I, like many stagehands, have occasionally been locked up in large windowless buildings for months at a time to assemble Richard Wagner's appallingly large-scale opera about dwarves, gods, dragons and large fires. To make matters worse, we're usually so obsessed with preventing the scenery from killing people we never have time to find out what the hell the opera is supposedly about.
There are also a number of other people, like readers of Lord Of The Rings, who have heard of Wagner's epic retelling of Ragnarök and are curious about wheher the epic is worth listening to fourteen hours of scratchy opera recordings or not.
Therefore, for stagehands and other interested parties, flyingmoose.org presents as a public service a synopsis of Das Ring Der Niebelung ("The Ring of the Nasty Short Guy"). You will be relieved to know it's remarkably accurate, certainly more so than at least one other synopsis on the site.
SCENE ONE: Under the Rhine river, the sexy Rhinemaidens are playing and cavorting in the water when the horny dwarf Alberich arrives. He propositions each one of them in turn; each one of them replies by saying something rude about the sexual habits of dwarves and laughing in his face. Alberich is getting really fed up with this behavior when he catches sight of gold on the sea-floor, and asks the Rhinemaidens about it. They explain that it is the Rheingold, and that any man who fashions it into a ring will become exceedingly rich and powerful for all time; however, to claim the gold, one must renounce all love forever. Alberich, who isn't getting any anyway, renounces love and flees with the gold of the Rhine. The Rhinemaidens squeal and shriek and bemoan their miserable fate.
SCENE TWO: On a nearby mountaintop, the god Wotan and his wife Fricka wake up and discover that their great palace, Valhalla, has finally been completed. The builders of the palace, the giants Fasolt and Fafner, arrive a few moments later and demand their payment. They remind Wotan that he has promised them his daughter Freia in lieu of cash. Wotan is aware of this - the terms of the contract are, in fact, written on the spear he carries - but he made the deal on the assumption that his clever friend Loge could somehow get him off the hook.
Loge arrives at that moment, and tells everyone about Alberich's theft of the Rhinemaidens' gold. Everyone is duly excited, all noting that the Rheingold is much too nice to leave in the hands of some dirty sticky little dwarf. Caught up in the excitement, Fasolt and Fafner agree that a big pile of gold would probably be more fun than Freia anyway. Seeing a way to buy Freia back from the giants, Wotan and Loge leave for the center of the earth with the intention of robbing all the Niebelungian dwarves blind.
SCENE THREE: Now wearing the Ring fashioned from the Rheingold, Alberich makes his brother Mime forge him a magical helmet, the Tarnhelm, with which he can assume any form. Wearing it, Alberich becomes invisible; he runs about demanding that the other dwarves bring him more gold, and makes their lives generally miserable. While he's so engaged, Wotan and Loge arrive in Niebelung and talk with Mime. Mime explains that Alberich, using the Ring's power, has made all the other Niebelung dwarves his slaves.
Soon later Alberich reappears and tells Mime to get the hell back to work. Seeing Wotan and Loge, he then demands to know what they want. Loge replies they just dropped by to see if Alberich was the really smart, all-powerful, all-around great guy they'd heard he was. Alberich laughs and demonstrates his power by transforming himself into a huge, evil, long-toothed, snarling, vicious, Class A, UL-approved dragon.
"Hey, that's pretty good," Loge says easily, "but can you change into something really scary, like a weasel, or a stockbroker, or maybe a toad?"
"Can I?" Alberich says. "Ha! Just watch."
With that he turns himself into a toad, and Wotan and Loge both jump up and down on him until their feet hurt. He is thusly subdued, and they drag him away to the surface.
SCENE FOUR: Wotan and Loge demand that the bound Alberich pay them a ransom for his freedom. Alberich grudgingly commands the Niebelung to surrender all of their gold to the gods; when this is not enough, he throws in the magical Tarnhelm for good measure. Wotan, however, is not content until he pulls the golden Ring from Alberich's finger. Alberich is freed; he celebrates his freedom by cursing the Ring, saying that anyone who wears it will be worried and miserable and suffer premature pattern baldness and eventually die horribly while listening to Richard Wagner music.
Alberich leaves just as Fasolt and Fafner arrive with Freia. Though Fafner wants to get his hands on the gold, Fasolt wants just as much to get his hands on Freia; faced with this dilemma, they deduce somewhat mysteriously that piling up the gold in front of Freia until Fasolt can no longer see her will somehow solve the problem. When all the gold is piled up, however, Fasolt can still see the top of her head; Wotan reluctantly has the Tarnhelm thrown on top of the pile to block the view. Even then, however, Fasolt can still see Freia's eye through a small hole. Fafner demands the Ring to plug the hole, but Wotan utterly refuses to give it up.
After much heated argument, the earth-goddess Erda appears to Wotan and points out that, if Wotan keeps the Ring, the entire Ring of the Niebelung opera cycle will come screeching to a halt. Considering this, and the prospect of trying to collect unemployment for the next three weeks, Wotan wisely surrenders the Ring to the giants.
Fafner calmly begins packing up all the gold for himself. Fasolt demands his share. Fafner refuses, pointing out that Fasolt probably wouldn't have shared Freia if she had been the payment. Fasolt then angrily takes the Ring for himself, and has a good solid three seconds to enjoy it before Fafner beats him to death and takes it back.
Things wind down soon after. The god Donner calls forth a storm, which makes a rainbow bridge to Valhalla. Most of the gods promptly hie off to Valhalla in hopes of claiming the better bedrooms for themselves. Wotan says everything's going to turn out fine. Loge suspects Wotan and the other gods are all going to end up being dead meat on a stick. Fafner leaves with the gold, the Tarnhelm, and the Ring. The Rhinemaidens squeal and shriek and bemoan their miserable fate.
ACT ONE: Siegmund, fleeing pursuers, finds a hut at the base of a great tree and comes in to rest. He is soon discovered by the hut's residents, Sieglinde and her husband Hunding. Sieglinde takes an immediate liking to the stranger, though Hunding seems less ready to accept the housebreaker as a new best friend. Asked who's pursuing him, Siegmund tells of how he crashed a wedding in the neighborhood and subsequently killed several members of the bride's family. Hunding then reveals that he's related to the same family himself. He vows revenge, but not wishing to be an ill-mannered host he promises Siegfried a good night's sleep and pleasant breakfast before killing him.
As Hunding and Sieglinde retire, Siegmund cries out to his father; he remembers his father's saying that, in the hour of his greatest need, his father would provide him with a mighty sword. Sieglinde then reenters, having drugged Hunding to sleep with a combination of Thorazine and Ny-Quil, and tells Siegmund that a mysterious stranger once came and stuck a magic sword into the very tree the hut is built around. Siegmund retrieves the sword, Sieglinde reveals that she is actually Siegmund's long-lost twin sister, and the two promptly celebrate by passionately humping one another.
ACT TWO: The god Wotan calls upon one of his Valkyrie daughters, Brünnhilde, to protect Siegmund during the inevitable duel with Hunding which approaches. As Brünnhilde rides away yodeling happily, Wotan's wife Fricka arrives and confronts him over his protection of Siegmund. Saying Wotan's choice of hero is idiotic, Fricka angrily points out that Sieglinde is already married to Hunding, that Siegmund and Sieglinde are twins, that Wotan set the two of them up from the beginning (even putting the sword into the tree himself), and even that he actually fathered the pair one weekend while traveling under an alias (which makes Fricka particularly irate since she's the guardian of marriage). Fricka demands that Siegmund receive no further protection from Wotan. Wotan, annoyed, agrees to this.
Brünnhilde returns, and Wotan tells her not to protect Siegmund after all. He goes on to explain what his plan had been: Wotan is bound by his contract with Fafner, so he can't just recover the Ring from Fafner by simply stealing it back. However, if someone else just happened to (say) find a magic sword in a tree and kill Fafner with it and claim the Ring on their own, it'd be fair game. Unfortunately Wotan's exceedingly clever plan has been shot down in flames by Fricka, so Wotan tells Brünnhilde she has to switch sides and help Hunding win the duel instead of Siegmunde.
Brünnhilde is confused by Wotan's obvious grief for Siegmund, not to mention his abrupt 180-degree change of plans. When the fleeing Siegmund and Sieglinde arrive Brünnhilde decides Wotan didn't really mean all those things he said, throws her instructions to the wind and steps forth to protect Siegmund after all.
Hunding arrives, and the fight begins. No sooner does Brünnhilde begin to shield Siegmund when a severely ticked-off Wotan steps in, breaks Siegmund's magic sword, watches Hunding kill Siegmund, and then kills Hunding off himself for good measure. Brünnhilde, sensing Wotan might be in a bad mood, grabs Sieglinde and makes a run for it.
ACT THREE: The other Valkyries assemble on a mountaintop on the way to Valhalla, happily yodeling about the latest dead warriors they've been able to collect for Wotan's dead warrior collection. After a moment Brünnhilde rides to them at great speed, with Sieglinde on her horse rather than a dead warrior, and asks the other Valkyries to protect her from Wotan's rage. Sieglinde, Brünnhilde reveals, is pregnant with Siegmund's child, and despite the potential genetic repercussions Brünnhilde predicts the child will be a great hero. The other Valkyries want nothing to do with the situation, so Brünnhilde gives Sieglinde her horse, tells her to name the child Siegfried and has her ride away while Brünnhilde waits behind to face Wotan's wrath.
Sieglinde departs, and the furious Wotan arrives. Ignoring the pleas of the other Valkyries, he condemns Brünnhilde to lose her immortality and be claimed by the first man who finds her. The other Valkyries flee, leaving Brünnhilde to plead her own case. "Any man?" she asks. "Even Rush Limbaugh? Oh, spare me that horrible fate, Father! I only disobeyed your direct order because I could see your heart wasn't really in it." Wotan says he must carry out his sentence anyway, but in deference to her pleas he sets her asleep on a mountaintop and rings it with fire to discourage all but the most fearless, heroic and flame-retardant of potential Bunnhilde-owners.
ACT ONE: Mime the dwarf works at an anvil by a forge in the woods, forging a mighty sword and delivering all the exposition. He's been raising Siegfried from birth, knowing that Siegfried has a great destiny ahead of him. Fafner, Mime tells us, has used the Tarnhelm to turn into a terrible dragon, and has the Tarnhelm, the Niebelung gold and the Ring hoarded in a nearby cave. Mime believes that Siegfried is destined to take up a mighty sword and kill the dragon, and once that happens Mime is hoping to pick up all the dragon's loot for himself. Mime has therefore been forging an array of mighty swords for Siegfried to use. Unfortunately, Siegfried has a bad habit of breaking them every time he picks one up.
Siegfried then shows up with a ferocious grizzly bear, which he sics on Mime for entertainment. "I went out looking for a friend in the forest," Siegfried explains, "because I knew I couldn't find one around here; and when I called out, this cute furry little guy showed up!" After watching Mime being repeatedly mauled begins to lose its entertainment value, Siegfried sends the bear back into the forest, picks up Mime's latest sword and promptly breaks it.
The conversation turns to Siegfried's past, and Mime reveals he isn't really Siegfried's mother and father as he's often claimed. It seems Sieglinde came here to have her baby and died in childbirth, leaving Mime with the newborn Siegfried and the broken shards of his father Siegmund's magic sword. Neither of these has done Mime any good, because Siegfried despises him, and all his smithcraft hasn't helped him reforge the broken sword. Siegfried, learning of his parents for the first time, is overjoyed not to be related to Mime after all and tells the dwarf to hurry the hell up and get his father's sword glued back together. He then wanders off aimlessly into the woods.
Shortly after he wanders out Wotan wanders in, again traveling under an alias, and has a chat with Mime. The two of them challenge one another to a game of riddles, where the first person to get a riddle wrong forfeits his life - sort of a combination of Russian Roulette and Trivial Pursuit. When Wotan asks who can reforge the magic sword Mime can't guess the answer and loses the contest. Rather than kill Mime, though, Wotan answers his own riddle: the sword can only be reforged by someone who has never known fear. He leaves Mime's fate in that person's hands.
Wotan wanders away, and Siegfried wanders back in. Acting on a hunch Mime asks Siegfried if he's ever known fear. Siegfried complains that fear is yet another of the career skills Mime has never got around to teaching him, and wonders if fear would be a useful thing to have on his resume. Siegfried then complains that Mime was never very good at forging swords either, and proceeds to field-strip his father's sword and rebuild it completely from scratch. With much singing and hammering Siegfried smelts, reforges and sharpens the sword, and with a great final flourish accidentally cuts Mime's anvil in half.
ACT TWO: Alberich the dwarf is hanging around outside the cave of Fafner the dragon when Wotan wanders by. Alberich recognizes Wotan in spite of his elaborate disguise, and warns him his plots to get the Ring for himself are doomed to failure. To Alberich's surprise Wotan says he has no such plans, and even wakes the dragon to warn it that there's a hero coming. Fafner lazily comments on how nice it is to get lunch delivered. To Alberich's further amazement Wotan leaves without waiting to see what happens.
Alberich hides himself as Siegfried and Mime approach. Mime explains to Siegfried that, if he just hangs about the dragon's cave for a little while, he'll finally get to learn what fear is. Mime then departs, leaving Siegfried to stand around staring at trees. After a bit Siegfried starts trying to make friends with nearby birds, trying to imitate their songs with a reed-flute and, later, an obnoxious French horn. All the off-key horn-playing quite understandably irritates Fafner, who slithers out to eat the one making all the damned noise. "Oh, looky!" Siegfried cries out. "Another cute little playful doggie! Will you be my friend?" Fafner says no and immediately tries to kill him, but Siegfried quickly makes short work of Fafner just as he did of Mime's anvil.
Some of Fafner's blood burns Siegfried's hand. When he puts it to his mouth the magic of dragon's blood enables him to understand all languages, even Klingon. One of the birds he tried to befriend now sings to him, telling him to get the Tarnhelm and Ring from the dragon's cave. Siegfried blindly obeys the small bird. As he comes back out Mime arrives with a drink to refresh him. Unfortunately, due to the magic of the dragon's blood Mime's voice is also translated and Siegfried hears Mime saying exactly what he's trying to conceal. "Here, have a drink," Mime says easily. "It's poisoned! It's full of Thorazine and Ny-Quil. After you fall asleep I'll be able to take all your stuff, cut your head off and be rid of you once and for all. I've always hated your guts anyway." Siegfried confronts Mime with his plot, to which Mime answers, "Nonsense! Why would I ever do that? It's not like you have bad breath or anything. Have a deep drink and choke to death, it'll be great."
Siegfried then takes his magic sword and runs Mime through with a cry of "Taste you my sword, loathsome babbler!" - something we've all wanted to say to someone at one time or another.
Once again the unusually well-informed woodbird sings, telling Siegfried that if he crosses the valley of death and climbs the mountain of fire he'll win a beautiful bride who lies sleeping at the mountain's peak. Siegfried takes the hint.
ACT THREE: Wotan is pacing around at the foot of the mountain of fire. He wakes Erda the earth-goddess to seek her counsel, but Erda says she's got a bad headache and please leave a message with her daughters and goes back to bed. Having completed that rather pointless scene of the opera, Wotan awaits Siegfried. Soon Siegfried arrives and, seeing Wotan, demands to know where the mountain of fire is. Wotan, amused by Siegfried's youthful belligerence, or perhaps his stupidity, asks Siegfried a number of questions: who sent him there, why he fought a dragon, who reforged his sword and so on. When Wotan asks who made his father's sword to begin with, Siegfried says he's tired of all the questions and sick of stupid old men and dwarves continually standing in his way. Wotan, getting angry at such treatment from his grandson, threatens Siegfried with his spear, pointing out that it's destroyed that same magic sword before. "So you're the one who attacked my dad!" Siegfried screams. He swings the sword at Wotan and misses, but clumsily breaks Wotan's spear instead. Since all the agreements and contracts etched onto the spear are what give Wotan his power to rule, destroying it effectively puts him out of a job. He lets Siegfried pass and goes off looking for a good lawyer.
Siegfried climbs the mountain of fire, finds Brünnhilde at the top, and awakens her. Brünnhilde takes one look at the hero and professes her long and undying love. At long last Siegfried knows the real meaning of fear.
PRELUDE: The Norns, the daughters of Erda the earth-goddess, take the rope of fate and try to untangle the plot of the show. They describe how Wotan, irritated with the way the previous opera turned out, has cut down the World-Tree and surrounded Valhalla with stacks of dry kindling. As they try to determine what happens next the rope of fate they're weaving breaks. Realizing that even they can't make sense of the story, they immediately stop singing and leave the building.
Siegfried and Brünnhilde come out of their mountain-cave. Siegfried wants to go into town and find some some potato chips and a Coke or something. Brünnhilde gives him her blessing, and Siegfried in turn gives Brünnhilde the accursed Ring as a token of his true love. The two of them then give pledges of their undying love for about thirty-five minutes before they part.
ACT ONE: The act starts in the land of the Gibichungs, a nice bunch of really average people led by their lord Gunther and his sister Gutrune. Hagen, Gunther's half-brother, shows up and says it'd be good for the local businesses if Gunther and Gutrune got married, though preferably not to each other. Gunther asks who they should marry. Hagen says there's this rich hero named Siegfried coming their way who would be perfect for Gutrune, leaving the majestic and ample Brünnhilde available for Gunther. Hagen admits that there are various little problems with the idea - for example that Siegfried is betrothed to Brünnhilde, and Brünnhilde is on a mountaintop surrounded by fire - but he thinks he can work around these little details.
Siegfried arrives. Answering his request for available snack foods, Gutrune gives him with a drink prepared by Hagen laced with memory potion and Viagra. Siegfried, no longer showing the caution of suspicious drinks which helped him survive the last opera, downs the drink in one. He immediately forgets Brünnhilde's very existence and falls madly in lust with Gutrune. Taking his cue, lord Gunther says they could all go out on a big double-date if only he had a date. If only he could claim that woman who lives up on top of the mountain of fire! Siegfried, drugged and clueless, is all too happy to help.
Meanwhile Brünnhilde gets a mountaintop visit from her Valkyrie sister, Wall-Trout. Wall-Trout says things are going very badly in Valhalla: Wotan just sits there moping all day, staring at the remains of his broken spear, and refuses to eat or collect more dead warriors or play poker or anything. She further explains that, if Brünnhilde will take the Ring and give it back to the Rhinemaidens, both gods and mortals would be released from its curse forever. Brünnhilde, however, refuses, saying it's her Ring and was given to her by her true love Siegfried and she won't get rid of it for anything because it reminds her of his undying love and so on and so on and all that. Wall-Trout, thououghly annoyed, departs.
At that moment Siegfried, who has finally gotten around to reading the instruction manual on the Tarnhelm, turns himself into a copy of Gunther and storms up the mountain of fire to claim Brünnhilde. Brünnhilde waves the Ring at him and says she'll never be claimed by another as long as she wields the Ring. The Gunther-disguised Siegfried laughs, pulls the Ring off her finger and puts it on his own, and drags Brünnhilde off to be Guntherized.
ACT TWO: Hagen, sleeping by the banks of the Rhine, is visited by his father, who turns out to be Alberich the dwarf. Using clever subliminal sleep-teaching methods Alberich tells Hagen his father would be very happy if Hagen would just get his hands on the Ring. Hagen, still asleep, says he'll get right on it as soon as he wakes up.
Within seconds Siegfried arrives and wakes him up. He and Gunther swapped places during the night, and having reverted to his own shape Siegfried has dashed back to town ahead of them. He runs off to get Gutrune just as Gunther arrives with Brünnhilde. As all the Gibichungs start getting ready for the big double-header marriage, Brünnhilde sees Siegfried and notices he, not Gunther, is wearing the Ring pulled from her hand. She realizes Siegfried has betrayed her and given her away, possibly for nothing more than a fresh bag of potato chips. Hell hath no fury like a deadly divinely-powered Valkyrie scorned, and in front of all the Gibichungs Brünnhilde accuses Siegfried of betraying her and stealing her for Gunther and accuses Gunther of being such a spineless eunuch anteater he could never ever even possibly get a chick on his own. Gunther, cut to the quick, is too spineless to even offer a reply. Siegfried, however, impervious to insult as usual, laughs the whole thing off. He swears on Hagen's spear-tip that he's never even heard of Brünnhilde before, and says he should be unceremoniously stabbed to death by that very same spear if it's ever discovered later on that he's lying.
Absolutely confident he hasn't foreshadowed a later plot development, Siegfried leaves arm-in-arm with Gutrune. The other Gibichungs follow them off, leaving behind only spineless Gunther, sly Hagen and furious Brünnhilde. To Gunther the accusation has come as a blow to his honor, not least of all because it's so true. How can he save face and continue to lead his people? Hagen cleverly suggests killing Siegfried might be an option. Brünnhilde suggests stabbing him in the back.
ACT THREE: Siegfried goes hunting with the Gibichungs, gets lost and ends up by the river. The Rhinemaidens appear and try to convince Siegfried to give up the Ring, but by spending half their time acting seductive and the other half sounding all solemn and ominous they only succeed in getting Siegfried confused and irate. He says he's keeping the Ring, and they tell him he'll be dead by the end of the next scene.
The other Gibichungs, including Gunther and Hagen, find Siegfried and ask him to recount tales from his daring youth. Siegfried happily obliges by rehashing all the dialogue from Siegfried, extending Götterdämmerung's running-time by yet another couple of hours. When he gets near the end and all the Brünnhilde bits he's forgotten about, Hagen happily offers him a drink spiked full of memory restoration potion. Siegfried unhesitatingly drinks it. He then waxes poetic about meeting Brünnhilde long before this opera even got started, just like he swore he hadn't, and upon this frank and open admission Hagen calmly takes his spear and plunges it into Siegfried's back. The crime is so horrendous that even the chorus, veterans of many a cold-blooded opera murder, act shocked. The fatal wound, however, doesn't stop Siegfried from yodeling about Brünnhilde for another fifteen minutes or so.
The Gibichungs haul Siegfied's body back to town, where Hagen proudly announces that Siegfried got what he deserved. Claiming salvage rights to the body, Hagen says he's entitled to the Ring. Lord Gunther suggests the Ring actually might belong to Siegfried's widow Gutrune now, but Hagen disputes this view by killing Gunther off as well. That done, Hagen reaches for the Ring on dead Siegfried's finger. To Hagen's horror Siegfried's dead hand gestures threateningly and obscenely at him, though thankfully Siegfried does not rise and become one of the Walking Dead.
Brünnhilde, evidently having just figured out what happened in the last couple of acts, comes in and demands a huge bonfire be built for Siegfried. She pulls the Ring off Siegfried's finger, puts it on her own, and rides her horse into the flames so the three of them - Siegfried, Brünnhilde and the horse - can all live together in the afterlife. The cataclysm engulfs all of Creation. The Rhine river overflows its banks. The Gods perish. Valhalla burns to the ground. Meteors strike the earth. California slides into the ocean. Godzilla destroys Tokyo. The Death Star explodes. The giant ape falls from the skyscraper.
In a desperate last-ditch effort to rule the world, Hagen dashes into the chaos to seize the Ring for himself. Thankfully the majestic Rhinemaidens leap forward, boldly strangle Hagen and drag the gold of the Rhine back to the depths of the river, their noble sacrifice heroically heading off any chance of a fifth opera. Hoorayyyy!