories come to life on the stage. Sometimes she also liked the idea of getting dressed up for a special evening as a sign of respect for the occassion. Most of all, she loved the occasional extraordinary times when everything went perfectly … when the orchestra, the singers (singing without a microphone), the set design and the conductor (who had to hold it all together) all worked to perfection. Because these were live performances, in which no one had a chance to correct a mistake, each performance was a different experience.
One night Benjamin’s mother had a ticket for “Das Rheingold” and the sitter had come to stay with Benjamin. Benjamin’s mother had dressed carefully, giving a lot of thought to what she was going to wear. She wore her best suit with her favorite shoes, and Benjamin was happy to see his mother looking so pretty. Benjamin wanted to share in the excitement of the evening and said, “Mom, I wish I knew more about what you’re seeing tonight. What is this opera about?”
“You know, Ben, the story is long and complicated, but so are many stories you already know, like Harry Potter or some of your favorite movies. What is most important is that, while this story is a fantasy myth, it was set to some of the most beautiful music ever written. The composer was Richard Wagner, and he not only wrote the music but also the story. If you like, I think we have just enough time before I have to leave to tell you the story of tonight’s opera.”
“Mom, I would love that, really!”
“OK. Tonight I am going to see ‘Das Rheingold’ (that’s its name in German) and it’s the first of four operas known as ‘The Ring.’ The German name is ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ meaning ‘The Ring of the Nibelung’. It includes giants, dragons, dwarfs and mermaids along with many gods similar to the Greek and Roman ones you have already studied in school. The difference is these gods come from Nordic and Germanic mythology and their names are German. The Ring is about love, greed, a dreadful curse that ends in murder and finally the rebirth of the world, so you can see it addresses really heavy topics. ‘Das Rheingold’ is the shortest opera and is really the prologue, the introduction to the story. The Ring starts and ends with the Rhinemaidens, who are mermaids, and their gold at the bottom of the Rhine River.”
Benjamin sat down on the sofa along with his sitter, who was also interested in hearing the story. His mother made herself comfortable, being sure not to crease her suit before she went out for the night. Then she began the story.
Once upon a time and a long time ago, high up in the clouds lived a family of gods. At that time the world was divided into three separate parts: the gods, who lived above; mortals, who lived on the earth; and those that lived under the ground were called the Nibelungs.
Each god had a different personality and a different responsibility. The god of fire, Loge, was sly as a fox; Donner, the god of thunder, was proud of being the strongest; Froh, the god of the rainbow, was as changeable as a chameleon, and the goddess of youth, Freia, who was Fricka’s sister, was very pretty and vain.
Wotan was the lord of all these gods and had great powers. Wotan was very strong, powerful and handsome, even though he had a patch over one eye. He had lost his eye many years ago in his quest for knowledge. Once, when Wotan was seeking to expand his knowledge, he traveled to the World Ash Tree, a tree that contained all the history and laws of the world. In his haste to obtain this knowledge, he committed an act of violence as he broke off a limb from this valuable tree. Because of this transgression, he had to pay the price of forfeiting one eye but he gained the ability to make a staff for himself out of the tree’s limb. Now his famous staff, inscribed along its length with all the world’s laws, was a symbol of Wotan’s power and authority. Wotan was never without it, even if he sometimes assumed different disguises (which he often did when roaming the earth), most often as The Wanderer.
Fricka, his wife, was responsible for protecting the laws of marriage. She was something of a stickler for keeping to all the rules and will have an important part to play later in this story. At this point of the story, however, she was nagging Wotan to build a new home for the gods, and as in many growing families she wanted something bigger and better. She also thought that if they had a terrific new home, Wotan would stay home more often. He had had a history of roaming the world and not being a faithful husband.
Far down below the clouds, deep, deep in the river Rhine, lived the mermaids I mentioned, who are called Rhinemaidens. They were very pretty and loved to play and splash in the river, but, most importantly they were guarding a huge stash of gold, so much that no one could determine how much it was worth … but a huge amount of money!
One day Alberich, an ugly dwarf, was roaming around the river and found the Rhinemaidens. He thought he was in love with them, because they were so pretty with their long hair and cute fish tails—And besides, he saw that they were protecting their gold, which was said to have magical powers—so he called, “Hi, my pretty maidens! Let me join you. I’d like to share your fun in the water.”
But they took one look at Alberich, ugly as a toad, with his warts and really bad skin, and said, “No way!” No matter how he tried to chase them or flatter them, the Rhinemaidens wanted nothing to do with him. Then Alberich made a decision that would change their world … and the world of the gods. Filled with hate, Alberich decided that if he could move very swiftly he could steal the gold and get even with them for making him feel like a fool. He said to himself, OK, ladies. If that’s the way you want it. If you don’t want my friendship, then I’m going to steal your gold and have it for myself.
Alberich climbed the slippery rocks to where the gold rested. A couple of times he slipped and fell, but he kept trying while dodging the Rhinemaidens’ swipes at him as they tried to protect their gold and defend themselves. After several tries, to their horror, Alberich grabbed the gold. As he started to cart it away, laughing to himself in a very self-satisfied way, the Rhinemaidens called out to him with an ominous warning. “No one can have the magical powers of the gold unless they are willing to give up love.”
Most people don’t want to live without any love in their life, but Alberich figured, Why not give up love? Nobody wants or loves an ugly toad anyway. I may not have love, but at least I can have all that gold and its power, and through that, I can rule the world.
With the gold, he would indeed be the richest, most powerful being. Unfortunately, he was going to use the gold’s magic for evil purposes. As the Rhinemaidens cried and wailed, with tears streaming down their cheeks, Alberich carried their gold back to his home below the earth. Alberich became the king of the Nibelungs and the Rhine River grew dark without the sunny light of the gold.